Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Mosquito and Other Stories by Premendra Mitra, translated by Amlan Das Gupta

Source: Goodreads
Mosquito and Other Stories:
Ghana-da's Tall Tales
Premendra Mitra
Translated by Amlan Das Gupta (from Bangla)
Penguin Modern Classics, 2004; I read paperback version
170 pages, science fiction, adventure, satire, tall tales
Found: second hand at the Kolkata Book Fair 2015

"Yes, I once killed a mosquito." 
We were astounded - not because Ghana-da wouldn't let even mosquitos alone, but at his unbelievable modesty. If mosquitos had to be killed at all, how could it be that Ghana-da had killed just one?  
Shishir summoned up his courage and asked, "You killed one mosquito?"
"Yes, I've killed only one mosquito in my whole life," Ghana da said leaving us speechless, and that was on the Sakhalin island, on the fifth of August, 1939! 

Ghana-da is a resident of a boarding house in Kolkata, but his history is much more exciting if you listen to him. Whenever the residents engage in adda, the Bengali art of having conversation for hours, Ghana-da is the main attraction. Sitting in his reserved comfy armchair, "borrowing" yet another cigarette, Ghana-da spins tales that are taller than tall, that can't be real - except, if they didn't happen, then how does he know all these details?

His tales encompass fantastic geographic descriptions, adventure stories, thousands of languages, mad scientists, and other exciting characters, both friend and foe. This volume is a collection of 12 short stories from Premendra Mitra's Ghana-da series.

Premendra Mitra's general knowledge

Apart from the humor of the tales, the most impressive thing about the Ghana-da stories is the immense amount of general knowledge that the character (and therefore the author) displays. These are the best kind of tall tales: ones based in so much truth it's hard to determine where the lies begin. 

How did this author, living in Kolkata, acquire so much general knowledge? I don't have any answer for that. Now, I would say that he must be an avid reader of all sorts of magazines (National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, etc.) and also scientific, anthropological, and travel books. Since National Geographic and other magazines were not freely available in Kolkata at the time, he must have been very well read in whatever texts he could find. Mitra's huge general knowledge, combined with a wonderful imagination, produced these wonderful tales. 

But how did Ghana-da, a man living in a cheap boarding house who avoids paying rent if at all possible and never buys his own cigarettes, gain a similar knowledge of these scientific facts? Is it possible that he actually did all of these things? It makes you wonder.

Satire of Orientalist adventure tales

These stories also operate on another level, critiquing the standard Orientalist adventure narrative of the White man adventuring in exotic locales and discovering things that the dark-skinned natives did not know. In Ghana-da's stories, he, an Indian, is the adventurer - the multilingual, multitalented genius who can get out of any scrape or trap. He is the one who catches the wild animals, who gets to the top of Mount Everest, and who ventures into a volcano right before it will erupt.

And the White characters are not always happy about this state of events. They don't trust Ghana-da, and they try to trick him. They even refer to him as a "nigger," and refuse to work with him. Because of Ghana-da's obvious superiority in everything, this is humorous. However, the change of roles highlights the racism of the standard narrative. Why can't an Indian travel to Africa to catch gorillas, speak the local language, and know how to interpret drum messages? Why would those adventures be restricted to Europeans? Why was Sir Edmund Hillary knighted but Tenzing Norgay was not?

I had heard mentions of Ghana-da when I was learning Bengali, but this was the first time I had read any of the stories. It's now one of my favorite series, and I look forward to leaping into the Bengali version.

It seems that this book is not currently available in the US or UK. You can find it at Penguin Books India, or read a sample from Google Books

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