Pather Panchali is a Bengali term. In Bengali, ‘pather‘ means ‘of the path‘ and ‘panchali‘ means ‘folk song‘. Therefore, Pather Panchali‘ means ‘The Song of the Road. Pather Panchali is a novel written in Bengali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, a Bengali writer of the pre-independence period.
The story of the novel revolves around a poor Brahmin family in Bengal. The father Harihar is priest, an optimist and dreamer, who never compromised with his dreams in spite of living in abject poverty. The mother Sarbojaya is a woman of the world who has the responsibility of raising her small daughter Durga and also taking care of her elder sister-in-law. Apu, their son grows amidst the love and pampering of mother and sister. Durga has developed a very cordial relationship with her aunt, who shares each and everything with her. However, the mother gets fully tired of her husband‘s complacency. Durga is seen facing false charges of theft. The aunt is always in loggerheads with the mother. The aunt had the last wish to die in the courtyard of her house but she dies at the orchard. At the end even Durga falls sick and dies. The father comes home and is saddened by Durga‘s death. Finally he determines to face the life realistically and so decides to take his family to Banaras for search of a new life.
Harihar Roy‘s household consisted of four people – his wife Sarbojaya, baby daughter Durga, 75-year-old Indir, a distant cousin, and himself. Tucked away in a corner of Nishchindipur, a tiny village in rural Bengal, his life was simple and uncomplicated, except for the usual ups and downs that go with lack of money. The traditional business of his family was to conduct religious rituals of different kinds. So there were regular clients at whose homes he performed them. This included people in his own village as well as a few others in nearby villages. It was not a profession where one made money. People usually gave him a few seasonal fruits, vegetables, sweets and a handful of grains and occasionally a rupee or two for conducting these rituals. But Harihar had a little piece of land and a roof of sorts over his head.
Sarbojaya strongly resented Indir‘s presence in her little household and made it more than obvious. But little Durga was extremely fond of old aunt Indir and spent most of her time listening to her stories, learning rhymes from her and playing with her. Whenever Sarbojaya was extra rude the old lady walked out vowing never to return again, Durga toddled after her, lisping ―Come home, aunty, come home‖ and managed to bring her back. Before long, Durga had a little brother. Everyone was delighted, most of all little Durga and old aunt Indir. The baby boy was named as Apu. He was a little charmer. Everyone adored him. Before long, Sarbojaya picked up another quarrel with old Indir and drove her out. The old lady did not return this time and died soon after.
As Durga and Apu grew older they spent most of their time roaming about the countryside, climbing trees, looking for wild fruits and flowers, watching birds and rabbits, splashing in ponds and rivers. Durga knew every tree, every flowering shrub, every dell and nook. She knew where fruits grew wild and got them for her little brother and herself. Their rich relatives looked down on them and the rich cousins never asked them to join in their games. So Apu and Durga lived in their own world. Forbidden to enter the orchards of their rich cousins, they hunted for mangoes and fruits in the wilderness. One afternoon they were caught in a fierce storm and sought shelter under dripping trees with Durga hugging her little brother to keep him warm. Though Sarbojaya was horrified to find them drenched to the skin they were thrilled with their adventure and the few mangoes they had managed to gather.
Apu was a bright young boy. He loved to hear his mother read out stories from the battered family Mahabharata. He saw it all in his imagination – the fight between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and just how they used each weapon. But his favourite character was Karna, the wronged, unacknowledged son of Kunti. His large eyes filled with tears every time his mother read about his chariot being stuck in the mud and his disability to protect himself in the battle, specially his final encounter with his arch rival Arjuna, because he had gifted away his protective shield and medallion the previous evening. Apu begged one of the carpenters working nearby to make him a bow and arrow. When one of them did, playing with these new toys became one of Apu‘s chief pleasures in life. His imagination soared with his arrows as he pictured himself as the different heroes of the Mahabharata.
Soon it was time for Apu to join the village school run by the local grocer. The children sat on the floor listening to their teacher, who gave them dictation, carried on his trade and entertained his visitors at one and the same time. The children played noughts and crosses and other exciting games whenever the teacher was otherwise occupied. Apu enjoyed school and learned to read and write pretty fast despite these obvious limitations. He specially loved to hear the beautiful descriptions of places that the teacher sometimes read out to them. Apu wondered wistfully if he‘d ever get to see them someday.
When Harihar next decided to visit one of his clients in a far- off village he took Apu along with him. For Apu, who had never stepped out of his familiar realm before, it was one big thrill. Especially so, because they would have to cross the railway lines.Apu had never seen a train and often wondered what it would look like – more so after he saw the railway tracks. How could a vehicle (he was only familiar with the bullock cart) possibly slide over two narrow strips of iron and not slip off them? But Apu did not get to see a train after all, because the next one was due after two hours and his father absolutely refused to wait. It was a long, long walk to their destination. Twilight set in long before they reached.
Harihar‘s clients were well-to-do farmers who lived in a grand brick house, whereas Apu lived in a mud hut. Apu stared all around him in wonder. He had never seen so many pretty things before in his life. Nor had he ever had such a lavish meal. He longed for his mother and sister and wished they could share it too. He missed them and there was a big lump in his throat when he realized that probably they‘d never get to taste anything like this.
The ladies of the house took a great fancy to Apu and let him play with what seemed an incredible collection of wonderful toys. There were lots of playmates too, all eager to play with him. But the one Apu liked best of all was Amala who seemed just like his sister Durga, only much prettier and far better dressed. When the visit came to an end, Apu carried many fond memories and spent the next fortnight telling his mother and sister in vivid details all that he had seen and done. His only disappointment was that he had not been able to see a train even on his way back home. He would not have minded waiting an hour or two to be able to catch a glimpse of the wonderful gliding vehicle but his father would not hear of it.
Apu‘s dream world consisted of many strange objects. One of them was a long, narrow bamboo twig. This twig was the key to his magic realm of romance. When he held it in his hand, it carried him to the strange world of make-believe where he was a prince, a traveller, a shopkeeper, a leader of battles or prince Arjuna himself. He could imagine it all when he waved the twig about. Durga alone knew of his secret world and quietly laughed at her little brother‘s strange fancy. Another great excitement in his life was the arrival of the travelling theatre party that visited their village once a year. Apu made friends with Ajay who played the lead as a lady and was around his own age. Apu was quite enthralled by the songs Ajay sang in his various roles. He brought Ajay home to meet his mother and sister who managed to rustle up dinner for him with great effort.
Days rolled by. Harihar, finding it difficult to make both ends meet, left the village in quest of a job that would make life easier all around. But jobs were not easy to come by though he tried his level best. In the mean time life almost came to a standstill at his home in the village for lack of money. Harihar had sent them five rupees but there was no news of him after that. There was hardly anything to eat at home except for what Apu and Durga managed to pick up from the woods. But it was not much and certainly not adequate for the three of them. They had many rich relatives living virtually next door. But Sarbojaya was far too proud to beg for charity.
After a few days Durga fell ill. There was no money for medicine or even proper food. No one had any idea where Harihar was, so there was no question of sending for him. The rains arrived and their hut leaked from every corner. Durga lay still, quiet and uncomplaining, despite her fever and pain, while her mother tried in vain to look for a dry spot where she might shift her bed. But even in her illness there was just one thing Durga asked for. “I want to see the train. Oh how I wish I could see the train!” she muttered, “Apu dear, will you take me to see one? Will you show me the train, Apu?
“Yes, I will” promised Apu, “I‘ll take you to see it when you‘re better.”
By the time Harihar returned to his village, autumn had set in. He had managed to earn a little money during his avid quest for work and had bought a set of new clothes and some books for the children. But Durga was no more. She had breathed her last one rainy night leaving her mother and little brother on their own. When Harihar heard all that they had gone through he was to cut up to live in the village any longer. He had quite believed that his rich relatives would help out his wife and children in his absence, especially when it came to an emergency. Harihar sold off whatever he had – the mud hut and the piece of land it stood on – and prepared to leave Nishchindipur with his family for good. He would go to Benares, find a job there and start afresh.
But the thought of going to a new place did not excite Apu this time. Would the new place have such lovely bamboo groves, such mango trees growing close together where he had spent so many happy afternoons playing with his sister? Would it have such coconut trees with its tall trunks and leaves gleaming in the quiet moonlight? And all these ponds that were a part of his daily existence? Every nook and cranny of the village was filled with memories – of himself and Durga. The sound of their voice and laughter still echoed in the breeze. How could he leave it all? It was like leaving Durga behind!
As they left the village with their few meagre belongings Apu looked back tearfully for the last time. All those dear spots he once haunted with his sister seemed to call him back, begging him not to leave them, not to go away. In a short time he would have his much longed for view of the train and even have a train journey. But his sister who had so longed for it night and day was no longer there to share the treat. As the train chugged away it seemed to Apu that Durga stood by their favourite mango tree, looking at him wistfully, bidding him a last farewell.