Much before Rajinikanth started splitting flying bullets with a knife, Bantul The Great had achieved greater feats: bullets used to bounce back after hitting him. No, he never wore a bullet proof jacket. Years before Sunny Deol pulled a hand pump out of the ground, Bantul, a teenager during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, lifted the Pak army’s Patton tanks above his head and chased Pakistani soldiers away with it. He pulled down Pakistani fighter jets throwing ropes.
It is only recently that Jaison and Shibu of Minnal Murali fame discovered their immense strength – walls will collapse at a gentle push. Decades ago, Bantul, appearing for India in the Olympic, not only won the gold in shot put but threw the ball with such force that it disappeared beyond the stadium.
All of it, with a 40-inch chest.
Thanks to Narayan Debnath, who died on January 18 at the age of 97, children in Bengali families for over five decades grew up with their own superhero, Bantul the Great.
Bantul, however, is not the only creation that he has left behind. The popularity of Handa-Bhonda and Nonte-Phonte cannot be said to be any less. These comics were initially published in magazines. But as their popularity kept increasing, they were published as books. For years after years, their popularity remained unmatched. His other creations included Bahadur Biral, or the brave cat.
Born in 1925 at Shibpur in Kolkata’s negibhouring district of Howrah, Debnath studied commercial art at the Indian College of Art and Draftsmanship. After passing out in the late 1940s, he briefly worked at a lettering press in Kolkata, before getting involved with the publication house Deb Sahitya Kutir in 1950. He never again took up a permanent job. For Deb Sahitya Kutir, he started doing illustrations for the children’s monthly magazine, Shuktara. Some years later, he also started illustrating for another iconic children’s magazine, Anandamela of the ABP group.
1962 was a milestone year. It was when one of his first iconic characters, the duo of Handa and Bhonda, appeared. Debnath later said in interviews that till that time he had no real knowledge of comics.
“When the publisher suggested that I consider doing a comic series, I hardly had any knowledge of it. My only exposure to comics was through Tarzan. I thought of giving it a try and decided to do a series on the kind of absurd things children do around us all the time,” he had said in an interview with cartoonist Debashis Deb.
Handa-Bhonda comics involved two boys, Handaram Gargari and Bhonda Pakrashi, the former is thin and a little over-smart and the latter is fat and innocent. Handa frequently tries to fool Bhonda but ends up in trouble. This went on to become one of the highest-selling products of the publication house.
Bantul The Great appeared three years later, clad in a pink vest and black shorts, about the time India’s 1965 war with Pakistan had started. Initially, Debnath did not want to make fun of another country through his comics. But the publisher convinced him that it would not be wrong since it was the time of the war. Later, Debnath revealed in different interviews, he made Bantul do unimaginable things and that people liked those very much. He realised people loved to see in his characters the actions that were not possible for them.
Bantul is a teenager with a very soft heart. But his very presence could mean trouble for others. Bantul sneezing could mean many objects around him would fly. Bantul running could lead to the road or walls of nearby houses cracking. One day, while trying to rescue two otherwise mischievous boys from sharks, he dives in the sea, grabs two sharks by his two hands, brings those back home and feasts on them alone because none else agreed to eat sharks.
The Nonte-Phonte series, which first appeared in 1969 in Kishor Bharati magazine, includes two more classic characters – Keltu-da, a senior student with an evil mind always trying to harass younger ones and butter up the hostel superintendent, Patiram Hati. Keltu-da was an eternal bully but in the end, circumstances always led to his humiliation. In most of the cases, despite the superintendent’s apparent bias for him due to all the flattery, Keltu will end up landing the super in trouble and himself at the receiving end of punishments.
On Monday, as with the news of Debnath’s death the social media sites were flooded with people paying their tributes, one person pointed out how Nonte-Fonte was more than just another comic series for him. He found in the comics inspiration to deal with the real life bullies in schools. Others remembered how Debnath’s characters became their favourite childhood companions.
Debnath did not like to be referred to as a cartoonist, he preferred a children’s writer over it. He is probably the first Indian comic series creator to have been awarded with an honourary D.Litt. degree. He is also a Padma Shri awardee. The award was handed over to him only a few days ago when he was already on his deathbed.
But his death also marked a different sort of achievement – on social media, people from all hues and spectrums expressed their love for the departed. It was rare to see the supporters of the CPI(M), various Naxalite groups, the Trinamool Congress and the Hindutva forces reacting the same way to one’s death, however great a stalwart the person may be. But Debnath made it happen. He united the Bengali-speaking people in grief and remembrance of their childhood.
After all, for decades, childhood in West Bengal has been incomplete without Bantul, Handa-Bhonda and Nonte-Phonte.