Arthur Hailey’s Bengali predecessor
Reviewed by Harbans Singh

The Great Unknown
by Sankar. Tr Soma Das.
Penguin Viking. Rs. 350. Pages 267.

Ever since Mani Sankar Mukherji, better known as Sankar, captured the imagination of his Bengali readers with his serialised first novel Kato Anjanye in a magazine in 1955, he has remained one of the most widely-read authors of modern fiction. His characters and the subject they deal with too have been modern and that is why it was not surprising that his Chowringhee, published as a novel in 1962 had predated the much celebrated Hotel of Arthur Hailey by about three years!

While Chowringhee, dealt with the intimate lives of managers, employees and guests of one of the largest hotels of Calcutta, Kato Anjanye translated as The Great Unknown creates a mosaic of the lives, not always very pleasing, of those who frequent the Calcutta High Court. The friendly style that was the hallmark of Sankar brings out not only the history and evolution of the High Court but also the layers that constitute the functioning of justice. Thus there are the barristers and the attorneys and their babus and the clerks. It is an institution where the seniority of a babu is determined not by his age or experience but that of his barrister. In fact, this profession is better understood through the eyes of these cogs in the wheel of justice whose status is completely dependent upon the fate of their masters. Thus the news of the demise of a successful barrister can be as catastrophic for his babu as the death of a Maharaja for his Maharani, and the elevation of a lawyer as a judge is considered to be akin to a person giving up football to become a referee!

As is the nature of this institution, it is approached by people in distress and despair. Their riveting stories and the end they meet brings out the vagaries of fate to which individuals are subjected to.

The novel is not just about the beaten and the bullied. There is Helen Grubert who seems to be driven by revenge but has a miraculous change of heart and Shefali Mitra who doggedly fights for her motherhood even though she is not the biological mother. There are borderline cases too where moral judgment is fraught with injustice as in the case of Arati Ray or Miss Triton.

However, the novel would have been wanting in its reach if it had not dealt with the lives of the lawyers who are ‘destined to be a solitary wanderer in the infinite expanse of the world of law.’

The most poignant is the emotional state of the Public Prosecutor P.K. Ray who with each new case that might make him demand maximum punishment descends into a vortex of turmoil and self flagellation.

These troubled characters notwithstanding, The Great Unknowns makes a riveting reading where the nobility and professionalism of the last English barrister of the Calcutta High Court and the innocence of the narrator underlines the essential goodness of mankind.