I have always held that Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay would have won the Nobel Prize for literature if he had had the good fortune to be born English or French or Spanish or even Russian: it was his misfortune that he was born a Bengali. Outside a very tiny circle of readers, his fame rests overwhelmingly on only one book, the Apu Trilogy beginning with Pather Panchali, immortalized in cinema by Satyajit Ray. He deserved much better. Aranyak, The Tale of the Forest, is certainly – to my knowledge, at least – one of a kind as a novel, and I hold it as one of the hundred greatest books I have ever read. His adventure saga for children of all ages, Chander Pahaar, The Mountain of the Moon, is likewise a gem of the finest cut: it still takes my breath away to think that any author could write so knowledgeably and evocatively about faraway places he had only read (and dreamt-) about. In Bengali, only Premendra Mitra’s Surjyo Kaandle Shona in the same genre can be placed on the same pedestal, and no Bengali writer, even with the internet at his disposal, has come close to equaling the feat in the last 20 years. So also Adorsho Hindu Hotel, which I encouraged my daughter to write about on her blog some time ago, and Ichhamati, and Ashani Sanket.
Now I have just finished reading and digesting Debjaan, another little novel of his, and I am filled with a sublime wonder. I had read it when I was a boy, but then, somehow, it didn’t make a very great impression: evidently I had to grow up a great deal before I could appreciate its true worth!
It is an adventure story spanning many worlds and many lifetimes. In one sense, it is cast in the mould of Lord of the Rings and Asimov’s Foundation series; at least, those who have read and loved those books would relish it most. What makes it unique is that it is unabashedly spiritual in tone and message, not merely carrying religious overtones like Lewis’ Narnia saga. Drawing from many Indian theological traditions, including the bhakti of the vaishnav and the advaita of the gnyana yogi (and blending them magnificently with many of the findings and speculations of 20th century science, such as distant galaxies beyond human vision and supernovae and baby stars being born out of interstellar gas, and the possibility of intelligent life – though perhaps of a sort very different from the terrestrial – flourishing on many other planets, and that ‘reality’ could exist in many dimensions beyond those perceived by the human senses), it describes the soul’s journey through many worlds, many heavens, seeing the human drama unfolding with supra-human eyes, being reborn again and again, wading through all kinds of sin and depravity and yet struggling forever towards the light, pulled ever upwards by the all-conquering power of love, meeting incomprehensibly higher beings (gods/angels if you like), some of whom were human once – and all along trying, with ever greater understanding and still falling hopelessly short, to realize the Ultimate, the Absolute, both the alpha and the omega, from whom all things physical and mental arise and into whom they go back again, whom some call God, knowing whom is the only way to gain true freedom and joy and glory.
The Upanishad has been quoted here: adityavaranam purushang mahantam/ vedahametang tamaso parastat/ twameva viditwati mrityumeti/ nanya pantha vidyathe ayanayah (it is only by directly knowing the effulgent Being who stands beyond the darkness and the void that you can overcome Death: there is no other way). But I was also reminded of the medieval brajabuli poet Vidyapati writing in praise of the Supreme Lord of All: kata chaturanana mari mari jawata, na tuwa adi avasana/ tohe janami punah tohe samawata, saagar lahari samana (so many Creator Brahmas have been born from You who is without beginning and end, and died again, like waves on an infinite ocean…), and I remembered Emily Dickinson writing This world is not conclusion, a Species stands beyond/ Invisible as music, but positive, as sound/ ...To guess it puzzles scholars, to gain it men have borne/ Contempt of generations, and crucifixion, shown/ Faith slips, and laughs, and rallies/ Blushes, if any see/ Plucks at a twig of evidence, and asks a vane the way…
The book, I felt, and my daughter independently concurred, fills one with an ineffable sense of peace and confidence and cheerfulness. Once I allow the full possibility of the vastness of reality to pervade my mind, much ennui fades, much that I take seriously becomes trivial, and much terror begins to look silly. I wonder whether Professor Dumbledore had read the Gita, but he got it absolutely right at least twice: ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’ and ‘To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.’ Ekam satya, the truth is one, though maybe vipra bahudha vidanti, the wise sometimes call it by different names.