Everyman's tale

Everyman's tale

Buddhadeb Guha’s ‘Madhukari’ is a sensitive man’s tale about his existence in the real world. With Prithu Ghosh, Guha has created one of the most memorable characters in Bengali literature. Sushma K Mohan writes.

Author Buddhadeb Guha’s novel Madhukari is regarded as a pathbreaking work in contemporary Bengali literature. Considered Guha’s magnum opus, this voluminous book was first published in 1986 and has been recently translated to English by Shankar Sen.

A stirring journey into the complex terrain of human mind and emotions, Madhukari tells the story of Prithu Ghosh, a Bengali executive in a shellac factory in Hatchandra town in Madhya Pradesh. The book explores the depths of his refined and delicate spirit and the transformations it undergoes through his intense connection with people, poetry and nature.

The word ‘Madhukari’ roughly means going from door to door to receive with humility, just like the honey-gathering bee that goes from flower to flower to collect the nectar. Buddhadeb Guha revisits his favourite theme of the ‘wandering soul’ in Madhukari, as his protagonist receives with pain and ecstasy the many gifts of love, affection, hatred, enmity, anger, compassion and even indifference from the men and women who cross his path in his journey of life.

All the characters in Madhukari are intense and passionately committed to the values they believe in. Standing like a lone warrior in a society driven by superficial values, Prithu accepts his innate frailties and greatness, confusion and clarity, sense of purpose and utter directionlessness with absolute honesty, constantly guarding his conscience from the pollution of the world.

‘Living one’s life by blindly and obstinately rejecting all that was natural, beautiful and spontaneous — was that another name of civilisation? ...If a man could not free himself at the outset from the clutches of monotony, habits and prejudices, all other freedoms in his life became utterly meaningless.’

Prithu’s westernised wife Rusha is an epitome of beauty and sophistication, who considers Prithu an absolute failure, an attitude shared by their children, Milly and Tushu and the people of his town who refer to him as Pagla Ghosh. Kurchi is Prithu’s childhood sweetheart and his soulmate who shares his love for poetry and nature. Married to another man, Kurchi is the object of Prithu’s intense love and longing. Bijli is the beautiful nautch girl with an exquisite voice, who is content to love Prithu unconditionally, without asking for anything in return.

While branded as ‘useless’ for his inability to adhere to the rules of the materialistic world, there are still some people who are drawn to Prithu by the fragrance of his untainted spirit. Bhuchu, a motor mechanic; Girish Ghosh, a rich patron of poets and a man with crazy habits; Thuta Baiga, an uneducated hunter, who is obsessed with finding his lost village and also Prithu’s guardian since he was a child; Muhammad Sabir, the shoe shop man; Shamim, the watch repairer; and Diga Pandey, a dacoit-turned-hermit — form the core group of Prithu’s friends whose love for each other rises above the social and religious differences between them.

Guha’s fascination with nature finds ample expression in Madhukari, as the story is set in the backdrop of the alluring Kanha-Kisli forest range in Madhya Pradesh. The complex emotional world of his characters is nicely complimented with the description of the mysterious beauty of the forests, hills, rivers and wildlife that Guha sketches in great detail. Nature doesn’t remain as a mere backdrop for his story but becomes a character in itself, looming large over the fates of the people whose lives are played out on its lap.

Interspersing his narration with poems, Guha whips up a heady concoction of emotions that weaves a dreamy ambience around the character of his brooding romantic protagonist.

‘Whether you draw close or move away, another name of walking round and round, far and wide, in tune with rhythm, through light and shade and sun and cloud… is life. A circle is never completed. That is a fact.’

While Prithu is torn between his many emotional attachments, his women are anything but week and broken. They are strong, bold, beautiful, daring, and with a mind of their own. His wife Rusha’s dazzling personality, in sharp contrast to his own lack of emotional discipline, evokes awe and admiration in Prithu. While the two fail to connect mentally, emotionally and sexually as husband and wife, Rusha’s frustration with Prithu finds expression in the intense psychological war that she wages against him.

‘You are a Don Quixote of the modern era. You can be worshipped, your statue may be erected at a four-point crossing, and you are a real darling, but it is utterly impossible to make a home with you.’

As the story progresses, equations between friends change, new relationships are formed, secrets are revealed and truths are buried. As his relationship with Kurchi grows and changes dimensions, Prithu is faced with the ultimate realisation that suffering is his inevitable companion and happiness is never his destiny. That the insatiable spirit of the eternal wanderer within him will never let him stop and strike root anywhere and moving forward towards his unknown destination is all that he can do.

Guha’s narration flows like a sweet rhythm, with its poetic prose and his clarity of vision in communicating the emotional and spiritual essence of his ideas, makes the book worthy of revisiting.

Translating such a voluminous work with many intricate characterisations, subtle psycho-emotional dimensions and beauty of ideas and philosophies can be a daunting task for any translator. Shankar Sen emerges a winner in this challenge. His translation imbibes the essence of Madhukari beautifully to convey the depth and mellifluousness of Guha’s words unhindered to the reader.

“Bijli’s skillful rendering of the song seemed to have scattered dazzling colours all around, as if someone had thrown a lump of silver into a stream of flowers mingled with attar, spreading a gentle aroma and a galaxy of colours in all directions.”
Madhukari is a riveting work of art that is able to take the reader to the forgotten depths of their own inner being where one’s truth shines bright devoid of all masks and facades. A masterpiece indeed!

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