Before I start to write a review, I’d like to take the opportunity to pat my own back. For there was a time when I really thought I’d never get around to reading Bengali literature – but here I am, having accomplished what I set out to do.
Shankar Choudhuri is the protagonist of ‘Chander Pahar’ (‘Mountain of the Moon’) by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the novelist famous for penning the novels on which Satyajit Ray‘s Apu trilogy is based. Shankar is your brilliant youngster in every respect – a good student with decent grades, an excellent athlete and a thirst for knowledge and adventure in his life. However, the year is 1909 and what awaits him at the end of his schooling is an ordinary clerical job at a jute factory. So when an acquaintance offers him the opportunity to work abroad, Shankar grabs it with both hands & lands in the middle of Africa, working for the Ugandan Railway Company.
Living in the vast grasslands of Africa with Europeans and locals alike as they go laying tracks for trains is not bereft of danger, for man-eating predators roam freely and a moment of indiscretion or complacency can often result in one’s death. During his stationmaster duty at a remote station in Kenya, he happens to meet the Portuguese traveller Diego Alvarez, famished and on the verge of death. He nurses him back to health and Alvarez, in gratitude towards the young lad, decides to take him under his wing. Together, they set off on a great adventure in search of a legendary treasure that lies in an unknown cave, hidden somewhere in the forests of the Richtersveldt Mountain Range. But in a place where civilization has never set foot before, mere survival is often the biggest challenge. Will Shankar survive the ordeal of rainforests, high-terrain climbs, deserts, seemingly mythical beasts & live the life he had always craved for?
Despite the fact that the book falls under the category of children’s literature, it bears the hallmark of Bibhutibhushan’s work. The novelist is one of the major exponents of literary fiction in Bengali literature and so the prose is a notch higher than what I’ve encountered in Satyajit Ray’s short novellas featuring the sleuth ‘Feluda’ or in ‘Anandamela’, the Bengali literary magazine for children. So I can count myself lucky for having someone in the house who was willing to entertain my questions on vocabulary (thank you Maa!) every other time I was reading this.
The only point of criticism on my part is that the story could’ve been a bit shorter. I mean, it’s an adventure tale & if something starts to feel a tad repetitive, you’re killing the magic of it. To quote my mother’s take on this –
“Golpo kam, sahitya beshi” (Less of fiction & more of literature)
All in all, ‘Chander Pahar’ is arguably one of the finest adventure novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading & even if you cannot read Bengali, there’s always the English translation you can check out. Highly recommended.