THE TRAJECTORY OF CHIAROSCURO
[This review of Indrajit's Hazra's book 'The Bioscope Man' was published in Volume XXXIII Number 6 June 2009 issue of The Book Review* - www.thebookreviewindia.org.]
A Review of Indrajit Hazra’s book – The Bioscope Man
The movie begins with a regurgitation of not just a half digested Bengali breakfast but also a foreboding of tragedy. Did I just say movie? Indrajit Hazra’s“The Bioscope Man” may well be a movie, which has been cinematographed in words, for such is the dexterity with which he casts his characters and rolls out his scenes.
In The Bioscope Man, Hazra’s third novel, a tragedy of divinely imposed comedic errors, traces the life of an actor in what was a precursor to the movie industry – the bioscope. And in it, he displays the shadow play of reality versus dream world (in this case reel world) with even greater lucidity and finesse than in his first two novels.
The Bioscope Man is the longest and most ambitious of his three books, but Hazra does not disappoint. Far from it. In fact he proves without a doubt that this country can produce English writers in whose hands the language is a hundred-eyed beast, shimmering with myriad coloured scales, tamed and trained to turn reading into a fast moving motion of coherently flowing images.
The novel opens with Tarini Chatterjee, senior employee of the East Indian Railway, who while waiting with his colleagues consumes many morsels of singaras and jilipis at the railway station. The occasion is the inaugural of the spanking new Haora Station. The year is 1906, and Tarini is part of the celebratory entourage that will board the first train which will also carry his British boss Edward Quested and teenaged daughter Amelia Quested.
So far so good except that there has been one too many singara and jilipi consumed. The result, a “greyish-green sludge descending on her (Amelia’s) white dress” unloaded by Tarini’s tormented stomach sends his family’s history down “one low, tight parabolic trajectory.” That fateful day, when Tarini Chatterjee’s body turned “inside out like a jackfruit after it has been scooped out and the innards left to dry,” signaled the end of the rise of the Chatterjee family by unleashing a series of events that turned his wife Shabitri Chatterjee into a living statue and confined her to her bed without even the ability to move her eyelids, thereby snapping his son Abani Chatterjee’s life into two and propelling him ultimately towards a magical pretend world.
“The Bioscope Man” is a tragic tale. But Hazra’s language and imagery are so vibrant that they are, to take a phrase from the book itself, Hazra’s “booming voice spreading like just burst pollen.” And so often, they are not mere phrases and word clusters used as catchments for movement and colour, but full sentence long robust words that he unleashes like freshly foddered horses, with elegant ease!
Towards the second half of The Bioscope Man when describing Abani’s feelings for his leading lady, when “a gramophone record skidded inside me (Abani),” Hazra makes sure the needle skids not once but four times to drive home the ferocity of his protagonist’s emotions: “She was at that time, the only object that could leave me exposed like a film reel left outside its canister, like a target running about on a ground with no cover and no choice but to dive into a dry deep well, like a liar whose lie has been caught, like a neck whose purpose can only be to be caressed or snapped.”
In another situation Hazra literally uses the motion of mastication with words to depict the sloppy eating habit of a minor, but significant character: “And as he munched on his pastry and sipped on his coffee in the Tea Room, stalagmites and stalactites formed and dissolved in his big mouth as he chewed and breathed, chewed and breathed.”
Then again, there are these delightful and visually arresting Hazra-isms – “Acting is not about pretending to be someone else. It’s about peeling the swathes of people wrapped around one’s body and exposing whichever person suits the occasion.” And, “Rumour that raspy-voiced bird with flapping wings…” And, “…popular praise the smoothest odourless poison that goes to one’s head.” – dotting The Bioscope Man’s landscape with chew worthy bite sized bits of literal treats that nevertheless deliver some pretty hard truths.
Hazra should be read for his prose alone. But he also knows how to tell a meaty story with deft techniques. Hazra uses a cinematic device to weave Abani Chatterjee’s story with that of the stories of his (Abani’s) bioscopes and the heroes. He calls this device “interlude.” Hazra’s interludes slip in the shadow stories of the characters Abani assumes when he stars in the bioscopes without jarring the main narrative.
The Bioscope Manis also, and more importantly, a story with manifold tragedies told at several levels. Hazra is lobbing not just the story of one Abani Chatterjee, bioscope star, but the early history of Bengali cinema as well at his readers. Through the mouth of his protagonist (mostly) Hazra laughs at us right across history, Bengal’s history through the pre and post independence years. Beginning with Shabitri Chatterjee’s lapse into paralysis, triggered by a comical fall, right through her still years and finally when she is discovered pretending to be a paralytic by her son, because she “didn’t want to give up the luxury of just existing and doing nothing” which one can well believe to be Bengal’s own condition. Many of the sentiments expressed by Abani Chatterjee – “that retard Girish Ghosh,” “the independence movement was a stagnant mosquito breeding pool that had formed when many gutters coalesced,” and “boom time for ‘freedom fighters’ who were criminals with ambition,” to mention just a few epithets and pure unadulterated sentiments that were so often expressed by first, second and sometimes third generation Bengalis after independence. Hazra does not spare even Gandhi, but here too, it is a typical Bengali mindset, stereotype, of the race.
Coming back to the story line, a parabolic trajectory must necessarily have a high point before its descent. Thus, the protagonist of this heady slide show of a novel – Abani Chatterjee, who has inherited his mother’s talent for tricking reality, gets pushed into the new and exciting world of bioscopes in sync with Calcutta’s downfall as the Capital City of the Jewel in the Crown. Abani Chatterjee’s interest in the flickering world of bioscopes is first set alight by his maternal uncle Shombhunath Lahiri, who for all his passion, ultimately fails to make it in the world of cinema even after running away to Bombay; whereas an uncouth Marwari like Lalji Hemraj becomes a successful movie mogul, because, while he does not understand the art he does understand how to deliver to the masses, in other words “bioscopes that…make audiences come into picture palaces in hordes.” Lalji understands “that thin blue sliver that was the triumph of artistic degeneration – a repertoire that would always be accompanied by the message that sins were worthy of contempt and would always, without fail, lead to an end that was worse than death.” In effect, Lalji knows without knowing the term what a formula movie is, the way his effete Bengali movie making rivals do not. We believe Hazra, because that’s what has always happened in Bengal. And Abani Chatterjee is roped along, because Lalji sees in him an actor worth investing in.
Abani’s fortunes grow, through the deaths of first his father, and then his mother (shortly after he sees through her pretense), through the growing into manhood of his two childhood friends Rona and Bikash alongside his own, and the political and social changes that sweep through India (and Bengal), until it is all brought down, and the trajectory (of Abani’s fortune) dips first in a sudden lurch which slowly and surely comes to rest at rock bottom level in a twisted tumble of fate, that recalls his father’s disgrace in a malicious recast of family history and that of the Questeds. Abani Chatterjee is cast out like a leper to the edge of the world, his future in tatters. From then onwards begins a life of seclusion and Haig’s Dimple Whiskey in his home attended to by the loyal and aging Abala. Opportunity comes knocking on his doors, once after five lost years, only to vanish down a manhole. Opportunity knocks twice and for awhile it seems that it will all work, but Abani tries to grasp it in his own hands and make it obey his commands like a trained dog. Opportunity slips out of his hand again, when the impostor Lang ships out to Europe and the movie he was supposed to have made with Abani Chatterjee in the lead never sees the light of day. So, Abani remains there in his crumbling house, “unsurrounded, unentertained, unnamed all these years” until two letters reach him, one of which is from a young commercial artist with DJ Keymer who claims to be an admirer** and the other from a person who had been writing the biography of Sabu, The Elephant Boy. We know who the young commercial artist is/was; but Abani Chatterjee still wallowing in the dust heap where the trajectory of his fate has flung him, has no kind God that pities him, and he offers up his story in a long letter to the other!
The Bioscope Man is a ragingly powerful story, even so I am afraid.
I am afraid that Hazra whose meticulous research is a perfect foil for his prodigious talent has perhaps come into the Indian literary scene too late, by an accident of birth. We are no longer a nation enamoured by tales of failure; angst does not appeal unless it is wrapped around politically viable issues. What’s worse, literature that offers swift licks of quasi intellectual pleasures is more likely to get noticed outside the country, besides which the people and their lives and times so truly depicted in this novel are just too far away, buried too deep in the quiet world of silent movies to stir the imagination of today’s twittering masses.
*The Book Review is a crisply published tabloid sized magazine devoted to books and book reviews, with many luminaries on its editorial board. The journal has been published continuously for the past thirty two years.
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** Satyajit Ray worked as a commercial artist at DJ Keymer before commencing on his iconic film directorial career.