Good job bringing this to light. People won't realise how huge the problem is and municipalities are woefully ill equipped to...
Agreed; mining can never be sustainable, but then how do you get the metals to make all the things you need in the course of...
Very good piece.
Aliens v babus
Flour mills, jute mills, cloth and brick mills,
Machines that dig out water and make landfills,
Elephantine machines make roads a day,
Pranam at the feet of machines,
Town and country are now twins.
Kolkata Barnan by Rupchand Pakshi
Science was increasingly gaining popularity among the educated elite in Bengal in the last quarter of the 19th century. This was because of a rapid mechanisation of English businesses by the 1880s that led to a growing desire among the colonised Bengali to master the alien technologies and sciences, largely perceived to be a remedy against superstitions and ignorance. It was also a way in which colonial modernity could be understood and mastered. The growth of Calcutta as an economic and political centre in the heyday of the East India Company is implicitly connected to the advent of industrialisation in that period, and its impact on colonial Bengal’s cultural, social and political life. The interface between science, technology and culture would soon be reflected in literature.
The first science fiction written in Bengal was in the last decades of the nineteenth century when the effects of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to be felt in Bengal’s social and cultural life. Hemlal Dutta’s Rahashya (The Mystery) was published in two installments in 1882 in the pictorial Bigyan Darpan. The story revolved around the protagonist Nagendra’s visit to a friend’s house, a mansion completely automated and mechanised. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms and mechanical clothes brushes were some of the innovations described in the story in a tone of gawky wonder.
An early practitioner of science fiction in Bengal was Jagadananda Roy (1869–1933), a prolific science writer, who contributed articles to the magazine, Sadhana (edited by Rabindranath Tagore), and whose books included Ghrohonokhotro (Planets and Stars, 1915) and Pokamakor (Bugs and Insects, 1919). His science fiction novel Shukra Bhraman (‘Travels to Venus’, written in the 1890s) described an interstellar journey and visit to another planet. Sukumar Ray (1887-1923), probably inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, wrote Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary (The Diary Of Heshoram Hushiar) in 1922. Like Jagadananda, Sukumar Ray also wrote on scientific and technological subjects explaining natural phenomena or new technology to young readers in the pages of Sandesh, a magazine first published in 1913 by his father Upendrakishore Ray Chaudhuri, a notable member of the Brahmo Samaj and a writer himself.
In its eccentric and hilarious narrative Heshoram was a spoof on the science fiction genre because the writer poked fun at the propensity of Western science to classify and name things, and that too in longwinded Latin. The brief story suggested that the names were given arbitrarily to objects and the name of a thing was somehow intrinsically connected to its nature. So the first creature that explorer Heshoram met in the course of his journey through the Bandakush Mountains was a ‘gomratharium’ (gomra in Bengali means someone of irritable temperament), a creature that sported a long woebegone face and a cross expression. This tour de force certainly subverted the generic characteristics of a sci-fi and although just an extract, Heshoram Hushiyarer Diary was unique in its scathing critique of colonial science.
Premendra Mitra (1904-1988) was one of Bengal’s most famous practitioners of science fiction. Mitra’s stories are still read avidly in Bengal. His memorable character Ghanashyam Das (Ghanada in short), first appeared in a story called Mosha (‘Mosquito’ 1945), in which a mad scientist created a new strain of mosquito to wipe out the world. Ghanada’s timely appearance and an even timelier slap saved mankind from this virulent breed. Ghanada, a lanky bachelor famous for his tall stories and his even taller brand of courage and curiosity, was a personification of Mitra’s humanistic ideology and moral universe. Without greed and scrupulously honest, Ghanada strove to rescue mankind from the apocalyptic failures of science. In collections of stories like Ghanadar Galpo (Stories of Ghanada) and Abar Ghanada (Ghanada Again) that Mitra wrote through the ’50s and ’60s we saw this quintessential Bengali travelling to space in search of Black Hole or diving under the seas to discover the mysterious origin of the universe to fortify our engagement with the world.
Leela Majumdar (1908–2007), a niece of Upendrakishore, was probably the first woman in Bangla to venture into sci-fi. Her science fiction fantasies were peopled by extraordinary humans, plants, animals and ghosts. Through her presentations of the bereft, the strange and the underdog, she not only managed to stretch the borders of middle-class domesticity, but also presented an inclusive vision of the universe where strange things could be accepted with ease and nonchalance. Most characters of her stories had a marginal place in society. They were small people, sometimes literally so, as many of her heroes were children: naughty children, poor children, or children who were the despair of parents. The marginality of her characters was a social marginality rather than an intellectual/imaginative one: her heroes might be poor or unimportant but they were forever curious about the world and unafraid to explore its possibilities.
Although hugely popular and often bestsellers, her writings expressed a certain world-view that critiqued Western Enlightenment-driven notions of science prevalent in the Bengali public sphere. Almost all her science fiction stories used science in a double bind—science was a “narrative of progress”, a sign of modernity, and also a signifier of a space in which a critique of modernity could be articulated because it accommodated the marginalised. Majumdar’s sci-fi stories like Shortcut and Shiri (The Stairs) suggested that science could be good, because science empowered us with knowledge and compassion, and could be a source of freedom. A true scientist was always a true humanist. And likewise, the marginalised and the downtrodden could be freed by science because only science was capable of removing poverty and injustice.
The humanistic and altruistic aspects of science could also be seen in the stories of Satyajit Ray, son of Sukumar Ray, who carried on the family tradition of science fiction writing and created Professor Shonku in 1961. The first science fiction featuring this eccentric hero was written for the magazine, Sandesh, and was called Byomjatrir Diary (The Diary of a Space Traveler). In all, 38 complete and two incomplete diaries (the last one came out in 1992) narrated the fantastic world of Shonku’s adventures, inventions and travels. As a fictional character, Professor Shonku was tremendously real: courageous yet forgetful, inquisitive yet self-controlled. His wit and humor made him very human and his inventions were impressive: Anhihiline, Miracural, Omniscope, Snuffgun, Mangorange, Camerapid, Linguagraph. Some were drugs, some gadgets and some machines but all with human purposes and uses. None were allowed to reign over or be more powerful than the human mind that invented them. Some of Shonku’s machines even took on human characteristics and were transformed from mere inventions to beloved companions with human names. The first diary started by describing Shonku’s efforts to build a space rocket. The first one that he built came down on his neighbour Abinashbabu’s radish patch. Abinashbabu had no sympathy for Shonku; science and scientists made him yawn. He often urged Shonku to set off his invention on Diwali so that the neighborhood children could be suitably entertained.
Shonku’s world was a real, human world. In his preparations for the space journey he decided to take his cat Newton with him. He had invented a fish-pill so Newton would not starve in space. Two other of Shonku’s companions would be his loyal servant Prahlad and robot Bidhusekhar. The first entry on the latter is worth a longer look.
“For the last few days I can hear Bidhusekhar making a ‘ga,ga’ noise. This is strange in itself because he is not supposed to utter a sound. He is a machine, he must do whatever he is told, the only sound he is supposed to make is the clang of metals when he moves…. I know he has no ability to think nor does he possess any intelligence. But now I can see a difference in him.” That his robot had unimaginable human characteristics became evident when Shonku made Prahlad try out his spacesuit. “Today I called Prahlad to the laboratory to try out his suit and his helmet. It was a sight. Prahlad was in splits. To say the truth, even I felt like laughing. Just at this moment I heard a metallic guffaw and turned to see Bidhusekhar sitting in his chair swaying and making a new sound. There can only be one meaning to that clatter. Bidhusekhar was also sniggering at Prahlad.”
Debjani Sengupta teaches literatures in English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Her essays on Bangla science fiction have appeared in Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World and in Extrapolation