I am only just now discovering for myself the wonderful literary creations of Satyajit Ray — young adult literature that is pure enjoyment for all ages. I finished The Diary of a Space Traveller, and am on weekends working through the large collection of detective stories, Feluda. The first of the stories of Professor Shonku opens with the discovery of his diary in a meteor crater, and this is one of the first lines:
Oh God, was he going to tell me another story about a tiger? Tarak Babu had this most annoying habit of dragging a tiger into whatever anecdote he happened to relate. (2)
Who can resist this? There is no tiger, but an irascible and brilliant old man who ceaselessly invents the most wonderful things. The first entry in Professor Shonku’s diary sets the stage, when he is startled by an intruder — a weird looking man — but finds it is simply his own reflection that has startled him, as his faithful servant has removed an old calendar from the mirror. So he shoots his servant with a snuff gun, ensuring he will be sneezing for next 33 hours. I am not generally in favour of shooting servants ever, but I am indeed in favour of the existence of a snuff gun. I also enjoyed his desire to invent various pills for making annoying people uncomfortable enough to leave him alone.
His is not precise science you understand, more that marvelous old-fashioned alchemical science that relied on bunson burners and vials, glasses full of strangely coloured liquids bubbling over flames and jars full of rare and magical things (like the whiskers of lobsters). And this is not a world empty of what appears to be magic, but one where science acknowledges there is much that it does not yet know.
It is a world of intelligent cats and crows and nosy neighbours and rockets and all things nice.
It has titles like ‘Professor Shonku and the Egyptian Terror’, and another reason to love the professor:
I decided to visit this strange tomb, if I could find the time and opportunity. I love cats. I had to leave my own Newton at home. I feel homesick whenever I think of him. (161)
These particularly reminded me of Verne or Conan Doyle — Professor Shonku is described by Satyajit Ray as a mixture of Doyle’s Professor Challenger and his own father Sukomar’s creation Hesoram Hushiar. They are told resolutely from a Bengali perspective. A scientist with many friends in European and American circles, who travels widely and is as widely respected, but still within a post-colonial reality where he occupies a certain space. He is told by a sinister Egyptian:
‘You appear to be an Indian. So why are you getting mixed up with these white brutes? Why are you so concerned about the ancient and holy objects of our past?’
Despite this space, he shares some shortcomings that usually I only associate with Americans and Europeans —
But that was really not so amazing, was it? Bengalis might be a most diverse race–two unrelated men rarely look similar. But the Egyptians are different. On Egyptian frequently looks like another. (174)
Oh dear…he says something very similar about the Chinese. But still. His love of ancient and holy objects and knowing the past is actually combined with a strong respect and ethics in dealing with such things found rarely if ever in fiction by white authors. I loved ‘Professor Shonku and the Box from Baghdad’, where they come across both mystery and treasure and this happens:
Al-Hubbbal smiled a little dryly. ‘I don’t mean you, Professor Shonku, but–‘ he paused and glanced at Goldstein, ‘–many of our valuable possessions have made their way to museums in the West. So even if you didn’t want anything for your own use, I fear you might tell some museum or other about things you’ve seen.’
Goldstein looked embarrassed… (211)
Spoiler alert — Goldstein does in fact try to take the marvelous Box, and he is struck down with a fitting punishment.
Finally. Everyone gives a cheer.
This little book ends most delightfully with more information about both Satyajit Ray as author (and, of course, famous director) and Professor Shonku. There are two fact files and these brilliant lists as little games that younger readers can play guessing their meanings. The first list is of some of Shonku’s inventions:
Pretty awesome. And then there are all these wonderful compounds:
Immensely enjoyable, the only thing I am saddened by is the lack of presence his hometown of Giridi bears in the stories, or any of the cities he visits. But you can’t have everything.