Cruelty and malleability in Manik Bandopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of Padma)


“Padma Nadir Majhi” (1936) starts with a boatman Kuber’s clear helplessness in front of the boat-owner Dhananjay and the river Padma. This sets the tone of the novel: real, vivid, unsentimental and dark. When the premature newborn baby cries in the night, Kuber reflects,

Even though the boy has come a bit early, he has a loud voice. He can scream.

The novel is about the life of Kuber, a poor boatman, and his family: crippled wife Mala, 11 year old soon-to-be-married daughter Gopi, sons Lakha and Chandi. Their lives depend on the mood of Padma river. If days are good, Kuber may get a good amount of Hilsa, and they can get a full meal. Otherwise, starvation. The story arc changes dramatically when a storm hits and ruins a lot of boat-men’s houses. Nature is not a Tagorian beauty here. She is ruthless, she kills people. Kuber’s family and professional lives, both change.

Many homes has got ruined beyond repair during the storm. While distributing the raised money to help the victims, class division comes into picture. The Brahmin will get 7 while the five majhi families had to share a mere 10 rupees. Kuber loses his job because one of the boats he used work has been destroyed by the storm. During all this, enters Kapila, Kuber’s sister-in-law. Initially he(Kuber) was angry to bring and feed her and others (who were almost homeless) to his wretched home so that they can stay a few days. Gradually, Kuber starts realizing the usefulness of nimble lively Kapila, as compared to his crippled wife Mala. Kapila’s spontaneity, her open coquetry confounds Kuber, slowly giving him a space to find respite from the monotony of family life.

On the other hand, Kuber takes up work with the cunning businessman Hossen Miya. He has many unknown sources of earning. He has bought an island where he is slowly raising families and setting up a kingdom of his own. He manipulates helpless people into moving to his island, clear forest, cultivate land and in return, give him tax. There is no class distinction. No monetary system. Hand to mouth life. Communism. But Hossen Miya also earns a lot by doing business in opium. Unknowingly, Kuber gets involved in this trap of illegal business. His financial condition improves but, he has no happiness. Fear is eating him up. Also, the separation from Kapila is tormenting him like anything. With an unfulfilling marriage and a threat to be imprisoned, Kubar has no other way but to be exiled on the distant island of Hossen. The only happy thing is Kapila too, decides to go with him.

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Tendency of failing is inherent in human nature. In the beginning of the novel, the author sympathizes the men who has lost their long-saved money in gambling in the village fair.

Couldn’t they control their selfishness on getting a few hours of independence?

Later, Kuber too, will not be able to control himself from stealing a few rupees after getting some unobserved moments with Hossen Miya’s new wallet, which is ironical because at the end, he gets trapped in false accusation of stealing of a huge sum. Maybe the trap was set by Hossen Miya himself which is indicated by Kuber’s self-reflective reply to Kapila,

Hossen Miya will take me to the island, Kapila, whatever may. I won’t be free even after doing time once. I’d be sent again.

Thus, this novel is about cruelty of nature and social division and the utter corruptibility of human nature. That’s what makes the characters in this work so real. Kuber is an ordinary boatman struggling to get by in life. He is honest, but he steals when he gets the opportunity, cheats on his wife, neglects his daughter’s serious leg injury, remains indifferent and cruel to Maya. Kapila banks on Kuber when she is helpless and then forgets him when her husband takes her back. All these emphasize the reality of the characters. The author said somewhere,

Artists must have a scientific attitude, especially today, so that one can detect the illusory pitfalls of spiritualism and idealism. … The mood and idea of a novel must be based on reality. The characters may turn out to be odd, but still they need to be earthly and real. …The narrative of a novel can involve imagination that is beyond reality, a mindscape that exists only in the mind of a writer; yet such creation must be grounded in real lives, real people and real environment.

And this is where Manik Bandopadhyay shines so brightly in the sky of modern Bangla literature.

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