Set in the picturesque backdrop of the Kanha-Kisli forest reserve of Madhya Pradesh, Madhukari is a novel about Prithu Ghosh. Prithu has always wanted to live life on his own terms. Just as a tiger is not reliant on others, he too did not wish to be dependent on his wife, family and society. He was constantly at odds with the dependent on his wife, family and society. He could not endorse their superfluity, hypocrisy, class-consciousness and a constant need to pull others down. Showing complete apathy for the high society to which he belonged, he went around with his motley group of friends whom his wife scorned as ‘riff-raff’.
But can Prithu really live like a powerful tiger? Or will reality compel him to accept that man is far too frail and dependent on others to blaze his own trail? Human beings like Prithu have to go around to countless other men and women, begging from door with outstretched palams from the day they are born till the moment of their death, Is madhukari then another name of this wandering?
This novel of epic proportions is not just an account of Prithu’s extraordinary story. The constant presence of nature in the novel makes it tantamount to a character in its own right. The fluidity of description, the dexterity of characterizations and the authority with which a wide variety of references is incorporated into the texture of the narrative make Madhukari one of the most skillfully and powerfully written novels of modern Bengali literature.
Buddhadev Guha (b. 1935), a successful charted accountant by profession and a writer, painter and singer of considerable talent is considered as one of the leading and most sought after authors in contemporary Bengali literature. He has written over 150 books, comprising novels, short stories and poems, never looking back since his first novel was published in 1967. Among his many novels, Guha rates Madhukari as his best work—an opinion upheld by readers and critics alike for nearly three decades. In fact, it is ranked as a top bestseller even to this day. This publication of an English translation of Madhukari has fulfilled Guha’s long-awaited dream and is even more satisfying since the translator is an old college friend from his teenage days.
Shankar Sen (b. 1936), an engineer and a retired bank executive, writes prose and poetry in both English and Bengali and has had ten books published during the last seven years. In addition to his own collections of poems in English and Bengali and short stories in English, Shankar Sen has translated some of the best-known works of eminent Bengali authors in English. His last book, The Quest, is an English translation of the film-script of filmmaker Gaoutam Ghose’ss critically acclaimed Moner Manush based on a novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay.
'Madhukari' is the lifestyle of a hermit, who is comparable to a bee gathering honey from flower to flower, as he moves from door to door with a bowl in his hand, content with what the householders hand out on their own and never begging for alms or protesting even if he has to return empty-handed at the end of the day. This is one of those rare words in our Bengali language for which no appropriate expression can be found in the English dictionary. Reluctant to mar the significance of the title in any way, my friend Shankar Sen and I decided to retain it for this English version as well.
Madhukari is the story of Prithu Ghosh, a man, who was born in a rich and aristocratic Bengali family, educated in England and employed as an engineer and a top executive in a shellac factory of Madhya Pradesh (erstwhile Central Province) in India. He was married to Rusha, a highly educated, smart and exceptionally beautiful woman and he had two school-going children. But still he could not settle down to a comfortable domestic life, as he found it irksome to move around in the so- called elite society to which he belonged, a society, which was prone to imitate Western habits and spend hours in idle conversation on money, investments, assets and foreign trips. Rather, he preferred to mingle with common people, whom his wife considered 'riff-raff - the owner of a shoe shop, a watch repairer, a motor mechanic, a penniless hermit, to name just a few and his constant companion, a tribal hunter, who had served his father and looked after him when he was a boy.
Prithu was a wanderer and a nature-lover, who enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. He had started going on hunting trips with his father at the age of ten and had hunted tigers in his youth. But he had lost all interest in the sport later, although this did not stop him from retaining a close friendship with his erstwhile hunting companions. Prithu Ghosh was a poet at heart and he had dreams of composing a great novel in Bengali, a masterpiece - an idea for which he was ridiculed time and again by his wife Rusha with her predilection for Western culture. But here Prithu found encouragement from Kurchi, a woman of plain looks and a modest background, who was his childhood sweetheart and shared his love for Bengali literature and songs of Rabindranath Tagore.
Prithu had a feeling that not one but several different men lived within him and this was reflected in his love life as well. By sheer coincidence he came in contact with a pretty baiji, a professional singer, who fell in love with him. Later, it was at her place that Prithu had an encounter with a notorious dacoit, who was shot dead by Prithu but the dacoit's bullet struck his leg, which had to be amputated in due course. Destined to move on crutches for the rest of his life, Prithu received a further jolt when his wife chose to leave him at that very time with her two children and start living with a rich businessman, who was younger than her. Prithu resigned from his job and moved out to a remote area, where he was reunited with Kurchi for a while, but then his wandering spirit led him away to unknown destinations and that is where the story leaves him in the end.
But Madhukari is not just a saga on the life of Prithu Ghosh. It brings out numerous other characters from all walks of life, displaying their way of thinking, their strengths and weaknesses and their different way of reacting to the inevitable ups and downs of life. The novel is staged in the backdrop of the forests and hills of the Maikal range of Madhya Pradesh, but Hatchandra, where Prithu lived and worked, was conceived from my imagination. This was something which I found hard to convince many readers who returned from Madhya Pradesh after making futile efforts to trace the town.
Like every human being Prithu Ghosh had dearly sought happiness in life but happiness had always eluded him. His wife Rusha's temperament, tastes, likes and dislikes were almost diametrically opposed to his own. His children, who grew up under their mother's tutelage, had a tendency to look down upon him. His childhood girlfriend, whom he had always adored secretly in his heart, had never hesitated to express her disappointment over the fact that he had failed to offer himself for her hand at the proper time. And even one of his closest friends, the car mechanic whom he treated like a brother, had changed his attitude when he developed a strong infatuation for Prithu's beautiful wife. And then he lost a leg and was denied even the simple pleasure of moving freely m the forests and hills, a pastime that he enjoyed most. But still Prithu Ghosh never sought compassion from anyone, nor did he hang down his head in frustration or resort to tears of depression. He carried on with his life, undaunted by all these debacles and undeterred by any attachments to the many men and women who crossed his path. He was alone but never forlorn, he was denied love but never miserable, he was deprived of a limb but never felt handicapped.
Many say that Madhukari is the greatest achievement of my literary career and I must confess that it had been my dream for many years to see this epic novel translated in English. It was by no means an easy job to translate such a voluminous literary work, involving so many diverse characters, many unspoken thoughts of deep significance, sensitive dialogues, meaningful poems and touching songs, not to speak of several apt and yet intricate couplets in Urdu, which I had mostly picked up from the companions of my hunting days. But I am overwhelmed by the remarkable skill with which Shankar Sen has reproduced all this in English, retaining the smooth rhythmic flow of the original Bengali version from beginning to end.
Prithu Ghosh had wished to live his life like a powerful tiger. But that did not happen. He realised in the end that no delicate human being could live like a tiger; only a tiger could live that way by growing to its full potential. Human beings like Prithu had to approach countless men, moving from door to door with their empty bowls of unfulfilled desires all their lives. Affection, love, lust, parental adoration, devotion, respect, hatred, enmity, anger, compassion and even indifference were like trembling wicks of a thousand Diwali lamps which the wanderer must reach out and touch even if with hesitant hands in his journey of life. As Prithu realised this truth he started to wonder - was madhukari another name of this wandering? And it is from this symbolic question, which must have arisen in the minds of men and women from time immemorial, that this literary effort has acquired its title.
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