‘Wildfire’ by Banaphool: An Excerpt
Banaphool—which means wildflower—was the pen name of beloved Bengali writer Balaichand Mukhopadhyay (1899–1979). Wildfire brings together 45 short pieces by Banaphool that are brilliantly representative of his uncompromising, multifaceted talent. Stark and short, often much too short, some even cryptic, these stories often leave much of the narrative to our imagination. Here we find an irresistible grab bag: utterly whimsical tales, several ghost stories, a few morality fables, some bitterly critical political satires and a number of stories that examine the plight of those neglected in or rejected by society. The collection includes the novella ‘Bhuvan Shome’, which was made into an acclaimed motion picture by Mrinal Sen, thereby launching the Indian New Wave in 1969.
Translated from the Bengali by Somnath Zutshi
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The Pebble and the Palm Tree
A vast plain. In the middle stands a huge palm tree. No one knows how long it’s been there. There are no other trees nearby; only field after field, all the way to the distant horizon.
Just underneath the palm tree lies a small pebble. Again, no one knows for how long. Around it are small blades of grass. For as long as it can remember, the pebble has seen nothing else but this grass. It grows during the monsoons, and shrivels during the hot summers; then, when the monsoon comes again, embraces it once more in green affection. This is all that the pebble has seen—the grass growing on the earth, shrivelling and then growing once again. This is the sum of its experiences. But from time to time it thinks to itself: There must be other things happening, things which I cannot perceive.
One day, the pebble became aware of the palm tree.
What was this thick black object that rose upward? As far as it could remember, the thing had always been like this— erect, powerful, upward-looking.
‘Excuse me?’ The palm tree remains silent. ‘Excuse me, can you hear me?’
The pebble is small, but persistent. It finally manages to disturb the palm tree after much shouting and calling out.
‘Who is it? What do you want?’
‘I’m the pebble lying underneath you. Who are you?’
‘I am the palm tree.’
Though it has been lying beneath the palm tree for so long, the pebble has not known the palm tree’s name. It is sur- prised—the palm rises to such a great height! Suddenly, it occurs to the pebble
that perhaps the tree’s experiences might be novel, different from its own.
Hesitantly it asks: ‘Will you tell me what you see from that great height?’
‘The sun rising and setting in the sky.’ ‘And then?’ ‘Rising once again . . .’
The rolled-up sheet of paper had lain in the cupboard for days. Enjoying the peace and quiet. Suddenly, one day, the Artist took it out. Removed the rubber band holding it together, and spread the sheet out on the table.
What—what do you think you’re doing? screamed the paper. But that scream did not reach the Artist’s ears. The language of paper remains unknown to humans. The Artist picked up the paper, placed it on a piece of black board and pinned its four corners with tacks. Then! The paper continued to scream! The Artist paid it no attention. Dipping his brush into black paint, he smeared it across the paper. The paper protested: Why are you turning my white into black?
The Artist remained deaf to its protests. He picked up another brush and splashed some beige onto it. What’s this? What’s going on?—shrieks the paper. The Artist is unmoved. He starts applying yellow, blue, green, orange, pink, one after the other.
The paper’s screams of torment never reach his ears. For two hours, he continues to paint. The paper’s wails, pleas, prayers—nothing disturbs the Creator. Once the painting is finished, he stands at a distance and looks at it. He doesn’t like it. Taking it off the board, he rips the picture into pieces and throws it away.
Then, he brings out another sheet of paper.