Pather Panchali – The song of the road; A review of the book

(The song of the road )

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Pather Panchali, is a Bengali Film directed by Satyajit Ray and released in 1955. The Indian equivalent of ‘Casablanca’, Pather Panchali, made on a shoestring budget partly funded by the Govt. of India, went on to become a milestone in Indian cinema. A protégé of the legendary Akira Kurasawa, Satyajit Ray picked up several international awards including from the Cannes and Venice film festivals. It was the first Indian movie to truly measure up to International standards. It is a must see for every student of film history and literature in India.

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Satyajit Ray, director of Pather Panchali(1955)

Amidst all the praise and the hype lavished on the movie(Which it rightly deserved), was lost Pather Panchali, The Book. Written by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay and published first in 1929, the novel was Mr.Bandhopadhyay’s most influential and best-written work.

Set during the tumultuous decade before India won her independence, the book encapsulates the struggle for identity felt by every Indian irrespective of their religious or social background during the period. The novel focuses on a poverty-ridden family of Brahmins from Bengal. Living in an impoverished area of Nishchindpur village, Harihar Roy struggles to make ends meet for his family, including his wife Sorbojoya and children Apu and Durga.

In order to appreciate the novel fully, it is essential to have some knowledge of context. The Brahmins were at the top rung of the four-pronged caste system based on the ‘Charurvarnya’(the four colours in Sanskrit). They were granted special rights by the Kings, including land and jewels. They were traditionally the religious teachers of their community, and being born as a Brahmin was enough to assure you of prestige and future prosperity. However, with the advent of the Social Reform Movement and destruction of Princely States by the British Crown, the Brahmins found themselves in a position where their respectability did not automatically translate to wealth and a comfortable life. Often, it so happened that a man who grew up living a life of ease in a household bestowed by rich patrons found himself in a position of having to work to support his own family, like a ‘commoner’. The constant struggle of eking a livelihood while also trying to maintain their status-quo as the priest class is central to the plot of Pather Panchali.

The book is divided into three parts, and essentially captures the different stages of the family’s journey, from a small town hamlet in Nishchindpur to the religious city of Kashi.

The first part of the novel shows the family, as it struggles to survive in the village of Nishchindpur. Indir thakrun, a distant aunt of Apu and Durga stay with the family. An old woman who had seen better times, the woman is contemptuous of Sorbojoya, and does not waste a chance to tell her about the comfortable life she had once led as a young woman of means. Her bitterness is exacerbated by the fact that she has nowhere else to turn to for help, and is stuck with the family for good. This part of the novel focuses on the elders, their struggles to put food on the table, while also trying to keep up appearances.

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(Sorbojoya, Durga and Apu – A scene from the movie)

 In retrospect, the time spent in Nishchindpur was the best time for young Apu and Durga. Nishchindpur (the word literally means ‘land of the carefree’ in Sanskrit) was a place where they could be children. Durga, being a girl, is not given an education, the logic being that she was to be married off one day, while Apu would grow up to provide for the family. Apu adores his elder sister and his mother, but is often confused and hurt by the way his mother treats his sister. Durga is constantly harassed by her mother, sometimes for not doing the chores around the household, sometimes for taking out Apu on unwarranted excursions, and once for asking money to buy sweets, because she felt Durga, her child, was humiliating her for not being able to afford them.

A poignant scene in the book was when Durga steals from one of the neighbours, and when the woman  confronts Durga’s mother with her daugher’s indiscretions, she turns livid with anger and flogs her daughter in front of the woman. What makes the incident shocking is not so much the physical abuse piled on the little girl, but rather the mother’s motivation for doing so. She was trying to make sure that the neighbours realized the theft was not with her knowledge or approval. She was trying to establish her morality by destroying the self respect of her own daughter. Later, once the neighbours move away, Sorbojoya collapses onto the floor in a heap, sobbing. Durga never once looks her mother’s way, and instead crawls away from her. Her only source of solace and companionship is her little brother Apu, the only person in her life who never lets her down.

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The narration is unrelenting in presenting the lives of the family of four. It does not seek to justify or explain the character’s motivations, focusing instead, on the events and circumstances that turn them into who they are. The reader does not feel anger at the elders, but rather pity. Harihar and Sorbojoya are presented as helpless flotsam, swept away in a giant wave of people, seeking solace in a horizon that is always beyond their grasp.

Originally written in Bengali, the English version that I read was translated by T.W Clarke and Tarapada Mukherjee, for Harper Collins. They have succeeded in capturing the mood of the book quite well, using simple language that does interfere in the least with the narration.

One of the highlights of the book is its’ treatment of women. Long before feminist philosophy became part of the diet of mainstream intelligentsia, here was a book that portrayed the horrors of being a woman in rural India, with all its’ trials and tribulations.

Pather Panchali was a classic that got sidelined by the movie. Today, not many people are even aware of the fact that there was a book before there was a movie.

Pather Panchali, which roughly translates to ‘the song of the road’, is a book that captures India as it was before partition. The novel references places that later went on to become East Pakistan, and after the Indo-Pak war of ’71, became part of what is now Bangladesh. Very few people have captured the mood of colonial India in the early 20th century as vividly as Mr. Bandhpadhyay. Other books that come to mind include ‘Coolie’ by Mulk Raj Anand, a book that describes a day in the life of an Untouchable.

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Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhay, the Author of Pather Panchali

Pather Pachali is one of those rare books from the period that is not polluted by patriotic fervor or nationalism. It is the melancholic tale of two children who lose their innocence and get thrown into the Jungle of real life with no one to show them the way.

It is a story of tragedy, of private grief and the hopelessness of witnessing all that is loved being snatched away. The novel delivers on all counts.

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21 thoughts on “Pather Panchali – The song of the road; A review of the book

  1. I have always been fascinated by the caste system. Some form of it existed in most societies throughout history. To be born without the hope of ever improving you lot in life is so terrible. Awesome post.

  2. I had read Pather Panjali while in 7tth standard and it had left a deep impression on me.I could relate to Apu’s thoughts because I was also developing my views about the world at that time.This is my alltime favourite book that arouses a sweet nostalgia in me.

  3. Great narration of the amazing novel within a short space. It’s a must read book for all. One should read Pather Panchali for the sheer brilliance of Bibhutibhushan’s narrating skills. It has rightly attained a cult status among the readers of all ages and no Bangla novel enthusiast should miss out on this touching novel by one of the all time greatest authors Bengali literature is blessed to produce.

    • Dear debapriya… The name means the one loved by gods… Nice… The short space barely encapsulates the essence, but we live in a world of diminishing attention spans. I’ll consider myself lucky of even one person reads the whole novel because of my post… So, here’s to that!

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