Disappearing corpses. Scientists who are spies. Maniacal murderers. Brooding. remorseless detectives. Love triangles and murders. A robot that falls in love. Secrets of the dead and the departed. Sex. romance betrayal. All these and more are to be found in these eight novellas and stories featuring spies. Criminals. ghosts. black-magic practitioners and. of course. femmes fatales. These are the finest examples of a long tradition of pulp fiction that has always lurked in dark corners within the hallowed precincts of Bengali literature.
Written by brilliant mainstream as well as pulp fiction writers from India and Bangladesh. including Premendra Mitra. Satyajit Ray. Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, Gobindolal Bandyopadhyay and the redoubtable Swapan Kumar, the stories in The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp Fiction give the reader a dazzling introduction to noir from the land of the bhodrolok.
Arunava sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and non-fiction into English. Over forty of his translations have been published so far. He has selected and translated the bestselling The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told. He has won the Crossword Translation Award for Sankar’s Chowringhee(2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2001).He has also won the Muse India Award for his translation of Chawrinhee was shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2009) . Europe and Asia through further translation.
He grew up in Kolkata and lives in New Delhi.
'Ding-dong ding-dong! The clock struck one.' And with these two lines begins the pulp fantasy of the dutiful Bengali reader brought up on a diet of Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (or of Manik Bandyopadhyay and Mahasweta Devi in the case of the revolutionary). Pulp fiction is the guilty secret of Bengali literature, for both readers and writers. And considering that it effectively predates Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay-in the form of salacious accounts in energetic prose of the lives of sex workers and their clients, among others-it is fitting and proper that Bengali literature should have had a long and virtually uninterrupted lineage of books depicting the, shall we say, seamier side of life.
As with the impossibility of a clock striking one with four bells, there is a large dose of epic impossibility in the storylines of this form. All the gritty naturalism, poverty-powered anguish, socialist idealism, existentialist dilemmas and even postmodern anti-narratives of over a century of fine Bengali fiction are crushed by the desperate, delicious and dubious stories featuring spies, detectives, criminals, ghosts, black magic practitioners and, of course, femme fatales. Every cliched character lives, loves and loathes in exaggerated measure, but oh, how impossible it is to put down these extraordinary tales, ranging from the murderous to the macabre.
What began as malicious anthropology-a patriarchal, but admittedly wickedly witty, detailing oflives lived in debauchery-soon turned into the Bengali equivalent of the penny dreadful, sensational stories published at low cost for the secret sensual satisfaction of the literate in a repressed society where only the rich had the luxury of licentiousness. A prime example of this was Haridaser Guptokatha (Haridas's Scandals) by Bhubanchandra Mukhopadhyay, published serially from 1870 to 1873 as a precursor to what went on to become a genre: household scandals. Oust to put those dates in perspective, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Durgeshnandini or Tbe Castellans Daughter, arguably the first 'novel' in the Western sense written in an Indian language, was published in 1865.) It was also one of the first of what has been known for a long time as 'Bottolar Boi'-literally referring to books sold beneath the 'bot' or banyan tree. Admittedly, not all of these books were scandalous accounts, for they also attempted to paint pictures of society, often in colours of morality, the lack of which was decried (some things never change).
Here are some examples of the titles published in this genre in the nineteenth century, all of them-with numerous other such works- republished recently with scholarly notes in two volumes commemorating the colourful form of cheap publishing: Narcotics are Painful, Earthquake in Benarasl, How are Women So Arrogant?, The Agony of a Wife Who Stings, Secret Affairs are Humiliating, Whores, Clowns, Lies: What Calcutta is Made Of However, as orthodox urban middle-class morals caught up with people, the literature lost its bodice-ripping quality and moved towards sensational crime, with former police inspector Priyanath Mukhopadhyay leading the charge, delving into his case files to create his true crime stories. At the same time, detective fiction from the Victorian era, most notably Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, found readers in Calcutta, and some of them turned into writers. The outcome of this, around and soon after the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, were stories with titles such as: The Two Inspectors, Murder by Kisses, Murder or Unmurder, Terrible Vengeance, The Severed Arm etc.
These works also set off what turned into a parallel movement of fiction writing that was just as free-flowing as the more 'literary' stream. It began as early as in 1932, with the publication ofMrityunjoy Chattopadhyay's weekly Romancho (Thrills), featuring the first part of a story titled 'The Incident in the Yangtse Hotel', written by Pranab Roy. With this began a succession of pulp magazines that went on publishing till the 1980s, with contributors forming a distinct community of their own. Inspired greatly by American pulp, these stories then spawned novels as well, weaving improbable webs of espionage, deceit, crime and stunts on the one hand, and branching off into horror and some forms of science fiction on the other. Not that there were no crossover writers, with the erudite and often incomprehensible Kamal Kumar Majumdar, a true literary writer if there was one, starting the short-lived Detective Weekly in 1952. It lasted only three issues. What Majumdar did, however, was to show that blood, gore and spirits were far from being off the menu for Bengal's literary writers.
So, antithesis though it was to the thesis of bhodrolok literature, pulp fiction soon went on to be adopted by mainstream Bengali writers over the years to forge a Hegelian synthesis. In any case, most Bengali novelists considered themselves all-rounders, and everyone from Rabindranath Tagore to Buddhadeva Bose, from Premendra Mitra to Satyajit Ray, from Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay to Sunil Gangopadhyay, from Humayun Ahmed to Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, tried their hand-often successfully- at a more genteel version of pulp fiction in the form of detective, horror and supernatural, and science-fiction stories and novels. This is not to be confused with the literary depiction of sexual desire, fantasies and conflicts that has informed much of Bengali literature, more implicitly than explicitly. These works were more in the genre of noir as a literary form, an excuse to tell a riveting story without being bound by the plausible, attempts to capture the underbelly or urban life without actually having much first- hand experience of it. Not surprisingly, given the literary strain of Bengal, many of these stories are not only plotted intricately-if improbably at times-but they also create a grainy milieu of light and darkness. Whether it moves closer to or further from the real world in the process is beside the point. The fact is that this stream of imaginative fiction from Bengal-and imaginative is the operative word here-was widely written and consumed, becoming something of a cult amongst aficionados, and a substitute for the real thing for readers ranging from hormonal students to thwarted middle-aged men, from homemakers to unemployed frequenters of addas-Bengalis of virtually every stripe, in other words.
The writing, publishing and consumption of Bengali noir continued to thrive until television, multiplex cinema and, eventually, the Internet took over the entire experience. The world of make-believe no longer needed the participation of the reader's imagination. This book is an invitation to return to-or have a first taste of-that world of words that could create 'rornancho' sharp enough to thrill, or, sometimes, to just pander to your wish for things that will never take place in your life or in mine. Pro tip: switch off all the lights except one when you read this. For reasons you will (soon) find out.
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