Wednesday, March 16, 2016

From the master of mystery and macabre

Review by Kuldip Dhiman for The Tribune

Indigo —
by Satyajit Ray.
Translated by
Satyajit Ray and Gopa Majumdar.
Pages 264.

Kuldip Dhiman

There is this 200-year-old haunted mansion in Raghunathpur where ghost hunter, Anath Babu decides to spend a night alone. In the dead of the night he waits for the ghost to show up. . . . We read in anticipation. Will the ghost appear or not?

Then there is this strange man simply known  as ‘Mr Eccentric’. He has a peculiar habit of picking up lost things off the ground and telling all about their past owners. One day, he finds a button. ‘That button,’ he tells the narrator, ‘came from the jacket of an Englishman. He was riding down Jalapahar Road. The man was almost 60, dressed in riding clothes, hale and hearty, a military man. When he reached the spot where I found the button, he had a stroke, and fell from his horse. Two passersby saw him and rushed to help, but he was already dead. That button came off his jacket as he fell from his horse.”

In Bipin Chowdhury’s Lapse of Memory, a stranger walks up to Bipin Chowdhury and says, ‘We met every day for a whole week. I arranged for a car to take you to the Hudroo falls. In 1958. In Ranchi.’ Mr Chowdhury had never been to Ranchi. Bipin Babu begins to check with others and they all say he was indeed in Ranchi in 1958. Bipin Babu begins to wonder if he was losing his head.
Indigo is a collection of 21 short stories, some translated by the master himself and some by Gopa Majumdar.

Satyajit Ray was truly one of the last of Bengal Renaissance men. We usually think of him as a filmmaker, but he had other talents too. He was a gifted artist, illustrator, musician, and popular writer of fiction.

In this collection, we get an assortment of ghost stories, science fiction, and the macabre. These genres were introduced in the West by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Franz Kafka, Daphne du Maurier, Ray Bradbury....

Satyajit Ray was no doubt influenced by these writers but he tells the stories in his own style. In the story, Khagam, Ray combines horror and macabre genres. In The Hungry Septopus, we have Kanti Babu, a botanist who is in search of a rare carnivorous plant called septopus. He finally finds it, but he never imagined the horror his find would unleash.

Indigo is a haunting ghost story. Told in the first person, it grips you from the beginning to the terrifying climax. In Ratan Babu and That Man, the protagonist is an eccentric loner who finds a doppelganger, a lookalike, in Manilal Babu. He thinks that he has finally met his alter ego who will understand him and empathise with him, but unbeknown to him, there is danger in store. In this story, Ratan Babu’s sudden urge to kill Manilal Babu is not very convincing but the story is chilling nevertheless.

Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, Anath Babu’s Terror, The Two Magicians, Ashamanja Babu’s Dog, Indigo, Khagam, The Hungry Septopus, and Fritz are some of the best stories in this collection. Anath Babu’s Terror, a ghost story, is good but its ending is not very satisfying. Some stories build up the suspense well but disappoint at the end.

In most of the stories, the protagonists are unassuming men finding themselves in extraordinary situations. The stories written in the first person are more engrossing than others. Ray creates realistic characters and the atmosphere in each story makes you feel as if you are a part of the narration. Both Ray and Majumdar have done a great job of translation.

One wishes at least a couple of Ray’s detective stories were also included in this collection.

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