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Book Reviews: Language No Bar— by Kiriti Sengupta

While commenting on One Hundred Years of Solitude (OHYOS) Salman Rushdie wrote, “The greatest novel in any language of the last fifty years.” OHYOS was originally written by Marquez in the Spanish language, and later it was translated into English by Gregory Rabassa. What moved my mind was the remark, especially “in any language.” I wonder how many languages Rushdie is aware of! And how well-read an author can probably think of himself to write an appreciation in such a unique way? These were not the questions that surfaced on my mind when I read the book in 2015, but they popped up all of a sudden when I went on to launch a poetry book, Air & Age — Linked Since Eternity, in the department of Bengali in Banaras Hindu University (B.H.U.), Varanasi on April 6, 2016. The department professors primarily launched a Bengali book of short stories, Santiram-er Cha, by emergent writer Bitan Chakraborty who is based in Calcutta. The department might share their exclusive logic on launching two books of two different languages — belonging to two definitive genres; one was short story, while the other was poetry, which has jointly been authored by Pranab Ghosh and Tanmoy Bhattacharjee.

Given a chance, I would love to ask the teachers of the English department of any college or university if they would prefer to launch a Bengali book and initiate discussions on it. They would hopefully deny if the concerned book is not widely popular, or if the author is not hugely famous. But then, they would perhaps conduct a translation workshop based on the said book. Conducting a bilingual seminar takes tremendous effort on the organizers’ part, for they need to balance both the languages and the flow of related discussions.

Bitan’s Santiram-er Cha has not only been appreciated by the professors in Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya (otherwise referred to as Banaras Hindu University), his stories have received critical acclaim in a recent seminar, held in Raiganj University, which was convened by Nirjhar Sarkar, the deputy registrar. I was present there in the capacity of a chief guest and I have been lucky to have heard the papers presented by teachers-cum-researchers who have emphasized on Bitan’s work. I can remember I have read Santiram-er Cha in the month of December, 2015 and I quickly wrote a critical note on one of the short stories, “Hantarak.” I advised the publisher to commission an able translator for wider dissemination of Bitan’s prowess as a storyteller. I can now take pride in the fact that I was probably the first reader to have identified elements of ‘magic realism’ in the said story. The Bengali “Hantarak” was later translated into English as “The Assassinator” by Pranab Ghosh, and it was soon published on the official website of Transcendent Zero Press, a small publishing concern that is based in Texas (United States of America). Dustin Pickering who is the founder of the press was pretty excited as he read the story. While publishing the translated story on their website, Dustin commented on, “Very symbolic! “The Assassinator” engages in a symbolism of cause and effect. Why people fight revolution and why desperation encourages discontent! This is a story of intrigue and importance. It portrays a sense of unjustified fear — something in the lurch — and the changing of pace only escalates the overall impression. The story is translated coherently and I assume accurately. There is almost a dream-like hinge of climax, a sudden awakening, and a feeling of resolution at the end. You almost get a sense of refreshing news, that the previous lines were not real, that everything is fine, the story was a daydream.”


During the formal launch of Santiram-er Cha in the Bengali department of BHU, Professor Namita Bhattacharya opined that Bitan’s story telling bore magical effects as found in the stories by the legendary Bengali short story writer, Banaphul (Dr. Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay). Professor Prakas Kumar Maiti, who heads the department, spoke highly of Bitan’s writing and admired the lucidity of the language used in the book. He particularly remarked on “Bougainvillea,” a story that deals with the struggle and mental turmoil of an unemployed Bengali young man in his personal life. No wonder, the publisher of Santiram-er Cha, Shambhabi Imprint, has decided to bring out a translated version (English rendering) of the book under the title Bougainvillea and Other Stories before late.  


Now the question is: How would the English speaking readers receive the work of a Bengali writer? Here lies the proficiency of an able translator! But, is it solely the translator who can be held responsible for the success or failure of a translated work? I’m afraid, Selected Poems by Joy Goswami (HarperCollins) has failed to fetch much acclaim in India, let alone other countries in the world. It will be unfair to point my fingers at Sampurna Chattaji, the translator, who, I believe, did fairly well in translating Goswami’s immensely rich Bengali poetry, but did the publisher commission an editor before publishing the book? I have no clue, honestly, but, it is extremely important to understand the impact of the translated text on the target audience beforehand. It is equally significant to grasp the dynamics of successful translation, which essentially deserves apt editing by an editor whose speaks, writes, and thinks in the language the target readers use. Translated literature, if not well planned and projected, often fails to reach the audience it is meant for.


We would wait and watch to witness the fate of Bitan Chakraborty’s Bougainvillea and Other Stories and if the translated work would be as well-accepted as is the original book, Santiram-er Cha, but then, will the English speaking readers take interest in reading the struggle and pain of the lower middle class Bengali families? Bitan’s stories do not merely depict existential crisis, they amicably sit on the interface of the conscious and subconscious minds of the people around and traverse the path that leads to the horizon of much awaited liberation. Bitan sounds righteous when he says, “Downtrodden people, middle class and lower middle class Bengali families and their lives have been my inspiration. We essentially ignore the basics of Indian constitution that has been principally formed to protect and uplift the interests of the underprivileged.”


Two years back I had the honor to co-edit an anthology of poems by a few Bengali English poets and the anthology was titled, Jora Sanko — The Joined Bridge. It was published by The Poetry Society of India (Gurgaon), and Madan Gandhi was my co-editor. We included twenty-one poets from different locations and the collection received rave reviews across the globe. Bestselling author and editor, Don Martin aptly remarked on the volume: “I really do think that Bengali poets, and Indian writers more generally, are underexposed among Western readers. Sure, we might recognize someone like Tagore, but not many of us read much contemporary Bengali work. And that is a real shame, because Bengali poets write beautiful, expressive, and distinctive verse.” While discussing the anthology, Sahitya (January 2015), the official journal of the Comparative Literature Association of India (CLAI) opined: “[Kiriti Sengupta’s] “Memorandum of Understanding” is a fitting finale. It emphasizes that “air and age are linked since eternity” and the sorrows of life revisit every human being at different points in life, the sorrows are not restricted to one individual and human beings need to understand this.” Let’s have a look:

I’m no linguist…

I know

air and age are linked

since eternity…


and the wounds surface again

in all directions…

sporting the guise of youth…

I was evidently thrilled as Pranab Ghosh and Tanmoy Bhattacharjee informed me that they would love to use my lines as the title and subtitle of their proposed anthology of poems. Air & AgeLinked Since Eternity is a nicely produced work of poetry, published by Chitrangi, a newly formed publishing imprint based in Calcutta. Dr. Panchanan Dalai, who is serving as an Assistant Professor in the English department of BHU was present during the launch and he appreciated both the poets. He also aired his views on the politics of publishing, but I wonder, if a book-launch event could possibly afford a room for such theoretically sensitive talk. Let me site a poem by each of the poets concerned. In “Jesus” Pranab writes: “The sky fell on the pavement. //The beggar drew a Jesus /On the stone. //Rain drenched the earth. //Jesus did not bleed.

What is Jesus if he is not bleeding? Jesus continues to bleed even now, for the holy blood is believed to remind us his sacrifice towards mankind. Here the poet fetched the sky to the pavement and made the beggar draw a Jesus on the stone. The poet showered enough water unto the stone, and in spite of every effort Jesus failed to come alive and bleed. I believe “Jesus” by Pranab Ghosh is a poem inspired by Marxism.

On the other hand, evolving Indian English poet Tanmoy writes: “I kiss you and take /the contagious being /from your saliva //I wish your fast recovery /hope you receive better care //I’ll give you a new lease of life /as I depart.” In “Donor” Tanmoy revives the age-old tradition of India. Here the poet invites and receives the fatal poison from his beloved’s circulation and happily departs while rendering a new lease of life to the affected being. True love makes one selfless, but then where is true love nowadays? In a world badly infested with materialistic and physical pleasures, Tanmoy urges to fall back to the Indian tradition, and thus, awaits a world filled with love, peace and unconditional relationship.

Irrespective of the language of the books launched in Banaras Hindu University, the authors shared a common indication. They were essentially Bengali people, aimed at leaving their marks in world literature. Here ‘language’ creates no hindrance, nor does it play any role in securing the shelf-life of a work. Time, as they say, will remain as the prime witness of the lingering effects of honest literature!


Kiriti Sengupta is the author of the bestselling poetic trilogy: My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree and Healing Waters Floating Lamps. He is a bilingual poet, writer, and translator and is based in Calcutta. 

Reader Comments (2)

It seems a lot of literature is being ignored across the world. I am not sure what it will take to get people to read contemporary poetry. I think poetry is an acquired taste. It takes many readings of a poem to catch the subtlety and array of ideas presented in one poem.

The receive recognition in one's own country is difficult enough, but to stretch across the world is another task altogether.

May 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDustin Pickering

First, I would like to thank Dr. Sengupta for his comments on Air and Age, Linked Since Eternity. It's not possible, however, unfortunate it may be, for everyone to know all the languages people speak in. Hence the importance of translation and translators. To understand a created work, especially a poetry in its entirety, it is necessary to understand the milieu in which it was created. If the translation brings out that milieu effectively its purpose is served.

May 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPranab Ghosh

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