Posts Tagged ‘Indian literature’

“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.

“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.