Saturday, 5 January 2019

On the Run with Fotikchand by Satyajit Ray, 1976

© The Estate of Satyajit Ray
“...And who is this young assistant you have got here?”

The question came so unexpectedly that Fotik’s heart nearly jumped into his mouth.

The two men were standing nearby. They had just emerged out of the dark. On Fotik’s right stood Shyamlal, his bow legs covered by long trousers. Out of the corner of his eye, Fotik saw the blade of a knife flash, go past his ear and stop somewhere between him and Harun.

On the Run with Fotikchand by Satyajit Ray—the renowned Indian filmmaker and cultural icon—is the delightful adventure of an 11-year old boy, Bablu, kidnapped by four goons and left for dead when their stolen car meets with an accident. While two of the abductors die on the spot, two others, including the beefy Shyamlal, escape. The injured boy regains consciousness but loses his memory.

Bablu, whose real name is Nikhil Sanyal, the son of a rich barrister, assumes the name of Fotikchand and wanders the streets of Calcutta. The penniless boy soon meets a poor but a kind and sympathetic juggler named Harun, who offers him food and shelter as well as a job in a friend’s tea shop. In the evenings, Bablu accompanies Harun to the local fair and assists him in his colourful shows, thrilled to learn the tricks of the trade and with his new way of life. But it’s not long before the two surviving goons discover the boy is alive, and come after him and Harun, their criminal minds once again picturing a hefty ransom. On the run with the juggler, Fotik suddenly regains his memory.

© The Estate of Satyajit Ray
Meanwhile, back home, his influential father badgers the local police to find his son and issues an advertisement in the newspapers with the promise of a princely reward of Rs.5,000.

On the Run with Fotikchand is not so much a tale of kidnapping as an endearing story of friendship between Fotik and Harun. The juggler’s hand-to-mouth existence does not come in the way of his kinship with, and generosity towards, the boy, the son of a rather selfish and calculated man. A not-so-subtle contrast between the arrogance of the privileged and the humility of the underclass.

The 94-page novella is mildly suspenseful and moves at a brisk pace. The simple and engaging narrative is a tribute to its translation, from the Bengali original, by Gopa Majumdar. She has translated several literary works of Satyajit Ray and others from Bengali to English. The book was made into a film, Phatik Chand, in 1983. I have not seen it. My Puffin Books edition (below) has black-and-white illustrations by Ray himself.

© Puffin Books
A word about the author.

Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) requires no introduction. Nonetheless, here's a bit about him. 

Ray was one of 20th century’s greatest filmmakers. He was also a screenwriter, author, graphic artist and music composer. Born in Calcutta, the capital of the east Indian state of West Bengal, Ray wrote film essays, long fiction, short novels and short stories that were published as collections. His two most popular fictional characters in Bengali literature were Feluda, a detective series, and Professor Shonku, a scientist. The Feluda stories, which I haven’t read yet, are narrated by the detective’s cousin, a loose version of Dr Watson. In 1992, he was honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, and an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. In 2004, Ray was ranked No.13 in BBC's poll of the Greatest Bengali of all time.

You can read more about Satyajit Ray and his literary works here and here.