Here is another interesting guest post by Anu Kumar. This time she introduces us to wonderful world of children's mystery books from Bengal. Many thanks to Anu for another interesting review.
The Dreadful Beauty (translated by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee)
The King of the Verdant Island (translated by Tridiv Chowdhury)
Published by PonyTale Books
Written originally by Sunil Gangopadhyay (in Bengali). Sunil Gangopadhyay is the current president of Sahitya Akademi.
Several novels for young adults by the renowned Bengali writer, Sunil Gangopadhyay, feature Kakababu, who solves mysteries on the basis of his immense knowledge, and his skill at several things. Kakababu was once in the archaeological survey of India, and so he has travelled to various parts of India, as well as outside. It is when he is in Afghanistan that he loses one of his legs, but this is no impediment to his detecting skills, assisted as he is by his able young nephew, Santu.
Kakababu first appears in Sunil Gangopadhyay’s the Dreadful Beauty. This and another book, the King of the Verdant Island, have recently appeared in an English translations published by the Kolkata based Ponytale Books. Ponytale already made a mark by its translations of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s books for children.
Kakababu first appeared in Bengali fiction first in the early 1970s, when Nirendranath Chakraborty who was at the time editor of Anandmela, a Bengali children's monthly, asked Gangopadhyay to write something for children for their annual Puja number. Gangopadhyay crafted a character called Kakababu — a super-knowledgeable sleuth. Kakababu’s first novel Bhoyonkor Sundor appeared in 1974 and thereafter more followed.
The Dreadful beauty unfolds in Kashmir, and Santu is accompanying Kakababu on his first adventure with him. As will be usual in the later adventures too, Kakababu keeps his plans secret, and Santu has no idea why they are here, or what they are looking for. The local businessman cum know-all Sucha Singh, who professes to be a 1947 war hero, however, thinks he knows why Kakababu is here, scouting around Pahalgam and Sonmarg. Sucha Singh does not give up easily, and seems to turn up everywhere, nosing into everything that Kakababu and Santu are up to.
The story begins slowly, but soon picks up once Kakababu decides to move into a remote village, but here too, Santu notices nothing happening. One night though, Santu finds sleep evasive, because of the constant sound of a horse riding nearby. It scares him and later he and Kakababu learn the story of Hako, a ghost rider who belongs to times past, who is killed by highway robbers and so he continues to haunt these areas. But Kakababu for the first time
perks up hearing this story. The legend of Hako will lead them finally to the adventure they are here for – a historical mystery that has never been solved, till Santu uncovers it accidentally when he falls into a ditch. This leads to a cave inhabited by a terrifying looking python, and this is where they come across a wooden box, which when opened unveils the secret that has eluded historians for centuries.
Sucha Singh however refuses to believe that Kakababu could have found anything but gold. So he kidnaps Kakababu, ransacks their tent and Santu has a harrowing time finding his way back to Kakababu.
The story ends on a piquant note, which is perhaps an important ‘lesson’ that this book and the other one, ‘The King of the Verdant Island’ has to give - of the two faces that success can sometimes have, and how dashed hopes do not necessarily mean failure but could always lead on to other things.
The King of the Verdant Island actually rules over a remote island, inhabited only by adivasis (the unique tribe of the Jarawas), where strange happenings occur. But this story begins actually in not too far away Calcutta when an attempt is made to steal passports belonging to Kakababu and Santu.
Santu is accompanying his uncle Kakababu on a trip the latter keeps secret until they are finally arrive in Port Blair. The adventure begins soon after. They notice suspicious looking foreigners loitering around. These same people move around with seeming ease in a motorboat, which need special permits to operate in the Andamans. When Kakababu instantly gives chase, Santa and he soon find themselves in an island which is a special reserve for the Jarawas. They are the original inhabitants of these islands, whose way of live is locked in ancient methods. Apparently, they do not even know the use of fire. But it is obvious that they do possess something mysterious, which has brought the “foreigners” into their midst.
Santu and Kakababu find out too late, when there is immediate danger to their lives.
The action is fast-paced, Santu who comes across as timid and nervous, shows real pluck towards the end, while the character of Gunada Talukdar adds some complexity to the story. He is a revolutionary who was once incarcerated in the Cellular jail, a jail built by the British in the 1860s to house revolutionaries. As Gunada staged his own escape in pre independence times he was unfortunate enough to be caught in an accident and that is how he found himself in the island of the Jarawas. There he lives, caught in a time-warp till Kakababu and Santu find him. In fact, he still carries his manacles with him, on that occasion. The two worlds are juxtaposed – the greedy foreigners in search of the Jarawas secret, and the tribals lost in a time of their own making.
Kakababu is a likeable sleuth, with his easily recognizable quirks, the way he moves with agility despite his disability, his refusal to accept any help. His penchant for keeping secrets, and his vast storehouse of knowledge, makes Kakababu in a sense similar to his contemporaries, Satyajit Ray’s Feluda or Sarodindo Bandyopadhyay’ s Byomkesh Bakshi. He is however older than either of these and manages to save himself by quick thinking and sheer grit.
While this translation rings true to the original, one wonders though if it could have done with some contemporary updating. In a sense, it jars that the Jarawas are seen as innocent, simple tribals and do not seem to have a will of their own. They are led totally by Gunada Talukdar. Also sometimes the men, who steal into the island, are referred varyingly as foreigners or whites. This however does not take away anything from reading this novella – full of distinct characters, its action, and its description of life in a little known place – the Andaman Islands.