Book Review: Pleasures And Perils Of A Little Thinker

Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik’s ‘Sandigdha Shaisaba’, translated into English as ‘The Life and Times of Banka Harichandan’ is a rare work of literature that examines deep questions about life through the lens of a thinking child named Bankanidhi Harichandan, in short Banka. The 12-chapter novel is structured like a bildungsroman where Banka processes his everyday life in his mental universe and contemplates the troubling questions that life throws at him.

The beauty of this novel lies less in the events themselves and more in how ingeniously Banka reflects on them, and with a fascinating blend of innocence, humour and laughter.

The 12 chapters, each one an independent story, trace different phases of Banka’s growing up. In his introduction, Himansu S Mohapatra dwells on how fear, guilt, shame, anger and despair are the predominant emotions that hold sway in Banka’s life.

It is seen in the very first chapter ‘An Inauspicious Morning in the Life of Banka Harichandan’. The uneasy awakening of Banka in the dead of the night marks him out as a special child who has embarked upon his thought adventure amid the huddle of sleeping bodies. The rest of the story continues this thread of self-exploration in relation to the unfolding series of actions typical of childhood: toothbrush falling into the drain, evoking fear of reprisal from his uncle, reading a detective novel on the sly and teetering on the brink of sinfulness and enjoyment, being initiated into sexuality by an older girl.

Banka is uniquely positioned to observe the discrepancy between how things ought to be and how they are.

In the chapter ‘A Stint in Hell’, for instance, Banka is encouraged to believe that his action of cleaning the latrine under the guidance of his middle uncle aligns with the action of Yudhisthir, Mahatma Gandhi and Rishi Dadhichi and would earn him appreciation. But to no avail.

Banka realises that the adults do things one way in their books, sermons and prayers and another way in their deeds. No wonder, Banka has an early vision of writing as a means of self-discovery. This is beautifully dramatised in the chapter ‘Dwarf’ where Banka’s exertions on producing a letter to deride Alok for his amorous intentions towards his sister make him aware of the potentialities of writing, its ability to both satirize and transcend its immediate context.

“A dwarf should never aspire to reach the moon”, Banka writes and wonders, albeit a tad wearily, how close he has moved to being a poet.

Banka’s awareness of his unfolding sexuality, as he meditates on the meaning of ‘masti’, marks a significant moment in his life in the chapter titled ‘First Separation’. That ‘masti’ can be both carnal pleasure that turns the source of pleasure into a vulgar object and an intoxicating, maddening passion that elevates the self-same source into a sacred subject is another valuable addition to Banka’s knowledge of the dual nature of things.

In the chapter ‘Alone’, Banka’s cure from conjunctivitis becomes symbolic of his eyes gradually opening to a new version of himself after passing through the acid test of fear and repentance, and aloneness.

One of the most engaging chapters is ‘Resolution’, where Banka emerges as a rebel who questions social values, rituals, gods, education system and so on. He reflects on the meaninglessness of prayers at home and school. He put gods and goddesses to a litmus test. The teachers clad in colourful clothes do not care about such prayers and live a conventional life. A bad student like Faka seems to be more intelligent and genuine what with his creative and subversive parody of the school prayer.

Banka questions why reading a detective novel by Kanduri Das is considered a sin by his elders, whereas nobody ever points a finger at Banamali Sir for having designs on his young girl students. Banka thus puts every established social norm, tradition, rule and regulation under the scrutiny of his genuine questions.

Another fine chapter, ‘Monitor’, shows how even the routine activities of school such as selection of head boy of the class are remote-controlled by the vested interests of the town. The chapter ‘Rain Cycle’ takes the reader through a thoughtful exploration of an adolescent sandwiched between the tempting desire to grow up and the deep longing to become a child again.

The final chapter ‘On the Edge’ marks the beginning of Banka’s graduation to independence. Here the build-up of persecutions reaches its climax, leading Banka to muster the courage to tell his uncle, “I will not stay here another minute”.

Coming to the translation, first off, the decision by the translator to think of a communicative title ‘The Life and Times of Banka’ seems like a better choice than, say ‘Suspicious Childhood’ which is what Sandigdha Shaishaba would literally translate to.

One more important aspect is the tightrope which the text walks between conveying the cultural cues through literal rendering and keeping the culture-specific words in the translation. Retaining words like arati, abhada, Aai, Nani, masti etc, and, literally translating the Odia idioms and proverbs are aligned with the new experimentations in the art of translation. The translation also takes adequate care of the reader-friendliness of the text by altering the sentence structure where necessary.

Another example of reader-friendliness is not to clutter the pages with any footnote, and, instead, to integrate any explanation into the narrative in the form of an additional phrase or marker.

The decision to keep the acknowledgements to the end of the book seems like a good idea considering that a rather long introduction would possibly delay the reader’s contact with the book. The two pithy comments by Chandrahas Choudhury and Paul Zacharia on the blurb are lovely teasers to egg the reader on.

The quality production by the two publishers, Yoda and Simon & Schuster, shows in the appealing format and in the elegant and evocative cover design by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. To conclude, ‘The Life and Times of Banka Harichandan’ is a precious presence on the shelf of world literature in general and Odia literature in English translation in particular.

The Life and Times of Banka Harichandan. Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik. Translated by Himansu S. Mohapatra. Yoda Press and Simon & Schuster, Delhi. Pp. 231. Price. 399.

(Tyagraj Thakur is an Assistant Professor of English, Silicon Institute of Technology, Sambalpur)

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