Tag Archives: translation

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.

Review Of One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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Distance allows us to be dismissive of the lives of other people, to filter their narratives down to a few essential keynotes and tragedies. In One Part Woman, translated into English three years after its Tamil original garnered widespread acclaim, Perumal Murugan turns an intimate, crystalline gaze on a married couple in interior Tamil Nadu. It is a gaze that lays bare the intricacies of their story, culminating in a heart-wrenching denouement that allows no room for apathy.

Kali and Ponna, land-owning farmers in Thiruchengode, enjoy a completely happy marriage on all counts but one. Despite over a dozen years together, they are yet to have children. Theirs is a sexually-charged and mutually fulfilling relationship; it is neither for lack of effort nor of intent that they are unable to conceive. The couple perform countless acts of penance, entreating various deities – among them the half-male, half-female god on the hill attended by a Brahmin priest and the tribal goddess Pavatha of the same hill, to whom blood sacrifices are made. Ponna weeps at the onset of every menstrual period. Neither love nor their thriving land is enough to keep at bay the despair of being without offspring in their community. They are constantly on the receiving end of disparagement from the people around them: Kali’s sexual potency is the subject of sly and open taunts, while every slip or argument Ponna has with another is turned on her using her childlessness as an indication of her character or capabilities.

The disparagement arrives in wounded, less unkind guises too – particularly from their mothers, who tell stories of hereditary curses that could explain their misfortune and sing dirges lamenting the couple’s barrenness. Eventually, the two women decide that there may be only one way. Every year, on the fourteenth day of the chariot festival to the androgynous deity on the hill, the rules of all marital contracts are relaxed. Any man is allowed to lie with any woman – a tradition acknowledged as being a socially and divinely sanctioned method of conceiving should a husband be sterile. Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law, in the hope that it is Kali who is the cause of their infertility, suggest the solution of sending her to participate. The resulting anxieties and attendant manipulations challenge the marriage, and alter its course.

One Part Woman is a powerful rendering of an entire milieu which is certainly still in existence, which it engages with insightfully. The author handles myriad complexities with an enviable sophistication, creating an evocative, even haunting, work.

The novel is also acutely sensitive in its approach toward gender and sexuality and humane in its treatment of longing. While fundamentally an emotional work, driven by personal desires and losses, it also unsettles the reader with what it frankly reveals about simplistic ideas about progressiveness. The society in which the book is set in is permissive in ways that the urban middle-class in the same state at large is not, even though known markers of suppression, such as caste laws, hold sway. But, here as elsewhere, the true hindrances to happiness and progress come in much more personal forms.

Murugan’s writing is taut and suspenseful, particularly as the book progresses towards its climax. At a slim 230 pages, the novel moves quickly, but with such a finely-wrought intensity that tension remains high right up to the final paragraph. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation deserves mention – the language is crisp, retaining local flavour without jarring, and often lyrical. Highly recommended.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line.

Book Review: Selected Poems by Subramania Bharati (trans. Usha Rajagopalan)

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There must be poets all over the world whose work thrives only in their native tongues, the quality of whose writing we must take on the word of those who are proficient in those languages. The politics and reasons as to why some make it into the English language, arguably the one with the most far-reaching sphere of influence in the modern world, while other don’t are worth lengthy discussion. But the truly exasperating travesty is when a poet whose work has undeniable eminence is insulted not by being ignored, but worse, through poor translations.

Subramania Bharati, the 20th century’s preeminent Tamil writer, is one such poet. Born in 1882 and living only till the age of 38, he pioneered a renaissance in Tamil poetry and fought through his life against colonialism, caste and the oppression of women. To date, no significant English translation of his poetry has done justice to either his persona – romantic, radical, a genius who in the manner of the true artist engaged completely in his own context while being far ahead of it – or the writing itself. Usha Rajagopalan’s new collection of translations makes only slight inroads of improvement: while the book fortunately lacks the cringe-worthiness of prior efforts, Selected Poems, right from its very titling lacks inspiration and imagination – keywords that the very mention of Bharati ordinarily summons among those familiar with the poet.

These translations suffer most of all from a sense of restraint. Bharati was the quintessential fiery artist, prone to being overcome by fits of grandeur, tormented by personal demons, and always redeemed by a profound oneness with the world as a theatre of triumph. This is not mythologizing: all of these attributes are evident in his original writings. Line by line conversion, without fluidity, cannot achieve this effect. Selected Poems, while rarely clumsy, often lacks inventiveness. Words like “Alas!” are used; there is no attempt to contemporarise the sentiment. But the worst offense would be the reduction in “A Baby Fire” of the culminating line, “thath tharikitta thath tharikitta thith thom” – a stunning onomatopoeic flourish that captures both a spitting fire and a visceral rhythm also found in classical dance and music – to “Whoosh, crackle, snap, sizzle.” Elsewhere, these flourishes are retained in translation – an inconsistence that isn’t justified.

This happens not infrequently. In “Aspirations” (which also takes Bharati’s “Om Om Om Om!” and turns it into a decidedly meeker “Om… Om… Om… Om…”), the word “viduthalai”, which can be interpreted straightforwardly as “liberation”, is instead rendered as “unfettered” – imagery that sabotages the original’s spirit. In “In Search of Answers”, a modernist hymn in which he addresses the deity Sivashakti, he uses the demand “solladi”. The nuanced Tamil conversational suffix “di” indicates an entitlement complicit in the relationship with the female other being spoken to. It is an entitlement that is by turns intimate and insolent; Rajagopalan’s explanation of “solladi” as “pray tell me” is stripped entirely of these subtleties.

A handsome bilingual edition, this book would serve beginner and comparative purposes well, but for any reader seeking sheer beauty, it falls short. For the next translator, who picks up the torch from Rajagopalan, one suggests greater license with syntax, less liberal usage of exclamation points (which have fallen out of favour in the language of translation), an academically sound set of footnotes and a more variegated vocabulary.

A volume of selected writings cannot possibly include everything unless the writer in question is one of limited prolificacy. Still, that Bharati’s most iconic poem, “Suttum Vizhichudadar”, is not represented in this collection is baffling. Once again, the idea of a translator as an executor comes into play: to what extent are they obligated to the author’s estate, which includes facets of character and legacy, at large? Absences, sometimes more than inclusions, raise questions.

In this regard, the introductory note is expected to shed light. Rajagopalan’s is mild, almost taking for granted that the reader is familiar with the poet, and taking no pains to introduce him and the ethos of his work to a new audience. The poet who comes through in this introduction as well as in these poems is anachronistic rather than maverick, religious rather than spiritual, perhaps even over-rated – the antithesis of the reasons for which he is beloved to this day. Rajagopalan’s translations are cleaner, less bombastic, and generally better than what has been available in English of Subramania Bharati so far. But, unlike the poet, they are deeply inhibited. An inhibited Bharati, as anyone who has ever been moved by his originals on the page or in song knows, is no Bharati at all.

An edited version appeared in DNA.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II (trans. Pritham Chakravarthy)

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There’s a certain brand of Tamil kitsch that has been in style, both regionally and nationally (and beyond, in some cases), for a couple of years now that is fundamentally antithetical to America’s hipster subculture. Both phenomena can be read, at first glance, as based on revival or reappropriation of the “authentic” – making the obscure or the lowbrow populist trendy. But hipsterism is self-conscious, reliant on posturing said to be “ironic”. The beauty of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II – a perfect example of contemporary Tam-kitsch – is that it contains no irony at all. It isn’t possible to enjoy these stories if there is a hesitation to enter their particular moralities or engage with their brassy sensibilities. Delightfully, however, they are so thrilling that it is very easy to.

The first volume in Blaft’s Tamil Pulp Fiction series carried seventeen pieces; while this one features only six, its stories are lengthier and by and large rewarding. The anthology kicks off on a spectacular note: Indra Soundar Rajan’s gripping novella “The Palace of Kottaipuram”. Originally serialized over 31 issues of Anantha Vikatan in 1990, this perfectly-paced mystery has all the elements of grandiose narrative. A royal lineage is thwarted by a curse dating to colonial times that avenges a raped tribal woman: all its male heirs die on or before their thirtieth birthdays, and its female ones do not survive infancy. The educated and urbane young prince Visu begins to believe in the curse after the death of his elder brother leaves him next in line, but his rational girlfriend Archana is not at all convinced that supernatural forces are at work…

The character of the intrepid female investigator is carried forward into “Highway 117”, the collection’s only major non-prose offering and its weakest link. Written by Pushpa Thangadorai and illustrated by Jeyaraj, its promising storyline – of Karate Kavitha, who pursues a temple-plunderer along a train route with her handsome sidekick Umesh – doesn’t translate well into the form. The illustrations are uninspiring, and seem mainly to serve the sequence in which the heroine, tied up in a chair with her blouse torn open to reveal her breasts, delivers a series of karate kicks to her assailant. Even this, unfortunately, isn’t done with particular panache. To this end, in terms of visual mediums, the lurid magazine and book covers – full of fanged creatures, sexy women and other titillations – and vintage advertisements which intersperse the stories are far more interesting and striking. The covers from the 1960s and 1970s are colourful, expressive and arguably even objects of a certain beauty – by contrast, the four covers featured from the 1990s seem markedly depleted in taste or attractiveness; no comment is offered on why, but one assumes they are representative of the aesthetic of that era.

Indumathi’s “Hold On A Minute, I’m In The Middle Of A Murder” suffers a little bit for its melodrama, but has enough bloodshed and black magic (“gained in the forests of Iran and Iraq”, no less) to entertain. The occupants and staff of a mental hospital come under the influence of spirit possession, vendettas beyond the grave, and a hodgepodge of faith systems that incorporate everything from Christian-Satanic binaries to Tantric rituals.

Two brilliant stories follow in this predominantly horror-based anthology: M.K. Narayanan’s “The Bungalow By The River” and Rajesh Kumar’s “Hello, Good Dead Morning!”. The first is a ghost story set in Malaysia, and successfully evokes, without literary pretensions, a milieu and society that might be lesser-known among local readers of Tamil pulp fiction, and is more convincing both in its gore and supernatural themes than Indumathi’s piece. Kumar’s police mystery set in Coimbatore, meanwhile, contains a twist which – although translator Pritham Chakravathy and editor Rakesh Khanna say might be familiar – is quite ingenious to those who do not regularly consume crime or mystery fiction.

Both these stories are racy by the standards of the eras they describe: in the first, an “adamant” young woman consents to staying overnight on holiday with her fiancé, in the second, a jeans-clad, moped-riding woman and her friends watch pornography together in the mid-80s. The latter story in particular is traditionally problematic when it comes to that old bugbear: the desirous female (and her inevitable punishment), but pulp is hardly the place to expect otherwise. For those overly concerned, however, the anthology’s final piece, Resakee’s “Sacrilege To Love”, offers some minor consolation: it has two alternative endings, one for “diehard romantics”, and the other for those who, disgusted by the chauvinism displayed by all its male leads, might root for an offbeat happily-never-after.

There are two ways to read pulp: you can read it incredulously, lamenting the cause of beautifully-turned prose and rolling your eyes at all the rolling heads. Or you can read it without any self-consciousness, giving in to all its gaudy, gory glory. There’s really only one good way to do it though, and that way, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. II is an absolute treat.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Many Lallas: An Interview With Ranjit Hoskote

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Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla recasts the poems (vakhs) of the 14th century mystic Lalleshwari as the collaboration of many authors over six centuries. Excerpts from a conversation during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival.

You’ve entitled your book of translations as “I, Lalla”, and believe that although there was a historical figure (a poet and mystic) by that name, over the centuries the body of work that was attributed to her was in fact composed by multiple people, many Lallas. So on the one hand you have the palimpsest and on the other, a persona that emerges from it. What was your experience of working with both?

It’s actually an inference you make after going through the material – you realize that it’s actually a polyphony. The corpus attributed to Lalla is a collection of many tonalities, lines of argument, different kinds of musicality, and different bodies of imagery. And it is possible through some turns of phrase and choice of words to infer that certain pieces came from earlier or later periods. There are certain internal evidences. For instance, certain administrative references (which existed in the 18th century but not in the 14th). Or when Shiva is referred to as “sahib”, as a word for “lord”. The poems have been continuously rephrased for contemporary usage; they are not frozen in an old Kashmiri text. There is no mythic old Kashmiri text.

You’ve used the word “confluentuality” to situate Lalla in spaces which are, alternately or at once, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other identities. This is a confluentuality that unnerves those with narrow sectarian interests. Tell us more.

I think the hard-edged identities of religion or ethnicity are to a great extent modern constructs. If you look at pre-modern India, what you’re really looking at is a set of intersecting geographies. The three major dynamics are trade routes, pilgrimage routes and invasion routes. You find a constant migration of people: new cults, new texts, new religious ideas and also new secularities. From the 12th to the 18th century this is what you have. A lot of this activity is in fact confluential – people who extend themselves beyond what is permitted to them canonically. We’re still playing out the politics of the 20th century to a large extent – which was a really divisive, annihilative politics, creating hard-edged identities at the expense of the other. In a situation like that everybody suffers but what are most damaged are forms that developed at the intersections. A particularly sad example internationally would be the culture of the Arab-speaking Jews, a flourishing culture from Morocco, Iraq and Syria, which completely fell between the lines of Zionist and Arab interests. It’s impossible to continue, pushed into an either/or logic. The imagination becomes less capacious in these terms.

The term secularism is often upheld as the preferred, politically correct narrative – how does an essentially syncretic figure like Lalla add to or complicate the debate?

Secularism is technically an equidistance from all religions. In India it’s come to represent an ability to embrace all religions. The tragedy is that however you interpret it, it involves simplifying or damaging the sense of all religions, their richness of detail. If by secular you mean something that is skeptical of the sacred, then that’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the religious imagination. My problem with this is that secularists tend to embrace the cultural concepts of religion while shying away from the philosophical and ideological.

This work is also interesting in the debate about cultural authenticity. You’ve said that “authenticity suggests an original against which comparisons can be made”, and that Lalla is “a perfect argument for how culture is always a hybrid invention”.

Until the earlier 20th century, the vakhs were orally transmitted. In the 1920’s there was a print version, which assumes authority, so what were earlier versions became variants. So long as it was oral or in the form of script it was still an open-ended text. This theory I’ve put forward of a contributory lineage allows us to look critically at the whole concept of authorship. From my point of view the corpus is full of performers, writers, editors and the unlettered people of the [Kashmiri] valley. In the nature of how such contributions work, what is important is not the name of the author (which cannot be known) but attributes made.

Men on quests of faith had the acceptable trajectory of being a son, a householder, a retiree and then a renunciate to look to. Female seekers like Lalla had to reject the system entirely. What are your thoughts on how gender might have come into play in the life and work of Lalla?

In the life more than the work. I would think the Kashmiri Saivite tradition has always been a tradition of householders. Even if there were ascetics who retreated to the forests, they were chiefly householders. For Lalla there was no other option. Her spiritual quest was at odds with what was expected of her as a woman, so she took up the life of a wandering seeker. The conventional reading has been to talk about the historical personage using scanty biographical evidence, mostly chronicles. To my mind this is not the most productive way to do this. I am more interested in the poems. The vakhs themselves contain very little personal information. I find it difficult to reduce it to a gender position. A statistical example would be that there are not more than four or five references to female labour in the vakhs. The rest are of male labour. It is wishful thinking to regard this in a gendered sort of prism.

You’ve worked on these translations for two decades, and as you belong ancestrally to the Kashmiri diaspora, lived with the idea or presence of Lalla for much longer. How has Lalla shaped your own writing or sense of the world?

I think that as with all translation projects, you are shaped by what you translate in ways that are manifest and sometimes not so manifest. It’s been very important to me in terms of extending my own work. Many people have commented on how these translations don’t sound like my poetry. The aim of the translations has been to restore the jagged, colloquial, very sharp quality of the originals. It’s been an amazing opportunity.  It has allowed me to sort through a number of ideas about the sacred and to understand the sacred as something that stands beyond orthodoxies. The sacred is compelling and it is elusive; it eludes the names and the forms.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: The House of Five Courtyards by Govind Mishra

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Govind Mishra’s The House of Five Courtyards provides occasion for one of those kneejerk declamations about work in translation on its very first page, when the mellifluous and charmingly Indian “chik-chi, chikh-chikh, tick, toon-tick-tidding, chi-chiya, chi-chi-chi… kutock, kutock” of birds rising in harmony with an ahir bhairav is rudely interrupted by a rooster that actually crows “cock-a-doodle-do”. One decides, as one does in these cases, to shoot the messenger – in this case, Masooma Ali, who translated the novel from Hindi.

This, as it turns out, would have been a grave mistake. The errant foreignness of that rooster is one of the few moments of being snapped to attention in this book, and given the tedium of the rest of it, one is actually grateful. Here is a novel so utterly cliché, so incapable of making up in charm what it lacks in innovation, that to pin its failure just on how it was adapted into a different language would ring hollow.

The novel opens in Benaras in 1940, where a large family share their lives together in a massive mansion of five courtyards, its three lynchpins the advocate Radheylal, the elderly matriarch Badi Amma, and the imposing Badh Baba, the banyan tree. Its inhabitants are not atypical of such settings: Sunny abandons his studies for the sarangi, and then abandons music for the mendicant life. The boy Rajan recites a patriotic Urdu verse in school and is caned for anti-imperial sentiments. The dignified courtesan Kamlabai visits often for musical soirees and is considered one of their own; when an in-law of Radheylal’s house seeks her services as a brothel madam, she turns him away with a subtle reminder that he has married into her family.

Radheylal disappears into the underground of the independence movement. The ties of the next generation to the house of five courtyards dissipate more and more: in Kanpur, Rajan and his wife Rammo occupy a small flat with their children, Shyam educates his children in English and lets their Hindi lapse, and the house is eventually divided up and let out to tenants. All the makings, in short, of a saga about a changing world.

It isn’t that we, as a collective readership, have grown jaded of sagas – there is a timelessness to them that bears, if not begs, many renderings by many voices. It is simply that Mishra has injected no identifiable colour, humour, magic or humanity into this narrative. Its characters lack idiosyncratic appeal, and even the pathos of the end of an era, which the writer says in an afterword is what inspired this book, is not adequately transmitted. Perhaps it is Ali’s interpretation that makes this book so lackluster, but perhaps it is not – as with all translated works, only the sufficiently bilingual will ever know. And who knows, perhaps in the original, the rooster also crowed “cock-a-doodle-do”.

The House of Five Courtyards won the 1998 Vyas Samman (a lucrative award for Hindi literature), the same year in which a plethora of similar novels filled with extended families, sprawling chronologies and nostalgia for “Indiannness” flooded the market in a variety of languages – the Arundhati Roy afterglow. Few matched Roy’s masterpiece; all attempted to. The success of Mishra’s novel seems, at best, to be a product of the same, and as with other such products, its glow has not survived the decade. If there is anything that sets it apart from its numerous counterparts in English, it’s only that it doesn’t resort to the easy exotica that characterized many of them. Ironically, this may have made the book so bad that it would no longer have been boring – which, ultimately, is far worse the crime to the reader.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Book Review: Subimal Misra’s The Golden Gandhi Statue From America (translated by V. Ramaswamy)

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Where has Subimal Misra been all these years?

This question recurs to the reader throughout the reading of this masterful collection of the Bengali cult modernist’s early stories. And the answer is duly supplied: The Golden Gandhi Statue from America comes with helpful addendums from the author and translator, explaining Misra’s views on anti-establishment literature, the reasons he has eschewed all forms of mainstream publication, and what it means to “live the practice (of writing)”, as exemplified by Sartre.

As to why the work of a writer so defiantly underground has now been translated into a language as ubiquitous as English and marketed by a distinguished press, a major counter to four decades of dissidence, there is no better answer than the stories themselves. They deserved wider recognition. And as readers in a time of anti-establishmentarianism so fashionable that it becomes co-opted within the same system it claims to oppose, it’s eye-opening to see what real anti-establishment literature is.

The world of Misra’s characters is a Kolkata underbelly of deviance, madness and the fantastically gruesome. “I feel humiliated to be in the line of litterateurs like Rabindranath Tagore,” he complains in the appendix, though it’s hardly likely that he will be hung from this same tree. Reading this collection, however, a picture of an entirely different dynasty emerges, populated by current Indian writers of the increasingly popular genre of experimental fiction, and it’s arguable that – through a nexus of influence and imitation – Misra may well have been at its source.

Written between 1968 and 1973, these fifteen stories are not for the reader who can’t stomach a little rape, a little cholera and a more than ample serving of homicide. But this is hardly the work of a raving mind. These stories are premeditated, thoroughly crafted, carrying all the markings of a writer who reads intently and acknowledges his influences. Misra readily admits inspiration from authors including Dostoevsky and Kafka and the auteurs Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard (to whom the book is dedicated).

In “Commentary ‘71”, Kolkata’s streets run with blood and the memory of earlier massacres; in “Bare Bones Awakened”, the city faces its apocalypse. In “The Naked Knife”, the question of exactly what a woman consents to when she holidays with two men is pushed to an almost misogynistic extreme; in “Fairy Girl”, a prostitute’s corpse is mutilated and enjoyed. The beautiful “The Bird”, in which a young man “keeps his heart’s sadness within his heart” as he accompanies a band of birdwatchers, ends in a twist that’s almost an antithesis to O. Henry. In the stunning “Blood”, a battle with mosquitoes turns darkly existentialist. Long before Roberto Bolaño, Misra had captured the disturbing, enigmatic landscape of the counterculture, in a way that is subversive without being pretentious, Indian without being exotic, and somehow both contemporary and classic at once.

One question remains. The publication in English of The Golden Gandhi Statue from America will probably propel Subimal Misra to a celebrity he has derided throughout his career. What will happen then, when his cult becomes conventionally cool?

An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.