Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bollywood answer to King Kong

It is the early 20th century, well before the Great War engulfed Europe. Our protagonist, an athletic young man of about 20, has just returned to his village from Calcutta after finishing high school. His family expects him to become a clerk in the jute factory nearby, but he dreams of a less mundane life. He gets his wish when an acquaintance arranges a job for him in the East African railway.

Our hero thus moves to what is now Uganda, where the British are laying new tracks as part of their Cape-to-Cairo railway. He works with the Massai and the Somali, he befriends other Desis, he enjoys the life in the African grass lands. But these lands are lion territory, and before long, the man-eating lion, or lions, strike.

Our hero moves on, becoming a station master further inland. Here he encounters the deadly black mamba snake. More importantly, here he meets someone that would change his life. One afternoon he finds a frail old man under a tree. He saves the old man.

The old man is a Portuguese prospector who had trekked South and Southeast Africa for the previous two decades. Years earlier, he and his English partner nearly struck big in the unexplored forests around the Richtersveldt (in today’s South Africa). That area was the domain of a fierce apelike creature, and even the local people never ventured in that forest. This creature had killed the Englishman, but the Old Portuguese is convinced that there are great riches to be made there.

Our hero convinces the old man to take another shot. The two travel south, through the savannah, through the great lakes of East Africa, through the tsetse fly territory, through the rain forests of Congo. They encounter cannibals and rapacious Europeans. They encounter lions and baboons. In deep Congo, they witness a massive volcanic eruption.

They eventually arrive at the rainforest around the Richtersveldt. But where is the diamond mine? Before they can find the mine, the apelike creature strikes, killing the old man. Our hero is now all alone. He has to return to the civilization all by himself. He decides to cross the Kalahari to Salisbury (today’s Harare). Before starting though, he nearly gets trapped in a labyrinthine cave. As a memento of that grim place, he takes a pebble.

Crossing the Kalahari alone is a feat that no one but the Bushmen has achieved. No one but our hero that is. Along the way, he comes across the remains of a dead Italian sailor by a well. The sailor had left a message. It appears that over three decades earlier, he and his mates were shipwrecked, found themselves in the forests around the Richtersveldt, where they stumbled across a great diamond mine, except the mine was guarded by an apelike creature. The sailor was the sole survivor, and in his shoes he carried a few diamonds as the proof of his find. These diamonds, it transpires, is the same pebble our hero already has.

But one can’t drink diamond, nor can one use it to obtain food in the wild. Our hero has crossed the Kalahari, but he is out of water and bullet. And the vultures are circling. Will he too meet the same fate as the Italian and the Englishman and the Portuguese?

Fortunately he is saved by another expedition, who takes him to Salisbury. At the end of the story, our hero is returning to his motherland, vowing to return to Africa to claim his discovery.

I’ve just summarized Chander Pahar (Mountains of the Moon). Unless you are Bengali, chances are that you’ve never heard of it. It is a book written by Bibhuti Bhushan Bondopadhyaya, a Bengali writer of the first half of the 20th century whose better known creation is Pather Panchali (Tales of the Road). That book is better known because it is the subject of the Satyajit Ray classic Apu trilogy. Anyone who has read Chander Pahar would agree that this book deserves its own Ray. It deserves to be made into a great action adventure movie. Lions, black mamba, killer apelike creature, cannibals, diamond mine — it has everything. A Desi in the early 20th century facing an adventure like this, it has never been done before — it has so far been a white man’s monopoly. We just need a talented director and an astute producer, and we’ll have the first Bollywood answer to King Kong and Pirates of the Caribbean.