The Puppets' Tale belong to the mainstream of world literature in its sources of conflict: father against son; education against tradition; village against city; man against fate; and the inexhaustible enigma of man-woman relationship. In the context of Indian literature, The Puppets' Tale is yet another outstanding example of the enormous amalgamative power of India through the ages.
One of the greatest Bengali authors, Manik Bandyopadhyaya (1908-1956) set a new trend in Indian fiction with his uncompromising realism. He portrays his characters with sympathy but without a trace of sentimentality. The Puppets' Tale is generally regarded as his most outstanding novel and has already been rendered into several Indian and other languages.
MANIK BANDYOPADAYAYA (1908-1956) was one of that select band of writers in Bengali literature who in the twenties of the present century broke new and hitherto forbidden ground by depicting the realities of the life of the common people till then avoided by the older and 'respectable' writers. A social edifice built up and maintained almost intact over the preceding seven centuries was breaking down under the impact of industrialisation, urban development and changes, in the economic pattern. The human aspect, of this disintegration-the conflicts and tragedies of personalities which it involved-commanded the attention of these writers who were mostly young and devoted to their cause in the, face of hardships and opposition. The young rebels struck out resolutely against the prevalent sentimentality and romanticism and in the course of a decade succeeded in establishing a major trend which quickly influenced the course of Iiterature in other Indian languages. The youngest member of this group, Manik Bandyopadhyaya, was only nineteen when he made his debut as a writer of fiction . A friend's casual remark led him to try his hand at writing a short story. The appreciative editor of a prominent literary journal not only published it but went so far as to call on the young author to offer his congratulations. This encouragement proved decisive for his 'future career; he left his undergraduate science class and. became a writer.
Having discovered his métier, Manik now gave himself up to his literary pursuits which, while bringing him instant recognition, also made him the centre of a controversy. A considerable portion of his output of more than fifty volumes of novels and short stories pictures life in the rural areas of Bengal in which he had lived in boyhood and early youth. He differed from his contemporary realists in that he was an objectivist; he wrote, as he himself once said, from direct experience : 'there is no place in my writings for fancies-in my opinion, imaginary things are without truth or reality.' This deliberate naturalism made him a man apart. It is probable that he was influenced in this by his early acquaintance with Maxim Gorky's works in English translation; certainly his earlier works, such as the one presented here, show the same deep undercurrent of pity, meticulous observation and determined eschewal of sentimentality. His later works, however, are tinged by a cynicism engendered by his own hard life, failing health and ideological obsessions. His daring portrayals of social disintegration and the decay of human values made him once again a controversial figure. But his objectivism has left a powerful impress on many of his younger contemporaries who have followed the trend he set in motion.
It is interesting to note that among Bengali novels chosen for translation by UNESCO, two written by two contemporaries deal with life in the village-the present novel, Putul Nacher Itikatha (literally, 'Annals of the Dolls' Dance') by Manik Bandyopadhyaya, and Pather Panchali (brilliantly rendered into a film by Satyajit Ray) by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay. Although each is, in its own way, a great human document, it is difficult to conceive of a greater contrast in outlook and temperament. Manik's book is, so to say, a naturalist's report on the behaviour of human ants, while Bibhuti Bhushan's is a romantic paean to the unconquerable spirit of man in the face of all odds. Not that the latter took less note of the stark realities of life around him than the former; but while Manik looked levelly about the horizon and saw the dusty earth and people, the other up above the tree-line and beheld the stars.
,p> For a better appreciation of the present novel, first published in 1936, it is useful to start with a general idea of the topography of the region and the cultural environment of the people portrayed in it. More than one-half of the province of Bengal (split up since 1947 into two different provinces of India and Pakistan, respectively), comprising the Ganges- Brahmaputra delta, is so closely intersected by rivers and canals that communication by road and rail is severely restricted. Nearly all traffic is by steamer and country boat, the Iatter being traditionally the transport of choice for people and cargo. As late as the third decade of the current century, to which the story belongs, there were, except for administrative headquarters of districts (areas covering 5,000 and more square miles), no civic traditions, and large villages with populations of 5,000 to 10,000 or even more, had existed for centuries without any recognisable municipal administration. In the past, the typical village was a self-sufficient economic unit ; the population represented the different trades and occupations needed to meet such basic requirements as food, clothing and shelter. This pattern was, however, breaking up steadily at the time and unemployment and poverty were spreading rapidly. Literacy was very low, and what little arrangements were being tardily extended by the Government for rural education, were of very poor quality." Public hygiene was unknown, and medical services were so inadequate that the lives even of those who could afford to pay for those services were at the mercy of ill-educated quacks. Women were kept segregated, and love was a major social sin, expressly forbidden except as between husband and wife after marriage, which was necessarily of the arranged kind. Women were subjected to cruel social penalties for breaches of wifely morality.
But educated or uneducated, the villager's lives, behaviour and thoughts- private as well as public-were by and large governed by customs, traditions, conventional superstitions and taboos which possessed the force of penal law. The caste system, stratifying society into herditary classes each with its social privileges and disabilities, was the most important of these. But however unjust or fantastically repressive it was, even the worst sufferers under it, not to speak of its beneficiaries, submitted to its harsh restrictions with resignation. Religion, in the sense of spirtual inquiry, was rarely to be found; compliance with social regulations, covering manners, customs, rituals and moral codes, was the test of a good life. One was supposed to live, not for the fulfilment of one's self, but for the family, the clan and the caste-class, and faithfully to continue and transmit the inherited line of traditions and conventions.
In such circumstances the individual' could not be expected to be intellectually free or to develop personal tastes and inclinations. Neither overt action nor expression of thought was permitted to stray beyond the bounds of convention. Yet emotions and impulses could not be totally repressed and found tortuous ways of expression beneath the surface of conformity. The rebel either went out of the community or humbly atoned for his rebellion. The impact of new cultural idea! spreading from urban areas,. where modern education was becoming ever more popular, was slow and insidious. The new ideas were resisted bitterly and long. Cultural conditioning so crippled personality that a sensitive mind, like that of the principal character of this story, whose urban education and culture conflicted with his family upbringing had to endure lifelong frustration and a tragedy no less intense for never reaching a dramatic climax. The characters in The Puppets' Tale, inhabitants of a rather sequestered village, live insensitive, petty lives-e-marionettes moving on the stage of the world to the compeling pull of strings by hand invisible behind the screen.
Things have very much changed since those times. Rural life in India since independence is being basically reorganised on a different level of economy and culture. Caste discrimination has been outlawed, although it still survives. Education is spreading rapidly. Sweeping land reforms have eliminated landlordism and usury. Women have been emancipated and are legally the equals of men. Welfare services have been extended. Poverty is no longer as grim as it was before. Yet the drama of life four decades back in a village, far from the madding crowd, must interest readers of 'to day, the more discriminating among whom may recognise the distressing fact that, on the emotional level, man is merely exchanging old fetters for new ; that he has ever been a rebel but never free.
The explanatory notes which appear at the end of the novel will give the non-Indian reader a better idea of the cultural background of the story. Explanations of the unfamilar words in the text will be found in the glossary at the end.
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