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Chakraborty: The Magic of Magical Realism by Dustin Pickering

Title: Bougainvillea and Other Stories

Author: Bitan Chakraborty

Translated by: Pranab Ghosh

Publisher: Shambhabi

ISBN: 97893-85783-99-9

In the opening dedication of Bougainvillea and Other Stories, Chakraborty notes that his inspirations are the working and middle classes. Such sympathies have fueled the aspiration of writers worldwide, including John Steinbeck in America and in France, Jean Genet. In 20th and 21st Century literature, the heroes tend to be common people who are portrayed in situations of their failures and shortcomings—and occasionally seen as resilient, hapless heroes. Working class gentlemen in literature run parallel to the soldiers of the Great Man Theory studied in history classes.

The difficulty presented in this collection of stories is the tediousness of translating texts into well-crafted versions of their originals. There are some noteworthy admissions, as in “Bougainvillea”, when the language barrier is revealed for what it is. We have a character who isn’t cosmopolitan enough to speak English as well as do those acculturated to it. He candidly admits his English is good enough for Calcutta. The reader is aware at this point that he or she is watching a man lie to himself, imagining a greater knowledge of English is a great knowledge. In translation, prose and verse alike are distinct in two differing languages. There often aren’t words to depict certain meanings in the alternate language, especially in the creative spontaneity of poetry. All translations are short of truth and actual word-for-word synthesis.

Translators are faced with the singular problem of being true to the original, knowing the limits of translation, and hence having to adapt the work to their own imaginations. Translators are forced to use poetic license to make a circle fit into a square. When all else fails, the best vehicle is one’s own original thought. No translation will be complete. Phrasing is different in each language, characters are different, and even the sound of words is unique to each work. When moving a text from its original to a new place, some of the thought and feeling can be lost because the heart of each language is unique. Some languages are perhaps more romantic, or religious, and English (as we know it today) is perhaps a language best suited for contracts and business arrangements. In many ways, the language is upside down compared to others.

Yet we must admit the importance of language and translation. Seeing a work in letters in one’s own tongue introduces you to new cultures and themes. What many don’t realize is how language creates the character of a people. There are languages in use that don’t differentiate between genders. One language I read about was place and direction oriented, and the people who spoke it understood those things intuitively. Language is what we as humans use to convey and preserve signs, thoughts, attitudes, and manners. Words are vehicles that drive the spirit of a country. Poets seek to redefine culture using language’s barriers and distinct patterns, and myth centralizes after a people’s literary achievements are surveyed. For instance, the archeology of ancient Palestine would have no context without the literature of Scripture. Archaeological discoveries are compared and discussed, and myths surveyed for clues until a consensus (a guess based on sensible conclusions) is reached. Art tells the future who we are, where we went, and what of their own footing our deed was. The torch is passed and myth contains the mysteries of eternity. It is a meeting place between a nation and a nation’s god. Pluralism encourages competition in culture—not cutthroat competition, but mutually beneficial exchange—and a transfer of ideas from one place to the next. Sometimes misunderstandings push you to boundaries when you may have dropped your knapsack sooner. Variety challenges our assumptions, awakens healthy doubts, and enriches our lives—diversity keeps things interesting, alive, and prevents cultural stagnation. Those who are pushed to the margins of a culture will embrace an outsider’s view-in. Keep in mind the Bible was written by Hebrews, the bastard children of ancient Israel. Let’s remember how Hebrew was a term of ridicule and contempt in the Ancient Orient, reserved for those in the lower classes.

Common men and women are portrayed in this collection, sometimes in their discontents and at other times in their shortcomings. We also see how weighty their realities are as characters are assaulted with commercial images when they are down on their luck. This is especially true of “The City in Winter,” a story that captured my imagination most in this collection. The central character sees his hopes build as he contemplates a love interest sending him a Happy Birthday. In the end, however, his hope is dashed and confused. Modern technology is shown throughout as a hindrance to communication and success, the very opposite of its intent. The average fellow is constantly frustrated, afraid, dejected, and lost spiritually. Civilization and its discontents irk and disenfranchise our noble characters in each story.

“Bougainvillea” is unique in that it seems to ascribe value to these sufferings. The protagonist is injured by a flowerless plant and decides this monstrosity should be destroyed. He is reminded by his family that the plant will show flowers someday and that it needs to be trimmed, not completely ripped asunder. The protagonist seems appalled and is reminded of his incompetence and petty grievances. The moral begins to unravel: this plant may prick you frequently but if tamed carefully, it won’t prick you and in fact will grow beautiful flowers. This seems to remind us that it’s our perception of things that make us failures to our own eyes. The metaphorical “pricks” are the sharp heartaches and damnations we face when we reach out into the world for employment, scholarship, or to achieve our goals, and instead face our own backsliding and inability to actualize our dreams.

I have often faced this trouble in my own life, and I am sure very few haven’t. Each step in the ladder offers an opportunity to fall. Christian doctrine teaches that we are fallen creatures, but that in spite of our fallen nature we can be redeemed through Jesus Christ and his teachings—which are thought to stimulate new outlooks and help us forgive ourselves. Letting go of mistakes is the first step to moving forward again. You may not be a Christian (I myself am not), but you can’t deny this powerful lesson.

One of the most provoking stories (other than “The Assassinator”) is “Martyr’s Column.” The reason I single this story out is its mournful irony is deep.  You may interpret the ideas differently. However, the strange mysticism of the plot awakens discreet thoughts and may engage you in self-discussion. This story is powerful.

Clearly the author is a sympathizer with humanity—a humanist, a traditionalist who recognizes the troubles of modern technology and commercialism, and a sincere and imaginative storyteller who can capture your mind as long as you are ensconced within his stories. Perhaps “ensconced” is not the right word. I’ll let you, reader, choose your own.

Dustin Pickering is the editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum, and he is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press in Texas. 

Reader Comments (1)

A very thought provoking offering on the subject of translations and related literary context by Mr. Dustin Pickering.

June 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBoudhayan Mukherjee

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