A Must Read Bengali Novel: Pather Panchali

I’ve read books about Indian history, books set in India and a book on the life of Gandhi, all written by outsiders.  V.S. Naipaul’s India, a book I just completed, is a critical look at post-colonial India in the 70’s.  Naipaul, a Hindu born and raised in Trinidad traveled to India in 1975,  during a State of Emergency that would last for three years, to chronicle a country struggling with social and political unrest under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.  Naipaul writes of a crippling caste system which preserves and perpetuates poverty.  He gives an unflattering critique of the Hindu concept of dharma (truth to oneself) that he believes has prevented India from breaking the chains of colonial oppression and launching a cultural and technological renaissance.  While I don’t have the expertise to weigh in on the issue, I can say with some certainty that the India of today is not the country it once was in the 70’s and that Naipaul’s premise seems to have been proven wrong.

I’ve read E. M. Forster’s, A Passage to India and Kipling’s Kim, set in Lahore, then a part of India prior to Independence and the Partition of Punjab.   Both novels written by Englishmen capture a period of time in India during British colonial rule.

Until recently though, I had never read any authentic Indian literature.  Thanks to a friend who has traveled extensively in India with her family, I have just completed the Bengali novel she gave me upon return to the country,  Pather Panchali, Song of the Road by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The back cover describes it as a masterpiece.  And it is.  At the risk of diminishing its beauty, I have to compare it to the Sandra Cisneros’ classic, House on Mango Street or to the brilliant film, Cinema Paradiso.  The work is a loose collection of stories from the perspective of Opu and Durga, the children of a poor Brahmin family struggling to survive, plagued by poverty, mother nature and the cruelty of unsympathetic neighbors.  We experience rural village life in India through the two young siblings.  Though poor and relentlessly teased, Opu and Durga find joy and wonderment in everyday life.  Their adventures are as captivating as those found in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The book may not be in your local library, but it is available for purchase on-line and is a must read.  And if you can find a copy of the film based on the story directed by the famous Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, buy it, or Netflix it.  The film marked Ray’s debut in 1955 and it won a number of international awards including recognition at Cannes.  In addition to countless National Film Awards, Ray won an honorary Academy Award in 1992 and has made  several “Best Directors of All Time” lists.

Pather Panchali, Song of the Road.  Pick up a copy and you’ll soon be singing its praises, as you shed a few tears trekking through the rural Indian countryside with young Opu as your guide.  And if you are patient, you just might see a train or learn to fly.

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