Fantasy, Fiction, Fact: Magic and Realism in Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s The Ghost of Gosain Bagan

Sanjukta Dasgupta

The Ghost of Gosain Bagan,by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay; Translated from the original Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee; Ponytale Books, Kolkata, India; 2008; P. 117; ISBN:13: 978-81-905748-2-2

It is a truth universally acknowledged that children’s fiction intended for young readers belonging to well-demarcated age groups that fall under pre-school, primary school and middle school categories is often consumed with amazing hunger by adult readers. Ponytale Books has pegged The Ghost of Gosain Bagan in the 10+ category. The publishers clearly define the agenda of their “publishing programme” by introducing themselves as a “specialist children and young adult imprint” and also state carefully that “Ponytale Books caters to 8 to 13 age group. Ponytale Books focuses on publishing quality original books that not only entertain and inform, but also subtly educate about universal values, Indian history, culture and tradition in a rapidly globalising world.”


Gonsaibaganer Bhut
Cover of the Bengali book
But there is an element of supreme irony embedded within the rubric of this literary genre, if we assume that kid lit or children’s literature is intended exclusively for child readers. It is an accepted norm that fiction written for adult readers will invariably be written by adult writers. But adult writers also invariably write fiction intended for children. We are still not sure whether child authors will be able to write for their peers and find publishers too. Therefore, due to adult authorship, often children’s literature becomes instructional manuals, internalizing an awareness programme that can be overt or covert depending upon the narratorial skills of the creative writer. The hegemonic control of the adult author on the child’s empirical and epistemic exposure and responses however is a matter of debate that cannot be resolved easily. The instruction cum entertainment mode of creative writing for children is instilled with a noble urge to motivate and inspire young minds to scale new heights of achievement and become socially and morally integrated individuals. In this respect, the role of children’s literature is one of great significance as it involves a sense of social and cultural responsibility contributing immensely to the knowledge system. Translations of local language texts into the global language (English) are an enriching experience, enabling a process of cultural cross-fertilization as it introduces the local to the global.

The question that next arises is-- who is the target reader of such translated texts? Will it be Bengali/Indian urban children studying in English medium schools? Can they identify their presumably cosmopolitan English speaking math teacher with Mukherjee’s fascinating Karalibabu? Will the readers be the progeny of the non-resident Bengali/Indians scattered throughout the world? In this context, the remoteness of the world of Burun increases a thousand-fold when compared to the physical and social environment of NRI/PIO children. Moreover, the adult writer’s propensity of involving various adult characters into the children’s texts to play key roles can be challenging for children but attractive for adult readers of children’s fiction. In Mukherjee’s text, as the ghosts are adult ghosts, these ubiquitous spirits contribute to the alienation effect of the text. Children enjoy the roles played by bumbling adults, evil adults, good but eccentric adults rather than sermonizing adults and in this respect The Ghost of Gosain Bagan will not disappoint young readers. However, one cannot fail to notice how male dominated the text is throughout its 117 pages. Except for cursory references to Burun’s mother and sister Beli and that ragged stereotype “womenfolk started crying in both the households” (p. 92) after it was reported that Burun and Bhutum were truly missing, all the fictional characters are either male children or adult males, even the ghosts in the text are all male ghosts.

The fantasy world of talking ghosts such as Nidhiram and the nasal tone ghost, dreams and fantastic sequences that the text re-invigorates in this admirable translation also tells us that the contemporary dreams in the children’s world has drifted away from the dreamworld of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, the timeless fun of Thakurmar Jhuli towards the chic of the Harry Potter series. Even narratives of dreams and fantasies can become dated and obsolete for dreams and fantasies are after all deeply subjective. The dream content is inextricably linked to the subject-- who is fantasizing is a crucial question that helps us in understanding and interpreting the dream, that is, the identity of the dreamer influences the dream. Hence my fears about the reception of the translated text by 10+ readers may not be unfounded, though I sincerely hope I am completely wrong in my conjecture.

Translations of erstwhile local language classics resurrect the archival treasures but may not receive overwhelming contemporary reception due to the fact that in the last fifteen or twenty years the world has changed so rapidly that the timeless classics do not have the same resonance that they had for generations of young minds till maybe the nineteen eighties. Having said that I also intend to assert that it is necessary to continue to build cultural bridges through translations of local texts so that the nuances of regional cultures remain dynamic rather than become archival material for the exclusive use of researchers and engaged readers.

The Ghost of Gosain Bagan

Mukherjee’s fiction begins with ‘failure’. No other horror could be so traumatic to a school going child than low scores in examinations and more so in mathematics, the formidable subject deeply revered by educated and cultured Bengalis. So when Burun returns home with the school progress report recording that he had secured just 13 marks in mathematics, his teachers and parents behaved as if a catastrophe had taken place.

Illustration from The Ghost
of Gonsai Bagan
Burun’s depression, his loitering deep into the forest, Burun’s subsequent friendship with the ghost Nidhiram and Nidhiram’s role like a friendly genie out of the bottle replicates many Western children’s stories about ghosts and spirits helping the weak child to shake off his fears. The hilarious math teacher Karalibabu, Burun’s grandfather Ram kaviraj, the ayurvedic doctor, the Tantric bandit Habu who could hypnotise people and tigers, provides the exotic essentialisms of Indian culture that are internationally recognized. The agenda of the text however is positive, for Burun’s adventures were just a hypnotic trance engineered by the dreaded tantric Habu. Eventually Burun was jolted out of the dreamland and became free from the hypnotic spell. So Burun’s freedom from fear and humiliation also leads to his gaining the ability to face failure and translate the experience of failure to a positive understanding of the world and its diverse experiences. The dreamland sequences are exquisite and the text does not seem to be a translated text at all. A sample will bear this out--“Burun and Bhutum had reached the land of the moon on a small toy aeroplane. The fields were golden in colour here. Golden trees, golden grass and gold-dust spread in the sky…The old woman of the moon had stopped spinning her wheel and sat down to prepare pancakes for them… The land was full of mirth and merry-making-- games, magic, picnic, circus, ice-cream and what not. There was no hassle of studies, no big schools, no pathsalas even. Only fun and fun." (p.112)

As a matter of fact this psychological therapy as subtext in this slick fiction of 117 pages brings to mind J.K.Rowling’s recent speech at the 2008 Harvard University convocation (June 5, 2008 Harvard University Gazette online). Rowling ‘s speech primarily prioritized the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. Rowling had stated, “We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already, we have the power to imagine better.”

I am certain now that The Ghost of Gosain Bagan has been brilliantly translated by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, J.K.Rowling will now be able to read this riveting Bengali fictional text and perhaps wonder how a local writer in India had anticipated the subtext of the Harry Potter series and represented the fringe benefits of failure in a way that represents and negotiates local and global aspirations so magically.

Published August, 2008

Reviewed by Sanjukta Dasgupta. Professor of English, and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the.... (more) 

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