You can really wreak havoc if you lock up a writer, a lexicographer and a chemist in a room and make them share a desk. The lexicographer will successfully cripple the writer’s flow of prose by pointing out his split infinitives and ridiculing his mixed metaphors. The writer will definitely mess up the lexicographer’s carefully cross-referenced material by scattering it around. And the chemist will most probably drive both of them crazy by analysing samples of their inks and papers and reading the reports out loud.
Now imagine three of them being the same person, like Rajshekhar Basu (Pen name: Parashuram, 1880 -1960) a brilliant satirist, a pioneering lexicographer and an eminent chemist all rolled into one. But thankfully for him, his different selves were perfectly civil with each other. His scientific self lent him wisdom about the ways of the world, his lexicographer self lent him deep knowledge about ways of words and his writer self made the best of all of the above and created seriously comic masterpieces. If his different alter egos fought constantly with each other instead of living in harmony, the result would have been funny, perhaps. But we bet it would’ve been nowhere as funny as his writing.
Before this genius of a humorist started writing at the ripe age of forty-two, he had been through and through a man of science. As a child he was more fond of breaking down his toys to see how they worked than getting them. In fact, he refused to accept any toy he was not allowed to break. When the age of toys was over, he graduated to setting up his own home laboratory, announcing his weather forecasts in the household and writing prescriptions for his family members when they were under the weather.
This affinity towards anything analytical and precise made him take up Law. But after practising in court for three days, he realised he would be better off with something less verbal and more intellectual. He joined Bengal Chemical, founded by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, one of the earliest entrepreneurs of India, as a chemist and thanks to his excellent research and managerial skills he retired as the Secretary of the company.
He was not a Bengali literary aficionado either to begin with. Thanks to being brought up at Darbhanga, Bihar, he could hardly even speak the language in his early days. He got his first taste of Bengali literary greats during his college years at Patna. And then went on to join their ranks.
But he certainly was a true aficionado of knowledge in any form, especially knowledge regarding the human nature. His expertise ranged over mechanical engineering, cottage industries, linguistics, lexicography, scriptures and typography. From translating both the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, to writing Chalantika – the first Bengali dictionary, to being instrumental in creating the first linotype for Bengali typesets, his achievements are no laughing matter.
Yet the laughing matter he created is what people remember him by. The handful of brilliant short stories he wrote under the pen name of Parashuram (nothing to do with the Indian mythological character, he borrowed the surname of his family goldsmith, Tarachand Parashuram) brought him more recognition than all the monumental scholarly works he created in his own name. The irony is as delicious as in any of his short stories.
Though Rabindranath Tagore warned us that nothing humorous ever came out of analysing humour, we will nonetheless try to do the same with Parashuram’s humour. Gather around and try to keep a straight face.
His unconventional upbringing, expectedly had a lot to do with his unique brand of humour. Being a man of science and not being brought up in Bengal, he thankfully didn’t have any of the typical Bengali traits – verbosity, sentimentality and above all intellectual snobbery.
He had the necessary distance to explore the foibles of Bengali Bhadralok, the discerning eye to spot the ironies around us that go unnoticed and a surreal imagination. Add to that his favourite hobby of people watching, mostly at work and a detachment that came from a lifelong study of Science and personal tragedies (His son-in-law passed away at a very young age leading to his only daughter’s heartbreak and death on the same day. His wife passed away eighteen years before he did.)
The variety of satire that came distilled out of these is unique indeed. Most of his stories are biting social satire while a select few take a lighter view of human follies or alternate histories that are disturbingly real.
Satire by its definition is laughing at other people’s expense. But Parashuram’s satire is thoroughly intelligent, without being unkind. It accomplishes the impossible task of making even the laughing stock laugh out loud. This happens because he has caricatured his characters craftily enough so that the reader can recognise them yet fail to identify with them. It’s kind of like laughing at your own distorted reflection in the House of Mirrors.
This achievement is no pleasant coincidence. This achievement stemmed from another core aspect of his personality. In spite of his detachment, in spite of all his exposé of human faults, he actually was quite fond of the species. Otherwise what else would explain his covert assistance of Indian freedom fighters in the form of money, chemicals and bomb making kits? Or for that matter, blending love or nature with satire? No other satirist has yet been able to achieve these. Because the satirist is always prone to doubting, faultfinding and ridiculing, not exactly handy tools to appreciate nature or love.
Now that we have analysed the humour of Parashuram and nothing very humorous has come out of it, we will jump headlong into the humour and experience his mastery of the craft.
In ‘A Medical Crisis’, exaggeration becomes his choice of weapon. A miser is advised to marry a bear to save up on blanket costs in the winter.
In ‘On Bhushandi’s Plain’, his knowledge of Chemistry kicks us below the belt to double us up with laughter. Atheists are supposedly excused from reincarnation. When they die, their souls get converted into atmospheric gases.
In ‘The League of Tender Spirits’, his insight into human psyche shines through. A young man wants to check the compatibility quotient of him and his would-be-wife. He has a list of ninety-three parameters. (Though in this age of matrimonial websites it is too real to be funny.)
In ‘The Scripture Read Backwards’ his bizarre imagination becomes almost prophetic. In an imaginary world, reverse colonialism has happened and India has taken over the world. Europeans are doing everything to ape the ruling nation. From ladies darkening their skins to the men braving subzero temperature in dhoti and kurta no stone is unturned to please the global superpower. Could he foresee today’s age when the world is desperately out to woo India?
In ‘ Doctor Jadu’s Patient’, dark humour takes a surreal turn when a surgeon exchanges the heads of a couple with a little help from a tantrik.
In ‘The Celestial Slipper’, his keen knowledge of everything Kolkata comes alive, when an old lady gives God a piece of her mind because of an impending annihilation of earth due to a probable asteroid impact. The disaster is averted.
Hope you liked the starters and can’t wait to get started on the buffet.
While detachment has been a great enabler for Parashuram’s writing, it has proved to be a great disabler for his literary recognition, which he never actively pursued.
Though he received the reader’s admiration by plentiful, all the awards and accolades he had received were too little and too late.
But you gentle reader, should heed well to what another eminent Bengali writer, scholar, polyglot and globetrotter Syed Mujtaba Ali had to say about Parashuram: “I have read most of the world literature. And I can vouch for the fact that he is one of the world’s best satirists.”
If the section headers were baffling here's the explanation.
1. The Automatic Sridurgagarph: Writing the Goddess Durga’s name one hundred and eight times is considered auspicious by Bengalis. The Automatic Sridurgagarph makes this job easy on you. It has the Goddess’s name written twelve times on a rubber stamp, so you can stamp only eight times and you are done. Comes with free red ink pad. From ‘ Sri Sri Sidhweshwari Limited’.
2. Differential Calculus in digestive tract: A quack scares a patient witless by telling him he has contracted differential calculus in his digestive tract. From ‘A Medical Crisis'
3. Recordkeeper at Vulture Brothers: A character has no joy left in his life because of his job. You can figure why. From ‘Birinchibaba’.
4. Vermillion on lips: A pundit wishes happy marriage to a newly married American girl by saying may the vermilion on her lips never be wiped off. He of course is talking about her lipstick and the standard wish of a Hindu woman never to lose her husband so that she can continue wearing the vermilion on her hair parting, the sign of a married woman.
Other interesting reads on Parashuram: