Aruna Chakravarti is an author, academic and translator known for her dedication to Bengali literature and stories. She retired as the principal of Janki Devi Memorial College after teaching English literature at University of Delhi for many years. Having loved writing while growing up, she gave up the art form during her college days and didn’t resume it till her fifties.
During that time, Chakravarti translated noted Bengali writers such as Rabindranath Tagore and Sunil Gangopadhyay. Her debut novel, The Inheritors, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Tagore continued to influence her work and her next novel, Jorasanko, based on the Tagore household, received critical acclaim. Chakravarti has received many prestigious literary awards for her translations and writings including the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Vaitalik Award and Sarat Puraskar.
In an interview with Scroll.in, she detailed her tryst with the arts of writing, translation, and retellings, and discussed her new novel, The Mendicant Prince, based on the Bhawal case of 1920–46.
You’ve had an illustrious literary and academic career, and have written many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels. Could you give us an insight into the kind of changes your writing went through over the years? What became easier about the mammoth task of writing and what took time to build and hone?
I began my literary career with a translation of a hundred lyrics picked from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitan titled Tagore: Songs Rendered into English [updated edition known as Songs of Tagore]. Since I was dealing with poetry which had been set to music, the effort lay not only in transferring the bard’s words from one language to another, but in conveying the swing and cadence of the originals and even hinting at their primary tunes. That is why I prefer to think of this book not as a work of translation but of transcreation.
It was followed by four other translations. Three novels – Srikanta, Those Days, First Light – and a collection of short stories, The Way Home, before I ventured into the world of writing. As is usual with writers, particularly those with a history of juvenile literary activity, parents, siblings and friends had been urging me not to restrict myself to translation but to get back to creative writing. I had hesitated. Many years had gone by. I didn’t know if I could revive the creative impulse of my childhood.
Then I received a piece of advice from my author of Those Days and First Light. “Creative writing has nothing to do with age,” Sunil Gangopadhyay told me, “Just sit with paper and pen for a few days. Write whatever comes to your head. It will be difficult in the beginning. You’ll feel you are getting nowhere. But be patient. Ideas will surface and words will follow. And there’ll come a time when the process becomes so spontaneous that it’ll seem to you that the pen is doing the writing.”
It was on his advice that I re-entered the field of creative writing. I can’t say that my pen does all my writing for me. I have to struggle endlessly with the structuring of ideas and the honing of language. The effort to bring them together in a seamless way is still fraught with despair at times. Incessant revision and relentless vigilance are required. But the process has grown easier over the years.
How did you get interested in literary translation in the first place? How did your relationship with the language develop as a translator over the years?
My career as a translator started in a totally unforeseen way. The year was 1982. I was spending my summer vacation with my sister in Mumbai. Dedicated to the arts, she had opened a society for music and dance called Vaitalik, which had become quite popular with the cultural elite of the city. Apart from putting up shows at Nehru Centre, she also organised small gatherings, with a musical component, in her own home.
At one of these, a Rabindrasangeet performance in which I took part, a member of the audience made a request. He didn’t know Bengali and wanted to understand the words. Could one of us translate the songs being sung? It wasn’t an irresponsible request. The characteristic that sets Rabindrasangeet apart from other musical forms is the exquisite blend of music and poetry; the seamless melding of word and tone. Understanding the language, therefore, is a must for the proper appreciation of Rabindrasangeet. But who would undertake the colossal task of translating Rabindranath extempore? That, too, his poetry?
A few minutes of stunned silence were followed by my sister’s pushing me forward. “You do it,” she said coolly. I was aghast. My knowledge of Bengali was severely limited. I had had no structured education in the language. I was also intensely nervous and self-conscious those days. Anxiety-ridden. Yet, for some reason I cannot fathom to this day, I agreed to do it. Some force seemed to have pushed me from within. It was a moment of destiny. Had I not grasped that moment, the course of my life would have run in a completely different direction.
At the end of the programme, I received a commission from Vaitalik, resulting in Tagore: Songs Rendered into English. The success of that first book emboldened me to do more. And with each work of translation, my knowledge of Bengali grew.
You have mentioned the role Sunil Gangopadhyay played in urging you to go back to creative writing. But what gave you the confidence to write your first novel The Inheritors in your fifties?
Translating the great masters was the first step in overcoming my innate lack of confidence and self-worth. It was not only a language-learning experience. I learnt a great deal about the craft of fiction. And this came into good stead when I took up creative writing.
From Rabindranath [Tagore], I learned that prose need not be dry and matter of fact. It could be imbued with lyricism. Sarat Chandra [Chattopadhyay] taught me the importance of brevity and precision in telling a story. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s prose is direct and pithy. From him, I learnt how to convey complex ideas in simple terms, to avoid jargon and write in a language the common reader could relate to.
Still, I was extremely nervous about this first novel. I thought no one would publish it and even if someone did, no one would read it. I was totally taken aback when Penguin agreed to publish it and, even more when it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize.
How would you say are the ways in which writing and translation find common ground for you both as a writer and translator?
That’s a good question. Readers often tell me that my translations read like original works and my creative writing reads like translation. This must be because when I translate, I don’t concentrate solely on the words. I try to bring out the spirit of the work, the voice of the author, and the ethos of the time and place.
It is not enough, I believe, for the translator to be proficient only in the two languages she is negotiating. She must also be conversant with the history and culture, the literary and social traditions of the spaces from where the source and target languages have emanated.
Coming to my creative writing, I write in English. But all my work is about Bengal and Bengalis since that is the world I know intimately. My work is steeped in the colours, scents, and flavours of Bengal. Bengali readers can sense a separate track running parallel with the original one. A Bengali sub-text side by side with the English. Non-Bengali readers probably find my work too Bengali. But that is the only way I can write.
Your new book, The Mendicant Prince, has an intriguing premise. It is about a famous legal case; the mystery around the supposed death of the Second Prince of Bhawal and his reappearance as a hermit twelve years later. The story, similar in many ways to the Tichborne case fought in England in the 1860s, has intrigued storytellers and film makers alike for decades. What got you interested and made you want to tell this particular story? Could you talk about your process of researching and fictionalising this well-known case?
In the Tichborne case, the man who claimed he was the heir to the estate was proven a fraud and sentenced to 14 years of imprisonment by the British courts. The Bhawal hermit’s claim was upheld by the District Court of Dhaka, the High Court of Calcutta, and the Privy Council of England.
I first heard of the Bhawal case in 1950. A neighbour of ours was a wonderful storyteller and regaled us with many tales, one of which was about a prince turned hermit and then prince again. Though only ten at the time, I was so mesmerised by the story that it stayed with me for decades afterwards.
But I never thought of writing about the case till recently, when some friends distantly related to the royal family urged me to. I didn’t take to the idea easily. It seemed too big and complex a project, and I was beset with fears. Would I be able to pull off such a delicate operation? Meticulous adherence to the facts, together with dates, was imperative since these were out in the public domain. A reconstruction of the lives and times of the concerned persons, keeping the facts in mind, called for tremendous imaginative power and an equal amount of discipline and concentration.
Then, during the Covid years, in the state of incarceration in which we all found ourselves I started working on it. Covid worked in my favour. In the complete silence and absence of activity; in the total encapsulation of self by the mind, I found myself getting entrenched in the world I was creating. A world of queens and mistresses, liaisons and stratagems, faith and betrayal and a desperate British imperialism slowly eroding under the pressure of an awakening nationalism.
Covid gave me the space and silence I needed to get my thoughts together. Unfortunately, it was Covid again that put hurdles in the way of research. Travel being suspended indefinitely, I was forced to rely on secondary sources.
Books and articles in Bengali and Bangladeshi newspapers and journals provided information and helped me to understand and visualise the context in which the drama had unfolded. Two films, Sannyasi Raja and Ek Je Chhilo Raja, offered a few glimmerings. I also had conversations with some distant relatives and friends of the Bhawal family. But what came in truly useful was the research I had done for my earlier novels.
Your first novel, The Inheritors, is a semi-fictional account of your family’s history. How did you navigate and maintain a balance between what could be revealed and what could not? Did you rely on family records or anecdotes to weave the fictional narrative?
There were no records. In terms of documents, I mean. My parents, uncles and aunts often shared nostalgic memories of their childhood and youth, and told us family anecdotes that had come down to them through oral retelling. They spoke of acute poverty, deprivation and humiliation, but never of dishonour.
My ancestors, from what I gathered, were Sanskrit scholars whose brilliance bordered on genius. Many of them had been honoured with titles like Tarka Panchanan, Tarka Ratna, Nyaya Ratna, and Vidya Ratna. They had quirks and idiosyncrasies, some even went mad, but they wore their poverty with pride. They were also far ahead of their time in thought and spirit. So, there was no pressure on me to hide anything. I am proud of my lineage.
Unfortunately, all our elders had passed away by the time I decided to write the novel. I had to depend solely on childhood memory. Consequently, the fictional component took over to a large extent.
Tagore and the Tagore household were major influences for you and even subjects of your books such as Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko. In your literary works, a thread of feminist characters emerges. These books touch on real events and people with reconstructed narratives. What is it about retellings that continues to pull you towards them?
There are several questions contained in this one question. To answer the first. Yes, Rabindranath is a major influence in my life, from childhood upwards, as he is in the lives of all Bengalis.
My interest in the Tagore household came later and this leads me to your second question. Yes, a feminist thread runs through all my work. And that is what prompted me to look into the lives led by the women in the wealthy, forward-thinking, enlightened Tagore family. And here, I stumbled on some strange inconsistencies. I encountered a fascinating world. Glamorous and glittering on the surface but dark and challenging beneath.
The women who inhabited this world were complex, often confused beings. Their men heralded the Bengal Renaissance and were recognised as flag-bearers of the future. They educated their wives, sisters, and daughters. Yet, following a strange logic, kept them confined in the abarodh.
How did the Tagore women accept this dichotomy? How hard was it to pretend that they had internalised it? What did they think and feel? What dreams did they dream? What sorrows did they keep hidden in their breasts? I have tried to probe into the deepest recesses of their psyches through the light of the imagination. And I am left with the conviction that the Tagore men, admired almost to the point of deification by generations of Bengalis, were deeply flawed human beings.
What is it about retelling that continues to haunt me, that continues to make me write about the past? I don’t know. Maybe it is the distance between author and subject. I feel I can see the world I am reconstructing with clear, unbiased eyes. With an objectivity not possible when dealing with the present. The ties are too close and intrusive.
What makes you go back to the page and keep writing? What would be your advice to emerging writers?
I keep going back to the page because I have to. I can’t live without writing for some hours, at least, every day. It has become a habit. Most of the time I have thought of the next book even before finishing the current one. I am happiest when I can do that. But sometimes that doesn’t happen and I feel frustrated and depressed.
I even have fears that I’ve lost the creative impulse and my writing days are over. Then, the moment I sink my teeth into a new project, I am happy again. Since my books are mostly research-based, a good deal of reading has to precede the actual writing. That process, too, keeps me occupied in an absorbing and fulfilling way.
My advice to emerging writers is as follows: Write only when some strong force from within impels you too. When you feel you have something original to share with the world, and can’t rest till you do so. Many young people are caught, more by the idea of being a writer, of becoming famous and winning awards than the need to express deeply felt thoughts and emotions. They tend to ape successful writers in the hope of winning accolades like them. But that is possibly the worst reason for writing a book.