Bengali Literature’s Mission to Mars

Us earthlings’ fascination for outer space is timeless. Whenever we look up at the azure-blue cover over our head, we invariably wonder what lies beyond. In the 20th century, when science and astronomy took major steps to give us some idea about space, our imagination mixed with the newly-discovered knowledge produced early examples of science fiction, penned by people like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. By then, we knew that among the nine planets in our galaxy, other than Earth, only Mars may have some forms of life. So the human imagination ran riot. Cosmic cousins were created in the red planet and perhaps the most outstanding representative of this genre is Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). Its popularity can be gauged from the simple fact that in its 100-odd years of publication history, the book has never gone out of print. Moreover, it has been presented in all imaginable forms – as a play, a film, a TV programme and a radio drama. The very phrase ‘radio play’ inevitably reminds me of a production by another Welles, the eccentric genius named Orson, whose adaptation of The War of The Worlds triggered a panic reaction. It was considered so lifelike that thousands of people tried to evacuate cities, fearing a Martian attack.

What the Mangalyan would have seen if it had gone to Mars a few decades ago.
What the Mangalyan would have seen if it had gone to Mars a few decades ago.

In Bengal, we were was far less dramatic. The genre of science fiction was born only around the mid-1930s, through the writing of Premendra Mitra. Mitra was interested in different branches of science and started the trend of science fiction in a magazine for young adults, with a story called Pipre Puran (“The Scripture of Ants”). This was followed by Kuhaker Deshe (“The Land of Magic”), which is where Mamababu. or Uncle, made his first appearance.

An engineer by profession, Mamababu was vastly knowledgeable in various disciplines and an adventurer. Beneath his laidback, happy-go-lucky demeanour lay indomitable courage and nerves of steel. Narrated by his nephew, the Mamababu stories became instant hits.

Unfortunately, for Mitra, his science-based adventure stories were no more than an irregular pastime. He was a man of multi-faceted talent: an eminent poet, a brilliant short-story-writer, (directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Tarun Majumdar made films out of his stories), scriptwriter, film-maker and a PR man.
With so many balls to juggle, it’s not surprising that the second Mamababu book, Dragoner Nishwas (“Fiery Dragon Breath”), came after a decade and a half. By that time, however, Mitra had come up with his most memorable creation – Ghanashyam Das, also known as Gana Som Dos to his foreign friends and foes; or simply Ghana-da.

The story behind Ghanada’s creation is interesting. It was August 1945. World War II was finally over. After six long years, the era of sirens and blackouts had ended and the annual Durga Puja could again be celebrated with full gusto in Bengal. To add to this celebratory spirit, Deb Sahitya Kutir, a leading publisher of children’s literature in Calcutta, planned to bring out a volume that would be an annual Puja special. They approached Mitra with a proposal. Mitra was asked to create a character whose exploits would appear only in this collection and nowhere else. Mitra agreed and so it was that Ghana-da saw the light of the day.
This deal continued for quarter of a century. Ghana-da stories started appearing in other magazines only after 1970.

But who was Ghana-da? Nobody knows. According to his chronicler Sudhir (which, incidentally, was Mitra’s own pet name), Ghanada had been everywhere in the world and was involved in every event of interest that had happened in the last two centuries. However, his origins were mysterious. One fine morning, Ghana-da had just landed up in a cheap boarding lodge in South Calcutta and became a fixture there.

A century ago, such lodges – popularly known as a ‘mess’ – dotted the city. They were the last refuse of lower middle class Bengalis who did odd jobs and could not afford the luxury of a proper household. The clientele also included struggling and aspiring writers, ranging from the literary icon Sarat Chandra Chatterjee to the comic genius Sibram Chakraborty. Mitra belonged to that elite, artistic set. Until media houses decided to take writers under their wing, writing had not been a paying proposition in Bengal. The lodge, Mitra using his own nickname and the historical events that Mitra used as a launching pad for Ghana-da’s stories all served to blur fact and fiction in a fantastic way. Mitra had said in an interview, “Ghana-da is a teller of tall tales, but the tales always have a scientific basis. I try to keep them as factually correct and authentic as possible.”

The lodge also lent a rather Bohemian air to Ghana-da, setting him apart from the tamer dadas of Bengali literature, like Teni-da. Ghana-da was a man of the world, a traveller and an explorer. And it’s because of Mitra’s dedication to factual correctness that Ghana-da became the first Bengali to land on Mars.

In the early Fifties, the world listened agog to wild stories about extraterrestrials and their visits to earth. Strange space vehicles were spotted at various places and were called flying saucers because of their appearance. They’d later be rechristened UFOs (or Unidentified Flying Objects).

You’ll be proud to know that Ghanada boarded one of those UFO in a story called Lattoo (“The Top”), back in 1952. Two years later, he spoke about his very own mission to Mars in Phuto (“The Hole”). Ghana-da found himself right in the middle of the snowfield of the Tundra region, in the secret observatory of one Dr Minoski, supposedly the greatest mathematician after Albert Einstein.

Unfortunately, even though Minoski and Ghana-da were friends, the man who had brought Ghana-da to Minoski was a spy named Mitchell who had been posing as Minoski’s assistant, Mitchell. After Ghana-da knocked the spy out, Minoski asked Ghana-da if he was interested in taking part in an experiment. Naturally, Ghana-da said yes. Minoski had Ghana-da sit on a sofa and pressed a button in the wall. A strange looking machine came out. The professor pulled a lever and it started moving so fast that soon Ghana-da lost consciousness.

When Ghana-da returned to his senses, he found himself in a red desert instead of the white tundra. Minoski told Ghana-da they had reached Mars. What Ghana-da had thought was a desert was actually the famous red soil of our neighbouring planet. Minoski further explained that although the distance between Earth and Mars is more than 40 million miles, they’d reached this fast because Minoski had discovered a hole in the universe. This, dear reader, was the fourth dimension according to Minoski.

There was no time to explore Mars because Minoski said they had to quickly spot that hole in the universe in order to return to Earth (they’d brought the unconscious Mitchell along for the ride and Minoski was afraid that Mitchell would wake up to create havoc again).

What surprised generations of Ghana-watchers is that the legendary dada did not make another attempt to return to the red planet. Not only Mars, he never ventured to travel in outer space again. He remained strictly confined to the earth, covering all possible and impossible places between Alaska and Zaire. My understanding, as a dedicated Ghana-da fan, is that Ghana-da was, and always wanted to be, an explorer; not an inventor. Space travel, to him, was the domain of a scientist and he did not want to trespass in that area.

While Ghana-da was in full form, regaling his fellow-boarders at 72, Banamali Naskar Lane with his adventures, a tall, dark and ruggedly handsome man, resident of Lake Temple Road, created a full-fledged scientist and inventor belonging to the Thomas Alva Edison gharana. This scientist would, with his DIY spaceship and robot, finally land on and explore Mars. The man in question was Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku and his creator was Satyajit Ray, who was already widely-regarded as the finest Indian filmmaker when he created Professor Shonku.

Seventeen years younger than Mitra, Ray had many similarities with his illustrious predecessor. Both were essentially renaissance men who pursued knowledge passionately and wholeheartedly. On paper, Ray was a student of Economics (because he was assured of a job with an Honours degree in Economics), but that is the subject in which he was least interested. Ray’s real interests were manifested by his two most loved creations, Shonku and Felu Mitter.

Professor Shonku’s USP is that he is, in a way, totally anonymous because nobody has seen him. Although educated in Calcutta, he spent most of his life in his house-cum-laboratory in Giridih, a secluded area in today’s Jharkhand. All of Shonku’s adventures are written in the format of diary. Ostensibly, Shonku’s adventures as we read them are what was found in his 39 diaries as well as other papers found in his Giridih residence. All this was discovered approximately 15 years after his mysterious disappearance.

In a bizarre way, Shonku’s first story is actually his last story. Once, Ray tells us, a meteor hit the Sundarbans of Bengal and killed many animals in the region. One man visited the area, hoping to find some tiger skins to hawk. What he found instead is a diary of Prof Shonku’s. The man pocketed it and then palmed it off for a price to an acquaintance who happened to be the editor of a children’s magazine. (That editor happened to be Ray himself, since he had just resumed the publication of his family magazine.)

According to the story, the editor kept the diary with him, but did not find the time to go through it. After some time, he casually picked it up and discovered that the colour of the ink used in the diary changed after every five hours. Also, the diary could not be torn or burnt — it was indestructible. That’s when he couldn’t help but start reading the diary.

The diary gave details of Shonku’s preparations for his mission to Mars – how he built his spacecraft and his robot, piece by piece. Since in space weight was no problem, he decided to take his attendant Prahlad and his cat Newton, along with his robot, Bidhusekhar. During the last stages of the preparation, Shonku had the uncomfortable feeling that Bidhusekhar was developing a mind of his own. Since this was scientifically impossible, Shonku did not bother much about it.

Shonku’s voyage started on schedule. According to the scientist’s estimate, the journey would take about two months. Shonku made full use of the time by teaching Bidhusekhar Bengali and like a good student, the robot promptly responded. However, before landing, Bidhusekhar suddenly turned hostile and tried to reverse the course of the rocket. Shonku had no choice but to immobilize him.

True to the scientist’s calculations, the spacecraft landed on Mars. But Bidhusekhar refused to set foot on the planet. He even warned his master of great dangers ahead. Paying no heed to the robot, the professor and his party, including Newton the cat, got off. Shonku realized that the famous red streaks were actually lines of water. A river flowed next to their landing spot, which looked like a huge container of liquid guava jelly. The trees and grass looked blue and the sky was a deep shade of green.

Initially, it was peaceful, but soon Shonku heard a sound; like a cricket chirping. Next thing he knew, Prahlad, with Newton in his arm, was running for dear life with a strange creature chasing him. The creature was a combination of a fish and a human being. It was barely three-feet tall, had legs, but in place of hands, it had fins. In the centre of its huge head was one big eye and its whole body was covered with scales. It made weird noises and also emitted a peculiar fishy smell. Luckily, it was a clumsy runner, so Prahlad could reach the spacecraft before it.

Hearing all the commotion, Bidhusekhar got excited and hopped out. With one mighty blow of his iron fist, the robot knocked out the Martian. But that wasn’t the end of the danger. The shrill sound reached a crescendo and the smell became intense. Shonku saw about two to three hundred similar-looking Martians approaching his rocket.

Bidhusekhar was ready for a fight but Shonku, with great difficulty, dragged the robot back to the craft and they left the red planet and its fishy inhabitants behind. Shonku’s story continued and there were more adventures. It seems the venerable Professor never returned to Earth, but took asylum in a planet called Tofa. How his diary accompanied the meteor to the Sundarbans would remain a mystery. However, this was the first proper, Bengali mission to Mars.

Ray had probably thought of Shonku’s adventure as a one-off story, but after its publication in 1961, Shonku became so popular that Ray could not abandon him. Over the next three decades, Ray continued to record Shonku’s adventures and we came to know about this academic from Kolkata’s Scottish Church College who was honoured by the Swedish Academy Of Sciences for inventions like Annihilin, Miracurol, Nervigour, Omniscope, snuffgun, Mangorange, Camerapid and more. Some are medicines, some are weapons and others are gadgets. They not only show Shonku’s inventive range, but also Ray’s ability to punch science together with mystery, fantasy and adventure.

Let me end this with an admission of omission and a request. Almost 60 years ago, as a kid, I saw a book and I still remember the cover. It was titled Mongolgroher Boigyanik (“The Scientist Of Mars”) and the author was Sumothonath Ghosh. Despite my best attempts, I cannot remember a word of what the book contained. All that has stuck in my memory is the cover. If anybody has read that book and can tell us about it, please do send us an email.

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