In Pagla Dashu’s case, despite Sukumar Ray being an accomplished illustrator having drawn numerous drawings accompanying his nonsense verse and stories, there is none of Pagla Dashu in his hand. The illustrations he drew to accompany two of the four Dashu stories – “Chinepotka” (Chinese Crackers) and “Dashur Kirti” (“Dashu’s Deed”) – both depict the boy’s two most famous stunts, but not the boy. The first illustration shows a startled teacher in midflight with tumbling furniture, and the second has a person covering the head of a victim with a sack, Guantanamo Bay-style, with another chap creeping up with a pichkadi to finish off the dastardly act. Neither of the youngsters in the second picture depicts Dashorothi.

For that, we have to go to the 1940 Signet Press edition of Pagla Dashu, a collection of 20 Sukumar Ray’s stories of which 16 are “non-Dashu”. The illustrations of Dashorothi by Sukumar’s son Satyajit of Apu-Mukul-Piku fame, capture the looniness, the irreverence and iconoclastic nature of the boy. In the most famous image that makes the cover is a smiling Dashu, turning around with an impish smile and shock of hair, eyes brimming with a rule-destroying plan. It is the same mischievous look that can be found, when sought, in some grown-ups like Uttam Kumar in his romantic comedies like the 1953 Sharey Chuattor (Seventy-Four and a Half) and 1954 Ora Thake Odhare (They Live That Side).

But the portrait of Dashu that gives an inkling of a future Dashorothi-babu is Satyajit’s rendition of Sukumar’s description of the boy making a political statement in the first story:

Once he suddenly appeared in school wearing a pair of trousers. Wearing trousers that looked like floppy pajamas and a coat that was like a pillow cover, the fact that he looked exceedingly odd, he himself understood. And that he was looking odd by itself was giving him much pleasure. We asked, “Why are you wearing trousers?” He smiled and said, “So that I can learn English well.”

The usual dhoti-shirt-clad Dashu appears smug as a bug in Satyajit’s drawing, books tucked under his arm, the Western clothes and shoes almost making him look like a proto-university mathematics/philosophy professor. Wittgenstein would have spoken if he had set his eyes on this image; he wouldn’t have been silent.

Dashorothi’s future as a young man, then a middle-aged man, and finally as an old man, may seem more secure, more “in the script”. Perhaps an Apu-like settling down is not only believable, but even inevitable. But the longer you linger, the more possible it is that a character goes out of character. The golden rule of real life may be “past behaviour determines future behaviour,” but there is always context and chronology to contend with.

If Dashorothi was around twelve in 1916, he would have been around four when Khudiram Bose was hanged at age 18 in 1908. Going into school – the only place we have met him, and we know that children can behave very differently at home – he must have been aware of the cult of the martyr teenager. By the time Dashu himself is 18, Chauri Chaura occurs, Mohandas Gandhi is arrested and then sentenced for sedition.

Does Dashu have a violent bone in his body? Sukumar Ray wouldn’t have told us even if he did, since his boy was a sharp, unruly kid who disliked authority and injustice in school. The world, of course, was, and remains, a very different place. But how different? When does a prank about egging on greedy classmates to open a lunch box that upon opening is found to be empty except for a taunting note, “Eat kachkola!” (the equivalent of “Eat this!”) and “Too much curiosity is not good”, metamorphose into acts considered seditious against real authority figures of a colonial regime? When does a clay pot full of Chinese crackers that scare the class teacher shitless out of his chair turn into chucking bombs at symbols of repression or armoury raids? Or, for that matter when does breaking rules as a boy metastasise into causing genuine harm to others, as a man?

They may well not have at all. Dashorothi may well have been enthused by the discoveries at Mohenjodaro by Kashinath Narayan Dikshit and John Marshall in the mid-1920s and found himself a position of excavatory study and scholarship in the Archaeological Survey of India. The chances of him settling and resettling can only be answered by the last question asked by Sukumar Ray’s narrator about him: “Is Dashu really really mad, or does he just fake it?”

Depression may not have taken a romantic turn in the middle-aged man if Dashorothi-babu found himself labouring under nostalgia and living out a banal life. For a boy so self-aware, a voyant-voyou – seer-mischief-maker – being in denial would hardly be an option for the man. As for his penchant for pranks, the cause for such joy in his boyhood, would he have continued to seek justice by overturning established orders and dogmas after years of finding out that things slide back to their own sense of triteness? How would Dashu, age 50, reckon with surf unerringly turning back into water no matter how much he churned the sea? In his case too then, we find a possibility of a real boy (whom everybody knows) who did go on to become a real man (whom nobody cares to know).

Excerpted with permission from “Becoming Adult” in In Praise of Laziness and Other, Indrjait Hazra, Simon and Schuster and Yoda Press.