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Looking back at ‘Pather Panchali’ (‘Song of the Road’) by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay

Idyllic: The cover of ‘Aam Antir Bhepu’, a children’s edition of ‘Pather Panchali’, designed by Ray.  

A child, six years old, watches her old aunt, Indir Thakrun, munching on some powdered chal bhaja (roasted rice) for breakfast. Hungry, she follows every movement of Indir Thakrun, who forgets to leave a morsel for her. When aunt makes amends by offering her half a banana, the girl’s eyes light up. However, this moment of happiness is short-lived because her mother, Sarbajaya, calls out in a stern voice, ignoring Indir Thakrun’s pleas to leave the child alone.

Proud Sarbajaya won’t allow a loss of dignity despite the poverty: “Why should she sit there when you are eating?” This is how Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay begins his first novel, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), the story of two children, Durga and Apu, growing up poor in a village otherwise rich with forests, a river, a railtrack on the edge and magical yarns.

Nishchindipur calling

Serialised in the Bengali monthly magazine, Bichitra, in the late 1920s, it came out as a book in 1929, stunning the literary world with its originality. Popular success follows it even today, and Satyajit Ray has ensured that the novel and its sequel, Aparajito, stay alive in memory with his magnificent trilogy, Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, made in the 1950s.

A new translation into English (Penguin Modern Classics) should widen the readership of this largely autobiographical work. The story goes (and Ray mentions it in his essay, ‘A Long Time on the Little Road’, in Our Films, Their Films) that the manuscript had been rejected by publishers “on the ground that it lacked a story”; the magazine too agreed to serialise Pather Panchali on the condition that it would be discontinued if readers rejected it.

But the story of Durga and Apu was heart-tugging, and the village of Nishchindipur, where they lived with their parents, Sarbajaya and Harihar, and his distant elderly cousin, Indir Thakrun, was immortalised in every mind, through the keenly observed lines of Bibhutibhushan, and later because of Ray’s visual perfection.

The rites-of-passage tale of Apu, who will one day leave the village for the bigger world outside, is brilliant and devastating. “The idea of distance, in general, enchanted him [Apu]... The high blue arch of the skies above, the disappearing speck of a flyaway kite, the misty indigo field he had seen as a child… all of it made him think of the nebulous adventures that were happening at that very moment, in lands that lay just beyond the average human’s reach.” As for Durga, a child of nature, she knows each tree and fruit, wandering around all day with Apu.

Beautiful interludes

With the larger picture of poverty as a backdrop, Bibhutibhushan weaves in beautiful interludes surrounding the children — Durga sharing slices of raw mango with her brother under a jackfruit tree; Apu seeing a rabbit for the first time; both of them hearing stories of princes and princesses, and the epics; Apu’s first schooling at the local pathshala of Prashonno ‘Gurumoshai’ who ran his class from the tills of his grocery shop; the joy of freedom as the two go in search of the railroad.

The father, Harihar, a priest, is well-meaning but an inadequate provider for his family, and Sarbajaya can barely manage with the little he brings home. On one occasion when Harihar takes Apu along as he travels to other villages, the child is given a large helping of mohonbhog (a sweet halwa made of semolina, nuts, raisins and ghee).

Apu then realises what his mother used to make for him at home wasn’t the real thing. Sarbajaya is sometimes harsh to Durga, which Apu doesn’t approve of, but all she wants is a better life for her children. She worries about Apu’s health and Durga’s frequent bouts of malaria.

Ray said he chose Pather Panchali for the qualities that made it a great book: “its humanism, its lyricism, and its ring of truth.” Bibhutibhushan’s encyclopaedic map of rural Bengal — now mostly lost — and its people, and the contrasts between “the rich and the poor, the laughter and the tears, the beauty of the countryside and the grimness of poverty existing in it,” made it a perfect tale for a scenarist like Ray.

This chronicle of a brother and sister, their innocent pursuit of little joys in the hope that one day they will get to experience the wonders of the world, mirrors the universal aspirations of growing up. Not everyone makes it like Apu; there are many who are fated to miss out like Durga. That is life. Harsh. Beautiful.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 5:58:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/looking-back-at-pather-panchali-song-of-the-road-by-bibhutibhushan-bandopadhyay/article29852568.ece

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