There is a time, when the light changes colour and the goddess returns home with her brood of children, that is ripe for stories. And like a seasonal fruit, the pujabarshiki will be found face down on armchairs or cracked open on bedside tables in towns and cities across West Bengal. These are the annual Durga Puja editions published by Bengali newspapers and magazines, fat, juicy tomes spilling with stories and illustrations.

Though pujabarshikis are still published, Calcuttans of a certain vintage will tell you their heyday was in the 1960s and ’70s. If you were a child growing up in those decades, there were long afternoons to be filled once school shut for the puja vacations. One of the things you did before you hit the pandals, bought toy guns that went off with a satisfying crack and fell sick eating hajmi goli bought at mela stalls was get your hands on that year’s puja digests. For many Calcuttans of that generation, memories of puja vacations are threaded with adventures and characters from a galaxy far, far away.

Something for every taste

These digests have also played an important part in the literary life of Bengal. Take the annual edition of the Sandesh, a periodical with a storied past. The novelist, Upendrakishore Raychowdhury, had started it in 1913 and his son, Sukumar Ray, the Abol Tabol (Gibberish) poet, succeeded him as editor. And his son, Satyajit Ray, revived it in 1961, when it was also edited by Leela Majumdar and Nalini Das, both famous children’s authors. Satyajit Ray’s legendary detective, Feluda, and cranky scientist adventurer, Professor Shonku, first appeared in the Sandesh in the 1960s.

Deb Sahitya Kutir, a noted children’s publisher, compiled a hardbound volume of stories especially for the pujas. Famous authors tried their hand at children’s literature in these pages, which contained stories by writers such as Ashapoorna Devi and Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay as well as Hemendra Kumar Roy, known to his readers for hair-raising adventure stories like Jakher Dhan (The Yaksha’s Wealth) and Abar Jakher Dhan (The Yaksha’s Wealth Once More).

In 1971, Anandabazar Patrika published the first annual edition of Anandamela, which went on to carry stories by authors like Satyajit Ray, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Bimal Kar. It also contained a comic strip on the adventures of the incorrigible Tenida, by Narayan Gangopadhyay. Another strip was based on the writings of Parshuram, pen name of the raging atheist, Rajshekhar Bose.

Shuktara, a children’s magazine started by Deb Sahitya Kutir in 1947 and known for comic strips such as “Batul the Great” and “Haanda Bhoda”, also had its own puja edition, as did Kishore Bharati, a magazine published by Patra Bharati.

The magazines brought a new emphasis on writing for children, which had been rather neglected in Bengali literature, says Shubha Chaudhury, a former professor of Bengali at the Bhawanipur Education Society College in Kolkata and daughter of Bimal Kar. For the first time, the digests offered you stories by a large number of writers all in one volume and easily available. There was something for every taste, says Chaudhury.

Phantom, jaguars and Bogla-mama

Shonku, Feluda and Tenida seem to have been favourites across the board. Apart from those, every reader picked his or her vices, the particular series or authors they hungrily sought out first.

Rahul Chakravarty, who read the Puja digests from the 1960s, rattles off a list of names without pause, as if he’s been thinking of them constantly for 50 years. “Anandamela had stories by sports writer Moti Nandi, about life on and off the Kolkata cricket field, very touching,” he said. Nandi is best known as the author of Koni, a novel about a poor young girl who wants to make it big as a swimmer, and other stories of heroic endeavour. Sandesh published Nihar Ranjan Gupta, dermatologist and creator of Kiriti Roy, detective. And stories about shikar by Dhirendra Narayan Roy, a landowner from North Bengal and a subject of fiction himself – he was the inspiration behind one of Satyajit Ray’s villains in the Feluda series. Deb Sahitya Kutir published a comic strip by Mayukh Chowdhury, based on the real life adventures of Lieutenant Colonel Suresh Biswas, who migrated to Brazil in the 19th century and apparently raised hell in the Amazonian forests. The comics show a Clark Gable lookalike effortlessly grappling with jaguars.

“I liked the mystery stories best,” confessed Surajit Majumdar, who grew up in Kolkata in the '70s and '80s. He remembers Bogla-mama, the neighbourhood know it all who told tall stories and headed a club of nine boys. They solve mysteries and at the end of each adventure Bogla-mama established himself as a true leader. The series, written by Rajkumar Maitra, was published in compilations by Deb Sahitya Kutir. Majumdar also remembers Goenda Gandalu by Nalini Das. Published in Sandesh, the series featured a quartet of schoolgirl sleuths. Anandamela had Pandav Goenda stories by Sasthipada Chattopadhyay, derived largely from Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers.

Chaudhury loved the short stories by Ashapoorna Devi and plays by Bidhayak Bhattacharya. “They seem ridiculous now but to a child of six or seven, they were amazing,” she says. Bloodcurdling tales by Hemendra Kumar Roy were also fun. “But one read these magazines as soon as one learnt to read, so it’s difficult to remember separate stories,” Chaudhury says.

The appeal of the pujabarshiki, however, seems to have waned for a large number of readers. Partly because of other amusements that have crowded the puja holidays and partly because the digests seem to have changed character. Chowdhury says she couldn’t read this year’s editions and has rejected them for reprints of old Deb Sahitya Kutir collections. Niloshree Bhattacharya, who grew up in Kolkata in the 1990s, remembers reading old editions of the Sandesh, carefully preserved by her family.

Her husband, Onkar Basu, however, is grateful for one feature of the pujabarshikis – bigger comic strips. “In the regular Anandamela they had only two pages of Phantom comics,” he said with obvious relish. "The Puja editions had much longer stories."