African safari

Moon Mountain | Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay

The works of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay may not be as widely, or regularly, translated into English but his literary reputation has been strengthened by several film adaptations. Two of his novels form the premise of Satyajit Ray’s much acclaimed Apu Trilogy, made in the 1950s. More recently, in 2013, his popular children’s novel, Chander Pahar (literally, the mountain of the moon), was turned into perhaps the most expensive Bengali film ever made.

Moon Mountain, scripted by Saurav Mohapatra and illustrated by Sayan Mukherjee, reimagines Chander Pahar as a graphic novel. Mohapatra’s earlier work, Mumbai Confidential: Good Cop, Bad Cop, was also a graphic novel, featuring an encounter policeman with a wry sense of humour. Bollywood melodrama meets noir humour in this page-turner. In Moon Mountain, Mohapatra lets the plot flow nimbly as well, without any rhetorical flourishes, which is perhaps the closest one can get to Bandopadhyay’s unadorned prose.

Mukherjee’s visuals, in comparison, look a bit lifeless. They seem to be, and may well have been, generated digitally and lack the vividness and energy that come from the touch of a living hand. Much of the novel also unfolds in a smoky haze, as though the mystique of a continent like Africa can only be properly fathomed when viewed through a veil of Conradian darkness.

Moon Mountain: Puffin, 155 pages, Rs 399
Moon Mountain: Puffin, 155 pages, Rs 399

Although structurally rambling, these works remain riveting for their intense focus on non-human characters: The jungle itself is a living, breathing, menacing and caring presence in Bandopadhyay’s imagination. This immersion in flora and fauna at the expense of human beings makes him such a uniquely modernist mind—a writer working in the early years of the 20th century, under the long shadow of a literary tradition cast by Rabindranath Tagore and the luminaries of the previous century, and yet, also original enough to strike out on his own using material that few novelists would consider worthy of their craft.

In Moon Mountain, the protagonist, Shankar, is a middle-class Bengali boy living in a village in 1909, five years before the Great War, and at a crossroad. Just out of college, he is expected by his family—an affectionate mother and ailing father—to get employed and take on more responsibilities. But Shankar, a feisty athlete with the spirit of an adventurer, despairs at the thought of settling into a dreary job at the local jute mill. His heart is full of wanderlust and he wants to venture into the wilds of Africa.

Shankar gets lucky when a neighbour helps him get a job with a company laying railway tracks from Mombasa to Kisumu. Starting as a clerk and storekeeper, he soon moves to another part, in the role of a stationmaster, though his travails continue unabated. First he has to deal with a “lion problem", which is followed by a “snake problem". Before long, he rescues Diego Alvarez, a Portuguese explorer, through whom he hears of the dreaded Bunyip, a diabolical beast that kills without mercy and leaves behind a trail of three-fingered pugmarks. Alvarez also tells Shankar about the secret resources of Africa, its silver and diamond mines, and together they set out on a quest for these buried treasures.

Like Bandopadhyay’s plot, the storyboard of the graphic novel remains gripping, with its quick change of scenes and evolving action. The editing of the material, especially its concision, has been done with care, thought and expertise. If only the synergy between the images and the text had been more dynamic and alive.