Posts Tagged ‘Bengali literature’

My unfortunate partiality for “colonising texts”

When I first came under the spell of Shakespeare some forty and more years ago, I failed to realise that I was siding with a tool of colonial oppression. And now, it’s too late to do anything about it: I am too stuck in my ways.

I suppose it has much to do with my family background. One never escapes the cultural ambience one grows up in; even those elements we reject define us: they define us by the very fact that we have rejected them. And there are other elements that one rejects, but later comes back to. And, finally, there are those elements in one’s family background that, consciously or unconsciously, become integral parts of one’s very being. My love of Shakespeare belongs, I think, to the third category.

Not that my parents read Shakespeare: my late father, who loved and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali literature, often lamented to me that his English wasn’t good enough for him to read and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. I think he was wrong in this: his English most certainly was good enough to enable appreciation to a significantly high degree, but, given the level to which he understood and appreciated Bengali poetry, the standards he set himself were high. He did love watching the plays though, and never spoke of Shakespeare with anything other than respect. As a man steeped in Bengali culture, and who had lived the first twenty-one years of his life under British rule, if there was any resentment to be felt about “cultural imperialism”, he was well placed to feel it: but he didn’t. Yes, it did distress him that the Bengali culture he loved and valued so much was so little known outside the Bengali-speaking world; but the idea that Shakespeare was a colonial imposition was something that never even had occurred to him.

And this, I think, is only to be expected from someone who was so steeped in Tagorean ethos as was my father. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Indian nationalist sentiment, though in its infancy, was establishing itself as a potent force, Tagore wrote possibly the most startling of all patriotic poems. (It is No. 106 in the Bengali Gitanjali, for those who have access to it.) He does not here proclaim the greatness of India; and nor does he speak, as he was fully entitled to do, of India’s violation by foreign powers. Instead, he calls for people from all around the world, of all cultures and all backgrounds – even, quite explicitly, the imperialist rulers, the British – to bring to India their cultural riches, and thereby enrich the Indian mind and the Indian soul. The very concept of “cultural imperialism” was to Tagore utterly alien.

Looking back, that was the ethos in the household in which I grew up. My parents obviously thought it important that I, a five-year-old newly arrived in the country and unable to speak a word of English, should learn the language, but their motives were by no means purely utilitarian: even before I knew who Shakespeare was, I knew that this strange language I was to learn was “the language of Shakespeare”; and that if I learnt it well, I would have the privilege of being able to read the original works. This reverence – which, contrary to popular belief, does not preclude critical engagement – that was inculcated into me remains with me still. And, somewhat absurdly I suppose (since it reflects no credit on me personally), I find myself rather proud of this: my love of Shakespeare, far from being a foreign cultural imposition, is an aspect of my Bengali, Tagorean heritage.

And so, when I see an article in the arts pages of a prestigious newspapers that tells us, with obvious disapproval, that “in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation? And when the author then goes on to refer to these plays as “the master’s colonising texts”, something inside me, I confess, dies a little.

There are many other aspects of that article that I find – to put it politely – puzzling. The author, Preti Taneja, says of a recent Catalan film, Otel.lo, that it is “genuinely far more entertaining, political and provocative than many contemporary productions of Shakespeare in the UK”. Presumably, she is stating her own personal opinion here, and if so, that’s fair enough. There’s no arguing with personal opinion: de gustibus, and all that. But I can’t help wondering what the point of this comparison is. For one thing, comparing a Shakespeare play with a film in which a Shakespeare play is used as the basis for a new work of art is not a like-for-like comparison. And secondly, while I am sure that there are indeed productions of Shakespeare in the UK that are mediocre or worse – quality, after all, varies in all areas of human activity – the standard of Shakespearean performances in British theatres remains, despite the often desperate state of theatre finances, very high. Preti Taneja’s slur seems to me frankly gratuitous and churlish.

And there’s more. “It’s time to break this national monopoly on Shakespeare,” the headline proclaims. What “national monopoly”? The article itself tells us of the various productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from all around the world. Translating Shakespeare into other languages, adapting Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare through different cultural prisms to arrive at new levels of meaning – this has all been going on for a few centuries now, and none of it requires special pleading. From Verdi’s Otello to Kurosawa’s Ran (Italy and Japan both countries in which Shakespeare looms large, despite the rather inconvenient fact that neither has ever been colonised by the British), the plays of Shakespeare have formed the basis of new works; and often (as is certainly the case with the works of Verdi and Kurosawa), these new works themselves are widely acclaimed as masterpieces in their own right. So, once again – what national monopoly? What, in short, is Ms Taneja complaining about?

Personally, I welcome new adaptations of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare who doesn’t. Otel.lo may no doubt be a very fine film, and I would be keen to see it. But it remains somewhat dispiriting that in order to praise new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Preti Taneja feels the need to disparage the very fine work that is going on in theatres all around Britain. And it is equally dispiriting to see these endlessly enriching works characterised as tools of colonial oppression.

As for me, I shall go on revering the plays of Shakespeare. I owe it to my Bengali heritage, after all.

Britten’s “Peter Grimes” at English National Opera

I am acquainted with about four or five of Britten’s operas, but don’t pretend to know any of them intimately. These are works I have heard once in a while, but haven’t actually lived with: and major works of art, which I am convinced these operas are even though my acquaintance with them is no more than casual, need ideally to be lived with. But nonetheless, it is hard to come to Peter Grimes without at least some preconceptions.

It is a work I have found problematic in the past. Britten and Pears have both spoken of it as being a depiction of an outsider – which, indeed, it is: Grimes is an outsider hounded to his death by local villagers, who are presented throughout in a most unflattering of lights. However, Grimes himself I find so reprehensible a person that I can’t at times help sympathising with the villagers, despicable though they are. Surely this man, with his tendency towards violence, is not a man to be trusted with the care of a helpless apprentice boy? Surely the villagers are right in not wanting Grimes to be in charge of another apprentice, after the last one had died? The death of the last apprentice is recorded in the court as “accidental”; and it is also noted that Grimes had previously saved the boy from drowning. Nonetheless, for Grimes to chase after a shoal of fish without carrying sufficient supplies of drinking water cannot be interpreted as anything other than a case of gross negligence. The villagers are clearly driven by hatred for Grimes rather than by concern for the boy – but can it be doubted that, whatever their reasons, they are right on this particular matter?

I tried to put all these things out of my mind when going to see last Sunday the much feted production by the English National Opera. After all, we need not approve of a character morally to see him as a tragic hero: Macbeth is an obvious example in this respect. Let us grant, then, that Grimes is, indeed, deeply reprehensible. Does that inhibit our feelings of pity and terror?

On the evidence of David Alden’s production, the answer is “no”. Rarely have I seen anything on stage that packs so powerful an emotional punch. But the almost visceral impact made by the drama should not obscure some rather unsettling questions – most especially, to what extent is Grimes himself a monster? To what extent does he deserve any pity at all?

The production does its best to direct our sympathies towards Grimes: at the end of the second act, for instance, as the orchestra plays a tender requiem for the dead boy, we see Grimes weeping over his body: this is an addition to the libretto, and, while I can see why this addition was made, I couldn’t help wondering whether the drama would have been even more powerful, even more unsettling, without it. For to depict Grimes, as this production does, as an essentially decent and compassionate man beneath his rough exterior, and beneath his casual thoughtlessness, is, in a way, to make things a bit easy for the audience: it would have been far more disturbing, I think, to have challenged the audience to feel pity and compassion for a man who deserves none.

For that is how Britten, and his librettist Montagu Slater, wrote it. Whatever Britten and Pears may subsequently have said about Grimes being an outsider, or about Grimes being a visionary, the drama as presented by the libretto and by the music makes no attempt to soften the harsh outlines of the man. He is a brutal man who is violent to his apprentices; he is a man who, not once but repeatedly, shows not the slightest concern for his apprentices’ wellbeing; he is a man of whom his latest apprentice – eerily silent in all the scenes in which he appears – is clearly frightened. And as for his visionary qualities – his most heartfelt aspirations are nothing more noble or idealistic than the acquisition of wealth and social standing. Apart from the detail we hear in the prologue of having once saved his former apprentice from drowning, it is difficult to think of anything to say in Grimes’ favour.

Another question that inevitably crops us is why Grimes should be such an outsider. He is, after all, a brutal man in a brutal society: why does he not fit in? The answers that I have seen focus on autobiographical details: Britten and Pears had been conscientious objectors, and as a consequence, in the aftermath of the War, there have been, rightly or wrongly, strong feelings of disapprobation. And, of course, Britten and Pears were gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal. But it has always seemed to me a mistake to try to interpret any work of art on the basis of the artist’s biography: what internal evidence is there that can suggest some sort of reason for Grimes’ status as an outsider? As far as I can see, there is none. One cannot even ascribe the villagers’ hatred to Grimes’ rough treatment of his apprentices: in that society, rough treatment of apprentice boys was the norm, and fatalities amongst apprentice boys, especially in a calling as fraught with danger as fishing, were common. The villagers’ hatred is unmotivated: it is utterly irrational. It just is.

This creates something of a challenge for the audience, especially audiences who may think, as many appear to do, that one cannot become involved in a drama unless one can sympathise with one or other of the characters. For there is no-one here to sympathise with – not even Ellen Orford,  who is foolish enough to hand the apprentice boy over to Grimes, thus effectively signing his death warrant. But the idea that one must sympathise with characters is, it seems to me, a red herring: whether we sympathise or not, Britten challenges us to look on in terror and pity at what humans do to each other, and to themselves. By the time we get to the feverish final act, Grimes is unhinged, and we do not sit in judgement over this tortured man, any more than we say “Serves you right you murdering bastard!” when Othello tells us that fiends will snatch at his soul.

The production brings the action forward to the 1940s – roughly the time this opera was composed. Such a decision can have pitfalls: for one thing, the depiction of inhabitants of a small coastal town in the 1940s is bound to have, for a British audience at least, unfortunate overtones of Dad’s Army. Also, the reference to the workhouse becomes anachronistic. But on the whole, the updating in time worked well enough, despite Leigh Melrose as Ned Keene, here done up as a spiv, inevitably, for me at least, evoking memories of Private Walker. But this aside, there was not the slightest hint here of the cosiness of Dad’s Army. Quite the opposite: the village provided throughout a deeply oppressive and unsettling environment against which the tragedy unfolded. The crowd scenes were superbly done: the villagers seemed collectively a protagonist in the drama, and at the same time, various individual villagers were vividly depicted as characters in their own right. Only with “Auntie” and her two “nieces” did I find myself entertaining some doubts: “Auntie” was here dressed in a very masculine pinstripe suit and a fur coat; and the “nieces”, despite exuding sexuality, were presented very disturbingly as doll-carrying schoolgirls. Further, their stylised, marionette-like movements I found extremely uncomfortable. All this is as it should be: “Auntie” and her “nieces” should make us feel uncomfortable. But, as presented here, they evoked a world of bohemian decadence that seemed a bit out of kilter with what is, after all, provincial backwater. And should they seem so out of kilter? It is Grimes, after all, and not they, who are the outsiders here.

Alden eschews strict realism – which is always an option in this opera. The sets are here semi-abstract, evoking states of mind as well as suggesting the physical settings of the courthouse, or of the seafront, or of the inn. Most effective were the steeply raked tables that represented Grimes’ hut – and also, one suspects, his state of mind. And the staging of the apprentice’s death really could not have been done better: as we hear a cry offstage, and the rope to which the apprentice is tied suddenly disappears from view, I found myself experiencing a sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. And Grimes’ final scene in Act Three – Grimes “mad scene” – is about as horrifying as anything I have experienced in the opera: whatever reservations I may have had about this work coming into the opera house were, by this stage, all completely forgotten. Only in Berg’s Wozzeck, I think, have I experienced anything remotely comparable.

Of course, Wozzeck is a major influence in this, Britten’s first major opera. One could have a great deal of fun spotting all the other influences – some of which are virtually spelt out by Britten himself: the inn scene during the storm is clearly modeled on a similar scene in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; the quartet with Ellen, Auntie, and the two nieces (actually a trio as the nieces sing in unison) is clearly modeled on the famous trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier; and so on. The most salient influence was that of Britten’s hero, Verdi: the very opening, where Peter Grimes’ name is called out three times in the courthouse, recalls the three calls of “Radames” in the trial scene in Aida. It requires no great insight spotting these (and other) correspondences. But what is remarkable is the way Britten makes them his own: all these references to other works serve Britten own musical and dramatic purpose, and what results is very individual, very different from the works of Verdi, or of Strauss, or of Berg, or of Gershwin, present though they all are. Britten does not “borrow” from the works of others, so much as take what they have to offer and transform them into something very much after his own fashion.

I generally try to avoid writing about the music since, not having had a musical education, I do not feel qualified to do so. So perhaps I should restrict myself merely to saying that as far as my admittedly untrained ears could judge, what I heard last Sunday was exceptional from all concerned. The orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner, produced some quite extraordinary sounds; and leading the fine cast was the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, whose singing, both musically and dramatically, was coruscating.

In short, I am convinced: the reservations I had previously entertained have all been dispelled. So much so, I now want to get to know Britten’s other operas; and, in no time at all, I’m sure I’ll become a fully paid up member of the Society of Britten-Bores. No matter. When you see something so powerful in a live performance, it becomes difficult to get it out of your system

“When the Time is Right” by Buddhadeva Bose

No matter how slow the underlying tempo, a structured narrative requires a movement towards a particular end. But the problem is that our lives aren’t structured in this manner. The shapes our lives take are determined by all sorts of arbitrary events, unfortunate accidents, random surprises – none of which are foreshadowed, or held together by cunningly devised symbols and  leitmotifs. Life, essentially, is drift. And yet if fiction attempts to depict life in such a manner, all we are likely to end up with an unseemly, unstructured mess. There is little point in protesting that this is precisely what our lives are: the mysterious rules that govern life are very different from the almost equally mysterious rules that govern art.

041So this naturally creates a problem when an author attempts to depict life as, essentially, drift. It is a problem that is addressed with superb skill in the novel Tithidore by Buddhadeva Bose. Published in 1949, it is a renowned novel in the Bengali-speaking world, though sadly virtually unknown in the West. This fine translation by Arunava Sinha deserves to make many friends outside the Bengali-speaking world, but unfortunately, it is neither publicised nor distributed outside India, and it comes without any sort of notes or glossary that, one might have thought, would have been indispensable to non-Indian readers. Given my own background I had little difficulty in following it, but anyone unfamiliar with the very elaborate system of address within an extended Bengali family, for instance, is bound to be somewhat flummoxed by the various Chhordis and Jamaibabus and Chhotomashis that pepper the text. Most confusing of all is Mama, which in Bengali refers to the mother’s brother, but means something quite different in Western languages. Given the effort that has gone into this fine translation, the publishers (Penguin India) could surely have provided a glossary to clarify these matters.

A few notes may also have been added on the various customs and traditions prevalent in this particular society. Once again, I had no problem following these, but only when I see them laid out in a novel does it strike me how very odd, and, frequently, downright bizarre so many of them are. Most of these customs and traditions, I imagine, readers could pick up for themselves from the context, but this is not always the case. For instance, there is one point where Saswati has to force herself to mention her husband Harit by name, and most Western readers would interpret this, I imagine, as an indication of how hateful her husband is to her. However, within Bengali culture, it has traditionally been taboo to refer to anyone older than oneself by name (hence the very elaborate system of address within a family); and, given that the wife is almost invariably younger (sometimes very much younger) than the husband, this taboo has been particularly strong within marriage. However, in this instance, Harit, who regards himself as progressive, has obviously insisted that his wife refer to him by name, and his wife, who has had a traditional upbringing, finds this difficult. I really cannot see how a Western reader can be expected to understand something like this without notes.

A list of character names may also have been provided, especially given that the five sisters at the centre of this novel – Shweta, Mahashweta, Saraswati, Saswati and Swati – have such similar names. I do hope that Penguin India will see to these matters in future reprints, as the novel is clearly a work of considerable stature, the translation excellent, and the whole package deserving a wider readership. However, as things currently stand, if you live outside India, you will be very unlikely to find it in the bookshops (although a Google search will indicate the various mail order outlets from which it may be purchased).

Of course, there are many difficulties in translating from Bengali. The first involves the title itself, Tithidore.  Tithi, as I understand it, refers to phases of the moon – e.g. purnima-tithi refers to the full moon – so the whole thing refers to cycles of time. And dore is a string that is used to bind. So Tithidore means … well, figure it out for yourself! It is impossible to translate, or even to paraphrase, and When the Time is Right is certainly a better English title than any I could come up with.

The novel is a family saga, starting – calculating back from the ending – in the 1910s or so, and ending with the marriage of the principal character Swati – the youngest of the five sisters – in the early 1940s, with the talk amongst the wedding guests often touching on the possibility of the advancing Japanese armies bombing Calcutta. The politics of this turbulent era is a constant presence in the background, but it is never allowed to intrude into the foreground: this is not a political novel, but a domestic one: the war and the Independence movement make but a background rumble. The focus falls firmly on the family – initially on Rajen-babu and his wife Sisirkana, their five daughters and their son Bijon; and, as the novel progresses, increasingly on the expanding consciousness of the youngest daughter Swati.

The characters are all vividly depicted: indeed, it is the characters rather than the plot developments that hold our attention. The few elements of plot that emerge promising to lead to momentous events in the future don’t really, when it comes to it, lead to anything much: the son, Bijon, not the sharpest tool in the box, and resentful of his family that had never really loved him, becomes involved in what appears to be shady business. It probably is shady, but the dramatic developments we may have expected from this don’t develop: there is no disastrous failure, no criminal prosecution, no disgrace. Bijon’s business associate, the unrefined Majumdar, pays court to Swati, but this leads neither to scenes of an unhappy marriage, nor to dramatic scenes of confrontation and anger when he is refused. Saswati, the fourth of the five daughters, is married to the unpleasant Harit, a communist and idolator of Stalin: he imagines himself an intellectual, is uninterested in his wife, or, indeed, in anyone else around him, and looks down on everyone with barely disguised contempt and disdain. A marriage such as this would most likely have led to divorce in a society in which divorce is socially acceptable. But here, although their union is depicted as strained, there is no such dramatic development: no divorce – not even a dramatic confrontation. Life, as ever, seems to drift on in its seemingly aimless manner. This is, in many ways, quite the most non-dramatic novel I think I have come across: all drama – indeed, all possibility of drama – is eschewed.

At the centre of this novel is the growing consciousness of Swati, and her awareness of her love for Satyen, a teacher of literature. It is easy for the modern reader, especially perhaps the Western reader, to wonder why it takes these two so long to realise their love for each other, but in a society in which all marriages are arranged by parents, expectations are different. However, we do not find it difficult following the course of their thoughts, or the development of their perceptions: what is extraordinary is not that human beings are all the same – they clearly aren’t – but how at home we can feel in the minds even of those very different from ourselves.

Buddhadeva Bose takes his time. When characters meet, what they say to each other is given in full, and almost always in direct speech: there is no sense of compressing, or directing the reader’s attention to what is important, because here, everything is important. Neither is there any sense of urgency in moving the story along, because there is no specific end to move it towards. All this could have backfired disastrously were we not held so firmly by the characters, and by the intricate nature of the relationships between them. At each stage, it is the moment that is important, rather than what the moment might lead to.

And these moments are all so vividly painted, so we don’t care whether or not they lead to anything. Bose loves the big set-pieces – the big family reunion for the Durga-puja holidays; the visit to the cinema; the national mourning at the news of Rabindranath Tagore’s passing, and his funeral (“The Rabindranaths of this world don’t die,” Swati reflects, “they go away from time to beyond time, out of their bodies into people’s minds…”); and so on. After the scenes of Rabindranath’s funeral, comes a death closer to home: the husband of the eldest daughter, the good-natured Pramathesh, has a stroke and dies shortly afterwards. There has been no novelistic foreshadowing of this: it just happens, as these things do in life. Arbitrary, random.

And then, some 400 pages into the story, the narrative comes to an abrupt halt: the last 150 or so pages are taken up with a superb depiction of a Bengali Hindu wedding, with the camera cutting between and zooming in and out of different groups of people – the bride and groom, friends, close family members, distant cousins – observing them, reporting their talk on various matters, bringing the entire vast and crowded scene to teeming and utterly convincing life. It is a virtuoso piece of writing, But in this, the climactic section of the novel, there is no narrative movement at all: narrative has never been really the point. At the very end, in one of the most lyrical and melancholy endings to a novel I have come across, the family returns quietly to their dark and empty house after the wedding. Bengali syntax is very different from English, and translator Arunava Sinha in several passages maintains elements of the Bengali syntax, even if it means writing sentences that are ungrammatical in English, to convey something of the pace and rhythm of the Buddhadeva Bose’s prose; but one suspects that the prose even of the original breaks through all grammatical rules of syntax in this final passage:

… Shweta looked up at the sky, stars, silent; Swati didn’t stir, Satyen didn’t stir, both silent; the shadowy light of the lamp on the tray; hidden, shy, words that couldn’t be said, unforgettable; the door opened, dark; neither of them spoke, neither of them forgot; two of them in the dark room, two of them in the dark, side by side; shrunk, taut; didn’t speak, didn’t forget; Shweta stopped;  Rajen-babu, with his hand on the wall; taut; two lives, creatures, throbbing hearts, throbbing bodies; no eyes, eyes, open windows, black; black outside; stars in the black sky; distant, other side, other world; all that had happened, not happened, would keep happening, eternal; a sky of stilled stars looked on.

Buddhadeva Bose was a distinguished poet as well as novelist, and even when writing prose, he is not afraid to play with language as he would in a poem. It must be a nightmare to translate, but the effect is as affecting as it is startling.


For me, it was a curious experience reading this novel: the society depicted seemed at the same time very close and yet very distant. But when Buddhadeva Bose takes us into the minds of the various characters, I don’t think I had any difficulty understanding them. It is hard to understand why, given there exists a wide readership in the West that is genuinely interested in encountering other cultures through literature, this novel has not been more widely distributed and publicised: it certainly deserves to be. And it is very much to be hoped that if it is distributed more widely, Penguin India will provide some notes and glossaries for future editions.

Lost and found in translation

… or, The Argumentative Old Git indulges in a bit of navel-gazing, and ends up with a long and rambling post

Today, I started reading When the Time is Right (Bengali title: Tithidore) by Buddhadeva Bose, translated into English by Arunava Sinha. Published in 1949, it is one of the most renowned of Bengali novels, written by one of the most prominent and gifted writers of the post-Tagore era, and I have long been meaning to read this.

Yes, I know, the obvious question: why not read it in the original Bengali? The answer to this, for anyone who has the patience to read through this long and dreary piece of autobiography, is complex.

I have not attended any Bengali class, or received any Bengali lesson, since the age of five. Five years and eight months, to be more precise. What Bengali I was taught in the year or so I attended school in India had to suffice. That wasn’t, admittedly, too bad: I knew by heart all those wonderful nonsense poems in the collection Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, and also many of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems for children. And even some poems not intended specifically for children: I could, I still remember, recite the entire Debatar Gras – a fairly long and complex poem by Rabindranath – by heart. And I understood it too – at least, I understood the story it told. Perhaps I had an aptitude for the language. I’ll never know.

Growing up in Britain, I spoke Bengali with my parents at home, and, at my father’s insistence, even read some simple Bengali books. But that soon petered out. I was attending a school not knowing the English language, and, if I was to be properly educated and find my place in this new land, I had to learn this strange language they all spoke. So out went the nonsense poems of Sukumar Ray, and in came the nonsense poems of Edward Lear. (l still prefer Sukumar Ray’s poems, by the way.) And, far less painlesslythan might be supposed, I took to my brave new world: soon, I was sharing adventures with Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, or thrilling to Holmes and Watson facing the perils of the ghastly Hound of the Baskervilles. And then, on to Dickens and Austen and Shakespeare, and all the rest. I remember my grandfather telling me before my coming to Britain that I’d be learning “the language of Shakespeare”: that wasn’t quite the language I learnt at school, but I made do.

I took to Western popular culture too – partly through my schoolfriends, and also through the television set my parents had rented because they had thought it would help me with my English. First children’s programmes – Top Cat, Robin Hood (with Richard Greene), Crackerjack; soon, programmes for grown-ups – Dad’s Army, Sergeant Bilko, Morecambe and Wise – and even, once I was old enough, the now famous BBC dramatisation of The Forsyte Saga. Western pop music, which my parents so disliked, followed. I absorbed Western culture – specifically British culture, and, even more specifically, Scottish culture: I became a keen supporter of the Scotland football team, and was in tears when they were knocked out of the 1974 World Cup on goal difference. The English language was not my first language, but it soon usurped that position.

Of course, I continued to speak Bengali at home with my parents, but the vocabulary one uses with parents is naturally a bit limited. And I don’t mean merely in terms of not getting to know the rude words: I soon discovered that when I wanted to discuss anything of a serious nature – say, literary matters, or politics, or philosophy, or whatever – anything of moment, anything of significance – the limited vocabulary I used when speaking to my parents proved increasingly inadequate.

Things were even more complicated. The Bengali language, possibly uniquely, takes two quite different forms in writing and in speech. Of course, there are, and have been, many writers who have bridged the gap, but nonetheless, there are many words that are used regularly in writing, especially in writing on complex matters, that, in my experience at least, are rarely or ever used in everyday speech. Usually, an approximate but more commonly-used equivalent is found; or an English word is substituted, the incongruity between English vocabulary and Bengali syntax nowadays too commonplace even to be noticed. There are certain words that, even in writing, seem to be disappearing: every Bengali-speaker knows, for instance, what the word patsala means, but to use that word instead of its English equivalent “school” seems nowadays but a quaint affectation.

(I once used in conversation with people who were, unlike me, Bengali born and bred, a Bengali word I had discovered in my reading, and from the sea of blank faces I observed around me, it was obvious that the word I had used was unknown to them: I quickly substituted the English word, and the conversation then flowed again as normal.)

And so, as my grasp of English improved, I found myself far more articulate in my second language than I was in my first, to the extent, indeed, that I felt embarrassed to speak in the first, as what I wanted to express far exceeded what I was capable of expressing. I suppose this must have pained my parents – especially my father, who was very attached to Bengali literature and culture – but I think they accepted the inevitable.

Of course, it is a truism that teenagers turn against their parent’s values, but return to them later in life. And the problem with these truisms is that they are, quite often, true. Not that my “rebellion”, such as it was, was anything more than teenage posturing: I dearly loved the films of Satyajit Ray, after all, and found myself more deeply affected by Pather Panchali (and the rest of that trilogy) than by other film I had seen; and, much though I claimed to dislike Rabindrasangeet (the songs of Rabindranath Tagore, which, effectively, form the national music of Bengal), this music had formed the soundtrack to my childhood, and those tunes were more firmly lodged in my mind than I cared to acknowledge. So when, in middle age, I sat surrounded by the multi-volume edition of the works of Rabindranath and the invaluable Samsad Bengali-English dictionary, the journey back was neither as long nor as arduous as I had expected.

On reflection, “journey” is not a well-chosen image. When one journeys, the closer one gets to the destination, the further one is from the starting-point. But that was not so here. The western culture that I had absorbed throughout the greater part of my life – highbrow, lowbrow, everything in between, from the operas of Mozart to The Morecambe and Wise Show, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Hammer horror films, from visiting art galleries to boozing with my drinking cronies in pubs – I continue to regard as my culture, and for the best of reasons: not because I was born into it, but because, having lived with it and absorbed it, I happened to rather like it. And I find frankly rather offensive the suggestion I have heard from diverse sources that one’s cultural values are or should be determined by the accident of one’s birth. There is, as far as I am aware, no evidence whatever that cultural values are coded in our genes: usually, these values are simply those we have grown up with, and have thus become accustomed to. And sometimes, one finds oneself attracted to cultures one has neither been born into nor has lived with: whenever I revisit, for instance, the works of Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or Chekhov, or listen to the music of Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky or Stravinsky, I feel curiously at home. I cannot explain why I love all things Russian: I have never set foot in the country, and don’t even know the language. But there’s no accounting for these things. However, Bengali was still a language that I was close to, and it seemed madness not to try to get to know it a bit better.

As I tried to re-acquaint myself with the Bengali language, I found, rather to my surprise, that my pondering over each individual word with a dictionary proved a surprisingly effective way of reading poetry. Even when I read a poem in English, I focus in my first reading on the sounds and the rhythms of the piece: I treat it almost purely as music. Only then do I consider the meaning of the words – or, rather, the different levels of meaning of the words – and their various connotations. Only after pondering these matters for some time – often a very long time – do sound and sense begin to gel together, and communicate more than either could have done in isolation. (Sometimes, the sense fails to materialise adequately, and I satisfy myself with the sounds alone: this is true of much of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for instance, whose works fascinate me despite frequently not making much sense.) So approaching the Rabindranath poems with my Samsad dictionary was not in the least a barrier to my appreciation, especially given the extraordinary musical qualities of these works. (My mother is sometimes surprised when I read some poem she considers difficult because of its excessively Sanskritic diction. But for me, the reed is as the oak, as it were.)

So now, I think I have gained a Bengali vocabulary that would have pleasantly surprised my late father. However, the words that I can understand on the printed page do not come to me at speed of conversation; and so, when talking, I do tend to revert to English. Although I still speak Bengali with my mother, as I always have done.

And similarly with reading prose narratives. I am still nowhere near as fluent in Bengali as I am in English, and I still do not have the confidence to embark on a Bengali book without my trusty Samsad dictionary at my side, as a sort of comfort blanket if nothing else. This means that I am quite happy with Bengali poetry, which requires close consideration of each word, but less happy with Bengali prose, where, in considering each word carefully, I lose the sense of pace and the momentum. I’m sure I could read the Buddhadeva Bose novel in the original if I tried, but it would require far more time than I currently have; and, in addition, I’d have to carry around with me a bulky dictionary. As I do most of my reading on the commuter train, this is not really a very attractive option.

So, the translation it is. And, admittedly a mere 20 or so pages into it, it seems a very fine translation. As well as enjoying what I am reading for its own sake, I am also having fun trying to guess at what was in the original Bengali. For instance, in the opening sentence, Rajen-babu is described as having “delicate” tastes. Could the word used in the original Bengali be soukheen, by any chance? If so, this is a very good translation of what really is a quite untranslatable word.

There are a few other words I can think of in Bengali that have no equivalent in English. One is naka: in Bengali, this is an adjective used to describe people who are irritatingly childish and affected in a manner that sets one’s teeth on edge, and the use of the word betokens contempt for whoever is so described. It is an apt description for, say, Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield, or for Madeleine Bassett in the Jeeves & Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse. And also for various people I have encountered in real life but whom, for obvious reasons, I will not name here. I have often wondered why there is no equivalent of this word in English. Is it because there is less naka-ness amongst English speaking people? Or is it that there’s less tolerance for this sort of thing amongst Bengalis? I guess we’ll never know.

The Bengali word I think I miss most in English is adda, and why this word doesn’t exist in English I do not know. Adda refers to people getting together primarily or solely for the joy of conversation. The English words “gossip” or “chat” don’t really cover this, for adda can be about anything – from light, trivial matters to profound discussions on politics or philosophy or even the very nature of our being: there are no limits to a good adda, and the pleasure of it is in the flow of convivial conversation. (I believe there is a Spanish word, tertulia, that approximates to adda. If there are any Spanish speakers reading this, please do feel free to correct me.) Now, I am what is known as an addabaj, i.e. someone who loves adda. Except, of course, I like holding adda in a pub, with the booze flowing freely, thus enjoying the best of all cultures.

Of course, no culture stands still, and India has been going through a period of accelerated change. People of my parents’ generation often find themselves shocked as they find that the culture to which they remain so attached is not only not to be found in their adopted country, but is disappearing also from the land they left behind. I do not, I confess, have my finger on the pulse in these matters, but it seems to me that the Buddhadeva Bose novel I am reading now, written in the late 40s, is describing a society that is already on the wane, and may well disappear entirely within my own lifetime. Even to me, it seems nothing short of surreal that those Rabindrasangeet, which in my youth had seemed excessively staid and demure, are now being performed by all-girl rock bands! Perhaps Bengali culture won’t disappear after all: it will merely be transformed, as all cultures are over time. But that is not up to me: that is up to people living in Bengal.


Well, that’s more than enough navel-gazing for one post. Sorry about the rambling nature of this one. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

“My Kind of Girl” by Buddhadeva Bose

It was heartening to see the recent publications in the West of some Indian books that had actually been written in Indian languages. But perhaps it is equally disheartening to see these publications given such little publicity. On a recent tour of London bookshops, I couldn’t find any of these titles on the shelves of even the largest: without at least a bit of publicity, the shelf-lives of books aren’t long. And the dreary orthodoxy prevailing in the Western world that the only Indian literature that is worth bothering with is that written in English remains, sadly, unchallenged. I did, however, pick these translations up while they were still available, and, last week, I read the short novel My Kind of Girl (Moner Mato Maye) by Buddhaveva Bose.

I must confess that Buddhadeva Bose is merely a name to me: having grown up in the West, largely cut off from Bengali culture, I have read very little Bengali literature outside Tagore. He is renowned as among the finest Bengali authors of the post-Tagore generations. Tithidore (When the Time is Right), reputed to be his finest novel, is available in English in India, but, as ever in such cases, not in the West. (I picked up the English translation when I was in India earlier this year, although I haven’t got round to reading it yet.) My Kind of Girl, written in 1951, is a much shorter work, and, I suspect, a much slighter work: it is deftly executed, and there was much in it that was fine; however, given the author’s reputation in his native Bengal, I get the impression that it is more a simple five finger exercise rather than a full-blown sonata. Perhaps I will get a better impression of Bose once I have read Tithidore.

Which is not to say, of course, that this short novel is negligible: it is clearly the work of a sharp literary intelligence. And the translation, by Arunava Sinha, seems very well done – although, more than once, I found myself trying to guess from the somewhat unusual syntax what the original Bengali may have been. For Bengali syntax is very different from English: it is far more economical with words. Take, for instance, a simple English sentence such as this:

“There were three trees standing next to the house.”

In Bengali, most of these words would be considered superfluous. “Next house three trees” is perfectly adequate, and, in Bengali, perfectly correct. But to write this as a proper sentence in English obviously requires a bit of “padding” – the addition of words that are superfluous in one language, but necessary in another. Most of the time, the translator does the job of padding well: but occasionally, I couldn’t help feeling that the addition of a few more words might have helped.

And then, there are the idioms – the same phrase, the same words, but which carry a different charge in a different language. We come across this in the title itself: Moner Mato Maye literally means “a girl like my mind”; or, less literally and more clumsily, “the kind of girl who suits my taste”. Sinha’s title, My Kind of Girl, seems admirable; however, it implies an environment in which one may choose one’s partner: but the society depicted is one in which marriages are arranged, and in which people, both male and female, do not grow up with expectations of choosing partners for themselves. No-one here actually expects to be married to people with whom they may happen to fall in love; and when those whom they love are married off to someone else, there seems little sense of disappointment. One cannot after all be disappointed when one had no expectation to begin with.

This is a very different environment from any that most Western readers will be familiar with, even though arranged marriages had been a norm in the West until quite recently amongst certain classes. That one may feel little pain when the object of one’s love may marry someone else may seem extraordinary to a modern Western reader: and yet, such is the unobtrusive artistry of Bose’s narrative style, it seems perfectly natural in the context. The four brief stories which comprise this novel all have at the centre this theme: the dislocation between one’s emotions and one’s awareness of the demands of reality.

The structure of the novel is a simple one, and has often been used: four men, strangers to each other, find themselves thrown together for a while, and each tells his own story. This simple structure is familiar to anyone who has seen the Amicus portmanteau horror films such as From Beyond the Grave or Tales From the Crypt: but here, the stories aren’t horror stories: they are about love. The model is not the Amicus horror films (which this book predates anyway), but, rather, Chekhov’s trilogy of stories, “Gooseberriess”, “Man in a Case” and “About Love”.

The first story is particularly painful. So painful, indeed, that the narrator has to pretend it had all happened to someone else. No-one is fooled by this, though they are all too polite to challenge him on this point. This is a story about love rejected. The narrator is a big man, physically clumsy and unattractive; he is, however, successful in life: he has a good head for business, and has become wealthy: in a society without any form of economic safety net, the security offered by his wealth makes him, despite his physical clumsiness, a prized match. And yet, when he asks his mother to arrange a marriage with a woman with whom he has fallen in love, he is rejected: she comes from a cultured family, and he and his family are seen as unrefined and boorish. Even when he saves them from being thrown out penniless on the streets, she tells him clearly that she is not for him, and that not even gratitude for his generosity could shake off the distaste she feels. Not only can he not win her love, he cannot even buy it – not even if he wants to. The rejection is final and complete. And this physically clumsy, hard-headed businessman continues to carry inside him the pain, the shame, and, also, a profound disgust with his own self.

The second is a sad, wistful story: a youthful love that never had a chance of being consummated, but which lasts throughout both their lives, even into old age. The third, we are promised, is a “comic story” – a scherzo in the four-movement work. However, although no-one acknowledges it, the “comedy” leaves behind a bitter taste. The narrator falls in love with a young lady who is pining away for the sake of another. This other person, a doctor, is already unofficially engaged to an Anglo-Indian girl, who is receptionist at his surgery. And the narrator is shocked: “So an Anglo-Indian’s ploys matter more to you than a Bengali girl’s tears?” he asks. The racism, and the sheer stupidity that lies behind it, are shocking, but this narrator is too self-unaware to notice: his moral outrage even as he speaks these words is real.

By the end, he ends up marrying her, unembarrassed about being but a second best choice, and seemingly not even pausing to ask what his wife feels about it all. Perhaps she married him to punish herself; perhaps, by the end, she was past caring. Who knows? The narrator certainly doesn’t: he hasn’t even given this matter any thought, and thinks of the whole thing as “comic”. This “comic” story is, however, the most disturbing of the four.

The final story, the climax of the sequence, is a tragic tale. It is well enough done, but in many ways, it was the least remarkable of the four. The earlier stories had shown us a writer of remarkable talent and imagination: all I saw here was a writer who knew his craft well, but who was, at this stage, merely going through the motions.

ll in all, not perhaps an unqualified triumph, but a remarkable work for all that. A five-finger exercise, as I said, rather than a major sonata. This winter, I’ll tackle Tithidore (When the Time is Right): if it lives up to anywhere near the reputation it has in the Bengali-speaking world, I should be in for a treat.

Some new translations of Indian literature

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.