Sunday, May 07, 2006

Early Bengali Science Fiction

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]

I thought I might risk going out on the limb of historical obscurities and share an article by Debjani Sengupta (PDF) I came across that talks about early Bengali science fiction writing.

The article is from the journal Sarai, which is published in Delhi. Some of the articles offer some truly impenetrable jargon -– even with writing on familiar topics (Bollywood, Call Centers, and so on). But there are also a number of well-written and informative articles on things like Parsi theater in Bombay in the 1800s that I would highly recommend.

On to Bengali science fiction. Even the fact that it existed as early as the 1880s may be a little shocking, since most studies of Bengali literature tend to center around Tagore -- who was extremely doubtful about modern technology. (Read his account of flying in an airplane here.) But the effects of the industrial revolution were being felt in urban India in the 19th century just as keenly as they were in Europe and the U.S., and at least some Indian writing reflected that. Probably the best, most enduring writing in this genre came from a single family –- Sukumar Ray (in the 1910s and 20s) and his son Satyajit Ray, who was a highly accomplished writer when he wasn't making making world class art films. But according to Sengupta the people who originated the genre in the 1880s were lesser known writers. For instance, the author mentions one Hemlal Dutta Rashashya:

Asimov’s statement that “true science fiction could not really exist until people understood the rationalism of science and began to use it with respect in their stories” is actually true for the first science fiction written in Bangla. This was Hemlal Dutta’s Rahashya (“The Mystery”) that was published in two installments in 1882 in the pictorial magazine Bigyan Darpan, brought out by Jogendra Sadhu. The story revolved around the protagonist Nagendra’s visit to a friend’s house, a mansion completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes that clean suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story, and the tone is of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives.

It seems a little hard to imagine people writing about electric doorbells and burglar alarms in the 1880s in Calcutta, but there you have it. (Doorbells were actually invented in 1830, so maybe it's not that shocking.)

The genre really seems to get going with Sukumar Ray, who was by all accounts highly intellectually adventurous, even in the stories intended for children. (I did a short post on him here some time ago.) Like Lewis Carroll's "Alice" stories, Sukumar Ray’s stories are full of mind-bending puzzles and language games. And it’s quite likely that he was reading British writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and especially H.G. Wells as he was writing The Diary of Heshoram Hushiar:

Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) was probably inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World when he wrote Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary (“The Diary Of Heshoram Hushiar”). . . . It is a spoof on the genre because Sukumar is poking fun at the propensity of the scientist to name things, and that too in long-winded Latin words. He seems to be playing around the fact that names are arbitrarily conferred upon things by humans for their own convenience, and suggests that the name of a thing may somehow be intrinsically connected to its nature. So the first creature that Heshoram meets in the course of his journey through the Bandakush Mountains is a “gomratharium” (gomra in Bangla means someone of irritable temperament), a creature that sported a long woebegone face and an extremely cross expression. Soon the company comes upon another peculiar animal, not to be found in any textbook of natural sciences. They hear a terrible yowl, a sound between the cries of a “number of kites and owls” and find an animal “that was neither an alligator, nor a snake, nor a fish but resembled to a certain extent all three”. His howls make Heshoram name him “Chillanosaurus” (chillano means to shout). Although just an extract, Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary is quite unlike anything written even in Bangla.

The cross-linguistic word-play ("Gomratharium" and "Chillanosaurus") is something that experimental modernist writers like James Joyce were doing in Europe in the 1920s too. That he was doing this suggests both that Ray was using Bangla quite confidently, and that he expected that his readership would be bilingual enough to recognize Latinate English words like “aquarium” and “tyrannosaurus.”

Sukumar's son Satyajit was also quite playful with language in the short stories he wrote. His famous “Professor Shanku” (or “Shonku") stories are full of gadgets and devices with exotic names:

Satyajit Ray created Professor Shanku in 1961. The first SF featuring this eccentric hero was written for the magazine Sandesh and was called Byomjatrir Diary (“The Diary of the Space Traveller”). All thirty-eight complete and two incomplete diaries (the last one came out in 1992) narrate the fantastic world of Shanku’s adventures, inventions and travels. Most of these stories are more than science fiction. They are also travelogues, fantasy tales, tales of adventure and romance. . . . His sense of humour makes him peculiarly human and his list of inventions is impressive. Anhihiline, Miracural, Omniscope, Snuffgun, Mangorange, Camerapid, Linguagraph -– the list is long and impressive. Some are drugs, some gadgets, some machines, but they all have human purposes and use.

There is a joyful self-deprecating quality to Professor Shanku, as seen in his early attempts to build a rocket for space travel:

The first [rocket] that he had built was unsuccessful and had come down on his neighbour Abinashbabu’s radish patch. Abinashbabu had no sympathy for Shanku; science and scientists made him yawn. He would come up to Shanku and urge him to set off the rocket for Diwali so that the neighbourhood children could be suitably entertained. Shanku wants to punish this levity and drops his latest invention in his guest’s tea. This is a small pill, made after the fashion of the Jimbhranastra described in the Mahabharata. This pill does not only make one yawn, it makes one see nightmares. Before giving a dose to his neighbour, Shanku had tried a quarter bit on himself. In the morning, half of his beard had turned grey from the effect of his dreams. Shanku’s world is a real world, a human world. In his preparations for the space journey he has decided to take his cat Newton with him. For that he has invented a fish-pill. "Today I tested the fish-pill by leaving it next to a piece of fish. Newton ate the pill. No more problems! Now all I have to do is make his suit and helmet."

Ok, maybe the nightmare pill is a little bit on the darker side, but at least he tried it out on himself before dosing his neighbor. And the fish-pill that would allow him to take his cat along in outer space is a nice touch.

More Professor Shanku definitions are at the >Professor Shanku Wikipedia page:

  • Miracurall -- a drug capsule that cures any ailment except common cold
  • Annihillin -- a pistol that simply annihilates any living thing. It does not work on non living things.
  • Shankoplane -- A small plane capable of vertical take-off and landing and magnificent mileage
  • Shankolite - the alloy by which shankoplane was made
  • Omniscope - a combination of telescope and microscope
  • Air-conditioning pill - a capsule that keeps the body temperature normal in extremes of climate.
  • Somnolin - a sleeping pill that will work in any condition

  • I love the idea of a miracle pill that cures everything except the common cold. The A/C pill would probably also come in handy right about now in Delhi (where the temperature is 43.5 degrees C).

    The question that comes up for me in looking at this material is first of all surprise that it’s talked about so little with reference to modern Indian literature. The 'serious' figures like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore (in Bangla), and Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan (in English) are the names that tend to get referenced from before 1945. And after 1945, most literary critics have been interested in writers who dealt with political themes in their works -- the independence struggle, partition, wars, corruption, and so on. That Indian writers were also interested in space travel, the automation of everyday life, and robotics from an early point suggests that the literary scene was richer than most people think. Most of the Bengali science fiction in Sengupta's article is oriented to children, but it's clearly quite sophisticated -- entertaining for many adults in some of the same ways J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter is today.

    [UPDATE: See a follow-up post here]


    Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

    Bengali children's literature is a treasure trove. I will go out on a sturdy limb and say that it can hold its own with its counterpart in any language and will almost certainly rank among the top five.

    For one thing, several notable Bengali authors who wrote for adults, also wrote for children. There is no doubt that Sukumar Ray made it *respectable* for established authors to write children's literature. So Bengali children would grow up reading superb short and long stories, novels, plays, fantasies, satire, humor, science fiction and poetry written by Tagore, Sukumar Ray, Rajshekhar Bose, Annadashankar Ray, Buddhadeb Bose, Bimal Mitra, Ashapurna Debi, Premendra Mitra, Narayan Gangopadhyay and many, many more. These outstanding writers wrote spiritedly, deliciously and intelligently for children and young adults. An early child reader of these authors would grow up and read the same authors' adult works with the ease and flourish of a veteran. While writing for children, the Bengali authors scrupulously avoided the pit fall of *talking down* to young readers. The children's anthologies that would be published during September - October to commemorate the Pooja season, were as much in demand among the adults in the family as among the children themselves.

    Another interesting aspect of Bengali childrens' lit was the profusion of quality translations of classics from other languages made available in Bengali. I read Cervantes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Lewis Carrol, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in Bengali translation before I read them in English. Bimal Mitra's extraordinary translation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "The Yearling," to this day is etched in my memory across the span of many decades.

    Another brilliant *Ray* who wrote superb children's books, going off the beaten path, was Satyajit Ray's aunt Lila Mazumdar. Her fantastic stories were not quite science fiction but steeped in enough "weirdness" to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Not out of fear but out of the thrill of encountering scenarios which went seamlessly from the mundane to the "almost plausible" absurd. And they were hilarious to boot.

    Bengalis are (or used to be) bookish people and not for nothing. Bengali children's lit was fully equipped to hook them early.

    P.S: Since your article is cross posted at Sepia Mutiny, I will copy my comments there. Bengali children's literature is a gem and perhaps its existence is not as well known as its adult counterpart. Thanks for bringing it up.

    11:51 PM  
    Blogger 8 by 52 said...

    Debjani used to teach us at college and she's just wonderful. She used to simply bring alive all these Bengali stories for us.

    6:56 AM  
    Anonymous BongoPondit said...

    Hi Amardeep,

    Thanks for pointing out the article and for this superb post - Bengali children's (much of the scifi was meant for children) literature is a genre I grew up with and one that really inculcated in me the love for reading. I don't think you mentioned Satyajit Tay's grandfather Upendrakishore Ray - who also wrote books of fantasy (if not exactly science fiction) - the film 'Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne' (which inspired Rushdie to name two characters after the duo) was based on his story.

    Many of Satyajit Ray's short shories too deal with science fiction and fantasy. Ruchira already mentioned Premendra Mitra. Another prominent author who indulged heavily in scifi and fantasy writing for children is Shirshendu Mukhppadhay. His book 'Manojder Adbhut Bari' had a scientist character who was carrying out weird genetic experiments for producing new varieties of vegetables and fruits.

    It should also be mentioned that Bengali children's authors were well supported by a number of high quiality magazines aimed solely at children: Anandamela, Sandesh (published by the Ray family), Suktara etc.

    @ Ruchira: you are right - Bengali children's literture is filled with an embarrassement of riches. Unfortunately, there seems to be a dearth of good authors and publications right now and the children are more interested in TV, internet and Potter. Not that I am against all this, I just feel they are missing out on a great deal of fun.


    7:06 AM  
    Anonymous desiknitter said...

    Aren't there some interesting sci-fi elements in Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain's story "Sultana's Dream" where all the women rule and the men are in purdah? Something about solar energy being tapped... need to reread it now.

    8:51 AM  
    Blogger Amardeep said...

    Desiknitter, You are a fount of erudtion. Yes, that's right, and I think it's an important part of this story (she first published it in 1905, so it's also quite early).

    I'll plan to do a supplement to this post at some point in the next couple of weeks: Sultana's Dream alongside other feminist utopias like Herland and The Blazing World.

    9:41 AM  
    Anonymous desiknitter said...

    why thanks, Amardeep! Look forward to your reading of Sultana's Dream.

    11:44 AM  
    Blogger The Marauder's Map said...

    Actually I don't have much to add after Ruchira and Bongo Pandit have had their excellent says, but this is such a neglected area that I guess every voice counts.

    I just did a story on contemporary children's literature in English, and it struck me while I was working on it how very much richer Bengali children's literature of even three or four decades ago was in terms of themes and styles. Not your animal stories about a talking squirrel and a wise elephant etc, but mature stories that left really deep impressions on young minds. The short stories and novels published in the Puja editions of Anandamela were superbly mature and 'deep' -- some of the stories read back then are still alive after 15 odd years. There was one story about a thief who comes to burgle a house and comes across a book he had half read when he was a kid and settles down to read it -- the humour and poignancy of the situation is amazing.

    Then there was a similar one by Narayan Gangopadhyay about a grown-up man getting his hands upon a book he again couldn't complete when he was young -- and the reasons why he could not are imbued with that keen sadness and despair of childhood -- and refusing to read it, knowing it will not live up to those expectations.

    I could go on and on. Where are these stories today? Who tells them in India anymore? They only write rehashed Panchatantra tales and Enid Blytonish adventure stories.

    5:30 AM  
    Blogger Kerim Friedman said...

    It is worth mentioning, in this context, the accusations that the movie E.T. was based on an earlier script by Satyajit Ray.

    10:30 AM  
    Anonymous Half-Wit Theocracy said...

    On a somewhat related topic ...

    Take a look at River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

    Not necessarily high brow literature, but certainly an interesting take on "Indian science fiction."

    11:55 PM  
    Anonymous Vandana Singh said...

    Dear Amardeep, thanks for a great post. It is not surprising that Indian litcrits have ignored Indian SF --- I think SF is ghettoized in India just as much as it is in the U.S. I am particularly interested in this article and in any names of Indian SF writers that you or your knowledgeable audience can come up with, because I am editing a comprehensive anthology of Indian SF for Penguin India. I am hoping to include a fine crop of stories from different periods (including Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain's utopia story) and also stories in translation. I've already read Jayant Narlikar, Satyajit Ray and Premendra Mitra. If anyone knows other names in Indian SF (I believe there is a fine Marathi traition as well) please do let me know names, titles of books, where available from, etc.

    I will be including stories by Indian writers writing in English as well, such as the brilliant new writers Anil Menon and Samit Basu, as well as some of my own work.

    An anthology of SF edited by David Hartwell in the late 1990's proclaims that there is no third-world SF. So does an article from the same decade (in Asimov's SF)written by Norman Spinrad, who gives us a reason as well: third world cultures, he informs us, have no conception of the future, so naturally they don't have any SF. It is about time that Indian SF was showcased internationally, and I hope this anthology will be a step in that direction.


    7:17 AM  
    Blogger Panini Pothoharvi said...

    Have you heard of Prof Suresh Rattan's Sci-Fi work in Punjabi? The man is based in Aarhus, Denmark and writes extensively in Punjabi.

    8:22 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Oh no, now I have to get ahold of these . . . : )

    Is there any chance that "gomratharium" would be gomra + therium (=beast, in the scientific names of various fossil or living mammals? Of course, if it's particularly watery . . .

    -Dan S.

    3:18 PM  
    Blogger MetaMutator said...

    Thought I'd point this out, but cross-language humour is quite evident in turn-of-the-century Telugu literature too; Gurajada Appa Rao's Giriisam Panthulu made a career out of English-Telugu jokes in the drama, Kanyaasulakam. Turn-of-the-century audiences were quite linguistically-literate, and did appreciate those little winks at pretentiousness, much in the same way, I suppose Munnabhai MBBS did.

    What is, perhaps, different, is English words in routine dialogue; while a Dilip Kumar would say, "Inteqaam" or something in the Urdu theater of the 1900's, a contemporary Saif Ali Khan would probably say, "examination". That is to say, while language has changed quite significantly, the expectation from the audience (as opposed to the audience's expectation from theater/cinema) hasn't changed much.

    As for sci-fi lit., well, the moment you said Bengali sci-fi lit, I immediately thought of Sultana's Dream. :-) Glad it was already pointed out. I was trying to get hold of the Simoqin Prophecies in this old creeky bookstore in Hyderabad; instead, I ended up picking this. A thoroughly enjoyable read!

    9:22 PM  
    Blogger skroderider said...

    There's a monthly online mag called Adbhut - which publishes 'Indian' sf/fantasy.
    @MetaMutator - which particular creaky bookstore in Hyd do you mean? I'm interested :).

    11:36 PM  
    Blogger Rik said...

    @Vandana, you might want to check out Shirshendu Mukherjee. His SciFi story called "Bonny" was good, was published sometime around 1990. Possibly he has one or two other good ones too.

    @Dan, yes of course, gomra-therium or gomra-tharium is supposed to mean exactly that. They saw a weird animal with a particularly sullen face..hence the name! The spelling ambiguity arises because the original is in bengali script :)

    Hope you get hold of a translation.

    11:44 PM  
    Blogger MetaMutator said...

    @skroderider: There's only one creaky bookstore in Hyderabad, and that's AA Hussain's. The others aren't, no matter how you spell it, creaky.

    1:46 AM  
    Anonymous JonesNought said...

    I'd sure like to know more about that 1882 story called "The Mystery." Going by the superficial description, I think it bears a remarkable resemblance to an 1876 humorous story in Chambers's Journal in which a young man visits his friend's mansion and encounters an automatic clothes-brushing machine, a doorbell (tripped by opening an automated gate on the periphery of the estate) that warns the servants that people are on the way up to the house, and a burglar alarm and trap that cause the guest all sorts of grief. I'm writing about the author in my dissertation--his name was Samuel Page Widnall. I wonder if his piece inspired Rahashya?

    11:23 PM  
    Blogger Erythrocyte said...

    I think it very likely that Widnall's story would be known in Bengal at that time, because we do know that popular Bengali publishers (the Bat-tala press, sort of like grub street) kept very close tabs on what was coming out in England, being only a few months behind, and popular authors often 'transcreated' English stories by Bengalifying the setting and characters and changing plot elements that a Bengali audience wouldn't understand. Chambers's (and Chambers's book titles as well) was a rich source.
    PS, there's a conference this winter at Jadavpur University on popular western fiction and its impact on India pre-1947. Would you be interested in giving a paper?

    11:59 AM  
    Blogger Erythrocyte said...

    Perhaps I ought to add the name of Dhan Gopal Mukerji to the roll call of honour of Indian children's writers? Dhan Gopal is so far the only Indian to have won the Newbery Prize (in 1928) for his book *Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon*.

    12:18 PM  
    Blogger skroderider said...

    @Rik - I remember the story you're referring to - it was published in the Anandamela puja edition of 1989. It remains one of my favorites.

    4:43 AM  
    Blogger Across the World said...

    This wonderful post by Singh surely brings to mind the dazzling duo, Gupi Gyne and Bagha Byne, characters created by Sukumar Ray's father. Their shoes that could take them anywhere they wished were a constant source of story-knitting that I used to enjoy doing with my sisters.

    I wonder if there shouldn't be a conscious effort to recover these SF stories from all over the country and compile an anthology. Would be an excellent read for children as well as a superb collection of Indian writing.

    7:44 PM  
    Blogger schwartzbergj said...

    I stumbled on this blog through my interest in children's literature. I have now sent via interlibrary loan for some of the authors you have mentioned in English translation. I am also wondering if there is a book on the history of children's literature in the Indian subcontinent, or relevant books and articles I could read, in English. Please email recommendations to me at

    Jenny Schwartzberg
    The Newberry Library
    Chicago, IL

    12:33 PM  
    Blogger Flame Den said...

    Great article. I came to know about an indian/independent SF site which came into existence recently. It looks promising, you can check it at They are inviting authors to write for them.

    12:26 AM  

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