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The Green of Bengal is Benegal's ode to a Calcutta that no longer exists

Gautam Benegal recreates an age that predates the internet and mobile telephony; an era when love affairs hinged on exchanged notes.

books Updated: Apr 19, 2015 15:55 IST
Kanika Sharma

Book: The Green Of Bengal
Author: Gautam Benegal
Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 299

It has often been said that all fiction is autobiographical and to that effect, The Green of Bengal is a collection of short stories in which the author revisits the Calcutta of his childhood and adolescence in the late 1980s and 1990s. Yet, he does this through a wide spectrum of memorable characters.

Animator and author Gautam Benegal resuscitates a time where love affairs hinged on exchanged notes, a time that predated the internet and mobile telephony. Clearly, the sepia-tinted city evokes memories steeped in nostalgia for the author.

That is how the tone is set for the first short story, Manorama Cabin, which features a long-lost notebook that is suddenly found and reproduced by the dodgy memory of the narrator. This frame narrator then recounts, in first person, the story of someone obsessed with the fate of two lovers who cannot possibly marry as they belong to different castes and classes.

The book blurb suggests that "a political pulse runs through the whole" and the politics of the Left consistently resurfaces through student revolutionaries as characters in various stories as does Partition in the titular story. The Green of Bengal then creates several microcosms that aim to present different facets of Calcutta at that time.

The stories that best underscore the potential of Benegal's slice-of-life narratives is A Figment of the Imagination and Homo, which are both marked by a subtle handling of emotions. A Figment of the Imagination is a humorous and ironical tale that begins with the protagonist returning home after giving an English Literature examination. He is quizzed by his mother on the exam question on writer Walter de la Mare's poem The Listeners.

"'Who do you think were the listeners?' read out my mom. 'It is a figment of the poet's imagination." is the pat reply. The narrator's whimsical mindset and the grave implication of overheard conversations linger in the reader's mind long after she has finished reading the story.

Homo is centred on a young boy who has shifted, with his mother, to the home of his maternal grandparents after his parents have separated. The action is focussed on a single evening when he is called 'homo' by a gang of boys in-charge of the local pandal. Edgy and peopled with dangerous characters, the story explores how the single mother wields no power as her son is harassed by ruffians. Benegal makes the narrative throb with the raw energy of a young masculine world that asserts itself through violence.

The writer's strength lies in bringing alive everyday Bengali characters. These range from an obscure grandfather being discovered as a great artist, who continues to live within limited means, or the father's friend, the uninvited guest, who is visiting a household after 30 years. The eponymous short story features a young grandson endeavouring to fulfil his 93-year-old grandfather's presumably dying wish to visit 'Opar Bangla' (The Other Bengal or Bangladesh), his ancestral land that is now inaccessible to the ailing man.

Other stories that feature fantasies of characters induced by hallucinogens interspersed with talking dogs and an alien invasion, a daze where the character's dilemma is miraculously solved and fevers that blur the line between reality and the subconscious are less successful. Benegal falls short while handling a dramatic turns that make the reader snap out of the world he has carefully attempted to construct. The language used is also occassionally banal. Why, for instance, must "two inhuman eyes" glow "like coal embers"?

Still, a perceptive read, the Green of Bengal is, no doubt, Benegal's ode to a Calcutta that no longer exists.