Book Review


A beautiful bouquet of Bengali short stories

The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told selected and translated by Arunava Sinha

--Mita Bose

Publisher: Aleph

Genre: Fiction in translation

Extent: 288pp

Price: Rs. 499

This book contains twenty-one Bengali short stories lovingly selected and translated into English by the prolific translator, Arunava Sinha. Starting with the great Bengali bard Rabindranath Tagore’s well-known story ‘The Kabuliwallah’, the stories span a century of beloved Bengali fiction writers. Sinha states in his Preface, ‘My Love Affair with Bengali Stories’, that his choices have been purely personal, yet, coincidentally or otherwise, all the authors and stories are part of the Bengali literary canon and stand out as its ‘classics’ or ‘touchstones’. This book takes all Bengali bhadralok and bhadramahilas above sixty years of age on a nostalgic trip of favourite stories encountered in textbooks, monthly/weekly magazines, Desh Pujo specials, and anthologies of fiction. We all have had ‘love affairs’ with the multifarious techniques and themes of the featured fiction writers.

Although most of the featured stories have been frequently translated over the years and extensively read in the original Bengali as well as English translations, Arunava Sinha’s translation style is excellent in its simplicity and faithfulness to the original textual material. Exhibiting a natural spontaneous flow, Sinha recreates with equal perfection the lyrical humanist styles of Tagore, Tarashankar Bandhopadhay and Buddhadeva Bose, the wry, acerbic, ironic tones of Ashapurna Debi and Ramapada Chowdhury, the brutal realistic manners of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Udayan Ghosh, the visually striking suspenseful styles of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, and the exuberant, earthy, scurrilous tones of Mahashweta Debi and Nabarun Bhattacharya. As a person who has read many of these stories in the original Bengali, this reviewer finds their English translations exuding the very essence of the writers’ vision and meaning.

The selected stories presented in chronological order of the birth years of the writers, in many ways, reflect the history of Bengali culture from late nineteenth century till end of the twentieth century.

The reader is confronted with a panorama of social, cultural and ideological settings in Bengal over a century. There is Tagore’s liberal humanist romantic vision of communal harmony and philanthropy in ‘The Kabuliwallah’. There is the terrifying and tragic glimpse of Bengali history in Pramatha Chowdhury’s story ‘The Offering’ of jamindari’s cruel excesses and their terrible retribution. Sarat Chandra’s story ‘Mahesh’ exposes the abject poverty of rural peasants, and especially that of the minority Muslims. Tarashankar Bandhapadhyay’s ‘The Music Room’ presents a poignant picture of the passing of the cultural richness of the old zamindari order and the onset of a new vulgar money minded noveau riche class.

The subsequent stories mostly portray the social evils of post Independence Bengal in tones ranging from witty and humorous to angry and satirical to surreal and fantastic. BB Bandyopadhay’s ‘Einstein and Indubala’ exposes a philistine community which prefers a popular film starlet to the premier scientist of the day. Premendra Mitra’s ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’ decries the weakness of man that prevents him from being a knight in shining armour to a damsel in distress. Buddhadev Bose in ‘And How Are You?’ points to the ever-present opposition between material professional success and spiritual emotional dissatisfaction. Satyajit Ray’s ‘Two magicians’ projects the theme of strife between purity and worldliness in the pursuit and execution of the creative arts, in this story the art of the magician. Gender inequalities and exploitation are featured in stories by Ashapurna Debi, Moti Nandy, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Sanjib Chattopadhay.  The plight of tribal communities in colonial India is portrayed in Rampada Chowdhury’s ‘India’, that of the urban poor in Mahashweta Debi’s ‘Urvashi and Johnny’ and of suspected Naxalite party sympathisers and members in Udayan Ghosh’s ‘Swapan is Dead, Long live Swapan’. Nabarun Bhattacharya’s ‘Flapperoos’ and Amar Mitra’s ‘Air and Water’ portray the prevalence of corruption and exploitation in society.

Thus this collection of stories may be viewed as a picture of Bengali social scene in its best as well as its not so admirable aspects. Bengali idealism and criticism of wrongdoing emerge as strong components. However a predominance of sentimentalism and passivity in face of blatant social evils (the heritage from early twentieth century Western Liberal Humanism) is also perceptible in the stories and manifested in the frequent use of the detached ironic voyeur narrator of the social realist mode stories. It is important to note the two exceptions to this phenomenon, namely Mahashweta Debi and Nabarun Bhattacharya. The latter’s fantasy/magic realist vision of the exploited masses settling scores with their predators by becoming flying vandals is a bit overdone. However the former gives one of the most moving accounts of a true entertainer of the masses. The protagonist is a poor cancer infected ventriloquist in ‘Urvashi and Johnny’. His doll or dummy, Urvashi, is a symbol of the poor for whom he has undying love, loyalty and commitment. The translator must be congratulated for capturing Mahashweta Debi’s excellent rendition of slangy, often abusive and scatological, diction of the poor people.

This book is a must read for all who wish to learn in depth about Bengal and Bengalis. In addition to the pleasant preface about the inception of the book, Arunava Sinha has supplied a useful section entitled ‘Notes on the Authors’ at the end of the book with important information with dates. However, the year of publication of the short stories themselves would have historicized the material even further. Another oversight, perhaps, is the complete absence of non-upper-caste writers. This could be rectified by a supplementary book of translated stories by younger writers.

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Dr Mita Bose is former Associate Professor, Department of English, at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. She received her PhD in English from Kent State University, Ohio, USA. She has been teaching English Language and Literature at the University of Delhi since 1972.