BONG-UP JOB

India Today - - BOOKS - —Jai Ar­jun Singh

For read­ers con­di­tioned to think of Ben­gali cul­ture as daunt­ingly high­brow, the idea of Bangla pulp can be hard to di­gest, much like the re­al­i­sa­tion that ac­tors like Soumi­tra Chatterjee didn’t fea­ture only in Satya­jit Ray’s cinema but also in dozens of shod­dily made pot­boil­ers.

Of course, the jury will al­ways be out on what “pulp” truly is. This col­lec­tion in­cludes a sin­is­ter, grip­ping Ray story—“Bhuto”, about ri­val ven­tril­o­quists—though it’s de­bat­able whether any­thing Ray wrote can be la­belled pulp in the dis­rep­utable sense of that word. But as Arunava Sinha, whose pro­lific ca­reer as a trans­la­tor-cu­ra­tor has given non-Ben­gali read­ers much to cher­ish, puts it in his in­tro­duc­tion, most Ben­gali writ­ers con­sid­ered them­selves all-rounders and at­tempted “a more gen­teel ver­sion of pulp fic­tion […] more in the genre of noir as a lit­er­ary form, an ex­cuse to tell a lit­er­ary story with­out be­ing bound by the plau­si­ble”.

Sinha di­vides the book’s eight sto­ries into two sec­tions: ‘crime sto­ries’, which in­clude the three long­est pieces, and the much slim­mer ‘hor­ror sto­ries’. My favourites in­clude the ti­tle tale by Swa­pan Ku­mar—in which a mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure known as the Mov­ing Shadow con­ducts il­le­gal acts, while claim­ing to be work­ing for the pub­lic good—as well as Gobindolal Bandy­opad­hyay’s creepy in­te­rior mono­logue ‘Saradindu and This Body’, and Muhammed Za­far Iqbal’s weird ‘Copotronic Love’, in which a ro­bot named Prometheus be­comes both re­fined and lovelorn.

An al­le­ga­tion of­ten di­rected at In­dian genre writ­ers is that of deriva­tive­ness, or out­right pla­gia­rism. The cen­tral mys­tery in Pre­men­dra Mi­tra’s ‘Parashar Barma Makes a Bid’ (which in­volves a dream about a sui­cide) is taken di­rectly from an Agatha Christie short story called The Dream. At the same time, the Mi­tra story has a more elab­o­rate sto­ry­line and makes some en­ter­tain­ing de­tours be­fore even ar­riv­ing at this mys­tery.

Sim­i­larly in­tri­cate is Vikra­ma­ditya’s novella-length “The Se­cret Agent”, which at first seems like the archetype of the seedy pulp nar­ra­tive: ram­bling and con­vo­luted, with dash­ing men and love-starved women buzzing around two high-so­ci­ety Delhi clubs, caught up in es­pi­onage and ex­tra-mar­i­tal af­fairs. But the res­o­lu­tion re­veals the story—and its heavy-drink­ing pro­tag­o­nist Maq­bool— to be sharper and more self-aware than one may have thought.

Per­haps be­cause most of the crime an­tholo­gies I have read are bulky, my main com­plaint is that this one got over too soon—it’s more a tast­ing menu than a full-fledged meal. But what is here is con­sis­tently en­ter­tain­ing, full of corny di­a­logue and won­drous sen­tences like “Don’t you know I dream of hand­some men after lunch?” And per­haps most be­fud­dling, from a story no doubt set in a dis­tant age: “It was 9 pm. Most of Delhi was al­ready asleep.”

THE MOV­ING SHADOW: ELEC­TRI­FY­ING BEN­GALI PULP FIC­TION Se­lected and trans­lated by Arunava SinhaALEPH `499, 244 pages

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