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B+ : charming but disjointed
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
The opening paragraph of Pather Panchali introduces the pater familias of the quartet at the heart of this family-novel, and covers most of the essentials:
Horihor Ray was a Brahmin. He lived in a small brick-built house in the village of Nishchindipur. It was the last house at the extreme northern end of the village. He was not well-to-do. All he had to live on was the meagre rent from a tiny plot of land he had inherited from his father and some fees paid to him by a few households he served as family priest.In fact, Horihor is only intermittently a real presence in the story -- responsible for the family, and their circumstances, but also away from the house much of the time, he becomes a somewhat secondary figure in this novel that centers on the world of his two children, and how they perceive it.
The novel is divided into two parts of very different length: a relatively short first one, 'The Old Aunt', and then the much longer 'Children Make their Own Toys'. In the first part the old aunt, Indir Thakrun -- "a distant widowed relative of Horihor's", with nowhere else to go -- is the dominant adult and, along with Horihor's then six-year-old daughter, Durga, the main figure. We learn a bit about Horihor's life and there are some recollections of the past -- for example, his reunion with Shorbojoya, whom he had been married to as a child and then only met again (and brought back home as his wife) a decade later, when both were adult. The big events in 'The Old Aunt', however, are the birth of their son, Khoka ("most baby boys are called Khoka"), -- also called Opu -- and then the death of Indir, which marks a turning point:
The death of Indir Thakrun brought the old days to an end in Nishchindipur village.Durga is the only one who is truly fond of the old woman, while Shorbojoya and Indir constantly quarrel, with the old woman repeatedly going off in a huff (to the relief of Shorbojoya, glad to be rid of her, and the disappointment of Durga), but inevitably returning.
The household is a fairly unexceptional one, but the different family members' characters (except infant Opu's) already show through in this first section: testy (if also loving) Shorbojoya; the often uninvolved or outright absent Horihor; curious Durga, always roaming and gathering.
The second part of the novel begins some four or five years later, with Opu now old enough also to explore the world and get into trouble along with his sister. The two frequently venture out -- even when, as she gets older, Durga is expected to behave more like a young woman and demurely spend more of her time at home ("You go around the place like vagabond, though you're old enough to be married now", her mother complains) -- and though they never roam terribly far by themselves one gets the sense of childish world-discovery that comes with slowly extending physical boundaries (along with the fear that comes, at having ventured too far, or stayed out too late). If Durga is the somewhat more practical one -- always on the lookout for fallen fruit to pick or other goodies to collect -- both live quite joyously in their vivid imaginations.
Mere awareness of distance was enough to fill his little mind with a feeling of wonder and make him happy. [...] He could not explain what he felt, but whenever he thought of things or places that were a long way off he seemed to be lifted out of himself and transported to another world.Pather Panchali collects scenes from this family's village life, rarely straying beyond it: Opu has one adventure visiting an aunt, and there's a brief description of Horihor's journeys as he tries to find gainful employment, his Brahmin reciting-skills not exactly in high demand. If not quite the "island in the middle of the jungle" Opu sees Nishchindipur as, it can certainly feel that way, the world beyond it barely imaginable, especially for the young children, and hardly real.
Adventure, of sorts, does comes to them, and Nishchindipur -- visiting salesmen and entertainers, a theater troupe. There's some schooling -- the very small-time local school run by a man who also has a grocery shop, the two located in adjoining rooms between which there is no partition. Later, Opu also befriends "an aged Vaisnava teacher", whom he spends a great deal of time with, but there's only a limited sense of any progression of learning. More convincing is Opu's growing love of books, and his efforts to get his hands on reading material.
Stories are important to everyone in the family, and there's constant story-telling (and demands for it) -- though few of these are actually recounted even in summary-form. Books give Opu access to an even greater store of them and he happily loses himself in these -- "he did not put any of them down till he had finished it, even though his eyes often ached and his temples throbbed". Not surprisingly, he also eventually writes his own.
Despite their different characters, the family-members are all dreamers. We only learn relatively late of the early days of the parents' marriage, Shorbojoya living in: "a golden haze", certain of her learned husband being recognized and rewarded; of course:
Month after month, year after year went by, but no horseman clad in gold braid came galloping up to the house at midnight with a letter appointing him head pundit; nor did any spirit from the Arabian Nights fly down through the air to change their broken-down house into a gem-encrusted dream palace.It becomes clear here that it is this environment that has formed the two children, too, and Opu in particular, an optimism and vision that may be fantastical but is nevertheless sufficient to carry them quite happily through:
Life can be very sweet, when it is made up of dreams and fond imaginings. The dreams may be false, the imaginings carry no promise that they will come to pass; but if none of them are ever realized they are still life's greatest, its only treasure. So let them come. Let them live on in our lives for ever.There is also tragedy here -- even if it is presented muted, perhaps because it is too devastating to address in almost any way. If not quite out of nowhere -- she's ill for a while -- so Durga's death still comes surprisingly. But Bandopadhyay finds himself incapable of describing the effect it has on the family directly. Memories of her bubble up again, but the novel moves on quickly and abruptly: life here very much goes on, while these changed circumstances, this sudden absence, a gaping hole in the family and each of the family-members, is barely touched on.
Much of Pather Panchali is similarly abrupt. Things happen, and then other things happen. There is little continuity, and very little sense of progress, beyond Opu slowly maturing. What would have been Durga's fate -- marriage, separation from her family -- is avoided by her premature death, while Horihor's career never goes anywhere. Other lives are glimpsed, but only in brief windows, and in passing.
Bandopadhyay does ultimately use some elements of his story to tie things together, as it were. One of Durga and Opu's early adventures was an attempt to see a train; they fell short, but Durga's longing to see one remains -- and when Opu finally does he is, in part, fulfilling her dream, even if she is not physically there with him. Another abruptly cut-off episode had Durga accused of stealing an object; unresolved at that point, Bandopadhyay does get back to it in the end, too -- a novelist-trick of sorts, and decent enough in its resolution even if not ideally handled in how he sets it up.
Quite disjointed and episodic, Pather Panchali is a charming story of (mainly) childhood, or of scenes from childhood and village life -- similar, in many ways, to, for example, Andrea Hirata's The Rainbow Troops. Realistic in its portrayal -- childhood generally doesn't have the neat narrative arc novels prefer, and Bandopadhyay manages to avoid making it a story of the stepping-stones to adulthood, lessons learnt and illusions lost one after another on the way to maturity -- it has a very loose feel, and can't quite offer the satisfactions of either a well-turned novel or of simply an album of events: it tries to be a 'novel' but isn't quite. Bandopadhyay's refusal to address Durga's death, and its effects on the family, will likely disappoint readers; too much seems to be withheld here, especially given how forthright Bandopadhyay is elsewhere. Other loose ends -- especially the stray, lost children Opu befriends -- are more emotionally satisfyingly addressed, but here too the abruptness with which these stories are dropped and lost (in one case the boy leaves the village, in another Opu leaves behind the girl at the place he was visiting) is disappointing for readers more accustomed to at least a hint of closure.
Where Pather Panchali shines is in how well it captures its dreamers -- each of the family, in turn, but especially Opu -- and how they can live in their imaginations and hopes. It is an optimistic tale, and while the miserable condition of the family plays a prominent role -- especially in the mother's disappointment not to be able to provide for her children what some of her neighbors can, and in Durga's constant rummaging for anything she can find, as well as her carefully-tended box of treasures -- there's rarely any sense of true misery. Instead, they revel in the small joys, and provide small joys for one another -- scenes such as Durga organizing a picnic, and their joy at playing for real for once, instead of just make-believe (showing even Opu realizing the difference), where, even if Durga's first cooking efforts don't all go quite right, the pride and happiness in the accomplishment outweigh any possible complaints about the slightly burnt and unseasoned food.
If one scene can sum up Pather Panchali, it may be the one in which Opu picks some flowers as he leaves the Vaisnava teacher's house after a day happily spent with the master and his stories. When he gets home he puts the flowers on his bed, and then gets to his lessons, as his father expects him to work for an hour each night and he dutifully does. When he is finished:
He bundled up his books without an instant's delay and ran to his room, jumped on to the bed, and buried his face in his precious flowers, breathing in their fragrance and murmuring their lovely name, champak, golden champak. They were only flowers of course, flowers he had brought home and put on his bed; but they were much more than that to him. Their scent was full of memories, happy memories of the games he had played and all the fun he had had. It made him sad to think that happy things could have an end, and that Time could snatch away the hours of gold. The wonderful thing about the champak flowers today was that they seemed able to make Time recoil upon itself and to cancel out the sense of loss which so often grieved him. The past became present again, and he was out at his play once more. It was late, but he still lay on, his face buried deep on his posy and his heart warm with the joys he had plucked from the thieving hand of Time.Pather Panchali itself is very similar, and its success comes from Bandopadhyay being able to immerse himself in the past in such a way, writing from the sense of wonder (and ignorance) of the child, untainted by the melancholy of the adult worn down by the passage of time and all that has been lost. The immediacy of the text leaves little room for sentimentality in these recollections: Bandopadhyay immerses himself -- and the reader -- in his story just as Opu does with his flowers.
There is no denying that the narrative is, in its sometimes jumbled and certainly disjointed presentation, something of a mess -- it couldn't pass muster in even the most basic fiction- or memoir-writing MFA course. But it is nevertheless consistently winning and, somewhat surprisingly, very satisfying, even as a whole.
It should be noted that, as translator T.W.Clark explains in his Introduction, this English version of Pather Panchali is brought to a close earlier than the original Bengali text. Here it is the family's departure from Nishchindipur which closes out the story -- while in the original Bandopadhyay continues with (so Clark): "chapters which emotionally and dramatically belong to the sequel". Clark goes on at quite some length in justifying this editing decision, noting:
This decision finds corroboration in a like decision by others who have in different ways been concerned with the presentation of our story. Satyjit Ray, who produced the film version, chose to end at this point; as did Sajanikanta Das who abbreviated the book fr children. We are informed also that the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, and the French translator of the text(I should probably just leave this information without comment -- or post a picture of the dent in my wall where I flung the book in disgust upon reading this -- but I can't help myself: sure, it's a 'reasonable' decision, on some (perverse) level, but I say, yet again and always: not yours to make. Trust readers; trust the writer; most importantly, trust the text -- and don't mess with its integrity. So much is already lost in translation -- don't make it many times worse by actually cutting text wholesale.)
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 January 2016
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Bengali-writing author Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay (also Banerji; বিভূতিভূষণ বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়) was born in 1894 and died in 1950.
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