Destination Moon Mountain: A Foray into the World of Young Adult Literature
The current article is an endeavour to study Chander Pahar (1938), originally written by the distinguished novelist and writer in Bengali Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay, as contributing to the still inadequately explored genre of Young Adult Literature (YAL). In the West young adult literature has evolved significantly since its early 1950s beginnings distinguishing itself from children’s literature in varied ways. The Bengali tradition of young-adult literature pre-dates most English stories of the same genre within India and outside. In fact, many critics have claimed in the West that this genre has found a new footing, a new acceptance in response to a newly perceived market in the wake of the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling –“Ever since the enormous publication success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, contemporary Young Adult (YA) literature has seen a rise in its appreciation by those who, in the past, might not have given YA literature a second glance.” (Daniels, 2006:78).
The novel of our study was first published in Bengali in 1938 and was inspired by the young minds of Bengal, those frequenting the recently established schools and colleges in keeping with the temper of the Bengal Renaissance. My attempt in the course of this essay is to expose the various nuances of young adult literature – the thriller elements, the didacticism, the dream-a dream motif, the wanderlust theme, the fantastic, the travelogue, the issue of identity formation, realism – that Bandopadhay weaved in his Chander Pahar and therefore made it indispensable to this particular genre currently so much in vogue in the literary world worldwide. I have based my paper on the English translation of the Bengali novel in the form of Moon Mountain ((translated in 2007 as Moon Mountain by Pradeep Sinha, the novelist’s grandson).
Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay (1884-1950) was an important figure of the Bengal Renaissance and his literary output was astoundingly diverse in range and subject matter. His literary career commenced in 1921 with the publication of his first short story Upekshita in ‘Probashi’, a well-known vernacular literary magazine at that time. In 1929 was published the magnum opus Pather Panchali, made famous consequently by Satyajit Ray’s cinematic adaptation by the same name. This particular novel, autobiographical in nature like Aparajita (1932), brought instant fame to the writer who subsequently became a household name in the world of Bengali culture and letters. His other major works would include a range of genres and themes from Aranyak (1939), Icchamoti (1950), Adarsha Hindu Hotel (1940), Debjan (1944) and Ashanisanket (1959) among others.
Many people have contested that young adult literature, which is frequently grouped as a section within the category of children’s literature, is not substantial enough because it does not proffer adequate essence to be incorporated within the established literary canon. In fact, Young Adult Literature (YAL) is truly an ignored and underappreciated literary genre that has just in recent times begun to draw the critical consideration that it warrants, and that too primarily in the West. Chander Pahar/Moon Mountain needs more exposure as a significant text evolving from Bengal/India and contributing to this body of literature, distinct and different. If at one point of time Chander Pahar was part of the school curriculum, it is time we rediscover its relevancy and propinquity which is infrequently found in children’s literature. Terry Davis in his article “On The Question of Integrating Young Adult Literature into the Mainstream,” reminds us that “most young adult books can’t cross the boundary into grown-up for the following reasons: 1. because publishers present most of the books in a package that an older teenager or adult wouldn’t want to pick up and carry around, let alone read; and 2. because many of us who write about these books and teach them and have charge of them on behalf of young readers refuse to hold the book to real literary standard.” (Davis, 1997: 5)
Bandopadhay wrote four major texts for the young-adults that were published during his lifetime– Chander Pahar (1938), Maraner Danka Baje (1940), Mismider Kabach (1942) and Heera Maanik Jwale (1946). Sundarbane Shaat Batshor (1952) was an adventure novel for the young-adults that was published posthumously. When he started writing for young adults, the vernacular literary scene had already been accustomed to the writings of Abanindranath, Rabindranath, Jogindranath Sircar, Upendrakishore Roy Choudhury, Sukumar Roy, Dakshinaranjan Majumdar and Sunirmal Basu. These writers had already made inroads into the genre of children’s literature. What then was the significant contribution of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay to the category of young-adult literature? First and foremost was that while writing fiction for the adults, Bibhutibhushan was equally concerned about the young-adults’ literary welfare and amusement prospect. Therefore we find Pather Panchali, Drishti Pradeep, Debjan and Aranyak, and we also find editions of these works specifically edited and abridged meant for the children and young-adults. But it was an unaffected Chander Pahar that established Bandopadhay as a major writer for the younger generation. The novel is an extraordinarily meticulous, tangible account of the adventures of Shankar, our young protagonist, negotiating the wildest regions of Africa. The book draws its sustenance on the typical elements of YAL– a thirst for the unfamiliar and the unknown, the combination of the real with the strange, and zeal for adventure and lands beyond the horizon.
The novel opens with Shankar as a young Bengali teenager just having qualified the F.A. School-Leaving examination. In the social dreariness of the period, the novel chronicles the yearning of this particular pre-adult individual for adventure in the wild lands and forests. Being born into the rural Bengal and into a penury stricken family with a sick father and a dispirited mother to account for, Shankar is faced with a dilemma whether to follow his dreams or to surrender to the fate of being just a jute mill worker. “In his heart, he wanted to fly, far away to the most distant corner of the earth – amidst the most daring and dangerous happening – like Livingstone and Stanley, like Harry Johnson, Marco Polo and Robinson Crusoe. He had prepared himself for a life of adventure from his childhood.” (Sinha, 2007:4-5) In fact, it was his love for geography that had fuelled his wanderlust—
It was almost an obsession with him to pour over all sorts of map and to read large tombs in Geography. He was adept at solving mathematical problems in Geography. He could identify nearly all the stars and constellations visible in the sky….He knew when they could be seen, he knew the direction from which they rose. He could identify them with just one look at the sky. There were very few young people in our country who could do this. (Ibid, 3-4)
Ordinary boys could be content to turn into clerks or school masters or doctors or lawyers. But Shankar dreamt a different dream, though he acknowledges quite at the beginning that it was “a most unlikely dream” – a dream “to conquer the Mountain of the Moon.”(Ibid, 5) This is what Chander Pahar sets out to achieve – to enable ordinary boys to dream the impossible to aspire for the unexplored a new world. Its reception as one of the famous adventure novels in Bengali, and contributing to “kumar sahitya”, the novel actually signifies the possibility of dream-a–dream of an adolescent mind.
While fairies, demons and other supernatural elements often form an integral part of children’s literature, it cannot be incorporated into YAL. What appeal to the young adults is reality and not irrationality. Therefore adventure was to be the key ingredient of YAL in exploring little known continents or nations, encountering strange, exotic, dangerous animal beings and facing natural calamities like volcano eruptions or earthquakes. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay had realized this fundamental truth about young minds and could therefore produce literature in the form of Chander Pahar and Hiramanik Jwale (to name a couple) that were instantly successful as works of fiction meant for the young minds of Bengal.
The adventure novel set partly in Bengal and Africa heavily drew for accuracy the many real accounts of explorers like Mungo Park, Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone, Richard Burton and others. In his brief foreword to Chander Pahar Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay cites the writings of the explorers Rosita Forbes and Harry Hamilton Johnston as his most important sources for the story. One of the other sources was possibly the Wide World Magazine (founded by George Newnes in 1898, and issued till 1965) – a monthly publication containing adventure stories and bearing the motto ‘Truth is Stranger than Fiction’. Nevertheless, the dense setting of Chander Pahar was not consequent to these literary or journalistic sources only. The audience instinctively senses the existence of a measureless wealth of background reading, absolutely enmeshed within the narrative. Taradas Bandopadhay, the writer’s son, recounts how there was a story in Wide World Magazine very similar to the Chander Pahar incident in which Shankar locates the skeletal remnants of Attileo Gatti and a putrid barrel of salty, blue-black water in a kopje while cutting across the Kalahari desert. Incidentally Attileo Gatti was an authentic adventurer and recreational film-maker who led quite a few expeditions to the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda in the second quarter of the twentieth century. This range was identified in early times as the Mountains of the Moon, first named thus by the Greek tradesman and traveller Diogenes and afterward popularized by Ptolemy. Bibhutibhushan borrows the name of Chander Pahar from these sources.
Shankar consequently, with the kind assistance of a near-relative Mr. Prasad Das Bandopadhay lands up a job in Africa, full of promise and adventure. The job offer enclosed within the pages of a letter reads thus:
You want to come here? Do come. If boys like you don’t come out and see the world then who will? A new railway line is being laid here. They need more people. Come as soon as you can. I am taking the responsibility of finding you a job. ( Ibid, 9)
Landing up a job in Africa was not that unattainable and impossible in those days at all if we call to mind the contribution of Indian indentured labourers in building a navigable, ‘civilised’ Africa for the White colonial masters. In fact, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay, through Shankar typifies the trials and tribulations of the many indentured labourers engaged in clearing forests, laying railway tracks in Africa, faraway from ‘native’ India. There is one Thirumal Appa, a Tamil and quite a few Gujaratis mentioned in Chander Pahar besides Shankar, the Bengali voyager. Thirumal Appa and Shankar happen to share the same tent in the camp that has been set up to lay railway lines connecting Mombasa with Kisumu –
A branch line was being built from the main track, connecting Mombasa with Kisumu on Lake Victoria, and Nyanza. The place was 350 miles west of Mombasa and seventy-two miles south-west of Knudsburg station of the Uganda Railways. Shankar had come there as a clerk in the construction camp. He lived in a small tent. There were a number of other tents around his – no houses had yet been built – arranged in a circle in a large clearing. All around them were stretches of open land, full of tail grass interspersed with a few trees or shrubs. On the outer edge of the tents, where the grassland came to an end, was the famous tree of Africa, the baobab. (Ibid, 11)
This is all the more amazing in watching the total ease and authenticity with which Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay brandishes a capital of dependable zoological, botanical, ecological, astronomical and meteorological information which forms the character of the plot in Chander Pahar. Chitra Deb in her article “Bibhutibhushaner Kumar Sahitya”, which was published on the writer’s centenary year as a part of a collection titled “Bibhuti Smarak Grantha” (1995), recounts how Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay was fastidious about the information that his novels contained. While writing another book for the young-adults Maraner Danka Baaje (with the World War II as its background), he drew information about the bombers from authentic sources and would personally account for its genuineness. It is an indication to his narrative competence that data on no account interferes with the plot or reads like a tiresome scholastic lesson, but without fail becomes indispensable to the story being told.
A detailed account of Shankar’s brief sojourn in the African savannah is provided to the readers who are told of Shankar’s encounters with man-eating lions, the infamous black mamba snake. As a station master in a remote corner of East Africa Shankar comes tantalizingly close to the black mamba:
In the same instant he froze, numb with fear and awe. Midway between the wall and his bed, there stood, with its hood held high but temporarily dazed by the light of the torch, Africa’s meanest and most fearsome snake – the black mamba. The hood rose almost a metre from the floor. This was not unusual because a black mamba usually strikes on the shoulders. To escape from a black mamba is like being born again, Shankar had heard. (Ibid, 31)
The section of the novel which deals with the line-laying work and the man-eating lions draws heavily on the individual experiences of John Henry Patterson, who was commissioned by the British East Africa Company in 1898 to take charge of the building of a railway line in Kenya. Patterson’s brave conduct and the workers’ fear regarding the man-eating lions are chronicled in The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, a popular book penned by Baboo Purshotam Hurjee Purmar, Overseer and Clerk of Works in January 1899. Bibhutibhushan owned a copy of this book, which still exists in his private library, as claimed by his grandson Tathagata Banerjee.
Rich details are sown into the fabric of the adventure story by Bibhutibhushan, who never had the fortune of travelling into real Africa even though his heart so desired, as acknowledged by Chitra Deb in her essay previously mentioned in this article. There are real newspaper details like that of the Kenya Morning News, The Bulwaye Chronicle, a real historical event of the Boer War, real tribes of Africa from the Zulu, the Masai and the Matabele. There is a mention of the tsetse fly that can induce sleeping sickness. Little details like these make the story enormously convincing and offer it the feel of authentic human familiarity. There are passages in the book that are likewise devoted to reveal the mysterious, the unknown that characterizes YAL. Shankar’s sojourn in Africa begins with the invocation to the mysterious – “This was that Africa, the dark undiscovered continent, the land of gold, diamond country. How many unknown tribes and landscapes, unseen and unheard birds and animals lay hidden in those boundless tropical forests?” (Ibid, 15)
It is no secret that Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay deliberately tapped into the young’s fascination with the imaginary. But he was equally conscious of the efforts of pubescent Bengalis/Indians trying to forge a new political identity among other free nations of the world. If Shankar undergoes intense physical exertion and mental fatigue, he is constantly shown to be drawing inspiration from within, from his being a representative of his country India. Accompanying Diego Alvarez in his ascent across the Richtersveld Range, Shankar motivates himself by remembering just one basic truth – “In those vast terrible mountains and forests, he was representing India – he would not let himself do anything that would belittle his motherland”. (Ibid, 82) As we had mentioned at the outset, relevancy and immediacy are seldom seen in children’s literature but observable in YAL. The sense of national identity that Shankar develops cannot be understood properly without the knowledge of the Indian pre-independence freedom struggle that would culminate in 1947 barely a decade from the date of publication of this novel. Even the qualities that Bibhutibhushan adorns Shankar with are essentially heroic – determination, discipline, dedication, courage, spirit of adventure and above all self-belief. There is a deep sense of pride that fills Shankar as he sets out to conquer an alien continent, unknown country and hostile landscape. The contrast between India and Africa in terms of the landscape and temperament is manifest when Shankar says: “The Richtersveld Mountains are not like the divine Himalayas of India, the lord of the mountains. Like, the Masai, the Zulus, the Matabeles and other ancient tribes of this country, the soul of the mountain is cruel and hungry for human flesh. It will spare no one.” (Ibid, 77) These mountains harbor gruesome animals like the Bunip and the Dingonek, who can be traced to the folklore of the West African tribes of the Congo River basin. In so doing, Bibhutibhushan dexterously interweaves the Indian with the African – the temper, the culture, the myths, the folklore – so as to provide the young impressionable readers a glimpse into the variety, the richness of the cultures of the world, different and diverse from each other. The customs and traditions of our country define us and make us what we are. When Shankar offers his salutation to the magnificent, awe inspiring beauty of a spewing volcano on the Richtersveld Range he does so in a typical Indian way:
Shankar, the young man from India, raised both his hands, touched his forehead and saluted the mountain, Indian style, ‘Accept my pranam, O lord of destruction! You have given me the rare privilege of witnessing your dance of destruction. (Ibid, 111)
Earlier, Shankar’s decision to not to join the multitudes working in the factories of Bengal is influenced by his desire to curve out his own destiny, to be the master of his own life, to experience and achieve worldly wisdom literally, to be a man of the world. The wanderlust that Apu exhibits in Pather Panchali and then in Aparajita, is shared by Shankar too. Shankar along with Sushil, the protagonist of Heeramanik Jwale conveys the lessons of hard work, entrepreneurship, courage which the author communicates through these fictional but credible characters to Bengali readers. There is no overwhelming pecuniary motive or drive when Shankar is cutting across the Kalahari Desert alone, thirsty, and desperate. It is a question of survival than monetary gain or profit. What is undertaken is a pursuit of true knowledge, the visions of the world – “… a hundred diamond mines are nothing compared to this fantastic form that you [volcanic eruption] have taken. This alone is worth all my troubles and tribulations!” (Ibid, 111) The endeavour on the part of the writer could be to impart a didactic note into this adventure story in which the narrative elements of the thriller, the fantasy and the travelogue blend so smoothly. If this is the case, where is the logic in discounting YAL as insignificant or not worthy of a canonic representation? Philanthropy too exists in the mind of Shankar even at his tender age. At one point of time Shankar speculates about the wealth of good that his money could generate while providing financial, emotional relief to the real needy villagers of rural Bengal:
Oh! How fabulously wealthy he was today. Forget the diamond mine, even the six diamonds he had with him would be worth at least two or three lakhs rupees. If only he could reach his poor village and the humble home of his parents with that money! How many tears of poverties he could wipe off; how many poor unmarried girls he could find good husbands for, and with handsome dowries; how many old men and women in their last few days he could ensure their free lives for! But what was the point of dreaming about things that were never to happen? (Ibid, 158)
Howsoever Shankar had desired to explore and expand his knowledge through his peregrinations, his heart was very much attached to his own ‘native’ land, his country, his village and people. Often he would get nostalgic about his past life and try to establish a connection to his distant home cosmically: “He could see the Saptarishi Mandal shining brightly. In another far corner of the sky the Saptarishi would also have risen above a small village in Bengal, and so would that small sliver of a waning moon in the dark night.” (Ibid, 67) We are also exposed to the sensitivities of the young nature-loving Shankar: “Shankar had a beauty-loving, sensitive mind. (After all, he was a boy from the villages of Bengal, not a hard-headed gold prospector like Diego-Alvarez)”. (Ibid, 67)
Bibhutibhushan’s preference, as a writer for the young-adults, was obviously adventure. Only once did he attempt to write a detective fiction and that was Mismider Kabach. Adventure in itself would have been insufficient in holding the attention of the audience, more so if it comprised of young, curious, precocious, impatient boys and girls. Children’s picture books and large print books are recognizable enough to differentiate, and adult books indisputably deal with adult content, but YAL “extends and applies the spare language, the focused story, and the sharply etched conflicts of fiction for younger readers to the multilayered, often ambiguous situations of the dawning adult world.” (Aronson, 1997:1418) What Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhay managed to achieve within the pages of this novel was a gripping story-line to begin with told in a manner that befitted the theme. The narration is speedy, imagined in dense film-like detail and replete with incidents that are numerous and gripping in kind. What is apparent from our reading of Bibhutibhushan’s writing for young-adults is that pure human evil does not exist as one experience in the real world. Danger, often, is in the form of natural calamities or unknown species preying on human adventurers like Diego Alvarez and Jim Carter in Chander Pahar.
Thus Chander Pahar, previously established in the vernacular literary scene as a part of ‘kumar-sahitya’, and as a story of pubescent adventure, when translated by Pradeep Sinha as Moon Mountain, offers an opportunity to be consumed worldwide as a tale written in the style of YAL.
Jonathan Stephens in his article, “Young Adult: A Book by Any Other Name ...: Defining the Genre”, identifies how at least in America, in the fast-paced digital age, people seem to lack the will to read literature:
As America’s readership continues to shrink, marketing departments scramble for new strategies for getting books into readers’ hands. Bookstores have reshuffled their shelves and recategorized their sections, drawing titles from both Children’s and Grownup Fiction … to create the new Teen, or Young Adult, sections of their stores. (Stephens, 2007:34)
In this context, we may argue that where primacy is being given to the growth of readership, we need to nourish and value texts from the non-Western world that seem to enrich the established genres and modes of writing. These texts in translation may triumph where others have failed.
Marc Aronson. “The Challenge and the Glory of Young Adult Literature.” Booklist 93.16 (1997): p. 1418.
Cindy Lou Daniels. “Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies”. THE ALAN REVIEW 33.2 (Winter 2006): p. 78.
Terry Davis. “On the Question of Integrating Young Adult Literature into the Mainstream.” THE ALAN REVIEW 24.3 (Spring, 1997): p. 5.
Chitra Deb. “Bibhutibhushaner Kumar Sahitya”, in Bibhuti Smarak Grantha, eds. Rama Bandopadhay and Gajendrakumar Mitra. Calcutta: Mitra O Ghosh Publishers Private Ltd., 1995.
Jonathan Stephens. “Young Adult: A Book by Any Other Name . . .: Defining the Genre”. THE ALAN REVIEW 35.1 (Fall 2007).p. 34.
Pradeep. Sinha. Moon Mountain. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2007.