Mountains of the Moon
It is the early 20th century, well before the Great War engulfed Europe. Our protagonist, an athletic young man of about 20, has just returned to his village from Calcutta after finishing high school. His family expects him to become a clerk in the jute factory nearby, but he dreams of a less mundane life. He gets his wish when an acquaintance arranges a job for him in the East African railway. Thus begins a great adventure that involves man-eating lions, black mamba, volcanic eruption, Kalahari, cannibals, a mysterious apelike creature that doesn’t fear fire and a diamond mine deep in the heart of Africa.
I am talking about Chander Pahar (Mountains of the Moon). Unless you are Bengali, chances are that you’ve never heard of it. It is an adventure novel written by Bibhuti Bhushan Bondopadhyaya, a Bengali writer of the first half of the 20th century whose better known creation is Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). That book is better known because it is the subject of the Satyajit Ray classic Apu trilogy.
Well, anyone who has read Chander Pahar would agree that this book deserves its own Ray. It deserves to be made into a great action adventure movie. A Desi in the early 20th century facing an adventure like this, it has never been done — that kind of thing has so far been the white man’s monopoly. We just need a talented director and an astute producer, and we’ll have the first Bollywood action adventure epic.
And for anyone who hasn’t read this, over the fold is the first chapter translated.
Life in the village
Shankar hailed from the rural heart of Bengal. He had just returned to the village after passing the FA exam. His days were usually taken up by hanging out with friends in the morning, long siesta after lunch, and fishing in Pals’ big pond in the late afternoon. After he had spent the entire summer this way, his mother told him: Listen Shankar, I’ve to tell you something important. See your father is not doing too well health wise. In this situation, is there much point in you studying more? For one thing, where will the money come from? Better you look for a job, no?
This made Shankar think. It was definitely the case that his father wasn’t well physically. It was getting rather difficult for him to pay for Shankar’s upkeep in Calcutta. But what could Shankar do? Who would give him a job? Who did he know?
We are talking about a good half-decade before the Great War. Our tale is set in 1909. The job market in India was much better then than what it is today. Someone from Shankar’s village used to work in a jute mill in the district town. Shankar’s mother talked to this man’s wife — may be there would be some opportunity for him. The gentleman came to Shankar’s house the following day, he would try utmost to find Shankar a job.
Shankar was no ordinary boy. He came first in most sporting meets at school. The other year he won a medal in high jump at the district exhibition. It was very hard to find a better centre forward than him in those regions. He was a champion swimmer. He was an expert in climbing trees, riding horses or boxing. In Calcutta, he regularly boxed at the YMCA. Of course, all these meant that he didn’t do too well in studies, getting a second division in the exams.
But he was rather well versed in a peculiar subject. He was fascinated with studying maps and reading books on geography. He could tackle most geography problems. All the stars and systems that you could see in our sky — that one is Orion, and that the Cassiopeia, that one is Cancer, and that the Sagittarius — they were all in his fingertips. He could point out the right one without any trouble. It’s certain that not many Bengali boys knew much about this stuff.
He had brought heaps of those books back with him from Calcutta. He would read them in solitude, and he would day dream about, about what? This was when his father became ill, and with poverty looming, his mother made the request to take up the jute mill job. What would he do? What could he do? He couldn’t tolerate his parents’ suffering. So obviously he had to take up the jute mill job. But he also knew that this was not the subject of his dreams. A centre forward of football, the district champion in high jump, the famous swimmer Shankar, he would turn up as a clerk in a jute mill? Putting his rice and dal in the tiffin carrier, and a paan in a little box in the coat pocket, running to the mill every morning by the siren, back for a quick lunch at noon, then wait for the siren at six for the knock off time. He just couldn’t see himself in that life. His whole being was repelled by the very idea — a race stallion ending up pulling carts!… It was close to the evening. Sitting on the river bank, this is what Shankar was thinking. He wanted to sail off to some far away land, amidst danger, like Livingstone and Stanley, like Marco Polo and Robinson Crusoe. That is what he had prepared himself for since childhood. Of course, he had never thought that these could happen to men from other lands, not Bengal. Bengalis were brought up to be clerks, teachers, doctors or lawyers. For them, adventures in strange lands were just what you would read in books!
That night, by the dim light of the lamp, he opened up a big geography book. There was a particular chapter of the book that he really liked. This was about a German explorer climbing a mountain range, named Lunae Montes or mountains of the moon by the ancient Greeks, in Africa. He had read this passage many times. Everytime he read it, he dreamt that he would also climb mountains of the moon some day. Dreams! This would remain just as far as the real mountains of the moon… as if mountains of the moon ever descended to the earth!
That night he had a peculiar dream…
He was in a deep forest. There was a herd of elephants. Him and there was somebody else, they were climbing up a steep mountain, a mountain of the moon. There was bamboo, orchids in huge tree branches, fallen leaves, occasionally the naked back of the hill — and you could see over the yonder, amid the trees, in the pale moonlight the snow white peak — now you could see it, now it was behind the wood. On the clear sky there was a star or a few. The noise of the elephants made the whole forest shiver. It was so loud and clear that Shankar woke up! Sitting up on his bed, he saw that it was dawn, the sunshine breaking into his room through the window.
Oh what a dream! As they say, pre-dawn dreams apparently come true.
There was a very old temple, well rather the ruins of a very old temple, in their village. Madan Ray, son-in-law of one of the twelve Bhuiyans, apparently built the temple before the days of the Mughals. Well no one from Madan Ray’s family were around. The temple was in ruins, with trees replacing the walls. But where the idol used to be, there a prayer still was held every Saturday, with village girls placing vermillion and flowers. There was no priest, but everyone used to say that no prayer in the ruin ever went unheard. That day after bath, Shankar went by the ruins to make a prayer.
In the afternoon he sat at the grassy field by the ruins. There was an old house around, said to be haunted as there was a murder there when Shankar was a child — since then the owner had left the village. Haunted or not, few people ever ventured that way. But Shankar rather liked this quiet lawn.
That pre-dawn dream left a mark in his mind. Sitting by the haunted house and the old temple, he remembered the dream again. Those herd of wild elephant, that snowy peak beyond the wild — as if they were the beginning of some dream world. How many dreams did he have in his life? Did any make such a mark?
Of course it was all a lie. He had to go and join a jute mill. Was that not his fate?
But people’s lives are full of strange twists and turns, and since novel is but a reflection of life, should there be not such twists and turns in a novel?
There was indeed an unexpected twist in Shankar’s life.
He just came back from a wander round the river bank that morning when Mrs Mukherjee gave him a piece of paper and said: Baba Shankar, we’ve heard from my son-in-law after all these time, he wrote to their house, and yesterday Pinto got the address from there. Can you read it for me please?
Shankar said: Two years that he has been gone, no? And this ain’t the first time either! Then he looked at the paper. It read: Prasad Banerjee, Uganda Railway Head Office, Construction Department, Mombasa, East Africa.
Shankar dropped the piece of paper. East Africa! People live home and go that far? He knew that his childhood friend Nanibala’s husband was of a daring nature. Once he even met the guy in this village — Shankar then just joined the entrance class. Actually he was a rather liberal guy, fairly well educated, just couldn’t last in a job. Once he had gone off to Burma or Indochina or somewhere. This time round too he left home after a fight with his elder brother — Shankar knew this. But he had gone off to East Africa!
Mrs Mukherjee didn’t quite realise just how far her son-in-law had gone. She had no idea where East Africa is. Shankar note the address down, and within a week sent off a letter. Could he remember Shankar, a boy from his wife’s village? He has passed the FA exam. Could he find a job for him in the railway? He is ready to go as far as necessary.
Nearly a month and a half later, when Shankar had nearly given up, he received a letter. It read:
2 Port Street
I’ve received your letter. I remember you very well. That time I lost to you in arm wrestling, no way I’d ever forget that. You want to come here? Come over. Young men like yourself should not waste themselves at home. They are constructing new lines, and they need people. Come as soon as you can. I take the responsibility for finding you a job.
Shankar’s father was very happy to see the letter. He too was a daring guy in his youth. He wasn’t happy to see his son join a jute mill, but poverty made him agree to it.
Within the next month Shankar received a telegram. Prasad had returned home. Shankar should see him immediately. He would return to Mombassa in a few days, and could take Shankar with him.