Last week I was on vacation in Calcutta and I finished The Great Unknown by Shankar while on the vacation, an autobiographical account of the author’s days in the High Court of Calcutta where he worked as a clerk for the last British barrister in India. The book is a novel with a series of short stories in it about the people the author met during his years in Calcutta High Court.
The people who come to court for solution of their problems are as varied as the problems they seek solution for, so naturally the book is an interesting read always keeping the reader guessing what story will come next just as a book of short stories does.
Shankar, whose real name is Mani Shankar Mukherjee, is among the popular Bengali writers and his novels started coming in English translations a few years back. Shankar’s writing and observations are simple and they make him immensely readable, but they can sometimes read too Bengali middle class.
The book is breezy and once you start reading it you are left with the yearning to return to it. I found myself lost in the lives of its characters soon after I started reading it. Helen Grubert (an Anglo-Indian typist ), Nicholas Droulas (a Greek sailor) – characters just flit in and out of Calcutta High Court, some with tragic consequences and some happy. The book carries a plaintive character and the stories convey the flavour of 50s' and 60s' Calcutta.
Written in the early 50s and serialised in a Bengali magazine fisrt, it was the first book by the author. In a way, the book was a precursor to the nature of writing to come from the author: novels set in the heart of an industry, in this case High Court being that setting and men of law the main characters. Few years later Shankar wrote Chowringhee, which predated Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which was later made into a popular Bengali movie.