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Exploring the glorious literary heritage of Bengal

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Exploring the glorious literary heritage of Bengal

Bengalis are renowned for their love of discussion and argument, and a new collection of short stories reflects this passion for cultured conversation

Philip Hensher

The first time I went to India, nearly 30 years ago, I was sent as a young novelist by the British Council. Unusually, my first encounter with the country was Kolkata, a city I loved instantly. At the first event, after I had finished reading, an audience member gently asked if I liked Indian novels. I thought I was prepared, and mentioned R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai and Vikram Seth. The questioner smiled. ‘Those are all writers in English,’ he said. ‘What about writers in Indian languages?’ I was stumped.

Perhaps many people of generous reading habits have the same block without knowing it. The liveliness of English-language writers of Asian ethnicity is widely appreciated, even if the author has never lived in one of these countries and hardly speaks any language other than English. But lying just out of reach, often unsuspected, are some glorious literary cultures. The most magnificent and extensive, I suspect, is Bengali, and this anthology, edited by Arunava Sinha, is a splendid guide to unmapped lands.

Tagore
Tagore

Included is a story by Buddhadeva Bose, which sums up the accepted character of the Bengali nation. A schoolteacher makes a mistake in construing a sentence in Bengali. He puzzles over a verb; he tries to discover the etymology, and, failing, decides to work on a dictionary of the language. His family grows up, and the demands of learning clash with the need to provide a dowry. Society is changing. At the end of Partition, the teacher’s wife is dead and his work lies in tattered boxes in a refugee camp. Still, the labor has been borne. The forces of the Bengali mind – family, debate, the violence of history – triangulate, make a sort of sense, and move on.

Read: A Fresh Translation Introduces Contemporary Readers to Tagore’s Gitanjali

Bengalis are renowned for their love of culture, discussion and argument, but that’s not the whole story. In 1971, the Pakistan army took it for granted that the Bengali poet-nationalists would not be as effective in a conflict as they were – and paid the price. One Bengali, the joke goes, equals a poet; two Bengalis a film society; three Bengalis a political party; four Bengalis two political parties.

To some degree, the stories here reflect that charming joke. Conversation is everywhere. In one of the best, by Purnendu Pattrea, an interchange between lovers – beautiful, tired, and tender – is recorded as if never heard before:

Why are you so late

Were the roads crowded?

I was a little late too

All roads have cracks

Why so many people on the streets

A funeral procession? Who’s died?

No one we know I hope

Jogo left just the other day…

Most western readers will probably have heard of only two authors here, Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Tagore is a hard nut to crack. He must be one of the most loved writers in history. The simplest Bengali household knows some of his poems. (I was amused recently when an English schoolteacher wrote about one of her pupils bursting into beautifully crafted verse. The work handed in was a very famous poem by Tagore about the rain, quite unrecognized by the teacher but evidently recited daily by the pupil’s parents.) In fact the poetry can often seem bland or abstract to western commentators, but the fiction is wild and strange and remote in mode.

Ray is better known as a great film-maker. His masterpiece, Pather Panchali, is based on a novel by Bhibutibhushan Bandhyopadhyay, who has a splendidly austere story in this collection. Ray’s short fiction is greatly loved – perhaps none more than his Sherlock Holmes pastiches for the children’s magazine Sandesh, about a detective called Felu-da. Those would be rather long for inclusion here, and an enchanting story narrated by a half-understanding child takes its place. My husband’s family’s recollection of the excitement when an issue of Sandesh sent Felu-da to England to investigate a crime remains infectious 50 years on.

There are also classic authors who deserve to be better known. Balai Chand Mukhophyay, or ‘Banaphool’, is mainly a writer of quizzical magazine miniatures. The superb example of his work here presents three dramatic alternatives to a situation of love and passion, before admitting that nothing much happened in the end. Jibanananda Das is the Bengali poet whose verbal intensity appeals most to western readers. The novels of his I’ve read are wonderfully closely observed and his story about bored, arguing couples is as gripping as a thriller.

But the great master is Sankar (or Mani Sankar Mukherjee). His early novels, a trilogy, follow an ordinary Indian through one setting after another. The first, The Great Unknown, describes Sankar’s own experience in the 1950s as a clerk to Noel Barwell, the last British barrister in Kolkata. They are stunning books, and I hope Penguin thinks of publishing them as modern classics. The story here is a masterpiece. A Hindu priest argues over his right to present rituals in institutions, his eyes on both profit and orthodox practice. His daughter dreams of film stardom. A girls’ school is unsure about the priest’s requirements: he wants soil from outside a whorehouse for a ritual. The daughter makes concessions to a film maker; the priest is discovered digging the soil in the house before his own house. It is simply devastating – an ironic masterpiece.

Among the best stories are those that engage with the larger political situation, which has always been at the forefront of Bengali engaged chatter. (An afternoon in the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata or a wander around that great university Jadavpur is an object lesson in impromptu debate.) Manik Bandhyopadhyay depicts the descent of a gangster into real deprivation. Sunil Gangopadhyay writes a beautifully playful parallel to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. A pundit visiting an impoverished village asks fora cup of tea. The village takes him from one place to another, the tea repeatedly unobtainable, until finally they burst into a luxurious western hotel in town and are satisfied, amid terror and outrage.

This is not just commentary: events had a way of impacting on the practice of literature. In the final week of the Bangladesh war of independence, the retreating Pakistani army took the barbarous decision to murder Bengali intellectuals and writers, hoping to cripple the new nation’s intellectual life. Among those killed was Shahidullah Kaiser, the author of a beautiful novel, Sangshaptak. There are substantial writers from the contemporary scene, including Shaheen Akhtar (Bengali writing has always been strong in adventurous women writers). But who knows what has been lost to the later pages of this anthology?

The treatment of everyday life varies from densely precise accounts of specific situations, such as Gourkishore Ghosh’s tale of corrupt union officials, to playfully rule-bound fictional mechanisms: Humayun Ahmed’s story of a chess prodigy condemned to an inability to lose a match, or one of a man who turns everything to gold. This last must exist in some form in every literature in the world. Parashuram’s glorious version is utterly Bengali. It ventures into the economic details with energy; it relies on noisy chatter; and it has a gusto no reader could resist:

Paresh-babu had found a philosopher’s stone. When and where, how it got there, or whether there are more is none of your business. Be quiet and listen.

We are exceptionally lucky to have one of the best living translators at work bringing the Bengali classics into English. Sinha has produced another anthology, The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told, with an Indian publisher, but there is no overlap between the two volumes. He writes with exceptional elegance and wit, and is astonishingly productive. His previous translations include a glorious Banaphool selection, and an absorbingly capable version of Buddhadeva Bose’s 1949 domestic epic of a family with five daughters, Tithidore as When the Time is Right.

I hope Penguin capitalizes on the triumph of this superb anthology and commissions Sinha to translate as many of the Bengali classics as possible, starting with a reissue of Sankar’s irresistible trilogy. It ought to open many readers’ eyes to what the true variety of literature consists of.

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Philip Hensher is professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and the author of 11 novels including A Small Revolution in Germany.

Courtesy: Spectator, UK (Posted on May 11, 2024)

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