Compiled by Mitali Chakravarty

In 1980, Satyajit Ray made a movie with a story he had written which won him both national and international acclaim — Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of the Diamond King). A sequel to his earlier Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, this film depicts a tyrant who brainwashed people with a machine to think: “Lekha pora kore je, anahare more she (Those who study, die of starvation).”

Does this strike a chord? 

Perhaps that is why we find educational institutions coming under flak and violent strikes on professors and students who are trying to study and lead a peaceful life. The attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University students yesterday has the social media filled with empathy for the victims. Is this reenactment of Hirak Rajar Deshe?

Poetry by well-known writers of yore used to  express student solidarity and hope has also been coming under attack. In Kanpur,  IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) students organised a meet to show solidarity towards the students of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and recited a well-known poem  by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a 20th century legend who was even nominated for the Nobel Prize. One of the faculty and fifteen students initiated a complaint  and demanded expulsion of the protest organisers, accusing them of “spreading hate against India”. A panel was set up to ban the poem. The empowering poem that led to all this controversy  is called ‘Hum Dekhenge’ (we will see). 

Rahman Abbas
Rahman Abbas

Rahman Abbas, the 2018 Sahitya Akademi winner for Urdu, had much to say in favour of Faiz’s poem: “It is disgusting to have to give clarifications of Faiz’s poem ‘Hum Dekhenge’ to absolve it from being called critical of the Hindu faith or any faith. It is as absurd and laughable as  absurd as claims such as the RSS was a cultural wing of the Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan, or Rabindranath Tagore’s Novel Gora was anti-Christian, or Kabir had mocked Charlie Chaplin in his dohe*. Such absurd parallel could only be drawn by an insane or moron appointed to create deflection and disharmony.

“Faiz Ahamd Faiz is best known for being a revolutionary poet who aesthetically merged romanticism with the desire for a revolution, a social struggle or peoples uprising against the tyrant rulers. His poetry and life were a struggle to become the voice of the voiceless — it challenges dictatorship and repression. ‘Hum Dekhenge’ can be seen as the voice of the masses against the tyrant rulers or dictators who have subjugated poor people. The poem is a beacon of hope against darkness spread by authoritarian regimes. The poet imagines a world where tyrannical persecutors would be defeated and people will govern crushing falsehood and its followers. The tyrant rulers will be humiliated when their crowns will be thrown off and the people will reclaim being the God of the planet. The people will rule — we all are people — and we should celebrate that time and that day as it is a victory of people over tyrannical systems.

Did you know the first science fiction with aliens and outer space was written in Greek in the second century, almost two thousand years ago? 

The novel, A True Story, was written by Lucian of Samosata, an author of Assyrian descent. He wrote of aliens and outer space and battles between the residents of the sun and moon and also a battle inside the stomach of a whale. It seems like a highly amusing plot from the current day perspective. 

British critic, academic and novelist Kinglsey Amis wrote about A True Story  in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction  (1960): “I will merely remark that the sprightliness and sophistication of True History make it read like a joke at the expense of nearly all early-modern science fiction, that written between, say, 1910 and 1940.”

By Ratnottama Sengupta

So much of sci-fi uses science as a starting point and then uses fiction to fill up the gaps in our present knowledge. We use what we know today to imagine a different tomorrow –- a better tomorrow — for the world. Still, sooner rather than later, sci-fi that looks out-dated as science fiction becomes a scientific fact. Don’t we all know that Sage Valmiki wrote in Ramayana of the Pushpak Vimana ( mythical flying chariots in Hindu lore) and the giant bird Jatayu that clashed in mid-space aeons before the Wright Brothers wrote their names into aviation history or before the Central Science Laboratory in UK estimated that worldwide, the cost of bird-strikes to airlines had soared to US$ 1.2 billion annually!

But why does this possibility of fiction becoming a fact excite me? Admittedly because of my association with Me and I, which my father, well-known author and scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh, had written for his two grandsons, and was translated by my son Devottam Sengupta for his grandpa’s birth centenary. Published by Hachette India, the novel breaks the barriers of space and time. Let me quote from the synopsis to give readers a glimpse of this. “They all had the same question for Mukul: ‘Why didn’t you recognise us? And why did you look so dark?’ Mukul was perplexed. The day had started as any other Sunday morning would, with him going out to meet his aunt, his friends and his mentor Noni Kaku of the Telescope. But when everyone, including his own parents insisted that he was lying about his whereabouts, Mukul had to look around for this imposter. And he found Lukum, who had travelled light years to meet his intergalactic ‘twin.’ Little did Mukul know that he had set out on the longest Sunday of his life…”

 

Munshi Premchand(1880-1936), born as Dhanpat Rai Shrivastav, was one of the foremost Hindi writers of the early twentieth century. He has to his credit more than three hundred short stories, fourteen novels, many more essays, letters translations and plays and even a film script.

His short story Shatranj ke Khiladi was made into an award winning film by Satyajit Ray as were a number of his other works by noted directors, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

With his reformatory zeal and an ability to create empathetic overtones, Premchand was a prominent writer in Hindi who was appreciated more after his death than before. Writes David Rubin, late translator and scholar, in The World of Premchand (Oxford, 2001): “To Premchand belongs the distinction of creating the genre of the serious short story—and the serious novel as well—in both Hindi and Urdu. Virtually single-handed he lifted fiction in these languages from a quagmire of aimless romantic chronicles to a high level of realistic narrative comparable to European fiction of the time; and in both languages, he has, in addition, remained an unsurpassed master.” Interestingly, Rubin taught for a number of years in Allahabad and Rajasthan Universities in India and is also known to have translated not only Premchand but also another very well-known Hindi poet, Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’.

 

 

It is heartening to see Asian writing move out of shadows into the mainstream of literary circles with major publishers, like Penguin, giving a hand to not only greats like Satyajit Ray, Han Suyin and Tagore but also to immigrant writers who crossed the seas to find new life rejecting the violence and angst of political doings in their home countries.

In China, stories of how people swam across the seas and got picked up by boats and emigrated to America in the early and mid-twentieth century were circulated among expats by children of these immigrants; young people who returned to plush new jobs in American multi-nationals in the twenty first century. Now Penguin has classified stories  by some Asian immigrants in the twentieth century as ‘classics’ and is reprinting them. Are these classics as exciting as the first hand stories of immigrants crossing oceans?

Amitav Ghosh
Amitav Ghosh

Calcutta is the port from where Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel embarks on its journey but plays out on the high seas on route to China, which is the setting of the greater part of it, as it plunges into the First Opium War. The one question about  Flood of Fire that Ghosh has been inundated with, repeatedly, from subsequent interviewers is whether the reader will see the same characters reappear or will they be replaced by others. Ghosh has indicated that the characters take on their own minds, emerging as a prominent player in one book maybe, while subsiding into a minor one in another, allowing for others to dominate in the next.

“One of the main characters in this book is Deeti’s brother, Kesri Singh, a havildar who has been mentioned a few times in the earlier books,” he reveals. And like the unfair question asked of a parent to name his or her favorite child, he has been badgered into naming his most loved character from all his creations which forms the crew of the Ibis. Most loved or not, it’s Neel Halder, who stands out. Recently, he called him his “Apu” in reply to a question by historian Sharmistha Gooptu. Like Satyajit Ray’s protagonist in the Apu trilogy based on Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s story, Neel doesn’t just run through all three stories but holds forth.