With the late winter still exhibiting a chilly bite, the Boi Mela launched quite recently.
Sipping piping-hot tea, standing by the bookstalls, we look forward to a month when hardcore capitalist impulses will be sidelined to allow some intellectual pleasures to take over.
I am certain that readers, at least those who are like myself and fall within the late-40s bracket, often get nostalgic when the Boi Mela begins.
This year, for some odd reason, lost fictional heroes who made our reading intensely thrilling back in the early 80s, came rushing back to me, reviving frayed memories of winter afternoons spent in a cozy corner of the house, devouring a Dasyu Bonhur book or something out of the Bhoyal adventure series.
These heroes, and many others like them, are lost, totally unknown to the modern reader. Yet, there was a time when these fictional characters were household names, used as essential parts of everyday language.
The ‘Dasyu’ phenomenon and the Robin Hood motif
The theme that governed a lot of the popular fiction in the years after liberation was an old one, taken from the Sherwood Forest brigand Robin Hood.
An outlaw who was unjustly embroiled in crime or due to circumstances beyond his control, ended up on the wrong side of the law. With a heart of gold and an unflinching sense of right and wrong, he helped the impoverished and the oppressed.
Well, we all know the premise, but in Bangladesh the Robin Hood format borrowed heavily from the mid-70s film obsession with benevolent horse-riding armed banditos operating in the mountainous region of Chambal.
Though irrational, if looked at from a logical angle, in fiction, our own brigand hero, Dasyu Bonhur, proved immensely popular.
The story is about a young boy who went lost during childhood and was rescued by an outlaw called Kalu Kha, who then raises the child to grow up as a shadowy figure living on the fringes of society.
He rides a horse called Toofan (Typhoon), wears a mask, has a hideout in the jungles in a cave, and two wives, one in the city and one in the forest.
I mean, if Dasyu Bonhur was published today there would be social outrage, calling the hero a bigamist. It was fiction, anachronisms were brushed aside for the fundamental message of the good, despite living outside the law, standing up to the oppressor, shielding the repressed.
How the fantastical coated the festering
About 35 years later, when I think deeply about the Dasyu Bonhur series, it’s not the irrational blend of items that come to mind, but the turbulent social premise of the period which prompted writers to create a fantasy world for readers to escape into.
However, those who read the series will also feel that, behind the exploits of Dasyu Bonhur lies the fantasy-coated appeal of deliverance from an autocratic regime, one which existed in reality.
When in real life people are so helpless, on screen and in fiction, we see a proliferation of heroes possessing abnormal powers, bringing down villains
The same also applies for other such adventures which appeared at that time, notably Dasyu Panja, another brigand hero, but one who does not operate solely within the jungles and mountains of South Asia, but also goes to far-flung regions of the world.
Panja’s rising popularity led to the appearance of another such outlaw hero who was a woman dressed in black leather, using a spiked whip to bring down notorious power-mongers in society. Known as Dasyu Moonlight, the woman was, again, a vigilante justice-provider, living outside the legal periphery.
Moonlight was possibly created on the format of Honey West, a TV series from the 60s, which featured a dashing young woman dressed in black playing the role of a femme fatale private detective.
Kuasha, the ultimate enigma within masked heroes
All these heroes had one thing in common: They were on the other side of the law, living in darkness, their faces obscured by a mask. The most prominent was Kuasha. While Kuasha adopted a more realistic plot, with the protagonist living as a recluse in a remote area, the righteous tone was always present.
Despite living in seclusion and wanted by the police, he aids the law in bringing powerful criminals to justice.
Once again, in all these characters, the collective desire of the masses for a messiah who would challenge corruption, reckless exploitation, was felt.
Forgotten masks, unfinished missions
With the world in turmoil, totalitarianism rising, bigotry often presented with smooth layers of magnanimity, and the honed skills of a glib polemicist, superheroes have suddenly become all the rage in Hollywood, and even Bollywood to an extent.
When in real life people are so helpless, on screen and in fiction, we see a proliferation of heroes possessing abnormal powers, bringing down villains.
From a superficial angle, it’s just entertainment -- though one may feel that in a tumultuous age, such obsession with heroes with superpowers is indicative of the inner frustration that common people feel in the face of so much injustice.
On a late winter evening, with new stalls still being hurriedly put up near the Bangla Academy premise, I wonder, while taking a long sip from my cup: Perhaps, it’s time to revive our forgotten fictional heroes -- Dasyu Bonhur, with one wife this time, and, maybe, a black sports car instead of a horse.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist working in the development sector.