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Neerja Mattoo

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
By Banaphool
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2010, pp. 327, 299.00

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 10 OCTOBER 2011

This book is a collection of a hundred short stories by the popular Bengali writer who wrote under the pseudonym Banaphool (flower from the forest). The stories, whether set in urban or rural Bengal, contain the romantic whiff of nature in its broadest sense, including human beings. There is an old world charm about them, timeless and universal, that often fills one with nostalgia. Reading these stories is like opening a window into lives, revealing one vignette after another, till the whole panorama of Bengali society of the middle decades of the last century stands revealed. The characters in these pieces, even in the shortest of them (less than a page), are sharply etched, built up with a few, but precise, telling details. In spite of their brevity, there is nothing hurried about these stories. The narrative proceeds at an even pace, sometimes in sharp, sometimes in soft focus. The reader feels that he or she has been allowed to peer into people's private spaces—inner and external—without letting them know. The problems confronting them may seem trivial to the present generation but they were real in the Bengal of Banaphool's time (1899-1979). For instance the difficulty of finding a suitable match for a plain—Banaphool does not feel squeamish about using the word 'ugly'— or 'dark-skinned' girl, whose father is not rich enough to 'buy' a bridegroom. In 'Sunanda' a whole world of meaning in this context is conveyed in just three pages. Attention is gently drawn to the Indian, in this case Bengali, obsession with fair colour and good looks and the tragedy of Sunanda unfolds against this obsession. The daughter of a poor family with a dozen siblings and no good looks, she is rejected by a prospective groom. Next we see her as the top boss in an office and the man is now her fawning secretary, whom she then suspends for his inefficiency and audacity of trying to win her favour through gifts. But it is a dream that Sunanda dreams, the grim reality is that she has walked out of her father's house one night, never to be heard of again, perhaps lost in the streets of old Calcutta. In some stories on the same subject, the mood is lifted by a twist at the end. 'Chuno-Punti'  is one such piece of fiction, delightful in its 'tasteful' revenge upon a village by one ...


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