Book Review: Matchbox by Ashapurna Debi

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The title page of this new volume of selected stories by Ashapurna Debi carries this evocative credit: “Translated into a Bengali English by Prasenjit Gupta”. It’s a small homage both to the many sub-languages that we speak, write and think in, as well as to the oft-forgotten translator, whose burden it is to prove an author’s entire reputation to a foreign audience.

In Ashapurna Debi’s case, that reputation is complicated. She began to publish her work as a teenager, in 1936, and by the time of her death in 1995 had penned a staggering 242 novels and novellas, 62 books for children and over 3000 short stories. Although widely-read, her work was also largely derided for its tendency toward the domestic and quotidian. The author did not command respect, only recognition.

This is surprising, especially if one skips the excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s master’s thesis that serves as the book’s introduction, and returns to it later. Lahiri writes at some length about the author’s critical reception, offering the observation: “[A] complaint issued by critics is the author’s supposed conservatism, especially with regards to women’s lives.”

Only 21 of the aforementioned 3000 stories are collected in The Matchbox, and while the extent of the author’s palette remains out of the grasp non-Bengali readers, what is represented here contradicts, or at the very least complicates, her reputation as a non-feminist writer.

Ashapurna Debi’s feminism is extraordinarily subtle. She does not forget men: their rage, their worries, their susceptibility to being manipulated. In “Brahma’s Weapon”, Oshima seeks employment at a former flame’s company, to her husband’s jealousy. In “Glass Beads Diamonds”, Shomita shows up unannounced to a wedding in her ex-in-laws household, while her current husband waits in the car.  In the disturbing “Shadowsun”, sisters Mollika and Ghentu are pitted against each other since childhood, one deemed feminine and the other inferior. In “Earth Sky”, Rojoni is temporarily swayed by a warm welcome on a visit home but ultimately chooses to keep working at the tea plantation: the subtext is the pain of those at home, who cannot experience that freedom to choose. Her characters do not challenge the milieu that causes them this grief. They lie to themselves and to others: little Monoroma in “A Covering Of Leaves” learns from watching her deeply-bonded parents that love is the only true wealth but a pretense of success will spare the providers’ pain; in “Grief”, Shoktipoda decides to delay telling his wife Protibha her mother has died, and she in turn feigns not having seen the postcard with the news so as to fully express her anguish only when he comes home. They are not progressive in any way. The author, however, in her close rendering of their lives, lays bare the suffering within.

Only in the title story, “Matchbox”, does her concern for the status quo of a patriarchal worldview – take an explicit turn. “This is precisely why I compare women to matchboxes. Even when they have the means within themselves to set off many raging fires, they never flare up and burn away the mask of men’s high-mindedness, their large-heartedness. They don’t burn up their own colourful shells. They won’t burn them – and the men know this too. That’s why they leave them scattered so carelessly in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere. And quite without fear, they put them in their pockets.” In one reading, this is a statement of restraint. In another, it is a statement of sheer power.

Here, the introduction sheds light again, quoting from the scholar Manisha Roy’s 1972 critique: “Ashapurna Debi’s novels, which emphasize the glory of love in a conjugal setting, are frequently given to brides as wedding presents. They have attractive jackets, often with illustrations of a demure wife touching the feet of her husband to show respect.” On the one hand, her books were seen as light romantic reading. On the other, they told the truth about mundane oppression within marital contexts. This bifocality of her work is what explains its popularity: it was subversive literature about life within ordinary households, welcomed in those same households through a non-threatening guise.

In terms of language, that Bengali English brought to life by Prasenjit Gupta is well- rendered. The languages are interwoven effortlessly, without the awkwardness of italics. Onomatopoeic touches are maintained: a cat purrs pirring-pirring, and a drawing is made at khosh-khosh speed. A glossary at the back of the book needs little consultation – not because of a pan-Indian familiarity but due to the smoothness of the translation and the universality of the spaces in which the stories occur. There is something to be said for understanding through osmosis: in any fine translation, such ease is a characteristic most notable when it goes unnoticed. For instance, when Keshob Rai in “The Scheme Of Things” is full of vitriol for a child described as “that cold-in-the-nose, enlarged-spleen-in-the-abdomen, amulet-on-the-arm, tiger’s-claw-around-the-neck, rickets-stricken boy”, we need no explanation for the meanings of this odd string of invectives.

Reading these stories, one senses what its original audiences – those whose lives most closely mirrored those of the characters – must have felt. For lack of a better word, they must have felt understood. Even the distant reader, at times bored by the domesticity of squabbling in-laws or long-suffering spouses, sees the genius it takes to stir such clarity of recognition.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

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