For last couple of years, I have been reading Galpa Samagra, a collection of short stories by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Let me start by mentioning that Sunil always described himself as a poet first, and considered rest of his skills or occupations as secondary. But honestly speaking, I do not understand poetry — neither by Sunil nor by anybody else. My foray is short stories, and I am happy with them.
For those who do not know, Galpa Samagra is a 4-volume series of collection of short stories by the writer. And here I am discussing only the first volume of this series. Yes, I have been reading this one book for the last three years! Don’t laugh! This is true. There are several reasons for this slow pace. The foremost reason is that I do not like Sunil’s stories. No, not the style per se, but the content. That is, the storyline. In fact, I would have thrown the book away just after reading 2-3 stories only had I not read the foreword to the book by Ujjawalkumar Majumdar. You know, a certain level of maturity is required for art appreciation. For students of literature, that should not be difficult. But ordinary readers, who read stories primarily for pleasure, may not be able to appreciate them unless they are properly initiated into the wide field of literature. Considering this, the foreword by Ujjawalkumar Majumdar could be helpful as it prepares the readers for the literary experience lying ahead. But not much.
The art of story writing itself has evolved over the years. Now nobody tells the stories of king, queen, happy ending. More than 100 years back, Chekhov brought in new ideas to the craft of storytelling, and his thoughts still remain as the leading light for aspiring short story writers. Sunil goes a step further, writing what Majumdar calls as ‘stories without any plot’. There is no story per se. So do not expect anything dramatic to happen. Do not expect that the lady who has dumped the hero will return to his life. And the young man receiving a telegram would find some exciting news in it. No, nothing like that happens. In fact, nothing at all happens. Just narrative. Endless narrative. Honest narrative. And the story ends. But the narratives themselves make you experience each and every moment, event and emotion depicted in the story as if happening before you, or rather with you. And yet, as if strictly following Chekhov’s command, Sunil himself remains unmoved, emotionless, calm and quiet. And lest my stress on his narratives create a wrong impression, let me make it clear that he does not tell you that wind is blowing, leaves are falling, dog is barking and so on. Nor does he tell you how the tears rolled down the cheeks of the heroine like dew on rose. These are age-old tricks of our writers, which are still used by contemporary writers of our language. Sunil does not narrate the environment or the emotions. He maintains his focus and sticks to his narrative, never deviating away from it. But whatever is taking place, he tells you honestly, clearly, without any reservations or hesitation. And then you realise why they call fiction as vicarious living.
I would mention few stories which I liked the most. My criterion is simple: the pieces you love most are the ones which stay in your memory the longest. As I finished reading the book, I closed the book, and then my eyes, and took a short journey back in time — a journey of reading this book for the last three years. I tried to recall which stories do I still remember and can recall without any prompts. And these are my favourites. I would only tell you the plot of the plotless stories. Hope it would help you understand and appreciate Sunil’s style and form an opinion of his short stories. I do not aim to translate the stories. So, if you really want to enjoy the experience, you should either learn Bengali language or wait for an English translation to appear. But there is a middle path also. You can ask any friend who understands Bengali to read them and narrate the stories to you. As I mentioned, Sunil’s genius is in the narrative, so you won’t miss much by listening to them from someone else.
Key Shotru key bondhu (Who is a friend and who is an enemy?) was the first story which I immediately fell in love. The protagonist was travelling in an overcrowded bus. As he was getting up to leave the bus, someone hit him hard on his face. He nearly fainted and blood covered his whole face. Some people attended to him, but then took their individual paths. After getting down from the bus, he washed his face on a handpump. There he met another man who helped him with the pump and insisted that he come to his house for proper first-aid. Each of his subsequent kind gestures made the protagonist grow even more suspicious about the intentions of the man. May be he wanted to rob him or assault him. But unwillingly, he had to give in as the man would not yield. When they reached house, the door was opened by the man’s wife who panicked at the sight of the injured man. The latter was getting more and more uncomfortable and restless. The wife was agitated on seeing his injuries, and rush all around the house to arrange for proper first aid, milk, clean clothes and food. The gentleman still could not convince himself as to why these people were so much concerned for him. Finally, the man told the gentleman. “She is very nice, you know. Girls like her are very rare. I am not saying only because she is my wife. Once you mix up a bit more, you yourself would see that girls like her are indeed extremely rare in this world. She feels pain on seeing any person in trouble. Got married with a poor like me, works all day long, cannot go outdoors. Still, you know, what I feel, to call outside people and show them. Tell to everybody, in present times also such girls exist. That is why I brought you.”
Story closed with Sunil’s remark “The whole incident of tonight was full of suspense. Why did the man in the bus beat me? After that, how come this acquaintance with such a family? Whose task is to help others without any motive or reason. Both these experiences are completely opposite. . . . that attacker did not cause any harm to me. Only due to him, did I meet these people. So my profit is more.”
Hope you got an idea. It was the only story which brightened the soul and warmed the heart. It’s a colourful world, a colourful world indeed.
Another beautiful story is Mansho (flesh/meat). A rich family of three had two pet rabbits. Their child was very fond of them. Once while the child was away, one of the rabbits fell down from the balcony and died. The mother asked the maid to take the dead rabbit and dump it somewhere far from their house before her son returns. Otherwise the child would be sad and pained. The maid took the rabbit with her but decided to take it home so that her children could see what does a rabbit look like. Doesn’t matter even if it is dead one. Finally, following her instructions, when her daughter was going to throw the rabbit away, her uncle asked about the affair. On knowing the whole story, he yelled at her in excitement — “Do you have any idea how delicious and expensive is rabbit’s meat? And here you are throwing it away?! Wait, let me cook it and you taste yourself.” He rushed out and returned with spices and salts, and sat down cooking. The food was delicious, everyone enjoyed. But the woman was deeply moved on seeing the faces of her children who had tasted such delicious food perhaps for the first time in their lives.
The next day she went to her employer’s house on job. It so happened that for some time she was left alone in the house. When she saw that nobody was around, she took the lone rabbit and started caressing it. She thought to herself, “Can’t this rabbit all of a sudden jump from the balcony? . . . When a rabbit dies, the housewife asks to throw it out on the road. What harm is there if another rabbit dies?” She picked the rabbit, stretched her hand out towards the street, thinking, “Such small creature, what difference does it make whether it is dead or alive. Rich people shoot such rabbits when they go for hunting. If the boy cries, his father would bring yet another rabbit for him.” And she opened her fist . . .
Another story worth mentioning is titled Moner Osukh (nervous disorder). The protagonist’s wife is suffering from nervous disorder and requires constant supervision. That is why he cannot stay away from home for long. Once he had to go to some other place for meeting or inspection. While returning it got late. He was racing against time to reach home because his wife was alone. At one place, in deep jungle, a group of people stopped his car. Though driver warned him from stopping as the place was notorious for naxalites and robbery. Still, he wanted to see what was the matter. It turned out that one member of the group was very ill and needed to be taken to hospital. But poor as they were, they could not find any mode of transport to carry him. They begged him to help them out. He felt sympathy and asked them to get in, ignoring his driver’s warning. Well, after travelling a short distance, the people assaulted him and the driver, pulled them out of the car, left him wounded and unconscious on the road and drove off in the car. In the next scene, which was already several months later, the man is undergoing treatment for nervous breakdown, still reeling under the shock of that night. His wife, though still frail and weak, is taking care of him. His thoughts are somewhat like this:
“It is wrong to think that that man had no illness. . . . That man wrapped in blanket, his wife, wife’s brother — those people are also mentally sick. . . . They are not ordinary robbers. Their sickness has reached a stage, where they want to attack even a person who has helped them. Unless the whole society is cured, these people would not be cured. . . .
“Often I have a dream. . . . In midnight suddenly I fell ill, no doctor is to be found, all doctors of the city are on leave, my car is sold off, my wife is standing on the road, to take me to the hospital in case she is able to find a vehicle. . . . From afar a motorcar is coming, my wife anxiously shouts and tries to stop that car . . . at that point in the dream I get scared, my body gets soaked in sweat, chest beats heavily and I repeatedly think, if the car does not stop; if the car does not take us? In this midnight, if he thinks we are robbers?”
It is a simple story, but Sunil’s commentary at the end is what carries the whole weight. In fact, this is the biggest impact of the present day social evils. Yes, evils strike and strike hard. But the bigger problem is that we have lost faith in the existence of good. Under present circumstances, even if a person is genuine and honest, we look at him with suspicion. Also, we do not trust anybody, even distrust those who are in need and apparently require our help.
There is no humour in any of the stories. However, there are occasional light remarks about characters. For example, in one story, a young lady wrote a letter to the narrator expressing her love and proposing for a romantic relationship. The narrator though convinced about the lady’s sincerity and emotions, turned down her proposal because her handwriting was bad! In the story Mansho that I mentioned earlier, he described the rich family’s child in the following way: “Alka’s only son, age four years three months, knows counting till hundred. Can read number plates of motorcars and addicted to hearing stories of Phantom”.
So, this is it. This book presents human life in all its variations and colours, and depicts its various complexities, emotions, and conflicts. In the present time, when all of us are rushing through our lives, not having any time to reflect on where we come from and where we are heading to, these stories may help us compensate for all the opportunities lost. Perhaps these stories would help you see yourself and your relationships in a different way. Yes, life is in living, and that implies experiencing every event of your life.
Title: Galpa Samagra -1
Author: Sunil Gangopadhyay
Publisher: Mitra & Ghosh Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Price: Rs. 150