Narayan Debnath is a name that will not strike most Southasians as odd, surrounded as we are by friends with names like Shiva, Mohammad and Jesus, a man-god symbiosis in sound. Narayan is another name for Vishnu, while deb is ‘god’ and nath is ‘king’ or ‘ruler’. The name is therefore protean in power, in the kind of productive creativity that is almost exclusive to the gods. Strange it must be, therefore, to imagine a balding, silver-haired man in a white dhoti and ganjee looking at the camera with the surprised eagerness of the first-time photographed, sitting in his middle-class living quarters in Howrah. It is generally men who tend to overestimate – in art and the dailiness of fear – the potency of their creators. Batul the superhero, Hada and Bhoda, Nontey and Phontey, the schoolfriends trying to beat boredom in school, could never have imagined how ordinary a life their creator led.
The comic-strip creator is the poster boy of anonymity. His or her name appears next to his creation everywhere, almost in the fashion of ‘c/o’, a bureaucratic marker of parenthood on application forms; but by the time readers have reached the last bubble of words, that name has been crowded out by those of his creations. The comic-strip creator thus lurks in the debris of our consciousness, emerging now and then, as during a quiz competition. For a very long time, this writer continued to believe that ‘Narayan Debnath’ was actually the subtitle of many comic strips, something like ‘The Poor Little Rich Boy’ that followed the title Richie Rich. Children have no use for names, certainly not for the names of parents of their best friends, and I cannot remember ever having spent much energy on conceiving a likely face and personality for Debnath.
My first encounter with the pintsized, giant-chested superhero Batul was in the Bengali magazine Shuktara. The title refers to the pole star, and indeed pole star it was – right on the first page stood Batul in his vest and hot pants. This was a time when children had yet to develop a preference for glossy colourful pages, and so when Batul emerged his hot pants were coloured with the printer’s black ink, while his vest, always without seams and always bursting at the chest, was a baby-pink dye. We were too young to be bothered about the gendered politics of blue boys and pink girls, but in spite of that ignorance we did realise that Batul, in his pink vest, was a most unconventional superhero. He had no fancy automobile, fancy guns or knives, not even an alter ego – he was always Batul, no Mr Walker-Phantom or Kal-El-Superman masks for him.
In the names of Superman, Spiderman or Batman, –man is a diving-board suffix for superhuman strength. With Debnath’s creation, however, that noun is replaced by an adjective, an English word that seems like a necessary interpolation for imported strength – Batul is Batul the Great, the best and strongest without apologies. He is, as one of the titles of the books describes matter-of-factly, aekai aeksho, a one-man army. In Jaanowar-o Haar Maaney (Even the beast accepts defeat), Batul domesticates the wildest of animals: the octopus is made to mow a lawn, and he controls the wildest and unruliest of horses, donkeys, bears, tigers and ostriches. In an almost psychosomatic gesture, in one story Batul even becomes a bull himself, wearing a mask and impersonating the animal, all the while assured that his physical strength was no less than the bull’s. That is Debnath’s Batul – all physical power (what else do young boys want?), tempered by, in the code of all superheroes, an unquestioning moral righteousness.
Today, when I – a woman with her gendered reading habits – look back to my fascination with Batul, I wonder how a little girl could have been interested in the exploits of a boy-man. Debnath’s world is a testosterone-driven one: not only Batul, but also Hada and Bhoda, Nontey and Fontey, inhabit a world in which limbs move faster than the mind. In comparison, Archie and his male friends, especially the food-loving, girl-fearing Jughead, seem too effeminate. The world of Riverdale, where Archie lived, would come later, with the arrival of imagined lovers; but until then, the tomboyish self would look to repeat Debnath’s version of the adventures of boys such as Tom Sawyer.
In spite of my desire to partake of all the joys of boyhood, it was hard not to notice the absence of women in Debnath’s comics. I was too young to feel betrayed but, like every child returning home to a mother’s smell in the evening, I remained expectant that turning the next page would bring the comfort of a mother figure, a girlfriend or even a headmistress as angry as the one we had to suffer every day at morning prayer in school. But no such relief came. Perhaps Debnath was just a product of his times – he created the series when girls were still a minority in the classroom, and female participation in the workforce was a laughable ratio. To see that world now is a bit like reading Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Princess” – a world in which there is only one sex (male in Debnath, female in the English poet) is to anticipate a violence, one necessary to establish what we understand as equilibrium. Is the terrible joy of violence in Debnath both a symptom and effect of that gender-biased, skewed sex-ratio world?
Batul is short, caught in the middle of boy-growing-into-man – batul is, in fact, a colloquial term for a dwarf in Bangla. It was his pointed, uneven head that I found most fascinating; that and the fact that he was never shown to have two ears, either the left or the right but never both together. This peculiarity might have arisen from the artist in Debnath, but how does one explain the fact that Batul’s lips never seem to close? His expressions might be flat, he might be happy or angry (who has seen a sad Superman?), but his mouth is always open.
A do-gooder at all times, even when he has not set out to consciously do any good, Batul can stop the flow of rivers, change the direction of the wind, lift a multi-storeyed building with his hands, or show his adeptness at martial arts. His strength inspires awe, and his inadvertent bumbling behaviour has the charm of a baby tripping while learning to walk. What is most amusing in the Batul tales is the punishment – the miscreants are either handed over to the police or injured inadvertently, though never too severely. What we want to see is Batul’s (mis)adventures, not some morality tale. There were a couple of things, however, that I never quite understood. Why did Batul have no hair? Was he old? Had he lost a parent and therefore shaved his head, as I had seen my Hindu neighbours and uncles do after a parent’s death? And, if so, did that mean he was in perpetual mourning? If not, where were his parents? And, as if summing up that entire curiosity, the schoolteacher’s question: How old was Batul? It was a question that, perhaps because of the haziness of its origin, we could never answer.
It would be all too easy to say that it did not matter. But I know it did. In the very Southasian nomenclature of suffixing a relation with us (so that someone is dada, kaka or dadu, brother, uncle or grandfather), and the invisible way in which this guides our imagination, we could never think of an appropriate relationship to share with Batul.
Batul was simply Batul the Great, small-town superhero; but was he an uncle on whom we could rely, or an older brother who would bash the bad boys in class, or the friend who was the strongest boy in class? We could never tell. And, in that, Batul always remained an outsider, a boy-man who, in spite of his bravery and good-samaritanism, could never become our relative.
Years later, when I brought up the subject of Batul’s hairlessness in the course of an adda discussion, a friend, a young balding man in his early 30s, gave an interesting rationale. A surplus of testosterone leads to hair loss, he said, and it was perhaps this that had led to Batul’s baldness. By that time, I had read my Milton and it did strike me as odd, and a commentary on the difference between times and cultures, that a bald man in Bengal could be shown to have the superhuman strength that Samson, the biblical hero, had in his locks of hair. Batul did not need Mandrake’s cloak or Spiderman’s mask; a glutton, he fed on the world’s table, and he did not need that extra helping of a moralising nutrient such as spinach to fight the world’s evil, like Popeye the Sailor did. In a very Hindu way perhaps, it was all inside of him.
Always an orphan
When I reread Debnath now, a couple of adult questions inevitably surface. What comic strips did Debnath read, as a child and as an adult? Had he ever read about Archie and Riverdale, before or after creating the Nontey Phontey series? Why does the hostel superintendent in Nontey Phontey remind me of Archie’s Mr Weatherbee, with his potbelly, balding head and I’ll-get-you-next-time expression? Where does Batul’s ‘great’ strength come from? And, again, the question that came to me first at 13: Why are all these comic-book superheroes orphans?
Parents are such a menace, Dennis and Calvin would convince us. Is that why Narayan Debnath does away completely with the parent figure in all three of his imagined worlds? It is as if Debnath is ventriloquising the child’s go-and-sit-in-a-corner agony, for it is not only the parent who, through his or her absence, creates a space for a child’s do-as-you-like. That utopian space, drained of most versions of authoritarianism (the police and the uncle or avuncular hostel superintendent are the only moral-keepers in Debnath’s frames), is also one in which the state or the family have left no significant footprint.
Debnath’s heroes – and most other protagonists – are either orphans or leading orphan-like lives. For all purposes, Batul too is an orphan, though that word is never actually used. Similarly, Nontey and Phontey stay in a boarding school where the greedy hostel superintendent eats the choicest of dishes, with utter disregard for the young boys; Hada’s cruel father, if Debnath brings him into the story at all, makes him work like an animal and shows no affection. That is another thing that I remember noticing as a young girl reader: Life is cruel, granted, but isn’t affection part of the package of retributive justice? Nowhere can I remember having encountered any show of affection in the stories – Bhoda’s goodness is rewarded by a grateful stranger; Batul is rewarded with food and riches, but never with a pat on the back or kisses and a hug. As a young girl, I found that unnerving and scary.
And yet my fascination with that never waned, particularly due to the locale in which Debnath set his stories. Growing up in a small town in Bengal and yet having no access to literature that described the kind of hawai-slippers life we led there, we turned to Debnath the way we turned to beauticians later – to let them highlight our good features and downplay the bad. All the action was in the small town; in Debnath, a hybrid construct of nature and culture, villageness lurking on the fences of cityness. And whether it was Batul, Hada-Bhoda or Nontey-Phontey, the sports they played, the tricks they devised were all ours. It was Debnath’s tricks of defamiliarisation that got us addicted to his boys. Today, when I see my small town puff its chest like Batul, I sometimes wonder how Batul, the superhero whom none could defeat, would have fought the shadow boxer called globalisation.
~ Sumana Roy teaches in the humanities department at Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College, West Bengal.
Sumana Roy is the author of How I became a Tree, a work of nonfiction, Missing: A Novel, Out of Syllabus: Poems and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories, a collection of short stories.