Narayan Debnath is a senior comics-artist of India, whose characters, notably Handa-Bhonda, Bantul – the great, and Nonte-Phonte, have transcended age and generation in their immense popularity in West Bengal and outside. Debnath Babu was the first and only comics-artist of India who has received a Doctor of Literature degree. His illustrations and comics appear on many newspapers, books, and magazines, notably Shuktara, Kishor Bharati, etc.
It felt incredible to spend around a couple of hours at Narayan Debnath’s residence talking about comics, books, the International Kolkata Book Fair (Boimela), politics and slightly more. He answered all questions very frankly, answering the ones asked over the social media as well!
What are some of your memories about Boimela?
Narayan Debnath: I remember attending the first Boimela, organized at Maidan. Thereafter, I never managed to attend Boimela out of my own will. It was always someone who had taken me there: publishers and organizers. Last time too, I had attended Boimela.
I have seen some times that there have been stalls with counters exclusively selling my books, and that actually feels very good. Can you believe that I once encountered a gentleman who came down all the way from Bombay to Boimela to buy my books? That felt really nice too.
Last year, at the age of 91, you were still attending Boimela!
Yes, but only upon the invitation of Deep Prakashan. At this old age, my feet may not move properly, but my hands do. Even today, I sit down and draw comics. After all, this is what I love doing. I am still creating comics for Deb Sahitya Kutir, Shuktara, and Patra Bharati among others.
I do not know whether I will be able to attend Boimela this year, but I actually might, if somebody comes to take me there.
What is your expectation from the book fair this year?
I see they are giving out prizes this year. Everyone who buys books worth Rs 500 can win a car by lottery. But I believe that people who want to buy books will come anyway. People may say that the love of reading books is no more what it used to be like, but I think a lot of people still like reading books. They do come to Boimela. A lot of people think that people don’t read that many books any more, but I beg to differ. Why else would Boimela become more and more popular with each passing year?
We Bengalis are generally utshob-probon (very enthusiastic about any festivities), and Boimela has become a celebration of sorts today!
What kind of reading do you do yourself?
I have always loved reading detective books (Smiles). I particularly enjoyed reading about the adventures of Blake and Schmidt by Dinendra Kumar Ray. Prafulla Ray is a writer I really like reading. Even when I was hospitalized some time back, I had my Prafulla Ray books brought over so that I could read while bedridden. They are always a pleasure to read. I love reading Mustafa Shiraz’s Colonel books too, when I get the time to.
The inevitable question: Why does Handa never win against Bhonda?
(Laughs) Aren’t always those incredibly naughty kids in school, who want to exert themselves and in the process get into trouble? Handa is a similar mischievous boy. I merely wanted to show children that to win, you have to be a good and smart boy like Bhonda. Having said that, there have been comic strips in which Handa wins too, though not necessarily at the cost of Bhonda.
You must get the “Handa-Bhonda or Nonte-Phonte or Bantul” question quite often?
Oh, yes. A lot of reporters do ask me that question. But as the creator of all of them, I find myself in a very difficult position to select one among them; I love them all equally! Can you ask a father to choose between his children? However, I have noticed that Bantul is probably my most popular creation. He was after all the first Bengali superhero. I even received special awards during the 50th year of Bantul!
[At this point, we show him a Cyanide & Happiness comic strip]
What do you think about this?
To be honest, this cartoon does not look that great, if we have to talk about the art form. Even a school boy can make these. I went to the Indian Art College you see, and I prefer making better figures than these simple stick figures.
Why don’t you create political cartoons?
I prefer not to take political stands as such. But while we are on this topic, I would like to express my gratitude towards our Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, for giving me a lot of help. She made sure that whenever I fell ill, full medical care was taken of me, at no cost. The previous government knew that I existed, and that was only it. The new government has indeed done a lot for the people involved in the field of arts, and I appreciate that.
Did you ever feel like returning your Sahitya Akademi award?
No, and I will tell you why. I believe that this returning of the Sahitya Akademi has largely been politically motivated. Did you notice how the first person to return her award was related to Nehru? Did you also notice how the cash rewards along with the award were not returned either? The Sahitya Akademi was given to me by the board, not the government. It was not even the same government back then! I do not see why I should return my Sahitya Akademi. The “intolerance” issue is something that came up as an election gimmick, and I honestly don’t want to be a part of it.
Boimela in all interviews refers to the International Kolkata Book Fair
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