Manik Bandopadhya (1908-1956), arguably the father of modern Bengali fiction, wrote some of the most captivating novels and short-stories in Bangla literature. But although the popularity the man and his work is massive, how many of us know about that the village Gaodia of Munshiganj (previously Bikrampur), which had provided him with context for one his greatest novels, Putul Nacher Itikothae (The Tale of Puppet Dance) ? How much do we know about the villages surrounding Gaodia, Rasulpur, Ketupur, Falpakar, Subachanir Haat, places that were mentioned another of his acclaimed novels, Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatmen of the River Padma)?
I visited Gaodia village on the 25th of July. Gaodia was the home of the writer’s maternal ancestors, where he often spent his vacations during his student life. The first thing I did after reaching Gaodia was to look eagerly for the great banyan tree mentioned in the first line of novel, “Haru Ghosh stood leaning against the great banyan tree besides the canal. The God of sky blinked upon him smilingly at that place.” Thus the author describes the death of Haru Ghosh caused by lightening strike in the very first sequence of the novel.
The villagers laughed at my naivete, “The river Padma has since then destroyed three-fourths of the village and you cannot find that banyan tree of the novel. But, well…see that dying canal over there, where once large steamers used to ply about? That canal has been mentioned repeatedly in the author’s novel,” said Jalal, a young organizer of the Manik Bandopadhya Memorial Library.“Did you know that the author’s maternal uncle Madhusudan Mukherjee was our English teacher at the Lauhajang High School? They were the zeminders (landlords) of this region. They migrated to India after the Indo-Pak war started in 1965. They bestowed these lands to one of their employees Sidu Sheikh, who later renamed the house as Anwar Villa. That Anwar Villa was actually originally known as Mukherjee Bhawan. Later, descendants of Sidu Sheikh migrated to Dhaka and the house is now empty and deserted,” Shyamal Kumar Dey informed us.
Putul Nacher Itikotha talks about Shashi, a young man who, having completed his medical degree from Kolkata, returns to his home village of Gaodia. He thrives as a doctor in the village, and the villagers love him. But Shashi feels alienated from the villagers. He dreams of returning to Kolkata or going abroad for a better future, but he makes no attempts move. His father Gopal is a singularly materialistic man who has earned wealth through both legal and illegal means. He gave off his daughter Bindu in marriage to a married but wealthy person against the son-in-law’s will and the man, in revenge, uses his wife as a baiji (a singing and dancing entertainer) in Kolkata. Shashi’s ten year old younger sister Sindhu likes to play with dolls and Shashi thinks the human life is nothing but a doll or puppet dance and there is surely some invisible puppet-master who is moving all of us by pulling strings. Paran, a farmer of the village, is Shashi’s friend. His childless wife, Kusum, has become infatuated by Shashi over the years. Kusum is the first heroine in modern Bengali fiction who breached the conventional moral code prescribed for Bengali women by falling in love with someone other than the husband and utters that shattering, rebellious dialogue, “Why my body craves so passionately whenever I come near to you?” But, Shashi is too aloof to the suggestions of this pretty woman and he thinks, “Oh! Body! Body! Don’t you have any mind Kusum?” Shashi, however, did feel some sort of a platonic attraction towards Kusum but he did not want to translate this affection into action in fear of society. After ten years of longing, Kusum one day decides to move back to her wealthy father’s village with her poor husband. Shashi, at this point, passionately urges Kusum to elope him. Kusum refuses. Meantime, Shashi’s widower father Gopal had had an illicit affair with Sen Didi, the most beautiful woman of the village and the woman dies after giving birth to a baby. Gopal wants to bring up the child in his home and Shashi passively protests by resigning from the village hospital. He is now prepared to go to Kolkata. But Gopal implores Shashi to stay on for a week more until he comes back from a near-by village. Gopal leaves the village for life with his illegitimate son and Shashi lives spends the rest of his life as an aloof bachelor in the village, longing for Kusum with whom he spent one or two evenings sitting together silently in the palm grooves of the village and watching the sun set. “Shashi does not go to the palm grooves any longer. He will never have the desire to watch the sun setting in contemplation again in his life time,” the novel ends here.
When I left Gaodia, the mighty Padma besides the road appeared again in her full monsoon rage. Is this the river on whose lap the fisherman Kuber, Ganesh, Rasu, Pritam exhausted their lives? Crudely exploited by money lenders, did the really go away to an unknown faraway island Mainadwip to serve the mysterious money lender Hossain Mian, who wished to set up a colony of his own in that distant island? Did Kuber make love to his physically challenged but beautiful wife Mala, feed his children in any nearby village now washed away by the Padma? And, did Kuber leave Mala and the children for his playful sister-in-law Kapila and run away to the unknown Mainadwip?
The themes of unconventional relationships or extra-marital love are recurring themes in Manik’s novels. What the proletariat Kuber could achieve in unconventional love, the middle class Shashi could never accomplish. Ultimately, the village Gaodia remains as mysterious and complex as the male and female protagonists and characters of Manik’s novels.
From Lauhajang, Munshiganj