The next book by Samaresh Majumdar that I read was Manavputra. It is inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s novel ‘An Enemy Of The People’. If you are keeping track of the fight against climate change or other environmental issues, and are also able to read between the lines and what goes behind the curtains, then this novel would not surprise you in any way. The theme is simply the conflict between environmental conversation and corporate interests.
Nearly all the protagonists of Manavputra belong to the same family tree, which brings an element of emotional drama to an otherwise logical narrative. The story is set in a small town called Kanakpur somewhere in north Bengal on the foothills of Himalayas. A high-profile man Gupta had ‘built’ this town straw by straw. I am not sure what is meant by that. There is no mention of Gupta’s financial background or his profession. Perhaps he built institutions, roads, brought investments and so on. This is purely my guess as there is no mention of the actual tasks which Gupta had undertaken as part of building up the town. Understandably, Gupta was completely devoted and attached to the town and always vigilant about its welfare. The primary factor driving the town’s economy was tourism and to secure this channel, Gupta strove hard to keep it in presentable form, and supress any event or development which had the potential to tarnish the town’s image before tourists. One example — in fact, the novel starts with this incident — a recently married young woman committed suicide by jumping in the lake. Thinking that it would present the town in poor light, Gupta ordered to dispose off the body and relieve the guards of duty.
Aparesh was Gupta’s brother who used to work as a doctor in a small village in Purulia. Gupta brought him and his family to Kanakpur and appointed him as chief medical officer of the town hospital. Aparesh noticed a steady increase in the number of patients coming to hospital with stomach and gastrointestinal problems. He suspected something wrong with the water and sent two samples to Kolkata for analysis — one lake water and the other tap water. The reports suggested that though the lake water was fine, there was some contamination in tap water. Though it was at initial stage, the condition could worsen with time if no step was taken to contain it. Aparesh understood that the discharge from the leather factory was contaminating the water. Probably the outlet pipes had somehow broken and needed urgent replacement. He brought this to notice of his brother Gupta, who refused to do anything about it. Gupta’s concern was that the replacement of pipes would incur huge cost, which the town administration was not in a position to provide. Removing the factory — which was in fact illegally built — was also out of question for him as it would hit the town economy really hard. The factory was a big contributor to town’s economy and gave employment to locals. Any step towards either replacing the pipes or removing the factory altogether would mean recognising that the town water was contaminated, and once the news came out, it would damage town’s reputation and discourage tourists from visiting the town. In addition, the factory belonged to Gupta’s another relative.
With Gupta not cooperating, Aparesh approached the local newspaper to publish an article on the issue. The newspaper publishers agreed to publish the article not because of the seriousness of the issue, instead to increase the sales of the newspaper. However, the night when the edition was in press, Gupta hit hard and forced the publishers to withdraw the article. The publisher and Aparesh were assaulted by goons.
Aparesh was supported in his fight by his daughter and son-in-law though his wife was initially opposed to his activities. All the family members lost their jobs, of course due to pressure from administration at the behest of Gupta. Even after facing one defeat after another, Aparesh did not give in and decided to hold a public gathering and tell people directly about the issue. However, Gupta offered Aparesh to use the municipal building for the gathering instead of city centre. Aparesh agreed, but on the day of the gathering was shocked to find Gupta appointed as the chairman of the meeting, who used the opportunity to turn the tables on Aparesh and present him in poor light. Aparesh was presented as an irresponsible and ungrateful person, adamant at destroying the city which gave him shelter, and damaging its reputation. The town people went completely against Aparesh and gave him ultimatum to leave the town within 48 hours.
With no option left, but still hell bent on saving the town, Aparesh decided to blow up the factory with dynamite. The story ends by depicting the old couple climbing up the hill under the cover of dark foggy evening.
Though the narrative is entertaining and encouraging, the novel has not been meticulously written. I have noted earlier that there is no mention of Gupta’s occupation or background or what did he actually do to be considered as the architect of the town. Likewise, there is no detail of contamination caused by the factory discharge or the particular test conducted on water samples. Adding further details like names of factory, school or laboratory, even if hypothetical, would have made it believable and realistic. Instead, the complete narrative and description is shady and superficial. Various intricacies of environment protection have not been presented, examined or evaluated. The novel had potential to educate readers about environment, its protection and conservation, their roles as citizens, and encourage environmental activism; however, it failed to make use of this opportunity and could not achieve much. I would consider this novel as a lost opportunity in every sense.