Green men! Yes, apparently they do exist. But it would be wrong to call them green men. They are like humans but not from this earth at all. And their skin is a pale green.”
On February 16, 1966, listeners across Bengal heard about them on radio from not one or two, but four experts — Premendra Mitra, Adrish Bardhan, Dilip Roy Chowdhury and Satyajit Ray — all famous in the world of art and literature.
Mitra meets a man named Hermann Gill on a Belgian seashore who warns him of green men fomenting trouble everywhere from shipwrecks in the Sargasso Sea to civil wars. Bardhan gets a letter from a medical representative who finds a suitcase with documents that spell doom for mankind, left behind on a train by a mysterious green-skinned man. An Indian scientist in New York stumbles upon unsettling facts in a pharma company researching a tranquilliser to eliminate communal hatred according to Roy Chowdhury. Ray encounters a philosophy professor who has met ‘superhumans’ who rubbish dreams of world peace as they prepare to seize control of the world. When he cuts his hand, his blood is green.
A listener wrote in from Kolkata — “Many are stunned at the news that green men have spread all over the world. The news spread rapidly. I said this was not news, this was radio fantasy on a literary programme. But they were dubious. It sounded like eye-witness accounts.”
The four had come up with the idea of a chain story to popularise sci-fi in Bengal. Each wrote a story about little green men. They did not consult each other but the stories spookily fit together in an unsettling fashion in a world that already felt off kilter with the war in Vietnam and civil rights struggles in the U.S.
Then, for over 50 years the green men disappeared.
Bardhan, the man who coined the Bengali word for sci-fi, died this year, the last of the foursome. Ashchorjyo, the first real sci-fi magazine in Bengali, folded. Science fiction itself receded from the Bengali literary scene. All India Radio re-recorded something over the original tape. Bardhan said his own copy had got spoiled.
Enter the sci-fi detectives of the 21st century. The aficionados behind Kalpabiswa, a Bengal webzine trying to revive sci-fi, came across an old Grundig spool tape among Bardhan’s belongings. They realised it was not the tape that had been spoiled but the tape recorder. They took the spool tapes, each three hours long, to Kolkata’s Jadavpur University School of Cultural Texts and Records, which has been resuscitating old recordings of classical music. And the voice of the All India Radio announcer crackled to life once again from tapes that had come perilously close to being junked.
“Akashvani Kolkata. It is now 18 seconds past 8 at night on our clock. This programme is being broadcast on 447.8 and 90.77 metres… Today’s programme is titled Green Men.”
I heard the voice in a crowded bookstore in Kolkata one recent monsoon evening. Every nook and cranny was full, many sci-fi lovers in attendance were born long after that historic broadcast. There was tea and biscuits and chatter. But when the lights were dimmed, everyone fell quiet, teleported to 1966. Dilip Roy Chowdhury’s daughter was there, listening to her father’s voice, eyes shut. Bardhan’s nephew, a Bengali steampunk author, was listening avidly to his uncle. When Ray’s familiar baritone came on, everyone gasped. Someone followed the story along in print in the book Sabuj Manush,
released just that day by Kalpabiswa, an anthology with not just those four stories but a world of related stories, plays and even poems about green aliens that sprang up around it.
We were transported to another time. But was it another time really? The cover of the new book is like a comic strip, a mini graphic novel where the four masters, including Ray with his trademark cigarette, wonder about all the upheaval going on in the world in 1966. Was all the conflict and hatred sheer coincidence, they ask each other. Or were there green aliens hidden among them pulling the strings?
Now we live in a world where we wonder who among us are ‘aliens’ in Assam, who is anti-national in Kashmir, even though they look like the rest of us. Somewhere a President no one thought would be President undoes the world order with just a tweet, lynch mobs raid refrigerators, and the Amazon burns.
In Sabuj Manush, there were foolproof ways to spot the aliens — they had olive skin and green blood and their hands extended below the knees. But now the ‘green men’ tearing the world apart at the seams look just like us. What do we do when we have no green aliens to blame, but just ourselves?
The writer is author of Don’t Let Him Know, and like many Bengalis, likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.