Sinha preserves his voice in this work and deserves to be congratulated for presenting this literary gem to readers
Since 2019, climate fiction or ‘cli-fi’ is the new ‘it’ for publishers of English language literature.
This crisp 124-page volume landing on my doorstep was a surprise to me in many ways. For one, it is climate fiction, not hand-wringingly dire, but entertaining. Its Bengali original was first published in 2016 by a then-88-year-old author who had nonetheless retained the freshness of his outlook and his avant-garde edge in terms of idea. It blends and bends cli-fi, too, and successfully, with whimsy and fantasy. To top it all, it is authentic literary fiction, one that confounds even as it clarifies, far from the capabilities of the pushy ‘genre’ stuff churned out by the industry annually. The writer puts a monkey at the centre of the fable, not a Homo sapiens. The book is deftly translated by Arunava Sinha, who needs no introduction.
The Himalayan glacier is the birthplace of Nuribnador, Pebblemonkey. He sings Shyamasangeet but also attends Norwegian government receptions. He sits in conference with industrialists. His master is a hermit whose worldly name is Tarapada Chakraborty. The names of his peers are Airavat and Jambavan who are doppelgangers of their mythical spirits. His best friend is the Draupadi-ish Ranima — married to the five brothers Singh-Deo — that makes this novel a roman-a-clef for the epic only incidentally. Ranima takes Sorbitrate and one day her arm falls off.
Doenna the doe is the monkey’s girlfriend with whom he performs frequent coitus of the inter-species variety. Yet he also mates with Freya Bodybuilder, the American mountaineer who can in theory be then impugned for bestiality! While Japanese mountaineer Terasu adopts him as her brother, it is Pipi the Bengali climber for whom he nurses romantic feelings. It all crosses the mind of the author who muses that it is only humans who need laws to sanction erotic congress that they themselves have forbidden. For, he is writing a bildungsroman of an advaita being.
Advaita being? Before the reader goes “wha-a-t” African-American style, let me interject here that to me the other surprise of the book has been the author’s clear-eyed, inherently no-nonsense, modern sensibility. Precise yet poetic, for me it recalled the robust lyrics of Mohiner Ghoraguli, the 1970s rock band and cultural pioneer.
While the philosophical underpinnings of the narrative lie in Adi Shankaracharya’s classical Advaita Vedanta epistemology, the rational reader can freely enjoy it, peppered as it is with climate insights as well as inside jokes including one fine one-liner aimed at breast-beating do-gooders for whom wildlife destruction is no more than a meal ticket. So, soon as he spots its name on their awareness campaign list, the monkey understands that the lion’s days are numbered on this earth. Ranima’s Mahaprasthan is indeed the reverse of the Great Escape from Stalin’s gulag — a trek through the Himalayas, Taklamakan and Gobi deserts, and Siberia, on to the North Pole — fathomable if only geographically. Through it all, Big Daju smiles, “eyes closed, teeth glittering in silence”.
Born in Barisal, Manindra Gupta passed away in 2018. Gupta spent his childhood in Assam’s Barak Valley and went on to join the British Indian army. He served during WWII. Subsequently, he was a teacher of machine design. Somewhat unsung for being a late entrant to the world of Bengali letters but with a formidable reputation as a scholar, he is nevertheless a Sahitya Akademi award-winning poet, essayist and memoirist (Akshay Mulberry is the name of his memoir), having made indelible contributions.
Sinha preserves his voice in this work and deserves to be congratulated for presenting this literary gem to readers.
By Manindra Gupta
Translated by Arunava Sinha
Jadavpur University Press, pp. 124, Rs.300