It is interesting that in a country where hero-worship knows no limits, Narayan Debnath has lived his life as a solitary figure away from the spotlight of media and politics. His comic characters continued to remain very popular among several generations of readers who grew up in an era when internet and satellite television did not invade private space and companionship with books.
My decision to meet this solitary artist five years ago, in the summer of 2011, was sudden and impulsive. I was slightly nervous, and was in two minds about postponing the programme. But eventually, I bought a ticket, and on a hot summer evening, I reached his hometown Howrah. To my surprise, the address took me to a shabby and ordinary Bengali household. I had just started working on a research paper on his works and I requested for an appointment almost without knowing what to ask him. With my amateur workmanship as an interviewer (I recorded the interview and clicked his photograph in my non-android mobile phone which he did not like at all) and the amazement of a fan, I entered what can be roughly called a studio in his old-fashioned household. The house, like its resident, was not young. He was born in 1925, but like many of his generation, he could not remember the exact date of his birth. To my exasperation, he also failed to remember that one month earlier he had given me an appointment for an interview. Something more was waiting for me. The man came to meet me half ready, wrestling with his kurta to fit into his body.
The history of Bengali comics is not very old; and before the meteoric rise of Narayan Debnath in the 1950s, comics were a less practised literary-artistic medium in Bengal. It began to flourish with Pratulchandra Lahiri’s Sheyal Pandit, the first Bengali comics serialized in the creative pages of Jugantar Patrika. Shaking off its earlier dependence on the Western model, it became something new both in terms of theme and technique in the innovative works of Narayan Debnath. At that time, two small-scale publishing houses of children’s literature in Bengal – Sukhtara and Deb Sahitya Kutir – initiated a comic book culture in Bengal. And despite the lure of the big banners, Debnath’s loyalty to these small publishing houses belongs to what had begun to seem like an anachronistic culture.
Debnath’s selection of name for his ‘superhero’ – Batul the Great – is peculiar for a man who is destined to be ‘great’. In Bengali, the word batul means ‘short’, and a short hero certainly does not pervade the popular imagination. The great heroes of The Ramayana or The Mahabharata, the mahaviras, have always been depicted as colossal figures, tall and stout as the saal tree. A short Superman, or Batman, or Spiderman is also odd enough to produce laughter. The ironic juxtaposition of batul and ‘the great’ thus breaks the unwritten code of the hero / superhero cult, and starts the journey of a new category whose name and appearance quite unconsciously parodies his own self.
The interview was quite unusual. Age affected his memory and his speech was often incoherent and even contradictory to his earlier statements. To my disappointment, he even failed to comprehend a couple of simple questions. Is Batul a superhero? He proudly declared that he created the first Bengali superhero, but within a few minutes changed his position saying that a lady from ETV, a Bengali television channel, insisted him to declare Batul as a superhero and he only responded to it positively. It implies that he did not care about the tag though he seemed to be quite happy with its charisma. In the world of comics, Batul is perhaps the only superhero without a mask, a costume, a dual identity and an origin story. His power is in his natural human body and it does not come from anywhere else. I could not ask him how Batul could be called a superhero when it visibly flaunted certain superhero conventions.
Batul’s peculiar physical stature, puffed chest and very thin waist and legs, and his whimsical actions make us laugh. How old is Batul? Is he young or middle-aged? Why does he not have hair on his head (a bolt from the blue that Sumana Roy, an editor of Antiserious, once asked me during a seminar presentation and I failed to respond adequately)? Though he apparently looks unchanged, his physical features have changed through the decades, but these subtle changes have not led to any change in his age. Debnath also seemed to be reluctant to speak about Batul’s age. He was designed as he came to the artist’s mind, Debnath responded, and left the challenge to the readers. But he denied him to be totally bald. He claimed that he had very little hair, which was obviously microscopic. And why does he have so little hair on his head remains a puzzle.
In the 1954, Fredric Wertham, a New York psychiatrist published a book named Seduction of the Innocent where he claimed that the violence in comics was responsible for childhood delinquency. His report brought comics at the centre of a cultural controversy regarding its adverse influence upon the mind of the young readers. Even in Bengal, parents are often suspicious of this medium and try to monitor their habit of reading comics. Being aware of this, I asked him about his principle behind making comics. He denied any didactic tendency behind his works. His comics were for children and he would be happy to see them delighted. This is only partially true for his comics clearly fail to hide his role as a moral educator and upholder of societal norms. His ideological position harbours a sensibility that adores stability and abhors drastic social transformation.
Strangely enough, except for a few cases, we rarely meet any girl in his comics. He belongs to an older generation who are uncomfortable with the idea of free-mixing between children of different sexes. Women are very rare in his comics and wherever they are, they are presented in the form of an old uncle or aunt. When I asked him about the lack of female characters in his works, he hesitated, and provided a strange logic. The presence of girls had been avoided because his works were basically for children as if the word children should be exclusively used for the males. He was also highly critical of the rampant visual culture on television influenced by the West and its effect on the young minds, and as a guardian, seems to guard Batul from the possibility of any romantic relationship.
The interview remained incomplete in my mind, and kept me uneasy for days. I had to know many things and I was not happy with the elliptical replies. I had preconceived images in my brain about this legendary figure and all these vanished like mist in the air. Six years later, my memories are a little hazy; and I remember him as a gentleman in white with a peaceful smile; perhaps, a little amused at the current attention being paid to a life that he kept hidden for many years.