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This is the first major translation from Shubha Prasad Sanyal, the 2018 winner of the Harvill-Secker Young Translator’s Prize, and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s bizarre worlds filled with dark humour and surprising plot twists are not an easy place to start. However, Sanyal thrives in Bhattacharya’s stories and leads us expertly through twisting tales of power, violence, love and mystery.
The stories follow a range of personalities, most belonging to the marginalised city-dwellers of Kolkata. Drunk or dreaming, the characters are always lopsided, and often violent. For his protagonists, Bhattacharya offers a murderer’s indignant brother, an old revolutionary, a businessman who deals in death, and a young boy named Toy with homicidal tendencies. Yet their instability functions well in Bhattacharya’s carefully choreographed chaos.
In “Night’s End” (a personal favourite), the two friends, Lyangra and Garib, engage in a drunken brawl on a wet night. However, alcohol pacifies the impact of their aggression and they run around each other, artfully dodging the other’s punches, and leaning on each other for rest. The story exemplifies Bhattacharya’s originality: what could have been a messy, violent fight is turned into an affectionate, humorous dance, where alcohol protects rather than endangers. Our expectations are always confounded.
Another favourite, “Olde Kahar’s Fortune,” displays some of Bhattacharya’s more powerful profundity. Anil Babu, a newly appointed politician, and his old comrade, Olde Kahar, meet joyfully after many years. The joy of old friends reunited is soon shattered by the wealthy Farman Ali and the corrupt police force, and Anil Babu tragically is unable to help. The impotency of politicians juxtaposed with the violent power of wealthy citizens creates a sorrowful close.
It is not just the characters which are of interest in the book; Bhattacharya’s urban settings are drenched in personality: their curbs kick back and always keep a watchful eye. The streets are often unkempt and dirty, yet Bhattacharya, through Sanyal, presents this filth as almost beautiful. A gritty backdrop of discarded condoms (“Nirodhs”) and cigarettes (“beedis”) becomes comforting and familiar. One of the book’s triumphs is its construction of scenery. In the masterful hands of Sanyal, Bhattacharya’s descriptions are visceral and engrossing. Personification is pervasive: moustaches laugh along with their mouths, walls bare their toothy bricks, darkness flees from approaching trains, and zebra crossings creep up on bikes and cars. This does not simply read as an author, and translator, flexing their writerly muscles; it creates a character out of the urban setting, one which is suspicious and alert, and fits in well with the plots.
Bhattacharya’s writing, however, can be challenging to digest, a fact which is most evident in the stories “Spy”and “Long Live the Counter-Revolution.” In the former, the protagonist is never given a name and the repetition of ‘he’ often overlaps with other male characters in the story. This requires significant concentration (and, occasionally, re-reading) to follow the plot: the whole story is difficult to place. The same is true of the latter. However, as soon as I adjusted to Bhattacharya’s fever-dreamlike writing, this difficulty was side-lined, and the other stories are entirely accessible. In fact, it appears to be characteristically Bhattacharyan to name the characters a while after starting the story. I can only speculate as to why. It certainly seems fitting with his aim to “continuously challenge the reader’s status quo,” as Arunava Sinha, a regular translator of his, has claimed. It also universalises the content of his stories: the characters could be anyone, the abuse of power is everywhere.
Bhattacharya’s endings are tantalisingly elusive and ambiguous. On most occasions I was left asking: what on earth do they mean? Their lack of resolution or clear meaning is further evidence of the author’s challenge to the reader. It is never as simple as the victory of the underdog or the death of the villain. The reader is often left to wonder, and hope.
This collection of short stories is not just a bewitching read – it has a radical agenda. “Spy,” “Long Live the Counter-Revolution,” “Hawa Hawa”and “4 + 1”all explore the injustices of the West Bengal police and their treatment of revolutionaries and whistle-blowers, or just ordinary citizens. “Deathgrant”highlights how even in death, oppressive class systems remain. “Olde Kahar’s Fortune”is a powerful tale of power, government, revolution and violence. In an interview in 2013, Bhattacharya himself declared that he dreamt of a “democratic socialistic order” where “people will get enough to eat, their health and lives will be looked after and children educated.” His stories protest the current order and its woeful distance from such a utopia. For this reason, violence is rife in the book, with detailed descriptions of torturous interrogation, unjust murders, and hit-and-runs. As Sanyal translates in “Long Live the Counter-Revolution,” “Kolkata’s roads get run over by cars every night, along with dogs and humans.”
What is most remarkable about the book is its sounds. Sound is crucial to Bhattacharya’s tales and Sanyal’s translation seeks to capture his song – a feat not easily achieved in translation. The occasional Bengali term is left untranslated, often where its meaning is obvious, to retain some of Bhattacharya’s original sounds. Children taunting a murderer’s family (duokko khuniyalko ladenakko), the crunch of rain on tins and drums (kurkuri), and the sound of the wind (hawa hawa) are all left untranslated. Sanyal chooses to keep the sounds of West Bengal where the context allows. Song lyrics, too, are always written in both Bengali or Hindi and English, as in “Spy,” “Night’s End,” and “Olde Kahar’s Fortune,” to retain both the meaning and melody. This gives his translation a wonderful texture, combined with the onomatopoeia and assonance in Sanyal’s English: a safety catch clicks like the switch of a torch in “Spy”and rocks crack in a mine on the mountains in “Long Live the Counter-Revolution.”
This combination of Bengali phonetics and English wordplay illustrates Sanyal’s translation ideology. He has said that he sees translation between Bengali and English as a “cross-cultural handshake which looks past colonial history” and offers “necessary communication between different cultures and demographics.” This is also achieved by his retention of certain Bengali words crucial to the culture, such as khuki (daughter), khoka (son/kid), babu (master/sir), namaskars (a type of greeting), and dadu (grandpa). In translating the text into English, Sanyal is careful not to erase the original.
Hawa Hawa and Other Stories is a magical, enlightening set of stories brought to English readers. Each story teeters on the edge of magical realism and surrealism, and the endings leave the reader aroused as if by a peculiar dream. The characters are both charmingly familiar and completely unbelievable: Bhattacharya stretches our imagination to the point of credulity. Noises, stenches, and difficult sights intermingle to create a book that truly lives and breathes. It is a challenge, but a worthwhile one.
by Nabarun Bhattacharya,
Translated from the Bengali by Shubha Prasad Sanyal
Seagull Books, 152 pages
Zadie read Classics at Downing College, Cambridge, and is currently studying for an MSt in Creative Writing at Kellogg College, Oxford. She has previously been a columnist for the Cambridge Varsity newspaper and a prose and verse contributor for La Piccioletta Barca. She is Litro's Editorial Strategist.