Monday, 6 July 2009


It is a story of helplessness of an entire generation of Bengalees who tried to wriggle out of unemployment in the 1970s. Celebrated novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji, better known by his pen name Sankar, brought out the agony of educated youth of Bengal and the price they pay to stay afloat, in his story Jana Aranya. It was later turned into a film of same name by Satyajit Ray. The English translation of the story, titled The Middleman, was recently published.

Aptly translated into English by Arunava Sinha from the original Bengali first published in 1973, the story is a bleak portrayal of how a young Somnath Banerjee fails to land up a job despite his continuous efforts — from signing up with the Employment Exchange to applying to all sorts of job. Ultimately, Somnath decides to work in the order-supply business as a middleman. The business involves shameless lobbying with the purchase officers of different firms and Somnath is petrified at the thought of being part of the process. But, gradually he succumbs to the demands in order to sustain in the harsh world and doesn't suffer the moral pangs when he uses his best friend’s sister to earn a business contract for his Somnath Enterprise.

“I chose to write this story because I wanted to alarm everyone about the looming socio-economic situation,” Sankar reminisces about the turbulent period that followed the political unrest across Bengal due to Naxal movement. “I can whisper. But cannot shout. As a novelist, I cannot provide a solution. It’s for others to provide the cure,” Sankar says. “I was pained to see the plight of the youth and I knew exactly what they were going through because of my own experiences as a jobless young person,” the author adds. So while writing, who comes first — the novelist or the individual? “It’s bit of both, though I think it’s the person Sankar who comes first before the storyteller,” he says.

Was it easy for him to vividly describe the dark side of the urban life? “It was not,” Sankar affirms. “I was little wary of the reactions, but people tolerated it and till date this story is one of the best-selling Bengali books,” he adds. No doubt that Sankar’s portrayal of the urban human jungle touched the middle-class Bengalee readers who could relate with the woes of Somnath, his friend Sukumar, their families and the general decadence that Bengal suffered following the Partition.

But it seems that things have been changing in that part of the country. How relevant will be Somnath in 2009, I ask. “All medicines have an expiry date, but unfortunately the menace of unemployment still exists and young people like Somnath are suffering, not only in Bengal but also all over India,” Sankar replies. “The problem is universal and even powerful economies like the USA aren’t spared.” But, according to him, the silver lining in case of India is the “support of the families in the face of any crisis”.

Most of Sankar’s stories are brutally realistic. However, in case of his another acclaimed novel Chowringhee (also translated by Sinha and published in 2008), it was fiction rather than fact that defined the plot, informs the author. The translation was recently featured at the London Book Fair and it drew rave reviews from leading literary critics in the UK. “Frankly, I didn't expect that a story written in 1962 and set in a Kolkata hotel will attract the attention of the readers in the UK,” the author says with his usual humility. “I am happy that the Indian language literature has reached the global stage,” Sankar adds. “Even though a translation might not completely reflect the original essence of a story, it is better to reach out to the wider readership than staying cocooned,” he says. "Arunava has done an excellent work," Sankar doesn't forget to give credit to the translator who is a computer professional by the day.

For the author, who began his literary creativity in his 20s with Kato Ajanare — a poignant account of his association with Noel Frederick Barwell, the last English barrister at the Calcutta High Court — writing comes naturally, almost like documenting history. Over the years, he has not only penned novels, but also biographies (of Swami Vivekananda among others), travelogues like Epar Bangla—Opar Bangla, and numerous essays. “I love writing fiction. But sometimes I get tired of it, and then I try out other formats of writing,” Sankar says. But no matter what he writes, he prefers “the “old-fashioned way” of having the entire structure in his mind and then putting it in words. “One must know the take-off and landing,” he says.

When asked about literary influences on his works, Sankar mentions Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (creator of fictional investigator Byomkesh Bakshi) who incidentally lived in Pune in his last days.

Sankar’s work on Swami Vivekananda is set to be published in Marathi.



Three of Sankar’s well-known stories were turned into films — Chowringhee (in 1968), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1975). Pinaki Mukherjee directed Chowringhee. The story revolves round the life in Hotel ShahJahan in Kolkata. The late actor Subhendu Chatterjee played the role of author Shankar as he narrates how the efficient manager at the Reception Satyasundar Bose’s life goes topsy turvy due to a personal tragedy.

Part of the acclaimed Calcutta Trilogy films by Satyajit Ray, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya showed the conflicts between idealism and opportunism. While Seemabaddha deals with the moral turpitude of a successful man, Jana Aranaya deals with that of a struggling young man.

Set in Kolkata of 1970s, the black-and-white films won prestigious awards. Seemabaddha (Company Limited) won the National Film Award for Best Film in 1972. Jana Aranya (The Middleman) was nominated for the National Film Awards in 1976. Ray won the Golden Lotus Award for Best Director in 1975 for this film. Ray had once said that it was the only bleak film he ever made. “I felt rampant corruption all around, and I didn't think there was any solution. I was only waiting... for a story that would give me an opportunity to show this,” Ray had said.

The first film of the trilogy, Pratidwandi (The Adversary), was released in 1970. The story however, was written by another acclaimed author Sunil Gangopadhyay.

Cast List

Chowringhee: Supriya Devi, Uttam Kumar, Utpal Dutt, Biswajit

Jana Aranya: Pradip Mukherjee, Satya Banerjee, Dipankar Dey, Lily Chakravarti, Gautam Chakravarti, Aparna Sen, Sudesna Das, Utpal Dutt, Rabi Ghosh

Seemabaddha: Barun Chanda, Sharmila Tagore, Harindranath Chatterjee, Parumita Chowdhury, Haradhan Bandopadhyay, Indira Roy, Promod Ganguli

Pratidwandi: Dhritiman Chatterjee, Indira Devi, Debraj Roy, Krishna Bose, Kalyan Chowdhury, Joysree Roy