Review: The Inhumans and Other Stories: A Selection of Bengali Science Fiction

edited and translated by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

MIT Press (part of the Radium Age Book Series), 2024

grab a copy here or through your local independent bookstore or library


The Inhumans (Amanushik Manush) (1935) by Hemendrakumar Roy

“Voyage to Venus” (“Shukra Bhraman”) (1895) by Jagadananda Ray

“The Mystery of the Giant” (“Danab Rahassya”) (1931) by Nanigopal Majumdar

“The Martian Purana” (“Mangal Purana”) (1931) by Manoranjan Bhattacharya

The latest in MIT Press’s Radium Age series, The Inhumans and Other Stories: A Selection of Bengali Science Fiction is part of a growing corpus of Southeast Asian sf being translated into English. This is very good news for readers interested in growing their knowledge of world sf and its various iterations and traditions. Thanks to editor and translator Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, one of the editors of Indian Genre Fiction: Pasts and Future Histories (2018) and Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction (2022), Anglophone readers now have access to some fascinating stories from Bengali writers of the 1930s (and even one from 1895). Explaining in his introduction that all of these stories grapple with colonial realities and tropes that were being developed in the Anglophone world (including the popular Lost World trope), Chattopadhyay introduces us to writers who found their places in the Bangla popular literature of the early 20th century.

One of the most interesting points in the introduction is Chattopadhyay’s discussion of how literary magazines in colonial Bengal were genre melting pots: “translations, puzzles, short fiction, serialized novels, news of inventions and discoveries, historical articles, stories from mythological sources, geographical pieces, political commentary,…children’s fiction, comedy, fantasy, myth-fiction, and sf could all be found here,” along with translations of Conan Doyle, Wells, Burroughs, and Verne (translated or adapted by the author of The Inhumans).

Throughout this fascinating anthology, I found myself wanting more: more historical context, more explanations, more commentary from Chattopadhyay (that introduction is excellent). I understand that this volume is supposed to be reader-friendly, and so the number of endnotes was small (also, did I ever mention that I loathe endnotes? Footnotes FTW!). Basically, what I wanted was a Ulysses-style annotated text- I wanted (yes, I’m greedy) margin notes on every page, because I am woefully ignorant of Bengali culture. But it’s precisely anthologies like this that make me want to learn more (and also cry because even if I lived to 800, I wouldn’t have time to learn all the things I want to learn! But I digress…).

To the stories: be prepared to find yourself thinking “wait, what just happened?” at least three times in every tale, because wow, some very strange things are happening. In the title story, which is divided into two parts, a Bengali man travels to Africa for a hunting expedition. Included in the tale is an extended extract from the real book Kill or Be Killed: The Rambling Reminiscences of an Amateur Hunter (1933) by W. Robert Foran, describing the gorgeous and dangerous African landscape and its wildlife. When the narrator goes hunting gorillas in the jungle, he encounters the “Valakhilyas,” the smallest people on the planet. They act as guides, but then grow fearful when the camp gets raided multiple times by an unknown (possibly not human?) entity. The narrator becomes obsessed with figuring out the mystery.

The second part of the narrative, set in Uganda, focuses on the “Juju Mountain,” said to be inhabited by some sort of malevolent force. As in the first part, here what is said to be supernatural by the native people turns out to be something…not mundane, but definitely not supernatural. I’ll just say it involves a very hungry lion. The narrator then finds a diary, left by another Bengali hunter years before, and the rest of the narrative is quoted from that diary, involving a bizarre species of human that has evolved to no longer need a skeletal structure.

(spoiler alert) “Voyage to Venus” was especially interesting reading for me because, just a over a month ago, I read another short narrative, written in the late 19th century, that used the “sleeper awakes” literary device: Czech author Jakub Arbes’s Newton’s Brain (1877). Both “Voyage” and Newton involve young friends interested in the burgeoning scientific field who together explore what, in real life, seems fantastic. In “Voyage,” the friends are hanging out and talking about a book by an English astronomer about the planets–Venus in particular–when the narrator closes his eyes and drifts off. Imagine his surprise when he wakes up…on the dark side of Venus. He eventually meets up with his friend, who has discovered a race of Venusians (the narrator calls them “primitive” and “uncivilized,” in keeping with the Lost World trope) that evolved to live simply but contentedly on the small planet. But then the narrator and his friend encounter an “advanced race” of Venusians living on the other side of that world. These people, despite their technological sophistication, are baffled by the narrator’s claim that he and his friend come from another world. It’s while the narrator is on an advanced Venusian ship (for sailing, not space travel) that his friend voices a wish to return to Earth…and the narrator wakes up back on Earth.

In “The Mystery of the Giant,” Nanigopal Majumdar uses the literary device of the “strange potion” to explore the limits of human evolution. A neighborhood is convulsed by strange sightings and sounds after a man and his scientific-minded friend mysteriously disappear. As we later learn, in a letter Manu writes to his father, his friend wished to make himself into a large, strapping man to match up with his massive intellect. Of course, the potion had unintended consequences (think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). There are also elements of Frankenstein here, especially when the giant keeps insisting that he and other humans are “brothers.”

The final story returns the reader to the Lost World narrative, with humans encountering Martians, all thanks to one woman’s love for precious gems. As Chattopadhyay explains in his intro about “The Martian Purana,” the story involves “advanced aliens coexisting in the same space as mythological characters.” “A ‘purana,'” he notes, “is a tale that takes place outside of time, yet here the past merges with the present.” It is especially with this story that I wanted some seriously long and involved margin notes, because I have this feeling that if I knew anything about Bengali folklore and myth, I would have found this story absolutely hilarious. Unfortunately, I could only really connect with the fact that a husband really wanted to make his wife happy, so he went to the underworld (you read that right) to get a famous gem. (Reader, my husband’s idea of making me happy is going to the grocery store and buying me a container of chocolate candy…and he’s not wrong). But of course, then the underworld wouldn’t have any light, so he had to go elsewhere- like Mars, where the gem was taken by a scientist, and where apparently a very advanced race lives that makes humanity seem puny. So, as one does, the husband goes to a mythological figure (Hanuman) who bounces to Mars to get the gem. He then discovers that the humans who went to Mars have been captured by the Martians and put into a zoo of strange creatures. Hanuman rescues them and returns to Earth.

Finally, I very much appreciated Chattopadhyay’s “Note on the Translation,” in which he explained that the original Bangla title could mean both “inhuman” and “human as individual but also humanity,” though he ultimately settled on The Inhumans to “encourage readers to perceive such characters as the feral child, the beings in the advanced civilization, and even the narrators as different sorts of inhumans” (xxii-xxiii). The Inhumans anthology is indeed an important new addition to the world of SFT and I look forward to reading more Bengali SFT in the future.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *