Sunday, May 07, 2006
Early Bengali Science Fiction
I thought I might risk going out on the limb of historical obscurity and share an article by Debjani Sengupta (PDF) on early Bengali science fiction writing.
The article is from the journal Sarai, which is published in Delhi. Some of the articles offer some truly impenetrable jargon -– even with writing on familiar topics (Bollywood, Call Centers, and so on). But there are also a number of well-written and informative articles on things like Parsi theater in Bombay in the 1800s that I would recommend.
On to Bengali science fiction. Even the fact that it existed as early as the 1880s may be a little shocking, since most studies of Bengali literature tend to center around Tagore—who was extremely doubtful about modern technology. (Read his bewildered account of flying in an airplane here.) But the effects of the industrial revolution were being felt in urban India in the 19th century just as keenly as they were in Europe and the U.S., and at least some Indian writing reflected that. Probably the best, most enduring writing in this genre came from a single family –- Sukumar Ray (in the 1910s and 20s) and his son Satyajit Ray, who was a highly accomplished writer when he wasn’t making making world class art films.
But according to Sengupta the people who originated the genre in the 1880s were lesser known writers. For instance, the author mentions one Hemlal Dutta Rashashya:
Asimov’s statement that “true science fiction could not really exist until people understood the rationalism of science and began to use it with respect in their stories” is actually true for the first science fiction written in Bangla. This was Hemlal Dutta’s Rahashya (“The Mystery”) that was published in two installments in 1882 in the pictorial magazine Bigyan Darpan, brought out by Jogendra Sadhu. The story revolved around the protagonist Nagendra’s visit to a friend’s house, a mansion completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes that clean suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story, and the tone is of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives.
It seems a little hard to imagine people writing about electric doorbells and burglar alarms in the 1880s in Calcutta, but there you have it. (Doorbells were actually invented in 1830, so maybe it’s not that shocking.)
The genre really seems to get going with Sukumar Ray, who was by all accounts highly intellectually adventurous, even in the stories intended for children. (I did a short post on him here some time ago.) Like Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories, Sukumar Ray’s stories are full of mind-bending puzzles and language games. And it’s quite likely that he was reading British writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and especially H.G. Wells as he was writing The Diary of Heshoram Hushiar:
Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) was probably inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World when he wrote Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary (“The Diary Of Heshoram Hushiar”). . . . It is a spoof on the genre because Sukumar is poking fun at the propensity of the scientist to name things, and that too in long-winded Latin words. He seems to be playing around the fact that names are arbitrarily conferred upon things by humans for their own convenience, and suggests that the name of a thing may somehow be intrinsically connected to its nature. So the first creature that Heshoram meets in the course of his journey through the Bandakush Mountains is a “gomratharium” (gomra in Bangla means someone of irritable temperament), a creature that sported a long woebegone face and an extremely cross expression. Soon the company comes upon another peculiar animal, not to be found in any textbook of natural sciences. They hear a terrible yowl, a sound between the cries of a “number of kites and owls” and find an animal “that was neither an alligator, nor a snake, nor a fish but resembled to a certain extent all three”. His howls make Heshoram name him “Chillanosaurus” (chillano means to shout). Although just an extract, Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary is quite unlike anything written even in Bangla.
The cross-linguistic word-play ("Gomratharium" and “Chillanosaurus") is something that experimental modernist writers like James Joyce were doing in Europe in the 1920s too. That he was doing this is evidence of his confidence as a writer, as well as confidence that his readers would be bilingual enough to recognize Latinate English words like “aquarium” and “tyrannosaurus.”
Sukumar’s son Satyajit was also quite playful with language in the short stories he wrote. His famous “Professor Shanku” (or “Shonku") stories are full of gadgets and devices with exotic names:
Satyajit Ray created Professor Shanku in 1961. The first SF featuring this eccentric hero was written for the magazine Sandesh and was called Byomjatrir Diary (“The Diary of the Space Traveller”). All thirty-eight complete and two incomplete diaries (the last one came out in 1992) narrate the fantastic world of Shanku’s adventures, inventions and travels. Most of these stories are more than science fiction. They are also travelogues, fantasy tales, tales of adventure and romance. . . . His sense of humour makes him peculiarly human and his list of inventions is impressive. Anhihiline, Miracural, Omniscope, Snuffgun, Mangorange, Camerapid, Linguagraph -– the list is long and impressive. Some are drugs, some gadgets, some machines, but they all have human purposes and use.
There is a joyful self-deprecating quality to Professor Shanku, as seen in his early attempts to build a rocket for space travel:
The first [rocket] that he had built was unsuccessful and had come down on his neighbour Abinashbabu’s radish patch. Abinashbabu had no sympathy for Shanku; science and scientists made him yawn. He would come up to Shanku and urge him to set off the rocket for Diwali so that the neighbourhood children could be suitably entertained. Shanku wants to punish this levity and drops his latest invention in his guest’s tea. This is a small pill, made after the fashion of the Jimbhranastra described in the Mahabharata. This pill does not only make one yawn, it makes one see nightmares. Before giving a dose to his neighbour, Shanku had tried a quarter bit on himself. In the morning, half of his beard had turned grey from the effect of his dreams. Shanku’s world is a real world, a human world. In his preparations for the space journey he has decided to take his cat Newton with him. For that he has invented a fish-pill. “Today I tested the fish-pill by leaving it next to a piece of fish. Newton ate the pill. No more problems! Now all I have to do is make his suit and helmet."
Ok, maybe the nightmare pill is a little bit on the darker side, but at least he tried it out on himself before dosing his neighbor. And the fish-pill that would allow him to take his cat along in outer space is a nice touch.
More Professor Shanku definitions are at the >Professor Shanku Wikipedia page:
Miracurall—a drug capsule that cures any ailment except common cold Annihillin—a pistol that simply annihilates any living thing. It does not work on non living things. Shankoplane—A small plane capable of vertical take-off and landing and magnificent mileage Shankolite - the alloy by which shankoplane was made Omniscope - a combination of telescope and microscope Air-conditioning pill - a capsule that keeps the body temperature normal in extremes of climate. Somnolin - a sleeping pill that will work in any condition
I love the idea of a miracle pill that cures everything except the common cold. The A/C pill would probably also come in handy right about now in Delhi (where the temperature is 43.5 degrees C).
The question that comes up for me in looking at this material is first of all surprise that it’s talked about so little with reference to modern Indian literature. The ‘serious’ figures like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore (in Bangla), and Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan (in English) are the names that tend to get referenced from before 1945. And after 1945, most literary critics have been interested in writers who dealt with political themes in their works—the independence struggle, partition, wars, corruption, and so on. That Indian writers were also interested in space travel, the automation of everyday life, and robotics from an early point, suggests that the literary scene was richer than most people think. Most of the Bengali science fiction in Sengupta’s article is oriented to children, but it’s clearly quite sophisticated—entertaining for many adults in some of the same ways J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is today.
Fascinating stuff, Amardeep. I had no idea about any of this (and my ignorance depresses me).
I wouldn’t say the ‘orientation towards children’ you mentin at the end is in any sense a problem. Before sexually explicit SF started getting written in the 1960s (Philip Jose Farmer and so on) pretty much all SF was read by, and in fact ‘oriented toward’ children as well as adults.
Given what you say about the political and I’m assuming contemporary/historical focus of much post-war Indian Literature, is there any sense of cultural continuity between this early stuff and eg Amitav Ghosh. I wonder?
Adam, thanks for your comment. Ghosh is also a Bengali who grew up in Calcutta. So yeah, there is definitely some continuity there, though I don’t know whether he knew Satyajit Ray’s family all.
The fact that Bengali Sci-fi was oriented to children is probably a big part of why it hasn’t been looked at by literary critics. People have combed over Tagore’s “The Home and the World” for every stray scrap of interestingness, but mainly left his contemporary Sukumar Ray alone.
I’m too busy to follow the link right now, Amardeep, but thanks from the bottom of my heart for this. The post in itself, as Adam says, is fascinating new info for history of SF buffs like ourselves. As I know I’ve mentioned to you - but I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on the blog - the SF and film class I teach is co-taught with Tagore, the famous one’s grand nephew, who is a philosophy prof in my department. And he is SURE to pick some Ray film or other for our module. This thing you offer is, thefore, fantastic lifemanship fodder. It means that I get to pose as someone who is steeped in obscure Bengali SF, effortlessly superior in that regard; and the trick is that I must not let on where I’m getting it from until the end of the semester. Now if only I can keep ... straight… face all semester ...
Advantage: valveosphere! (No one tell Tagore.)
Vavleosphere - perfectly spherical valve, admitting no entrance or egress to fluid or gas. (cf. Shanku)
37 movies plus books plus illustrations? Satyajit Ray was one energetic guy!
Adam, in the USA, at least, sf marketing is still aimed age-downwards. The eminently mature F&SF has been known to include not only the F-word but the F-deed, but the back cover of the issue I’m currently reading features this remarkable ad copy:
PULLMAN. PAOLINI. PIERCE.
Have You Read Them All?
Phillip Pullman, Christopher Paolini, and Tamora Pierce --
If you are a fan of one of these amazing authors,
we guarantee you will love the books from the other
unique and talented bestselling authors.
“Pullman is quite possibly a genius.”—Newsweek
Praise for ERAGON: “An authentic work of great talent.”—The New York Times
“Enormously popular, Pierce is a best-selling and prolific author.”—The New York Times Book Review
Dig that blurb progression!
I think it might be about more than explicit sexuality. If you look at, say, H.G. Wells vs. Virginia Woolf, the gap between the two is standard masculine adventure plots vs Woolfian interiority. I always wanted to see what would happen if we forced Woolf to write her version of a story about an alien invasion, and forced Wells, for his part, to write a novel about a depressive woman who is preparing to throw a big dinner party.
One of the other big changes in contemporary “adult” sci-fi is that you see that kind of interesting scrambling going on—at least a little.
From what I’ve read of Sukumar and Satyajit Ray’s stories, Woolfian (or indeed, Tagorean) interiority is generally not in evidence. But what you have (instead?) is wordplay and logical puzzles (the cat that turned into a napkin and so on).
We might should have a conversation at some point about how readers develop and “mature,” and index it specifically to genre. Gender is obviously a factor, as is intellectual complexity/sophistication. The question of the representation of sexuality might actually be less to the point, since the gap we’re talking about was already in place before people were allowed to use the F-word in mainstream publications.
I always wanted to see what would happen if we forced Woolf to write her version of a story about an alien invasion, and forced Wells, for his part, to write a novel about a depressive woman who is preparing to throw a big dinner party.
I imagine she would write about some common people kept down in a bunker from the invasion, playing cards.
Robert Silverberg wrote a short-story version of War of the Worlds as if written by Henry James rather than Wells. But I can’t remember the name of it. And it wasn’t especially good.
[Pause. Tumbleweed rolls past].
I’ll get my coat.
My own long-treasured alternate literary history has the Bronte sisters making their great leap forward from the juvenilia without leaving Gondal and Angria. M. John Harrison in 1847!
Amardeep, your “maturity” distinction is sensible. I wish I inhabited a culture sensible enough to match it. Instead, “maturity” in American art seems based on taboos. The MPAA doesn’t rate movies “CEH: Complex Emotional History” or “WL: Knowledge of Working for a Living”. The infantalization of literature is similarly selective, with Coleridge’s poems for adults given to children but not the Earl of Rochester’s poems for adults, and Gulliver usually losing a few travel observations. Huckleberry Finn was first added to school canons and then withdrawn as taboos changed.
On most sensible terms, F&SF was publishing “mature” work long before any sexual acts or profanity showed up. But there Adam and I went, making the usual association. (And this even though one of the most traumatic books of my childhood—in a good way—was an anthology of stories written by adults for adults but marketed to children because they had children in them....)
I think the association’s been destructive in ways besides censorship, too. I remember hearing some writer (can’t remember who) saying they liked to write YA fiction partly because they didn’t feel the pressure to produce Bad Sex Scenes. And the Hollywood scrambles to avoid kiss-of-death “G” or “X"/"NR" ratings have made ours a golden age of fart jokes and special DVD editions....
This is taking me pretty far afield from Bengali sf though!