No life can simply be subsumed under a single category- nor is it possible to come up with a single term to define life's fluxes or flavors. One particular moment might sometimes outshine decades. Similarly, the experience of decades often can divulge the unavoidable truths of human life. The writer Banaphool (pen name of Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay) comes up with such truths through the twists and turns of his stories. When I got hold of a copy of the selection of his best stories titled, Nirbachito Chotogolpo, I expected stories mostly moralizing, often contemplating rooted culture and practices, and undoubtedly uniform in diction—virtues most of his contemporaries aspire to. But surprisingly, I discovered a completely unknown Balai Chand Mukhopaddhay, writing under the pen name of Banaphool, whose fictional realm is overwhelmed with not-so-ordinary moments of ordinary beings. Certainly, it is not a mythical world that Banaphool aspires to build up with words, but rather a world where reality is the cornerstone and the writer, a mason of words.
The collection comprises of sixteen stories, almost none of which exceeds four to five pages. Though Banaphool does not disrupt his stories structurally, he is experimental at times as far as narrative technique and delineating the consciousness of his creations is concerned. It will, indeed, be difficult in designating him as“traditional” or “modern”. The confusion intensifies as soon as one reaches the core of each of the stories, where unparalleled epiphanies emerge out of ordinary situations.
The beginning story, “Canvasser,” tells the story of Bhairab, a worthless man, who cannot even meet his wife's everyday necessities. But he tries to hide his inability by saying that he doesn't feel it right to spend anything on luxury. Then one day a canvasser comes in his village who sells toothpowder and Bhairab gets into a dispute with him. All of a sudden, Bhairab slaps the canvasser so that his false teeth fall on the ground. The canvasser smiles and makes a confession, which results in Bhairab asking for one bottle of toothpowder. The storyline seems simplistic, but reveals much about two helpless men – camouflaging their identities for survival at first, but uniting finally in compassion. Banaphool traces thus the reality of the rural, impoverished world of such characters and sketches movingly human complications.
"Manusher Mon," explores the lives of two brothers – Naresh and Paresh – who are educated in Chemistry and Sanskrit respectively, and stand in a non-violent extreme opposite positions in their thoughts and beliefs. Banaphool also creates in the story the character Poltu, the son of their younger brother Tapesh. Naresh and Paresh are equally affectionate toward this little adorable orphan as they themselves never think of marrying. In the course of the story, Poltu has typhoid. His two uncles then leave no stone unturned in their respective fields to cure him, but in vain. Ultimately, Poltu's condition drives them to try anything, regardless of their beliefs, to cure their darling nephew. The raconteur narrating the story ends it delineating two men, incapable of philosophizing or spiritualizing, but inseparably embedded in the struggle of survival.
Banaphool's depiction of the varied world outside continues in the volume through such stories. “Tajmahal” questions the depth of love Shah Jahan embodied through the beautiful white-marble tomb. Banaphool depicts here the picture of a poverty-stricken couple, whose love defeats even the glory of that rare architectural feat. The way the writer challenges the historical exemplar of love reminds me of the never-ending tension between fiction and reality – the fabled edifice assumes a fictionalized character and the shabby, wondering couple becomes the symbol of reality till it is difficult to decide which one is to be celebrated. In another story titled 'Pathoker Mrittu' (“Death of the Reader”), Banaphool interprets the journey of 'age' – a journey that none on earth can escape – and a journey that does not allow one to walk on the same path altogether with someone else. The writer has also crafted experimental stories such as “Chotogolper Golpo” (Tale of a Short-Story), “Somadhan” (The End), “Nimgachh” (Neem Tree). The distinctive aspect of these stories are to be found in the way they transform prosaic language into poetic moments and the way the author sculpts an entire world in each of them.
Banaphool's stories are remarkable; they acquaint readers across literary boundaries with a charming storyteller. Blending reality, imagination and craft, this once popular but lately neglected writer of Bengali literature portrays the world he lived in thoughtfully and artistically. As a contemporary reader, I believe, this is a world that needs to be glimpsed at by us all. It is pertinent to note here that Bolai Chand Mukhopaddhay wrote under the name Banaphool (“wild flowers”); his stories have, indeed, actually become such since they are now almost a part of the wildernesses of Bengali fiction. Rereading them, however, would enable contemporary readers to acquaint themselves with truly enchanting tales written by an enthralling writer.
Barnali Talukder is an occasional contributor to The Daily Star.