Banka Harichandan, a boy with a conscience, is an ‘unforgettable’ character by Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik — along the lines of Oliver Twist, Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield

Banka Harichandan, a fictional character created by Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik, lived in a semi-provincial Odia town of Cuttack for most of his childhood and later shifted to Choudwar, a town where his father worked, with quaint memories of friends from his old school and of the extended family back home.

Pattanaik, a 1995 national Katha Award winner for short stories, has painted a lively portrait of Banka’s world, his life at home and school and in his town. Himansu S. Mohapatra does an endearing job by translating all 12 stories featuring Banka into English in The Life and Times of Banka Harichandan (Simon & Schuster India).

Mohapatra describes Banka as an “unforgettable child character,” comparing his tales to the likes of Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) or even Holden Caulfield (J.D. Salinger) from western literature and characters like Rusty (Ruskin Bond) and Phatik Chand (Satyajit Ray) at home. Very little is known about the writer and the translator outside the book, which is truly disheartening, given the buoyant age of the internet.

The political backdrop

Banka is a boy with a conscience. He is young, mindful and full of questions about life and the world “beyond the verandah of his home”. At school, he is sincere and although the teachers admire him for his hard work and good scores, his schoolmates often mock him, either for his height, his colour or his interests.

At home, he is “a good student but rather careless about his studies” and hence, often finds himself between beatings and abuses of his biased grandmother, his three-time BA-fail uncle, and his stringent father, who is as generous with slaps as he is stingy with his affection.

Despite a rounded childhood between studies and sports, Banka’s life is not without struggles typical of his age. He makes thoughtful, well-meaning timetables and fails to follow them. He spends his leisurely time equally between cricket and daydreaming about his unrequited love interests.

He envies the freedom of his peers as they smoke, watch cinema, and travel solo, even though he does not particularly fancy any of these. His energies are focused on achieving small “psychological victories” over his peers; a pursuit he often falls short in.

The question of becoming a good human being, along with being successful, confuses him day and night. Banka’s aspirations fluctuate between becoming a military man, an engineer, and a civil servant, but in his heart of hearts, he wants to become a writer and eventually teach, as is clear in stories like ‘Dwarf’ and ‘Initiation’, resembling Pattanaik’s own life trajectory; he teaches English at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi.

A god-fearing, mother-loving, rule-abiding boy, Banka believes in omens and goodwill. Through Banka’s relationship with God, Pattanaik reproaches the display of faith, and grapples with its usefulness and unnecessity. The boy questions the “omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent” God while he keeps his faith.

Politics, too, he discovers, is a gambit of its own. With references to an outbreak of a fictitious but fast-spreading disease ‘Jai Bangla’ post the Indo-Pak war of 1971, as well as political leaders like Indira Gandhi at the national level and Biju Patnaik as the regional leader of the opposition, Pattanaik gives a political context to Banka’s growing-up years.

A reflection of a child’s innocence

A certain existentialism comes naturally to him. From age 10 to 17, Banka seeks and discovers life’s many realities, ranging from light, ordinary truths of family life such as the dynamics between his in-laws to serious social realities such as caste and class differences.

He soon learns that this discrimination is embedded in the routine of life, whether it’s realising that some of his cousins eat meat daily or feeling helpless in front of his English-speaking classmates in college who openly mock a professor of an outside caste. He tastes the merits of social stature in the company of friends like Harish and Alok with their affluence on display, as well as the bitterness of lacking it and feeling lowly and small, as a result.

Hidden amongst the simple stories are three gems that impart life’s wisdom: ‘A Stint in Hell’, ‘Alone’ and ‘Rain Cycle’, where Banka witnesses and reflects on the harsh reality of manual scavenging, empathises with life-altering diseases and the loneliness they come with, and embraces the ambiguity of growing up as he leaves behind the comforts of childhood.

These stories are special as they mark Banka’s transition into young adulthood even when he is years away from it. The Life and Times of Banka Harichandan is a reflection of a child’s innocence, and his fears, that slowly fade away as he grows up and finds the obnoxious absurdities of life – one such eye-opening incident is narrated in ‘The Account of a Pilgrimage.’

‘A composite novel’

From being a child of 10, learning to balance his morality in ‘An Inauspicious Morning in the Life of Banka Harichandan’, to the young boy who slowly acquires a sexual awareness through puberty in ‘First Separation,’ Banka grows up. Between the burden of what is expected of him and the closure (in the final story ‘On the Edge’) of what he deems his unfair share of sufferings – a closure, at least in conviction if not in action – Banka enters the real world.

Pattanaik, and by extension Mohapatra, writes in such a lucid way that no character is left behind. By building up on the previously mentioned premises, like the attendance at the evening prayer, Pattanaik establishes a continuity in his work. Although the stories were not originally written in the order they are presented, readers will enjoy the linearity it offers – which is why Mohapatra calls it a perfect example of a ‘composite novel’.

A child’s observation (and experience) of the world, as we see through Banka’s eyes, is not only refreshing but also brings life back in perspective. “A child lingers in an adult, and for that child the adult seeks to return to their childhood again and again. They know that such a return is impossible; therefore, they try to recreate it in their literature, religion, imagination and memory,” writes Pattanaik in the preface, which rightfully establishes the “deep affinity between art and the point of view of a child”.

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