Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (born 1894) was a distinguished Bengali novelist and writer, His
literary career began in 1921 with the publication of his first short story Upekshita in Probashi, a
prominent Bengali literary magazine of the day. In 1928, the epic Pather Panchali was published and
Bibhutibhushan achieved instant celebrity in popular as well as critical circles, becoming a household
name in the world of Bengali culture and letters. Pather Panchali and its sequel Aparajito were later
celebrated in Satyajit Ray’s unforgettable cinematic rendition of the ‘Apu’ trilogy His other major
works, encompassing an impressive range of genres and themes, include Aranyak, Icchamoti,
Adarsha Hindu Hotel, Heera Manik Jwale, Maraner Danka Baje, Debjan, Jatrabadol and Dristi
Pradeep Sinha was born on 28 August 1942. He graduated with honours in Economics
from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, and worked in several firms as a marketing executive before
joining Orient Longman in 1987. Moon Mountain, his translation of Bibhutibhushan
Bandopadl1yay’s Chander Pahar, was his first literary project. He died on 2 February 2001.
Bibhutibhushan’s literary output was astonishingly varied in scope and subject. Even leaving aside his
two hundred and odd short stories and considering only his novels, it is surprising and also somewhat
humbling to learn that the author of the largely autobiographical Pather Panchali and Aparajita is the
same person who wrote the introspective Aranyak and the philosophical fantasy Debjan. Or that the
gourmet and master of culinary intricacies who authored Adarsha Hindu Hotel seems also to have
travelled widely in the wildest regions of Asia and Africa, and produced remarkably detailed,
concrete narratives from the lived experience, in the form of adventure stories for young people.
Yet, in a sense, Chander Pahar closely resembles Pather Panchali in spirit. In spite of the vast
differences in narrative pace and setting, both books draw on the same yearning for the unknown, a
passion for adventure and for lands beyond the horizon. Young Apu often sat at the window during
the lazy afternoon hours, staring at the high-flying kites circling like specks around the golden
minarets of the clouds, until the lonely splendour of the scene sometimes made him weep silently, he
knew not why. He would fetch his elder sister and show her the distant sky. “How very far, isn’t it?
How very far!”' But this charm of the remote was lost on Durga. “Crazy boy” she would say
affectionately. "Crazy boy, showing me how very far!”
This is the very passion which fuels Apu’s imagination all his life and, in Aparajita, takes him to Fiji. It
also informs the celebrated ending of Pather Panchali, where the god of roads and ways speaks to
Apu about unending travel. And it is the same passion which inspires Bibhutibhushan to write
When the novel- begins, Europe’s late nineteenth- century ‘scramble for Africa’ was only in the
recent past; it was the age in which Queen Victoria’s government bid to eliminate French and
German competition on African territory by establishing direct imperial rule over regions it had
previously controlled only through military and economic means and, above all, to acquire hidden
repositories of fabled resources. Mungo Park, Henry Morton Stanley; David Livingstone, Richard
Burton and others who led the push into the ‘dark continent’ became heroic Figures and their travels
were the stuff of legend. Bibhutibhushan was ten years old when Stanley died in 1904. Burton had
been gone for less than fifty years and Sven Hedin, who explored vast regions of Central Asia, was
only just past his prime when Chander Pahar was conceived in the late 1930s. The book resonates
with a pioneer’s thrill and exaltation at moving deeper and deeper into an unknown and dangerous
country of facing and surviving its strange perils.
Unlike the great explorers he admired, however, Bibhutibhushan never set foot outside British India.
He was a great traveller, but mainly on Foot. To the west his peregrinations did not extend much
beyond Varanasi and, to the east, they were limited to certain parts of the Indian north-east and
present-day Bangladesh. This is all the more remarkable in view of the absolute ease and mastery
with which he wields a wealth of authentic zoological, botanical, geological, astronomical and
meteorological information which forms the backbone of the plots in his adventure stories. It is a
testimony to his narrative craft that this information never interferes with the plot or reads like a high
school lesson, but invariably becomes integral to the story being told. Consider this, for example:
A branch line was being built from the main track, connecting Mombasa with Kisumu on Lake
Victoria, and Nyanza. The place was 350 miles west of Mombasa and seventy-two miles
south—west of-Knudsburg station of the Uganda Railways. Shankar had come there as a clerk and
storekeeper in the construction camp. He lived in a small tent. There were a number of other tents
around his—no houses had yet been built—arranged in a circle in a large clearing. All around them
were stretches of open land fall of tall grass interspersed with a few trees or shrubs. On the outer
edge of the tents, where the grassland came to an end was the famous tree of Africa, the baobab.
A detailed account of Shankar”s brief sojourn in the savannah Follows, featuring encounters with
man-eating lions, the infamous Black Mamba and other deadly snakes, cavalier Portuguese
cardsharps and many such perils. This part, especially the description of the line- laying work and the
problem with the lions, draws heavily on the personal experiences of John Henry Patterson, soldier
and author, who was commissioned by the British East Africa Company in l898 to supervise the
construction of a railway line in Kenya. There were a number of Indian menials working in his team,
and Patterson’s brave conduct in dealing with the notorious twin man—eating lions that plagued the
Tsavo area earned him a written felicitation from his workers—penned by one Baboo Purshotam
Hurjee Purmar, Overseer and Clerk of Works——in January 1899. These incidents are chronicled
in his popular book The Man-Eaters of tasvo (1907). Bibhutibhushan owned a copy, which still
features in his personal library that has been inherited by my father.
However, sources become more and more difficult to identify as Shankar and Diego Alvarez
penetrate the inner depths of the virgin wilderness. Rich details are strewn like small gems casually
along the way, much like the perfect tetrahedron diamond crystals Shankar will End in the labyrinth.
Alvarez works in an orange plantation for a few months after returning from his expedition with Jim
Carter. Shankar reads a five-day-old edition of the Kenya Morning News by firelight, sitting outside
his tent in Uganda. The Englishman of Tabara asks them to travel carefully during the day so as to
avoid the bite of the tsetse fly, which induces the sleeping sickness. They board a steamer at Port
Uzizi to cross Lake Tanganyika, then buy resources at Albertville and proceed to Kabalo by Belgian
rail, thence to undertake a three-day journey to Sanikini, across the Congo river.
Little touches like these fill out a plot already rich in detail with flesh and marrow, rendering the story
absolutely credible and giving it the concreteness of actual lived experience. To paraphrase what
Keats once said to Shelley in the course of their famous correspondence, Bibhutibhushan ‘loads
every rift with rich ore”. Each paragraph contains some intimate reference to the ground realities of
everyday life in the African outdoors, creating background as finely textured and interconnected as
the intricately criss-crossed network of liana creepers in the heights of the Richtersveld rainforests,
until the reader has no choice but to suspend disbelief.
In his brief foreword to Chander Pahar, Bibhutibhushan cites the writings of the explorers Rosita
Forbes and Harry Hamilton Johnston (not to be confused with Harry Frederick Johnston, Surveyor
General of Western Australia from 1896 to 1915) as his main sources for the story. But Forbes’
travels were restricted to Libya, Ethiopia and Yemen, and Johnston, though widely travelled in
Africa, was primarily a statesman and administrator, and only incidentally a botanist and explorer.
Surely; the rich setting of Chander Pahar was not derived from these sources alone. Rather, the
reader senses the existence of a vast hinterland of background learning, perfectly absorbed so that it
could be drawn upon without unwieldiness and internalised so completely that the author himself
might be hard pressed to remember what he owed to whom.
One of Bibhutibhushan’s main sources was certainly the Wide World Magazine (founded by George
Newnes in 1898, and issued till 1965)—a monthly publication containing adventure stories for the
Edwardian gentleman and bearing the motto ‘Truth is Stranger than Fiction’. In spite of getting
involved in a couple of hoaxes, Wide World Magazine continued to enjoy a certain prestige, and
even earned the distinction of being recommended as reading for young boys by H.G. Wells in his
book Mankind in the Making (1903). Newnes was also the publisher of the famous Strand
Magazine, in which Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared. Bibhutibhushan was a
regular subscriber to Wide World Magazine, and received issues by airmail from London for several
years. We still preserve in our home ancient bound volumes of entire years’ issues, some bearing
My father remembers reading in his youth, in one of these volumes (now lost), a tale of two young
men on a promotional campaign for the Enfield Cycle Company who undertook to ride their Royal
Enfield motorcycles across Death Valley in California without stopping to service or repair any part
of their vehicles. Upon their successful completion of the feat, Wide World’ Magazine bought
exclusive rights to their story, which contained (says my father) an incident very similar to the
Chander Pahar episode in which Shankar finds the skeletal remains of Attileo Gatti and a rotting keg
of brackish, inky water in a kopje on the outskirts of the Kalahari desert.
Incidentally, Attileo Gatti was a real-life adventurer and amateur film maker who led several
expeditions (sponsored by Hallicrafters Company of Chicago, an electronic equipments
manufacturer) to the Rwenzori mountains of Uganda in the second quarter of the twentieth century.
This range was known in ancient times as the Mountains of the Moon, first named thus by the Greek
merchant-traveller Diogenes and later popularised by the geographer and mathematician Ptolemy.
Bibhutibhushan derives the title of Chander Pahar thence.
The apocrypha surrounding Gatti’s expeditions contain references to a certain anthropoid ape, larger
than even the gorilla and far more ferocious, living among the rainforests of the Rwenzori range. This
monster was called mulahu by the local Mambuti pygmies, who were terrified of it. No white man
had seen it yet, and Ending it was one of the alleged objectives of a Gatti expedition. All this sounds
very like the Bunip of Chander Pahar except that bunyip is the native name of yet another fabled
monster of uncertain appearance and with a fearsome cry, belonging not to Africa but to Australian
aboriginal mythology and believed to be a denizen of creeks, swamps and billabongs. Dingonek, yet
another name used in the story for the monstrous guardian of the Richtersveld diamond mines, can be
traced to the folklore of West African tribes of the Congo river-basin, and bears little resemblance to
the anthropoid ape with three-toed feet which caused the deaths of Jim Carter and Diego Alvarez. It
seems that Bibhutibhushan took a few liberties with his cryptozoology!
Not being a bona fide expert on the subject, Bibhutibhushan also makes at least one mistake in his
zoology — he has wolves in Africa, but there are none in the entire continent except a very rare and
diminutive sub-species that is Found in the tar north of Egypt. The frightened cub that takes refuge in
Shankar’s tent during the volcanic eruption is identified as a wolf Shankar is surrounded at night by
concentric circles of coyotes and wolves on the Chimanimani mountains. Some editors and
translators have taken pains in the past to substitute these references with something more ‘correct’,
but it is perhaps best to leave a text as it was written, with all its errors and discrepancies, for the
sake of retaining its authentic flavour.
I am happy that Mr. Pradeep Sinha did exactly that. He has succeeded in preserving the spirit and
charm of the Bangla story while remaining faithful to the literal meaning and plot sequence - a
daunting task. I hope readers shall find his work interesting enough to be motivated to read Chander
Pahar in the original. However, the English text is a story in its own right and stands on its own Feet,
which cannot he said of much that is produced worldwide in the name of children literature in
translation today There is a growing need to set modern standards for the genre, and Mr. Sinha’s
work has what it takes to do just that.
Much remains to be said, but an adventure story would sag under the weight of a longer introduction.
Out with pedantry, then, and in with the tale.
Back of the Book
A letter arrives from Africa, and Shankar’s life will never be the same again. Share the incredible
adventures of this village boy from Bengal, as fate catapults him across the blue sea to the dark
continent, where horizon opens upon horizon and peril shadows every step. For Shankar and his
explorer-companion Diego Alvarez, all paths of Africa lead-through desert, jungle, veldt and
savannah, past man-eating lions and deadly snakes, beyond fiery volcanoes and into mysterious
caverns-finally, inexorably, to Moon Mountain.
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Moon Mountain is a realm where legend and
landscape, journey and destination, strange fiction and stranger truth meet, and wherein the pursuit of
the idea is dramatized as a lavish, no-holds-barred adventure that infects you with pure, joyous
wanderlust. A classic tale about growing up and coming of age.
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