It rarely happens that a genre of literature in a language is completely defined, dominated and nurtured by a single name. And yet, when we pronounce the word “kalpavigyan” – the Bengali term for science fiction, one name usually comes up. It belongs to the man who gave this genre its Bengali identity: Adrish Bardhan. Though his works expanded from writing to editing, even translating and publishing, Bardhan would always be known for his dedication for this genre. Or, as he would put it: “Madness.”
The ’60s were the era of reform – not only for the country but also the Bengali literary world. While the subcontinent was struggling to find its economic sovereignty, Bengali literature was recuperating from the void left by Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries. While this wave of the revolution brought the genesis of both anomalous and unscriptural short fiction, it also gave birth to a magazine called Ashchorjo – or Amazing.
It was, of course, the golden age of science fiction in the western world – reigned over by masters like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and Robert Heinlein – but the genre was an alien in this part of the subcontinent. True, writers like Premendra Mitra or Jagadish Chandra Bose had written SF, but their work was not true science fiction. The word “kalpavigyan” or “imagined science” was still to be born.
What Bardhan created as a magazine was no less an ambitious project. Ashchorjo was the first of its kind not only in Bengal but on the entire subcontinent. Bardhan noticed the flourishing of western science fiction and how magazines like Astounding, and Galaxy became the driving force for creating a rich pool of writers. What Bardhan said on this subject explains the origins of Ashchorjo: “I knew this genre was the most forlorn but that only fuelled my persistence. If it was a disregarded genre, I had to write (to save its glory).”
A life in science fiction
Adrish Bardhan was born on December 1, 1932, in North Kolkata. His father Anil Bardhan and grandfather Chandicharan Bardhan founded the Hindu Boys’ School in Serpentine Lane, where Adrish had his primary education. After getting a Bachelor’s degree in science, Bardhan arrived in Bombay with a job, influenced by aspects of Sibram Chakrabarti’s novel Bari Theke Paliye (Running Away From Home). He took up many kinds of jobs, which introduced him to different parts of this country before he returned Kolkata in the early ’60s.
Ashchorjo was born in January 1963, and Bardhan played his editorial role under the nom de plume of Akash Sen (which is why he was once investigated by the Kolkata Police). Prominent writers like Premendra Mitra and Satyajit Ray guided him, while his elder brother, Dr Asim Bardhan, acted as the publisher. At first, many of the stories or articles published in Ashchorjo were written by Bardhan himself under various pseudonyms.
Joining Ray, Mitra and Roychowdhury on the contributors’ list were Kshitindranarayan Bhattacharya, Manabendra Bandyopadhyay, and, later, emerging writers like Ranen Ghosh, Bishu Das, Monoranjan De, Sridhar Senapati, Enakkshi Chattopadhyay, and Samarjeet Kar. But Ashchorjo was more than short stories – it featured articles, serialised novellas, science fiction book and film reviews, and exciting facts about the world. It was truly representative of the golden age of Bengali science fiction.
Apart from original works, the magazine contained translations of science fiction from the West, including the works of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Jules Verne, and HG Wells. Bardhan was the first to translate HP Lovecraft into Bengali. His critically acclaimed translation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” proved he could have won over readers even without science fiction.
To fund Bengali science-fiction, Bardhan also established business like Alpha-Beta Polishers and Dipti Printers on the ground floor of his house. He went on to build a readership and wider interest in science fiction through, among other things, short story anthologies – Mahakashjatri Bangali (Bengalis in Space) and Sabuj Manush (Green Men) – with contributions by, among others, Satyajit Ray, Premendra Mitra, and Dilip Roychowdhury, which were broadcast on All India Radio, read by the authors themselves. Similarly, the Science Fiction Cine Club, set up in 1965, was also Bardhan’s brainchild.
The second innings
A bare two years after his marriage, Bardhan lost his wife in 1972. Being a single parent now to his son Ambar, he had to prioritise his goals. He became more of a father than an editor and writer. Ashchorjo stopped publishing in late 1972. It was the end of a brief yet wonderful era, and no other Bengali magazine had reached the potentials of Ashchorjo. The magazine had established a dedicated reader-base, created a thriving pool of writers, and even succeeded in making steady profits.
Fortunately, it was a brief hiatus. Bardhan returned in 1975 with his new magazine Fantastic (named by Ray), with Ranen Ghosh as co-editor. However, it did not remain a science-fiction-only magazine, expanding to include speculative fiction with its own blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Well-known authors like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Syed Mustafa Siraj, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Anish Deb, Siddhartha Ghosh wrote for Fantastic. Bardhan also founded a publishing company of the same name in 1982.
Strangely, however, the magazine could not repeat the success of its predecessor when it came to building a pool of writers. Ashchorjo had been a landmark series of works of collaborative pioneering. During the age of Fantastic was launched, however, the world changed. Television sets entered middle-class homes, and the time devoted to magazines began to drop.
Although magazines from large publishing houses upgraded their printing platforms to state of the art technology, Fantastic, like many other small magazines, couldn’t follow suit because of a lack of funds. The final nail in the coffin was probably the devastating fire at the Kolkata Book Fair in 1997. One-third of the bookstalls were burnt down, one of them being Fantastic’s. The magazine never recovered from the losses. It had already been publishing on an erratic schedule, and the run finally ended in 2007. With this, the era of Bardhan and his magazines came to a close.
A monumental legacy
Old age and a frail body did not permit Bardhan to write for almost a decade. But he had in the course of his writing life created several memorable characters, the leading one being Professor Nutboltu Chakro (Professor Nutbolt Ring), a scientist who had equal grasp over all the disciplines of science and was always accompanied by his assistant Dinonath Nath. Detective characters like Indranath Rudra, lady detective Narayani, Father Ghyanshyam or vagabonds like Chanokkyo Chakladar are still popular among readers.
Tragically, Bardhan’s last days were spent not in solitude but in loneliness, and in the grips of a grave financial crisis. Whenever the occasional fan dropped in on the illness-ravaged writer, however, he discovered a mind that was just as active as ever. He would still discuss science fiction with the same verve as he had half a century ago, even when his memories were fading and his speech was slurred.
Adrish Bardhan died on May 21, 2019, in his Santosh Mitra Square residence at the age of 86. Besides his own fiction and the magazines, he contributed to a new legacy, the Bengali science fiction magazine Kalpabiswa. His own works are still among many publishers’ bestsellers.
If he were to have been asked how he did this monumental amount of work in such difficult circumstances, he might have answered: “Stories are the greatest of all-conquering forces, they don’t end in obfuscation but in hope, to ignite a spark. Because in the end, that was what I had – a little bit of madness, a nagging persistence, and a pinch of imagination.”