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Adventures with Professor Shonku

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on June 27, 2020 Published on June 26, 2020

Professor Shonku, one of Satyajit Ray’s beloved creations, brought the mysteries and wonders of the world closer to the reader with every turn of the page

*The last stories written by Satyajit Ray for the Shonku series, translated into English, have now been published as The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku

* In Professor Shonku, Ray created perhaps the ideal man of science

Diaries come in all shapes and voices. Some recount real, lived experiences. Others chronicle the story of a life. Some are rather more unusual. Professor Shonku, a scientist who lived and worked in the small, quiet town of Giridih in Jharkhand had a whole series of diaries recounting his astounding discoveries, inventions and amazing adventures. Unfortunately, Professor Shonku is no more on this Earth. Don’t get me wrong, he is perhaps perfectly happy and healthy. But he does not live on Earth anymore, having flown off one day in a spaceship, leaving behind the diaries for us to find and read with increasing fascination.

The first in film-maker Satyajit Ray’s series of stories and novels about Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku appeared in Bengali in the children’s magazine Sandesh in 1961. Called Byomjatrir Diary (Diary of a Space Traveller), it is the story of a man who approaches the editor of a magazine with a diary written by one Professor Shonku. In the diary, Shonku describes how he has developed a rocket for space travel, and also a robot named Bidhushekhar. Soon, he leaves for Mars in the rocket with Bidhushekhar, his assistant Prahlad and Newton the cat. The journey to Mars is eventful but he finds that Martians are not welcoming. Finally, he finds a new home on the planet Tafa, where he plans to stay on. On Earth, all that remains are the diaries.

The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku; Satyajit Ray, Indrani Majumdar (tr.); Puffin; Fiction; ₹299

 

The Shonku stories are full of detailed descriptions of amazing inventions — more on that later — and fantastic journeys to places from El Dorado to the prehistoric caves of France to the Nilgiris and the Himalayas. Professor Shonku never hesitates when adventure beckons. And everywhere he goes, he carries with him, besides his diaries, his sense of adventure and fair play. The last stories written by Ray for the series, translated into English, have now been published as The Final Adventures of Professor Shonku. Quite delightfully, the first story in this collection, Tellus, was translated by Ray himself. The other stories are translated from Bangla by Indrani Majumdar.

In Shonku, Ray created perhaps the ideal man of science. He is creative in his ideas, often collaborating with scientists from around the world. He is ambitious, wanting to find cures and invent new machines but without craving monetary benefits or fame. In the story Professor Rondi’s Time Machine, talking about the Italian scientist who wants to use a time machine to make money by giving people ‘rides’ into the past or future, Shonku says, “I’ve... realized that he is not at all thinking of historians or researchers. All he wants is to make utmost profit through this machine. Therein lies a massive gap between his ethos and mine.”

It is the kind of principle that may sound old-fashioned, but has worked for Shonku. And it certainly doesn’t hold him back in his pursuit of science. Quite wonderfully, he is not at all self-effacing about it.

He says quite matter-of-factly, “My place in the scientific firmament is right after Thomas Alva Edison, a fact acknowledged by scientists in all five continents.” And indeed, how could it not be so. Just take a look at some of his inventions: Annihilin the pistol, which simply erases a person from the scene; Miracurall the wonderdrug; Remembrain, which revives memory; Ornithon, to impart lessons to birds. And if these sound incredible, how about Linguagraph, a machine which translates any language into English? Or Tellus, which has an answer to any question? Siri and Google, anyone?

Ray envisioned the complex life of machines when he wrote these stories. In the story Tellus, the machine that can answer a million questions suddenly turns rogue. It goes missing; and when it is found, the scientists are amazed to see that it is showing signs of independent thought. As we move further into the age of Artificial Intelligence,modern scientists and philosophers are pondering such questions, too.

Ultimately, what stands out in the stories — and in Shonku — is his sense of curiosity. Ray was writing these stories primarily for children and young adults at a time when travel was not as easy as it is now, many years before the internet took over our lives.

To these children, he opened a world of intellectual wonder while taking them on hair-raising adventures from the Poles to the deepest jungles. He showed glimpses of the enormous natural world out there through the many animals and birds in the stories. And he did this through a man of science, one who did not hesitate to send himself into space because the call of adventure sang loudly in his soul.

For children of a certain generation, and their children now, Professor Shonku is as much a figment of literary imagination as a friend who whispers in their ears prodding them to go out there, ask questions, and never be scared of thinking of solutions, no matter how extraordinary they may appear at first today.

Certainly, this is a quality we will need more and more of, as this decade reveals itself to us.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

Published on June 26, 2020
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