Translated by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay
Part I—A Scientific Mystery
A few years ago a supernatural event was observed which rocked the scientific communities of America and Europe. A number of articles were published in various scientific journals to explain the phenomenon. But till now no explanation of the event has been found satisfactory.
On 29 September the aforementioned daily published the following news: Meteorological Office, Alipore: A tremendous cyclone is about to strike Bengal in two days. A Danger-Signal has been put up on Diamond Harbour.
On the 30th the news was extremely frightening: The Barometer fell two inches in the last half hour. By ten o’clock tomorrow Calcutta will face the worst and most dangerous cyclone in years.3
No one slept that night in Calcutta. The timorous souls stayed awake in fear of their uncertain future.
On 1 October the sky remained cloudy, and a few drops of rain fell during the day. It remained dark throughout the day, but about four in the evening the sky suddenly became clear without a trace of the cyclone.
The next day the Meteorological Department sent the following news to the newspaper office: The cyclone that was to strike Calcutta has left the Bay of Bengal and has probably gone off in another direction in the Indian Ocean.
However, despite the attempts of many scientists to follow the trail of the cyclone, no one was able to discover the cyclone’s new direction.
The leading English daily4 published the following news: Now it is certain that scientific knowledge is completely false.
Another daily5 published the following: If science is false then why should the taxpayers be burdened by the totally unreliable Meteorological department?
Various other dailies6 joined as chorus: Let it go! Scrap it!
The government was in a fix. A few days ago new equipment worth over one lakh Rupees had been purchased for the Meteorological Department. Now those items would not even sell for the price of broken glass bottles. Besides, where would one transfer the Chief Officer of the Meteorological Department?
In dire straits the government appealed to the Calcutta Medical College: “We wish to appoint a new Chair at the Medical College. Lectures would be delivered on the following topic: ‘On the Effect of Variation of Barometric Pressure on the Human System.’ The principal of the Medical College wrote back:
A wonderful suggestion. A decrease in air pressure enhances blood circulation in the human body. This would undoubtedly help rejuvenate the body. However, the citizens of Calcutta are under the following pressures at the moment:
1st – Air. Pressure per square inch: 15 pounds.
2nd – Malaria. Pressure per square inch: 20 pounds.
3rd – Patented medicines. Pressure per square inch: 30 pounds.
4th – University. Pressure per square inch: 50 pounds.
5th – Income tax. Pressure per square inch: 80 pounds.
6th – Municipal tax. Pressure per square inch: 1 tonne.
The relief of a few inches of air pressure would be like a handful of twigs on an already heavy load. Thus starting this Chair in Calcutta might not have particularly beneficial or noticeable effects on the residents of this city. In the hills of Shimla the air pressure as well as other pressures is comparatively much less. Hence it would be better if the said Chair was appointed at Shimla because the effects would be more noticeable there.
The government remained silent on the issue after this. The meteorological department managed to survive this particular crisis.
The issue of the cyclone however remained unresolved.
A scientist published an article in Nature once. His theory was that the cyclone was dispersed by the gravitational pull of an invisible comet. These are all mere guesses.7
Even now the issue raises cycloney debates in the scientific community. At the British Association convention at Oxford, a German professor presented an erudite paper on the “runaway cyclone” phenomenon which astounded his peers.8 According to the Professor, “A cyclone is merely a form of the atmosphere. Let us first examine how the atmosphere came into being. When the Earth was simply molten metallic matter which had come out of the sun, it did not have an atmosphere. How oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen came together out of this molten matter is still one of the mysteries of creation. Even more mysterious and fascinating is the evolution of life. Let us assume that the atmosphere somehow came into being. What is an even greater problem is how this atmosphere does not dissolve and vanish into space. This is because of Earth’s gravitational pull. Gravity works according to relative mass. That which is heavier is subject to more gravitational force and is therefore relatively tied to its own position on the earth. The lighter object is less influenced by gravity and is therefore relatively free. This is why when we mix oil and water, the lighter oil generally floats to the surface. Hydrogen being lighter tries to escape the Earth’s atmosphere—however it is not completely free of the gravitational pull. However we doubt if the truth of relative mass is applicable to areas other than physics. For instance, in the country called India, the men are heavier and relatively free, the women who are relatively light are tied to the domestic space. In any case, only matter remains attached to the Earth by virtue of its gravity. After the death of matter it is free of the Earth. When man gives up his ghost the force of gravity no longer restricts his movement. Some people say that even in death man is not free of Earth, because even ghosts have to move under the commands of the Theosophical society. In the case of matter however it is incorrect to say that it attains five states—because we see only three. When bombarded with radium matter breaks down into three states—alpha, beta, and gamma. Thus when matter is broken down the non-matter escapes into an unknown space. While living however, it is impossible to escape the force of gravity.”
While the professor did provide a scientific explanation of why matter does not escape into space, he failed to point out why the cyclone suddenly disappeared in the Bay of Bengal.
The truth of the matter is known to only one person in this world—me. In the next part I will give a detailed explanation of the phenomenon.
I fell extremely ill some years ago. I was in bed for almost a month. The doctor said that a sea journey was absolutely necessary; without it I would not survive another spell of the illness. So I decided to journey to Ceylon.
The illness had taken its toll on my once abundant hair. One day my eight-year-old daughter came up to me and asked: “Daddy, what is an island?” Before I could answer she took hold of the few locks of hair left on my otherwise smooth head surface and said: “Here are the islands.” After a while she said: “I have put a bottle of ‘Kuntal Keshari’ in your bag. Use it every day during your voyage; otherwise in the salty sea-water even these few islands would vanish.”
The story of how “Kuntal Keshari” was invented is very interesting. A British Sahib came to India with his circus troupe. The star attraction of the circus was a lion with a huge and lustrous black mane. By a stroke of misfortune the lion lost its thick hair during the voyage to India because of a microbial disease. When the ship landed one could not see much difference between the lion and a hairless street dog. The helpless circus manager prostrated himself before a Sanyasi, touched his feet, and with folded hands asked for a solution. A Christian, and an Englishman at that! The Sanyasi was impressed with the man’s devotion and as blessing gave him a bottle of oil whose formulae had come to the Sanyasi in a dream. This is the same oil which later became famous as “Kuntal Keshari.” By applying this oil the lion got its mane back within a week. For all bald men and their partners this oil holds a special fascination. This news was published for the public good in all the newspapers of the country. The leading monthly magazine even featured the news on its cover.
On 28 September I set sail on the Chusan. The first two days were uneventful and pleasant. On the 1st however the sea assumed a strange and hostile form and the sea-breeze stopped completely. Even the surface of the sea remained taut. We were all struck by the sad look on the Captain’s face. He told us that very soon an extremely violent cyclone would crash upon us. Being far from the coast, our future was now in God’s hands.
Soon thereafter the sky became overcast with thick black clouds. It became dark almost instantly and some strong winds from afar came and struck our ship several times. I have only a faint idea of what happened thereafter. All of a sudden it was as if the angry giants of yore had returned and come to destroy the earth. The sounds of the cyclone winds mixed with the sounds of the angry sea and made the music of destruction all around us. Waves upon waves hit our boat and rocked it from all sides. A huge wave took away our mast and life-boat with it. Our last day was upon us.
One remembers one’s loved ones when his final moments are near. I remembered my loved ones, and strangely, even my daughter’s joke about my sparse hair:
“Daddy, I have put a bottle of “Kuntal Keshari” in your bag.”
Suddenly I remembered what I had read recently in a scientific journal about the effects of oil on water waves. I remembered that oil calms the surface of moving water. I took out my bottle of “Kuntal Keshari” that very moment from my bag and with great difficulty climbed up to the deck. I saw that a gigantic mountain-like wave was coming to strike us down.
I abandoned all hope, opened the cap of the “Kuntal Keshari” bottle and threw it at the sea. Like magic the sea became calm, and the wonderful cooling oil even calmed the entire atmosphere. The sun came up in a second.
Thus we were spared from a certain death and it is for this reason the cyclone never reached Calcutta. How many thousands were saved from an untimely death simply by this one bottle of hair oil, who can say?9
This story by J.C. Bose (1858-1937) is regarded as one of the first works of early science fiction in the Bangla language, and one of the first science fiction stories in India. It was first published in 1896 as “Niruddesher Kahini” (“The Story of the Missing One”), the winning entry in the Kuntalin Story Competition. Kuntalin was a popular hair oil at this time. The inventor and owner of the oil, Hemendramohan Basu, instituted a promotional annual fiction competition from 1896 onwards, with the precondition that the story would have to feature the hair oil and promote it. (For details about the competition, see: Bhattacharya, Arupratan. Bangalir Bigyanbhabana o Sadhana. Kolkata, Dey’s Publishing, 2006.)
While the oil itself was symbolic of the industry of its creator, who was also active in the Swadeshi movement, it was Bose who turns this potentially nationalist symbol to an active cultural symbol that could combine scientific endeavour with nationalist concerns. Bose was the first winner of the competition that would later include some of the best names of the period, including Jagadananda Ray, who wrote what is arguably the first science fiction story in Bangla (although published much later). Bose later reworked the story for his collection Abyakto (1921) with the alternate title “Palatak Toofan” (“Runaway Cyclone”).
The later version has been used for this translation and significant changes have been indicated in the footnotes. These include the name of the hair oil (now “Kuntal Keshari”) and a new backstory about its mysterious and supernatural origins. Moreover, while the 1896 version uses both English and Bangla, with English for scientific explanation (mostly) and Bangla for the narrative, the 1921 version uses only the latter language. The 1921 version also excludes a long explanatory passage from a scientific journal at the end of the story, as well as a reference to the Empire (both in English).
The source text for translation of both the 1896 and 1921 versions of the story was taken from Sera Kalpabigyan (Best Science Fiction), ed. Anish Deb (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Limited, 2007). The 1921 version has been cross-checked against the reprinted Abyakto: A collection of popular science of Jagadish Chandra Bose articles and other essays by Jagadish Chandra Bose (Kolkata: Dey’s Publishing, 2009 ). The translation is included in my PhD dissertation, Bangla Kalpabigyan: Science Fiction in a Transcultural Context (University of Oslo. 2013).
—Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, September 2013
[1.] 1896: Englishman.
[2.] Cyclones have been common phenomena in Bengal. There were four major cyclones in the Bay of Bengal in the 19th century alone. Of these, a particularly destructive one had been the great Calcutta cyclone of 1864 in which over 50,000 lives were lost. The Meteorological Department in Kolkata was established after this cyclone. According to the Encyclopaedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones:
Aghast at the Great Calcutta Cyclone’s economic and human scope, the British East India Company subsequently established the continent’s first weather service, the Indian Meteorological Department. Symbolically headquartered in a rebuilt Calcutta, the service was tasked with tracking threatening Bay of Bengal cyclones through shipping reports and then telegraphing that information to vulnerable coastal areas via a comprehensive network of warning stations. (David Longshore, Encyclopaedia of Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008, p. 257-58)
[3.] At this point a number of significant lines of the 1896 version have been left out, most significantly the line reported by the Reuters agent to the Times: “The Capital of our Indian Empire is in danger.” By the time the story was republished with the new title, Calcutta was no longer the capital city.
[4.] 1896: Englishman.
[5.] 1896: Daily News.
[6.] 1896: Pioneer, Civil and Military Gazette, Statesman.
[7.] The 1921 version uses a plural form to refer to the different scientific opinions while citing merely one. The 1896 version gives a second “scientific” opinion which is both humorous and politically loaded, thus providing a justification for the plural form. It mentions that “the Lieutenant-Governor had gone for a stroll in Diamond Harbour right before the storm would have struck Calcutta, and his fierce reputation managed to quell the force of the storm!”
[8.]1896: Herr Stürm F. R. S., “On a Vanished Cyclone.” While the 1896 version contains the title, the long extract from the Professor’s paper/speech is not a part of it.
[9.]The 1896 version ended with a short passage in English:
Six months after this story the following scientific explanation was published by Scientific American.
The Solution of a Mystery
The vanished cyclone of Calcutta remained so long a mystery to vex the soul of meteorologists. We are now glad to be able to offer an explanation of this seeming departure from all known laws that govern atmospheric disturbances. It would appear that a passenger on board the Chusan threw overboard a bottle of KUNTALINE while the vessel was in the Bay of Bengal and the storm was at its height. The film of oil spread rapidly over the troubled waters, and produced a wave of condensation, thus counteracting the wave of rarefaction to which the cyclone was due. The superincumbent atmosphere being released from its dangerous tension, subsided into a state of calm. Thus by the merest chance, a catastrophe was averted.