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A plot in Florence, forever Bengal

The setting is Florence in the 18th century. The characters are Italian. But author Kunal Basu’s dream project will have a twist in the linguistic tale. The novel will be in Bengali.

The UK-based author, who is in town to launch his second novel The Miniaturist, plans to explore his mother tongue for what would be his fourth literary venture. “We have a lot of excellent literature, especially travelogues like Syed Mujtaba Ali’s or Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Chander Pahar, set in exotic locales. But their characters are Bengalis as are their sensibilities,” he says.

Basu argues that if the English language is pliant enough to portray diverse nationalities, so is our mother tongue. “The challenge before me is not simply to describe a remote place but also to define the milieu, the mindscape and the vocabulary of foreign characters in a language belonging to a separate cultural and geographic register. How would, for instance, an Italian count and his wife be speaking to each other in Bengali'”

The 46-year-old has the Florentine story ready in his mind. “It will be a tale of European explorations in the backdrop of the richest city of Europe.” Though Basu loves “romancing the strange”, Florence will not be totally unfamiliar territory for him. His third novel, on which he is working at present, is set partly in the Italian city-state. “My upcoming novel deals with rivalry among scientists in the Victorian era and ends just before the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.”

Basu says he has deliberately set the debates of science in a city of art. Recently, he undertook recce trips to Italy “to experience the artistic spaces in which my characters would live and breathe”.

He is looking at a mid-2004 date by which to send his current manuscript to the publishers and put his Bengali writer’s hat on. “I am a beast of both forests. So it will not actually be a radical transition,” the fellow of strategic marketing at Templeton College, Oxford, smiles. In his student days at Jadavpur University (JU), he was a regular contributor to Bengali journals and magazines, penning poetry, essays and literary criticism.

For now, it’s a whirlwind series of readings and book launches that is keeping him busy. Basu kept a date with Valentine last Friday when he and Sunil Gangopadhyay read love stories and talked of the love between languages on the Srijan rooftop. Another special moment was on Monday when he took the mike at the film studies department in JU, his alma mater. “As engineering students, we used to cast covetous glances at the other side of the stream, which housed the arts buildings. It was great to have actually been there,” he laughs.

The last literary halt on this Calcutta tour will be the Oxford Bookstore, on Wednesday, where he will be talking of his “romance with the strange” to Rabindra Bharati University professor Amitava Roy. After all, from the British planter in the Malay islands torn apart by the Opium War (The Opium Clerk), to the artist in a Mughal court in Emperor Akbar’s era (The Miniaturist) to scientists in Victorian Europe — the swathe is wide and intriguing. “I seem to gravitate towards themes and characters out of the ordinary,” he signs off.

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