A Battle of Wits: Talkative Children in the Nante Fante Comics of Narayan Debnath
Published: December 13, 2020
Upasana Das is a 21 year old graduate student in the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a writer, artist, and academic. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, modernist studies, visual culture and performance studies. Furthermore, she also researches the interconnectivity between literature, film, theatre, comics and the other arts. She was inspired to write this piece due to the prevalence of the culture of reading popular comics by Narayan Debnath in Kolkata and moreover, the depiction of children in all his comics has always intrigued her.
In many works of Bengali fiction, a child who engages in excessive verbal dialogue often with those who do not seem to have the time or energy to spare, are not viewed positively like Mini in Tagore’s Kabuliwala or a younger Apu in the beginning of Aam Aantir Bhepu who was curious about visiting a new place and kept asking questions to his father, who himself was engaged in a discussion with another and could not spare Apu any time.
Dialogue has been a significant part of comics which exist side-by-side with images and provided a means of interpreting the action in the latter. In Narayan Debnath’s Nante Fante comics, dialogue by the characters play a very significant role, more so as there is very rarely a third-person narrator who narrates what is happening in the scene in his comics. The comic is a comedy around trickster figures, who are constantly in a tussle and his comic medium thrives on the wit within the words spoken by the characters. The story which is set around hostel students Nante and Fante, who are in a constant tussle with their senior Keltu, whom their Headmaster is shown to often prefer. The role of Nante and Fante is centered on ways to thwart Keltu who in turn attempts to thwart the two characters’ actions. All of this must be done either away from the Headmaster’s eyes or in a manner in which Keltu is punished by the Headmaster.
The children thus become tricksters, who often manage to fool the adults around them and are valorized for it. If their talk and actions lead them to their desired end even at the expense of harm caused to others, they are celebrated by the narrative as they have managed to achieve gratification which is the aim of the comic. Nante, Fante and Keltu engage in so much dialogue that there is hardly any space to fit in for the other children in the hostel who exist as shadowy figures in the background and only come back to life when they are required. Everyone in the hostel seems to love food and in the pursuit of eatables, engage in all kinds of nefarious plots. The end justifies all means and the children are essentially Machiavellian figures as they steal from the hostel’s kitchen, delivery man, the Headmaster himself and the Headmaster himself indulges in such things once in a while. One must know how to talk well and be convincing in order to get out of a situation and Keltu manages to convince the Headmaster that Nante and Fante have consumed food meant for special guests which leads to the children getting punished as the very voice of Keltu held more power of convincing the president than them. In return, therefore the two children manage to convince Keltu they have discovered a map to a treasure chest only for the latter to discover it was actually filled with live frogs. Catching Keltu red-handed in the middle of his act was the main way in which their voices gained validity.
Talking at the right time also applied to getting other people in trouble as Keltu blamed Nante and Fante for casting a bad spell on the Headmaster after the latter fell seriously ill, due to his own fault of consuming stale meat and luchis, and thus, the comic points towards the juvenile attitude of the elders as the Headmaster falls for the lie and decides to punish the two children, who then try an ingenious way of tricking Keltu and switching the Headmaster’s medicine into something quite bitter which backfires on Keltu as he is the one who feeds the Headmaster the medicine. In other circumstances, Nante and Fante trick Keltu into beating up the Headmaster as Fante convinces Keltu that a thief is about to arrive in the field, which Keltu sat guarding for sir while Nante brought sir to the very place.
The English translations of Nante Fante published by Bee Books do not really capture the Bengali speech by the characters well enough. In the comic narrative, both Keltu and Nante and Fante engage in a lot of speech, but there is a difference between the children’s and Keltu’s speech. Keltu talks much more than the two children, but his talk is full of over-confidence, which the narrative openly mocks as the audience and the writer knows he will not succeed. Each narrative traps Keltu within the promise of his words, which always end up empty. Even when he is calculative and precise, there is bound to be a loophole in his plans, which is something the readers learn after numerous pages of the same outcome which leads to them not taking the character and his dialogues seriously at all. In contrast, Nante and Fante’s conversations are supposed to be taken seriously as they will inevitably end up as the victors. Even though there are some rare situations where their plan does not work out like in a narrative where the two attempts to steal mangoes and end up fighting amidst themselves, Nante and Fante are to be taken seriously, even more than the adults around them like Keltu and the Headmaster. It often makes one wonder about the larger space where the two children and all the others who are supposed to be getting a proper education from the very adults who use bad logic and continuously fall prey to their younger counterparts.
Nante and Fante’s relationship with Keltu is a strange one. He is their senior and orders them about like his minions, much to their displeasure. However, Keltu shares a relationship of special favour with the Headmaster which stops the two children from directly voicing their protests to his behaviour which often borders on ragging. He is the one with whom they are mostly seen to engage within the panels of Debnath’s comic and they share a strange relationship where the two become Keltu’s only confidant, to whom he brags about his prowess or his sorrow and sometimes, very rarely, the two join unironically forces to defeat any problem which might be threatening both of them. Nante and Fante thus sometimes have to prove their best via actions rather than words and it is during them making plans towards the same that we hear them talk in such situations. Like making plans to remove Keltu from the football team after he denied Nante and Fante a place in the team, which progresses as far as to them planning to make Keltu break his leg, and as usual, he falls prey to their plot and the team led by Nante and Fante win the game.
In the world of the comic space of Nante and Fante are filled with unnatural coincidences, where everything around them seems to change their rules for the children’s’ victory. An example would be when Keltu unleashes a globe to hurt Fante and steal his food, and post that occurrence the globe manages to find its way to the Headmaster where he is bending over a pond while feeding the fishes and manages to throw him into it. In the comic, people are always looking out to hurt others, and gain from their injury: this involves indulging in damaging physical violence, which the readers are supposed to find funny and laugh as young children brandy words and get grievously injured only to miraculously recover. Moreover, words are also mostly used for that effect: While Nante and Fante engage in sarcasm with Keltu which often provokes him to prove himself, they also indulge in pretending they value their senior only for the audience to realise that they had been plotting something behind Keltu’s back like the scene where the two hatch a plan of pretending to be a sadhu to falsely guide Keltu into stealing his confiscated transistor radio from the Headmaster. Their words make him believe that he is invisible and thus could enter the Headmaster’s room without the latter spotting himself, which backfires massively.
Nante and Fante are capable of harming each other too, via their words like when Nante laughs at Fante for having an injured nose after Keltu momentarily blinded the former via a mirror trick. Or when Fante leaves Nante alone after attempting to steal mangoes and the owner discovers their trick. Later, the two circle around each other, brandying words, attempting to hurt the other via stones. However, inspite of all the mischief, the two are mostly portrayed as victims of a larger societal circle consisting of hoarders of food, or competitors to them getting food (like Keltu or the Headmaster) or other injustices meted out to them and capable of good should the situation arise. They use their words and actions to come out from such situations one way or another and the young or old audience are mostly provoked to identify with the two young protagonists of the comic narrative.