Nabarun Bhattacharya was born on June 23, 1948. He wrote extensively in Bengali and came from an illustrious family of activists and artists. His father was actor and playwright Bijan Bhattacharya and his mother was writer, activist, and one of the greats of Bengali literature, Mahashweta Devi. Legendary filmmaker and activist Ritwik Ghatak was his great uncle.

Luckily for him, Bhattacharya also burned bright and distinctly among the stars. His novel, Herbert (1992) was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1997. Sunandini Banerjee’s translation of the book was published under the same title in 2019 by Seagull Books. From 2003 until his death, he was the editor of the Bhashabandhan journal. Apart from being a writer, Bhattacharya was also the secretary of Ganasanskriti Parisad, the cultural organisation of CPIML Liberation. He died on July 31, 2014, of intestinal cancer.

Hawa Hawa and Other Stories, translated from the Bengali by Shubha Prasad Sanyal, winner of the 2018 Harvill-Secker Young Translator’s Prize, truthfully and poetically brings to life the Calcutta of Bhattacharya’s imagination. This is the first book that Sanyal has translated. A university student, his young age or a new career as a translator do not seem to bear an effect on his translation. If anything, he is free of expectations that tag seasoned translators and therefore inventive in his reading of Bhattacharya’s works. This is a promising writer-translator duo.

Beyond the bhadraloks of Calcutta

The collection of short stories starts with the eponymous “Hawa Hawa.” Those who do not live in Kolkata, or Calcutta, mistake the city as an abode of only the bhadraloks. A city of educated, gentle-mannered elites. The bhadralok culture is Calcutta’s greatest export – the fields of literature, art, architecture, and even food have been dominated by bhadralok sensibilities. This infiltration is so pervasive and long-standing that even residents of the city have forgotten what lies underneath the veneer of this gentle-mannered class. Especially the undercurrents of subjugation, oppression, and violence that run in the working class to keep the city’s elites afloat.

Bhattacharya is not interested in the elites of Calcutta. I would even say in his version of Calcutta, bhadraloks are nothing more than remnants of a time long gone by. The city is crawling with pimps and whores, cutthroats and corrupt policemen, drunks and lepers – it is their time now, Calcutta belongs to them. And what do their stories reveal? A rotting, smelly wound hidden in the folds of the city’s skin that has been ignored and allowed to fester for far too long. It’s time to poke the wound with a flaming pin and let free its evil juices.

Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Calcutta exists far away from the broad avenues and addas of coffee houses. His Calcutta lives in poorly lit, narrow alleyways, watering holes, and brothels. If like me, you are comfortable with the genteel portrayal of Calcutta and its people, Bhattacharya’s writing, with its scathing vocabulary and sharp twists, can be hard to warm up to. Though of course, in this case, we are reading Sanyal’s words. Bhattacharya and Sanyal make a formidable duo as they lead the reader through uncompromising scenes of violence, ambition, and desire.

Bhattacharya picks his characters from a varied range of personalities. What binds them together is the negligence of Calcutta’s elite residents. Most of their waking hours are spent drinking and daydreaming. They are loud and scary and often specialise in violence. The stakeholders in Bhattacharya’s Calcutta are a murderer’s resentful brother, a revolutionary in his twilight years, a young boy who kills his pet fish, a headless prostitute, and others who you would rather not make an acquaintance with. The chaos and confusion that plague the characters are replicated on paper with unsettling accuracy. As Bhattacharya must have in Bengali, Sanyal too in his English rendition keeps the reader on tenterhooks – you do not have any particular affection for the characters but you are curious about their fates.

We have read plenty of preachy stories about the evils of alcohol. While there are good reasons to stay away from these golden liquids, Bhattacharya provokes us to think of the times when alcohol has kindled friendships and killed violence. In “Night’s End,” Lyangra and Garib get caught in a drunken brawl on a rainy night. The streets are flooded with filthy water but it cannot douse the enthusiasm of the drunkards. What starts off as an aggressive encounter turns friendly as the men dodge punches and engage in jokes. Alcohol is not always bad – sometimes it even saves lives!

In “Old Kahar’s Fortune,” Anil Babu, newly enjoying the fruits of his political power meets his old friend Kahar. It’s a happy reunion, though short-lived. Farman Ali and the corrupt West Bengal police join forces to trap Kahar and despite his influence, Anil is unable to come to his friend’s rescue. Corruption and wealth are no match for old friendships. This nexus of evil and how it ensnares revolutionaries and ordinary citizens seems to have been one of Bhattacharya’s foremost concerns.

The front cover of the book (designed by Sunandini Banerjee) shows a skeleton holding a revolver in each hand – a clever depiction of a hollow society where muscle and brawn reign supreme. Hawa Hawa is not meant to be a comfort read, it’s a canvas of Bhattacharya’s own beliefs and agendas. In “Spy,” “Long Live the Counter-Revolution,” “Hawa Hawa,” and “4 + 1,” Bhattacharya condemns the authoritarian police forces and their brutal methods of shutting down dissent. With menacing language and naked displays of power, the guardians of law become its abusers.

A story that I found deeply unsettling is “Toy.” Bhattacharya’s protagonist is a schoolboy with a morbid fascination for aquarium fishes. We are prone to think of kids as innocent, kind creatures – but that might not always be the case. Children too can be capable of great violence, including killing.

One of my favourites, “Deathgrant,” is a strange story of a salesman whose company offers a range of services of “helping people die” – from dying in a plane crash to being strangled to death. Here, the client is bigger than God for they get to decide how they die. Once you get over the initial shock of this strange story, you realise the absolute power that money wields. Even in death, one is a slave to money and class status – the violence of which are inescapable.

A visceral experience

It is not just the characters and the themes in Bhattacharya’s stories that are radical and distinctive. His Calcutta is an entirely new being too. The drains, lampposts, and potholes on the roads are repositories of stories – they have seen everything. The streets of Bhattacharya’s Calcutta are filthy and even in this filth, one finds beauty. Littered with country cigarettes, condoms, and all kinds of rubbish, the filth too, tells a story of its own.

It’s both the author’s and translator’s strength in constructing Calcutta as a visceral experience – that comes alive in smell, sounds, and sights. Frequent descriptions of broken limbs, pus-filled wounds, and eczema-infected skins leave a repulsive aftertaste in one’s mouth. This Calcutta is beaten and haggard, but there’s a glint in its eyes and it is ready to pounce at you the moment you look away.

Like a fever dream, one drifts in and out of Bhattacharya’s stories. The average page count of each story is only ten pages but you cannot afford to look up. Even the slightest dip in concentration can make it really difficult to follow the plot. To me, this is a writer’s strength – to demand attention so unapologetically that one is forced to put away their phone and read and re-read the text to fully appreciate and be affected by the same concerns as those of the writer. We might not know these characters but the violence that they are afflicted by is also nurtured and suffered by the likes of us.

The endings are just as confounding as the beginnings and the middle. Bhattacharya is not interested in spoon-feeding clean endings – the bad guy is not always punished and the underdog does not always get a fair start in life’s races. Such is life – sometimes you make it, most times you don’t.

Hawa Hawa and Other Stories is a blistering and unforgiving portrait of our times. It reminds readers to peer beneath the surface, even if for a moment. Despite being strongly rooted in the realities of daily life, the stenches, sounds, and sights of Calcutta add elements of surrealism to the stories. Hawa Hawa and Other Stories is a slow, disconcerting read but as long as there is abuse and misuse of power, station, and wealth, Nabarun Bhattacharya’s words will live on.

Hawa Hawa and Other Stories, Nabarun Bhattacharya, translated from the Bengali by Subha Prasad Sanyal, Seagull Books.