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.
So 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.