A collection of Professor Shonku stories has been translated into English by Indrani Majumdar. This immortal science fiction character, created by Satyajit Ray in the ’60s, has endured decades, and lives on
Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku is an unlikely hero; he is bald with a white beard, has a cat, Newton, and a slightly dim servant, Prahlad, as companions. He spends a lot of time in his laboratory, perfecting inventions and then heads out to save the world, for which he maintains meticulous journals. It is through these journals that we get to know his exploits as imagined by Satyajit Ray and penned in Bengali. This world of Shonku has now been made accessible to the English readers, translated by Indrani Majumdar and published by Puffin Classics. In this collection, Mystery of Munroe Island and other stories, Shonku battles his doppelganger, meets dinosaur-like creatures and explores the secret behind UFOs.
An image extracted from The Mystery of Munroe Island translated by Indrani Majumdar. The dinosaur had appeared in pages of Shonku in the 1960s before it captured our collective imagination with the film, Jurassic Park. Pic courtesy/ Puffin classics
Reliving Professor Shonku
The story of Shonku was first published in 1961 in the Bengali children’s magazine, Sandesh, and the later stories were published in Anandamela, another children’s magazine. Such was its popularity that for many in that generation, fascination for science developed from reading his exploits. Majumdar, too, was a young Shonku fan. “Shonku has always been a very avuncular figure to all of us in my generation. Everything he disseminated was done so gently there was nothing didactic about it. He became our instant friend and will continue to remain so,” she shares.
Professor Shonku (second left) faces a mysterious aircraft in The Mystery of Munroe Island and other stories. Pics courtesy/PUffin classics
But translation was an entirely different challenge, she informs. “I read Shonku adventures in Sandesh and Anandamela and then from various compilations. But reading and translating these individual stories were a completely different exercise. I noticed so many minute details, in case of Ray – you immediately notice his visual details in particular when you translate. The graphic description of each city come alive,” she elaborates. She insists that though the stories are now old, and both science and fantasy have travelled, Shonku still has plenty to enthrall the new reader. “Some Shonku plots may sound dated but not all. The philosophy behind all stories will always remain intact. Love for nature, love for animals or rather respect for our habitat and its beings should be taught to all children and adults alike,” adds the Kolkata-based translator.
Professor Shonku introduces visitors to his latest work of marvel in a page from the book.
Sci-fi meets fantasy
This thought finds echo with acclaimed Bengali science fiction writer, Anish Deb, who considers Shonku relevant even now. “Shonku stories are unique and carry a different taste and style, and stand apart on the bookshelves crowded by fantasy and space adventure stories. Shonku stories offer food for thought with a blend of entertainment and adventure,” he asserts. He informs that Shonku arrived when Bengal was churning out fine science fiction, and endured the test of time. Jagadish Chandra Bose, who pioneered the investigation of radio waves and made significant contribution to plant science, wrote the first Bengali science fiction. The next major writer of science fiction was Premendra Mitra, who was the creator of the famous Ghanada stories. “In fact, it was Mitra who popularised science fiction among Bengali readers,” Deb informs.
Mumbai-based Marathi science fiction writer Bal Phondke, however, does not want to categorise Shonku as science fiction, though he rates it very high. “Science fiction, according to me, is based on an established scientific or technological principle, which has to be stated in unadulterated fashion. I personally find Satyajit Ray’s stories belong more to the genre of fantasy rather than science fiction. Fantasy has its place in children’s literature as it appeals to the curious and adventurous traits of growing human beings. The Shonku stories are fascinating and clearly capture the heart of young readers. I would rate them very high on literary merit. Is it essential to label them and place them in some compartment?”
Perhaps not, because children reading in English would be lost in this fantastic world, feels Reena Puri, the editor of Amar Chitra Katha. “Satyajit Ray has created an amazing and very contemporary character in Professor Shonku. He could be part of any sci-fi story of our times. In fact, some of his inventions could be already here. Ray has a way of writing fiction for children, which is exciting, thought-provoking and instantly ‘connectible’ (if I may coin a word). Children flourish in a world of imagination. They like to climb out of their surroundings and experience new worlds even while living in their own. Shonku provides this space,” she assures.
The Mystery of Munroe Island and other stories, Satyajit Ray translated by Indrani Majumdar, Puffin Classics, R250
Ray & Professor Shonkhu
Satyajit Ray wrote 38 Shonku stories over a period of 30 years, the last one being Swarnapoori, which appeared in 1991. Two Shonku stories were left unfinished: Intelektron and Drexel Ilander Ghatana
Satyajit Ray from Nemai Ghosh’s collection. Pic courtesy/DAG Modern
Professor Shonkhu and Gen Next
A FAN SPEAKS: Mumbai-based Angshuman Chatterjee, 28, who is the associate editor of the physical science division of an editing company, says, “While growing up, it was special to read Shonku as he was our very own science-fiction super hero. As I delved more into science, the science bit in Shonku might have lost its charm, inducing more smirks than awe, but the fiction part never lost an iota of charm, and never will.”
Professor Shonku ON FACEBOOK: This page has been liked by 1,44,780 people and is alive with regular discussions. The latest post on the page is by Tathagata Ghosh, who writes, “One of my biggest regrets will always be Satyajit Ray not making a Professor Shonku film!” 112 people agree, by liking and a chain of comments follow.
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