Monday, 30th October 2017

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SHADOW LINES - Strangers on a wintry night

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  • Published 15.05.09

My Kind of girl By Buddhadeva Bose, Random House, Rs 350

Arunava Sinha has chosen to translate one of Buddhadeva Bose’s less-known novels. But Moner Moto Meye (1951), rendered with a kind of Yankee flourish as My Kind of Girl, is full of sly surprise, and no less complex than Raat Bhorey Brishti (1967), which earned Bose an obscenity suit, or Tithidore (1949), perhaps his greatest work of fiction. As translations go, this is an admirable effort, though it never quite manages to do full justice to the innate elegance of Bose’s original. This is a pity, since the beauty of Bose’s prose lay in its subtle inflections, the way he moved from the lyrical to the colloquial with disarming ease, creating unique personalities by making each of his characters speak a distinctive language.

In Sinha’s often primly bookish style, these shifting registers get flattened, even become a bit trite sometimes: phrases such as “part and parcel of adolescence” (“chheleboyesher dhoradharjo anga”), or “there was neither hide nor hair of Ramen” (“[Ramen] emon doob dilo je tar aar pattai nei”) should have been best avoided. Although the book itself is exquisitely produced, it is not free of typographical errors (a glaring spelling mistake on p. 35), some grammatical oddities (“Everyone knew each other...” p. 61, “Meanwhile, over by the kitchen...” p. 70, “Neither Asit nor I were... p. 124), editorial inconsistencies (“Bordi” p. 109 and “Bardi” p. 112), and far too many inversions, which stiffen the sentences. Sinha could have conveyed a better sense of everyday bilingualism in spoken Bengali had he kept place names like Purana Paltan intact instead of changing it to “old Paltan”. After all, for Bose, this name had a particularly intimate resonance. In an achingly nostalgic essay in Hotath Alor Jhalkani, he wrote, “Purana Paltan — as if someone just spoke before me the name of a girl I used to love many years ago” (my translation).

In spite of these occasional slips, the translation, on the whole, is engaging and compels you to read on. Of course, the riveting quality of the work comes more from Bose’s genius, in the way he takes on a well-worn theme (unrequited love) with panache, and turns an equally mundane situation (four travellers stranded in a railway station) into something rich and strange. From the moment the third-person narrator introduces the dramatis personae — the four Bengali men huddled in the first-class waiting room of Tundla station on a freezing wintry night — we sense a frisson in the air. The night stretches ahead, there’s no sign of their train, and the hour is just ripe for confessions never to be made again, or even acknowledged in broad daylight. As a newly-wed couple walks into the room, hesitates for a moment, then departs, presumably in search of more privacy, the middle-aged men begin to speculate, initially in a mischievous nudge-and-wink tone, then with increasing pensiveness, about the future of this mutually smitten pair: would they eventually outgrow the “amazing illusion” (ascharya phanki) of their just-married love? Or would it last throughout their conjugal life?

Thoughts such as these make the four recount their own experiences of the vagaries of the human heart. What begins as idle musing, soon turns into a game of retrieving memories and spinning them together which, after a point, give way to an artlessly candid, sometimes a bit abstracted, interior monologue. The design is familiar, going back to the great European story-cycles of Boccaccio and Chaucer, but sharpened by that extra edge of sophistication Bose invariably managed to bring into his best work. Bose’s quartet form reminds us of Rabindranath Tagore’s great four-tiered novels, Chaturanga and Chaar-Adhyay, not just structurally but also for their shared preoccupation with love — ardent, unfulfilled, and destructive.

However, there is a perceptible aura of lightness about Bose’s gentlemen, perhaps due to the obvious prejudices associated with their gender. Not too many writers tell us stories about grown-up men reminiscing sentimentally about their heyday; mind you, not bragging about their conquests, but rather bemoaning their travails in love. Two of them are even unshakeably earnest — the burly contractor who tells the story of a sad, fat boy called Makhanlal (Bose must have been as mischievously ironic as the speaker is solemn), and a barmy writer who almost raves tragically about a story of unbearable heartache. The doctor is perhaps the wittiest, with a terse little tale that sparkles with a Shakespearean lightness and grimly-grey Austenesque observations about the fickleness of the female heart and the virtues of the ever-sensible male mind. There is also a bureaucrat, who looks back on the vague stirrings of passion he felt as a young man, partly owing to those sensitive years of adolescence, but mostly because such feelings are expected of teenage Bengali boys when they first discover a yearning for writing verse. He, too, like the doctor, is full of a sense of irony that is starkly absent in the ‘uncouth’ contractor and the writer with an incurably melancholic disposition. Perhaps it is not just coincidence that both the doctor and the bureaucrat come from privileged families — born into wealth, educated abroad — while the contractor had made his pile without the redeeming grace of a refined upbringing, and the writer is, typically, struggling with penury, and possibly dying of some inscrutable illness.

The clinically detached, and coldly wise, third-person voice that frames these stories tempts us to speculate on Bose’s own sympathies. But conjectures turn out to be formidably slippery: Bose never allows us the comfort of either unqualified pity or irreverent humour. We may feel pangs of sorrow for the characters as they confide their sufferings, but taken together, the stories provoke us to read them in relation to one another. Within this charmingly anecdotal structure of events, Bose packs in a novel of ideas, a veritable history of emotions that alludes to some of the most profound testimonies of love in world literature.

It is difficult, for instance, not to be reminded of The Sorrows of Young Werther, an emotional cornerstone of sorts for the young Bose alongside the Duino Elegies and Les Fleurs du Mal (he had translated the last two into Bengali), and of course the romantic exuberance of Tagore, as Bose’s writer holds forth on the pains of love. Yet Bose was also deeply aware of how serenely cold and cynically aloof great minds could be. In the introduction to his celebrated anthology, Adhunik Bangla Kobita, even as Bose hailed Werther as an immortal figure of the lovesick hero, he was mindful of Goethe’s palpable distaste for plangent romanticism, which the German master regarded as a kind of “disease”.

Unlike the verbose young lovers in Love’s Labours Lost, solely devoted to weaving an exquisite rhetorical tapestry, the four gentlemen of Bengal are more down-to-earth. Being respectable Bengali gentlemen, some of them have a streak of natural coyness in talking about sex, while others are less diffident, though they prudently avoid any locker-room chitchat. A kiss in the dark is enough to put their hearts in serious peril. Of course, this is 1951, but one cannot help sniggering a bit: would these men have stood a better chance with their lady loves had they not been so convulsively shy, so pathetically doom-laden, so predisposed to abjection, and simply, so inescapably Bengali? While reading the novel nearly 60 years after it first came out, one feels gently bullied by the playful greyness of Bose’s imagination.