Recently, English translations of three Bengali novels have been published in the West – My Kind of Girl (Moner Mato Maye ) by Buddhadeva Bose; The Tale of Hansuli Turn by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay; and the classic novel Kapalkundala (translated as The Forest Woman) by the 19th century author Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. I must confess to having read none of these, either in Bengali or in English: it is not easy to immerse oneself in the culture of a country one had left behind at the age of five, and while I have tried, I won’t pretend that I have always tried my best. But I draw attention to these publications because I cannot help wondering whether this may, in its own modest way, represent the first stage of the turning of a peculiar cultural tide: for some decades now, Indian literature has come to mean in the West works written in English, in imitation of Western writers, and aimed primarily at a Western readership: writing in Indian languages* is barely so much as acknowledged.
I’m a bit wary of broaching this topic on my blog: I’m afraid I have a bit of a bee in the bonnet about modern Indian writing in English, and all too easily lapse into mere intemperate ranting. But imagine a publisher commissioning an anthology of Japanese literature, say, and commissioning as editors two people neither of whom knows Japanese. Absurd, isn’t it? And yet, the Vintage Book of Indian Writing is edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, neither of whom knows any Indian language. (Yet this lack of expertise didn’t prevent Rushdie claiming in the introduction that writing in Indian languages wasn’t very good: certainly, the editors didn’t bother picking any for their anthology.) Or imagine it being widely accepted that French literature, say, began with Michel Houellebecq. Absurd? Yes, certainly, but, to this day, editions of Midnight’s Children carries a quote from the New York Times reviewer to the effect that, at long last, Indian literature has found a voice. Or imagine a literary prize set up for, say, Spanish literature, that does not even consider books written in Spanish. What is absurd in the context of Spanish literature seems perfectly OK for Indian literature, it seems. It isn’t that writing in Indian languages has been examined, and found wanting: it hasn’t been examined at all. I have seen entire features in respectable papers and journals about the so-called “renaissance” in Indian literature that don’t even acknowledge the existence of writing in Indian languages. One can go into a reasonable sized bookshop, and find translations from Japanese, Turkish, Arabic, Yiddish, Serbo-Croat, etc. etc. But translations from Indian languages are invisible. The message given out seems to me perfectly clear: “You can’t expect us to take you seriously if you insist on writing in those funny little languages of yours.”
The long-term effect of this can only be that aspiring writers in India will tend to write in the only language that offers an opportunity to access an international market: if this is indeed, the case, then the future of literatures in Indian languages seems very bleak indeed. And to what extent the considerable literatures that have already been produced in Indian languages will be read and remembered – who knows!
In this context, the translation of some highly regarded writings from Bengali – and, more importantly, their publication in the West – is to be welcome, even though Hesperus spoil the effect somewhat by the cover design of The Forest Woman: putting on the cover of a Bengali novel a picture of a Rajasthani woman is about as daft as putting a picture of a Viking warrior on the cover of Walter Scott’s Rob Roy. But let us not carp too much. That translations from Bengali are now being made available in the West is something to cheer, and one can only hope that further translations from Bengali literature (and, also, from the literature in Indian languages other than Bengali) will now follow.
I’ll certainly be buying all three of these novels. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (no relation to me, as far as I’m aware!), influenced by Walter Scott (as, indeed, much of Europe was at the time) wrote mainly historical romances, and I suspect that they have dated at least as badly as Scott’s historical romances have: I’ll give this one a try, though, as the satirical writings of his that I have read (e.g. Kamalakatar Daptar) are excellent. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay (whose novel Jalsaghar – The Music Room – formed the basis of Satyajit Ray’s film of the same title) and Buddhadeva Bose were both twentieth century writers, and both are very highly regarded in the context of Bengali literature. Buddhadev Bose, especially, was a major figure in modern Bengali literature: as well as being a distinguished novelist and short story writer, he was a noted academic, an accomplished poet (among the finest of the post-Tagore generations), essayist and translator – translating into Bengali the poetry of, amongst others, Baudelaire, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and Hölderlin. His most famous novel, Tithidore (1949), is available in translation (the translated title is When the Time is Right) through Penguin India, but, such is the current state of affairs, this has never been published in the West. (Books written in Indian languages often do get translated into English, but these are for domestic consumption only: it is obviously more cost-effective to commission a single translation into English and distribute across India rather than to produce different translations into different Indian languages. But sadly, these translations, though available, do not surface in the West.)
Let us hope that this current state of affairs can now begin to change, and that, in time, Indian literature will mean something more than merely the writings of Rushdie & co.
* Nowadays, Bengali is thought of exclusively as the language of Bangladesh, so, at the risk of stating the obvious, it it perhaps worth pointing out that Bengal comprises not merely of Bangladesh, but also of West Bengal, which has been part of India since the inception of the country; and, as such, Bengali is also an Indian language. Of course, the distinction between Bangladeshi and Indian is irrelevant if we are speaking of times preceding partition in 1947.