Thursday, July 15, 2010

Neem Tree

By Banaphool (Translated by Dipannita Datta; published by Rupa & Co., 2004)

Some people are skinning the bark and boiling them.

Some are tearing off the leaves and crushing them on the grindstone.

Some are frying them in heated oil.

They will apply it to scabies, itches, and chilblain.

It is an unfailing medicine for skin diseases.

Many eat the tender leaves too.

Just raw…

Or fried with brinjal.

It is very beneficial for the liver.

Many people split the young stems and chew them…

Keeps teeth healthy.

The ayurved experts are effusive in its praise.

The wise people are pleased if it grows near the house.

They say the neem-breeze is good for health; let it stand—don’t chop it off.

They don’t cut it, but don’t nurse it either.

Garbage accumulates around.

Some fence it with whetstone—there’s another kind of rubbish.

One day a new type of person arrives.

He keeps on gazing at the neem tree fascinated. He does not flay the bark, nor does he tear the leaves, or break the stems, he keeps on staring at the neem tree with amazement.

He utters on a sudden inspiration: Wah! How beautiful the leaves are… What a beauty!

How lovely are the flower bunches too… They are like a shower of stars that have come down from the blue sky to the green below. Wah!

He gazes at it for sometime and leaves.

Not an expert in ayurved, he is simply a poet.

The neem tree wishes to go away with that man. But cannot. The roots have gone far and deep into the soil. It is forced to stand there, in the backyard of the house amidst heaps of rubbish.

Exactly like the gentle, hard-working daughter-in-law of that house.

This is the first story from the book Neem Tree, a compilation of short stories by Bengali writer Banaphool (Balaichand Mukhopadhyay).

The first thing that struck me in Banaphool’s stories is the sheer simplicity of writing. Sure, the version I read was superbly translated by Dipannita Datta, so my reaction to the stories has as much to do with Datta’s interpretation of Banaphool’s words and thoughts, as it does with the original author’s plot.

Being a “trained journalist”, one is taught the value of brevity. And so, even if I can’t do it myself, I can certainly appreciate it. Telling the entire story is as few words as possible is something Banaphool has mastered. His sentences are short, crisp, complete. There’s no getting lost in a muddle of words trying to pour the entire dictionary into 10-odd pages. Rather one gets lost appreciating the profundity of his word play. His genre would not only be short stories, but “ultra short” stories.

According to Datta, who had once collated his 550-story oeuvre, 125 of Banaphool’s story could be printed on one single sheet!

Banaphool’s propensity for the ironical twists in our lives is definitely O. Henry-esq. He does dabble in the painting contrast pictures every now and then, but his real skill lies in playing with the deeper contrasts in life. Two brothers questioning their religion/faith for someone they love; a couple in bed dreaming about their respective romances before they got married; the n number of possibilities for Sulekha crying on a full-moon night—his repertoire is endless.

Intrinsically based in the hinterlands of Bengal, the writer talks about all kinds of human relationships that’s built of out love, respect and even hatred, with that characteristic twist at the end of it all. But at the same time, his plots are timeless, and his connections global.

My reading of the Neem Tree bouquet (as Datta introduces the book) was reminiscent of my experience with an Asimov omnibus, where after 11 stories I knew exactly where the storyline was headed. Eventually I gave the book up out of sheer boredom. But Neem Tree was more pleasant. Not only could I not keep the book down, even if the “twist” in the tale was staring me in the face from the fourth para onwards, what mattered to me was the journey to the end. And that is where Banaphool excels—stringing those sentences in such a tantalizing way that you’re addicted to them. You know the destination, but you want to get there with Banaphool—not before him, not after him.

Thank you Rajeshwari for introducing me to such a wonderful writer.

And for those who have taken the time to read this post, do get yourself a copy. It's certainly worth it.

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