Exercising Fire

I sneaked a quick look at Ghonada.

As seasoned observers of the mess-house at 72 Bonomali Noshkor Lane know, outrageous claims of this kind were his domain, not ours. Generally, if any of us dared to so much as set a toe on said domain, we would first be blasted with scathing sarcasm, and then be dazzled with a tall tale justifying all Ghonada’s claims. Today, we hadn’t just set a tentative toe into his domain. We had stormed it, set up camp, and were now in the process of hoisting our flag on its soil. How was the man reacting to this blatant act of plagiarism, or, if you like, this blatant mockery?

“Exercising Fire”, Premendra Mitra, July 1978
Original Title: “Khanobdahe Ghonada”

Premendra Mitra’s Ghonada is a study of fascinating contrasts.

On the one hand, as Mitra said himself, he is a teller of rather tall tales. He seems to have lived through almost the whole 19th century, popping up sometimes in Siberia, sometimes in the Amazon, on small islands in the, and in the interiors of Africa – always saving the day with his near-superhuman repertoire of combat skills and encyclopaedic knowledge. And yet he lives in a rickety mess-house in the bowels of old middle-class Calcutta, with nothing more exciting in his life than evening walks.

On the other hand, for a self-aggrandising liar, his stories are surprisingly accurate – both geographically and politically – and scientifically sound for his time. So perhaps the ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’ part of his stories is actually true? And if that is true, is it possible the at least some of the rest is also true?

The four young men who subsidise Ghonada’s living can never work it out. It doesn’t help that the few times they trick or test him, he comes out with flying colours. In a way, Ghonada’s tales are like the stories of religious myth, to be taken on faith, or not at all.

And much like the gods, Ghonada’s favour can be won by gifts of special food. His younger housemates use this weakness to cajole stories out of him all the time, and appease him when he is cross. The list of the dishes he is fed in exchange for his yarns is a valuable record of the food middle-class (Hindu) Bengalis thought of – and continues to think of – as special treats, spanning at least four different cuisines and a broad spectrum of prices. In a way, Mitra’s stories are as much a narrative of ‘junk food’ in Calcutta as they are of Ghonada’s tall tales.

The excerpt above is from a short and unusual cycle of stories he spins for them, in which Ghonada details the “hidden history” behind many incidents of the Mahabharata. The full story can be read here: Exercising Fire.

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