Funny Fictions

Class and Values in Shibram’s Literature

Debasish Paul

Once Shibram Chakrovorty was asked in a media interview, why he writes? He answered that, 'Because I cannot pull Rickshaw'. It was not just a witty answer reflecting his sense of humour, but a genuine respect for the working class who does manual labour. Apart from Manik Bandyopadhyay, Tarashankar Badopadhyay and Samaresh Basu, all his contemporaries, Shibram was one who made writing as a whole time job earning his livelihood. His ascetic life itself in a boarding (called 'Mess' in Bengali) surprised all visitors in his residence. In sharp contrast to modern consumerist society, obsessed with money making by hook or crook, devoted to "Owners' pride, neighbours' envy" mantra, Shibram declassed himself, from being son of a Zamindar, although not in copybook style of contemporary Communists living in Communes.

To the Bengali readers at large, he was and still now known as a leading writer of children's humorous stories. To the more knowledgeable people, he was a progressive intellectual of his time who had served a jail term in British period for publishing 'Jugantar Patrika'as its Editor indulging in nationalistic revolutionary spirit just like prison term for Kaji Najrul Islam for his radical writings most prominent of which was the revolutionary spirited poem 'Bidrohi' (Antagonist). Subhas Chandra Bose felicited Kazi Najrul in 'Albert Hall' later renamed as famous 'Coffee House' just opposite to Presidency College/University, Kolkata. Shibram preferred a low profile. For example when one batch of students of the same Presidency College/University approached him to felicitate, he declined the invitation with humble words.

This article intends to search into only his available children's humourous stories, how he inculcated into his target readers who were of child and adolescent minds,—class and value consciousness. What Swami Vivekanada did for adults as orator, in Ramakrishna religious order, Shibram, self declaring and mocking himself as a bad speaker instead churned out in his numerous funny stories.

Charles Chaplin posed himself as a bohemian amidst the Great Depression in the thirties in USA & Europe. As he said, a pain deeply drawn can be a source of humour. So an unemployed man would be ensured food & shelter in jail for a number of days as well some money during release for work done in jail jobs for inmates. But in reality Shibram led the life of a true bohemian. Like Chaplin in his films, Shibram presented in his good number of fictions himself as a desperate bohemian. In his well known fiction 'Nikhorchai Jalajog' (free Tiffin), he with his uncle filled hungry belly with a pretension of sudden illness inside eateries and had gift of food. Ultimately both were caught and bowled for a mistake of repeating one in the same eatery. On spot torture as punishment came instantly as Bengalees are not accustomed to approach police for such a petty crime.

In some school life stories, he placed himself as a teenager who was placed in as a challenger who paid a visit to Sashaan (name of Hindu burning crematoriam) in midnight, a bit similar to Indranath persona in Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's Srikanta episodes. It was a prevention to infect against unsustained fear about goblin among his young readers. As people know well from Russian Psychologist Pavlov that fear is Conditioned Reflex. Unfortunately Goblin stories abound in Bengali both in children & adult literatures ingraining the myth of Goblin.

In actual life, Shibram was a life time lonesome bachelor, never leading a family life. But he was well aware of his contemporary Hindu society where a non-family man was considered as an alien contrary to be an insider. So in some of his writings, he appeared as a family man having a sister named 'Bini'. Plots of those stories demanded these.

By his own admission, the writer was inspired by the famous funny chemistry of Laurel & Hardy in silent era movie films, in creating idols of these two brothers Harshabardhan and younger Gobardhan. They are simpletons. But their idiocies are often backed by lack of selfishness while mankind usually behaves in a selfish manner for personal gain at the cost of loss of others. It is hailed as rational behavior which leads to creation of personal wealth, and inequity in wealth creates class division in society.

In double meaning words, in a story titled (Baigyanik Vyavacheka) when Gobardhan dropped into hole a big lot of money when using toilet in a moving train, Harshabardhan assured him not to be repentant for loss of money, in inimitable words like 'I love money so much that, I will squander it, as I will not be able to accompany my bank balance to heaven'. He earned a fortune in bulk trade of woods.

In 'Sandesh' edited at that time by Satyajit Ray, a Harshabardhan-Gobardhan story was published. H&G duo went to a village fair. Finding a bird seller, Harshabardhan purchased all the birds & advised brother Gobardhan to free all birds in sky. This story was published much before PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) was present conspicuously in India upholding rights of animals nor Ms Maneka Gandhi was there on whose insistence a law has been promulgated by Government of India banning private ownership of animals to imprison at home or for game shows in Circus. But Shibram on his own considered freedom as a birth right of all animals and inspired young readers the essence of freedom.

Inspired by 'Adventures of Tom Soir' of American famous humourist Mark Twain, Shibram transcreated stories on such a naughty little boy in Bengali contemporary society. Direct translation of foreign literature in Bengali, with its own merits of getting familiar with world literature what Deb Sahitya Kutir published for young readers. But most of those were classic novels. In a short story inspired by Mark Twain, it was found in its indegenised humourous form with fortified entertainment component in Shibram's transliteration. His humourous style was enriched with pun of Bengali words, a unique success of Shibram among Bengali writers till date.

Stories on medicine infatuation of aunt and her crazy treatment on little Shibram who stopped it by an escape route resulting in funny protest as well how a naughty boy akin to 'Dennis The Menace' who exploited his friends by painting a wall by them but earning from them in return of this privilege (painting is a great job)a handful of many types of children favourites were both inspired by Mark Twain. Here children are treated as intelligent people who can defeat adults by wit. Though the idea was borrowed from Mark Twain, Shibram's Bengali adaptation and Shaila Chakrovorty's illustration conveyed the alert against self medication to new generation.

Shibram wrote another story inspired by Mark Twain titled 'Amar Sampadak Shikar' (My hunting down an Editor). He filled the Editorial page with advice to farmers but each was absolute nonsense resulting in bursting humour with apparent lack of his having any elementary knowledge of agriculture but getting a temporary chance to edit an agricultural journal. His misadventure boosted the circulation of the little fortnightly magazine four times in one month but for a wrong reason. In the flipside, Shibram pinched the editor's job in his inimitable words that, 'I have always known that editors enjoy the bliss of incapacity to write creatively on their own'. True to life, a large number of journals have gone into oblivion for lack of editorial leadership skill, as one defaulted reason.

Detective stories in Bengali initially were those which were translated with honest acknowledgement of mainly British literature. Later on less and more prominent writers contributed to original Bengali Detective stories. A common infatuation of private detective stories were that almost all authors depicted private detectives' reputation in their skill so much so that they were engaged by prominently affluent clients and these professionals were always successful leading a happy go like easy achievers' lifestyle. This utter lie or mistake whatever you say, was an opportunity of humour and fun for Shibram. So he created a parody of such a private detective in order to lampoon the super achievers' activities. Reality is the essence of perfect stories by any ethical writer of children fictions in order to let them grow with a rational matured personality. Through humour Shibram alerted his contemporary writers not to misguide new generation.

The Bengali Science Fictions till the days of Shibram were like country cousins of International in particular English Science Fictions. Jules Verne's science fictions were precursor to many scientific inventions & innovations leading to even space expeditions and making submarines to explore man's eternal quest if celestial bodies and life forms under deep sea which covers three fourth of earth's surface area. But save and except Ghanada stories of Premendra Mitra, most Science Fictions churned out by Bengali writers of Shibram's time, were just name droppings of some scientific terms but no imagination inspiring any innovation worth its name were there. Shibram took this opportunity to fill the void with comic stories of science fictions though few in number but much humorous to arouse laughter.

Despite his rural Zamindar birth origin, Shibram churned out his stories centering on urban middle class. As it is said, Humourists are best critics of social order which quite often does injustice. Shibram knew the urban milieu of Bengal well and its contradictions. So he exploited in his most multi-layered humour stories these contradictions with elan. Literacy in urban residents being much higher, it also provided large readership among the new generation.

Neo-Elite class of Kolkata of New Alipur or Ballygaunge location was not under the lens of Shibram in sharp contrast to other popular writers of his time. Mr Manishankar Mukherjee alias pen name 'Shankar' a leading writer, in particular focused on elite class of Kolkata in large number of his popular writings of mostly novel & a few short stories. Shibram made his livelihood out of fiction writing in short story format & their anthology publication by the most prominent publishers of his time—in their children journal 'Suktara' by Deb Sahitya Kutir as well some other notable publishers. Deb Sahitya Kutir published his stories in a handful number of hard bound books in their famous Durga Puja number annually as well exclusive collections of Shibram stories illustrated by Saila Chakroborty, in Black & White as well bi & tri colour art papers.

What can be the plausible reason for Shibram leaving the fertile area of commercial adult literature? One reason can be supply side constraint. Deb Sahitya Kutir commissioned recognized writers specifying the domain of literary work. At the fag end of his writing career just a few years before his death at advanced age, ABP Ltd. asked him to publish a packet of two liner adult jokes in a section 'Alpobistor' in the Sunday supplement of 'Anandabazar Patrika'. Shibram was quickly successful in this domain. Later on ABP Group commissioned him to write his autobiography in their ranked 1 famous adult literary weekly magazine 'Desh' titled as 'Iswar, Prithibi, Bhalobasa'. Finding it a popular work, ABP Group published it in hard cover. Hence despite being a Free Lancer, Shibram's writings were on aprori market demand. Other than leading Bengali writers like Tarashankar Badopadhyay, Manik Bandopadhyay and Samaresh Basu who were full time writers who wrote classics and class conscious literary works, Shibram never traded in that beaten track. However only one of his book titled 'Kolkata Theke Pondicheri' Shibram made some serious remarks on elite class celebrities of his time. As an atheist, he lampooned the then literatures mainly lyrics addressing God as benevolent, in such hard words Iike,-Let those Zamindars' siblings come down from palace to stay on footpath, only then they will know benevolence of God....Founding an ashrama is a great job only when it is by big shots like Rabindranath Tagore arid Arobinda Ghosh! Shibram was critical of contemporary elite class preaching religion for their inborn privileges. Maybe his own life is an example of sacrifice of all such privileges being himself son of a Bengali zamindar family.

Ritwik Ghatak, the famous Bengali Film Director among his widely acclaimed but a few directed films, made one titled 'Bari Theke Paliey' (Playing Truant from Home) from Shibram's same titled book. Here one sees an East Bengal refugee headmaster who came to Kolkata losing home & hearth. In order to make a living, he peddled fried groundnuts in streets. So both Shibram & Ritwik protested the much questioned Nehruvian model of Independence of India while destroying people & economies of Bengal & Punjab, most likely since people from these two states were in frontline of struggle for India's independence. The British revengeful diplomacy was endorsed by Nehru who was aware of his road to ascendance to Prime Minister post weakening all venerable contenders from Punjab or Bengal, -being the bastions of national heroes. Significantly Mahatma Gcindhi did not attend the event of Freedom at Midnight. Shibram himself being a 'Hizli' jailed prisoner for championing the cause of independence, Ritwik being most vocal among famous film directors of India across the Globe, being a persistent protester of partition of Bengal, -it was most obvious that two great minds met in this celebrated film. Film being most popular among mass medias in India & abroad, Shibram's nationalistic values reached a much wider audience through Ritwik's films of international fame and to discerning audience.

So while Shibram was a freedom fighter, nationalistic but not anyway a follower of Communist concepts of state based on class and mass, his writings were instilled in progressive values spiced with his well recognized skill in humour tuned to enter children's mind. So literary entertainment was a serious business for him. It is a tragedy that while film comedians are not taken with esteem, as serious actors, writers of funny & humourous fictions are not regarded with same reverence as tragedy writers in this country, despite comedy writing as a tough job.

Vol. 47, No. 21, Nov 30 - Dec 6, 2014