It is never easy to discuss realist fiction set in a place, in this case Kolkata, with which you are overfamiliar. There are a hundred references and memories that rush into your reading, creating strange ripples and echoes that can lead you away from the story. Fortunately this does not happen with Krishnagopal Mallick’s stories in Entering the Maze – translated from the Bengali by Niladri R Chatterjee – where the mirror-frames of realism are animated by the singular journeys of characters discovering their alternative sexuality through a series of awakenings and encounters that sometimes border on the forbidden.

But first a word or two about the author. Krishnagopal Mallick was a writer who began his career as a sub-editor of The Statesman and later quit his job to set up a printing press while devoting his time to writing. Working in the middle to later decades of the last century, he published short stories, essays and novels, shying away from mainstream publication while demonstrating a clear preference for little magazines. Unabashedly bisexual in his themes and with a keen eye for the area of North Kolkata where he lived, Mallick has unfortunately remained at the margins of recognition for a very long time.

Queer discoveries and experiences

Entering the Maze is a timely effort to address this neglect. It brings together two short stories written in the first person and a novella (Entering the Maze) where the protagonist shares the author’s name. Because of the overlapping settings of the three texts, the use of the first person narrator in the stories, and of the author surrogate in the novella, we may lean towards the assumption that much of what has been told here are incidents and experiences from the writer’s life. But as Chatterjee warns us in his brilliant introduction – we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and be satisfied with the fact that “these stories are in print”.

Entering the Maze, the novella, is a coming-of-age tale of the young Gopalkrishna through discoveries and experiences of his alternative sexuality that are awe-inspiring in their plain speaking and matter-of-fact narration. A remarkable aspect of the author’s bare bones narration is in the facility with which he catches the reader unawares as he effortlessly segues from commonplace scenes into ones lit up with homoerotic fire. Like here, when his friend Manoj after reading a chapter from his work in progress, Debiprasad says: “You ended it with hair in the breeze and calling of names? Why, could you not write this? Saying which he pulled me towards him with both hands and pressed his lips on mine, thrusting his tongue into my mouth. ‘Give, give me yours,’ he said and pulled my tongue into his mouth.”

Some of these scenes like that of the bookshop owner Prabhat da unleashing his desire on a young Gopal or when he almost wilfully offers himself to another shopkeeper, in exchange for a subscription, are replete with graphic detail that could trouble some readers. But the young protagonist, though disgusted by the bookshop owner’s advances, seems to take all of it in his stride while not failing to note how these experiences have been transforming him as he grows up. Throughout the book the author employs an interesting snowball method of narration where breathless sentences pile upon sentences, accumulating detail and imagery, till the paragraphs resonate with meaning for the reader. The drift of the narrative continues unabated.

The novella, which comes at the end of the volume, is as much a bildungsroman as it is a love letter to Kolkata, specially the areas around College Square, Mirzapur Street, and Bowbazar. While the young protagonist discovers masturbation and literary classics he also maps the life and lanes of North Kolkata where he (and the author) lives. This engagement with the urban, also prominent in the two stories, will resonate with those who are drawn to city settings as the author takes us through the warrens of Harkata and its red light area, a deserted late-evening Bowbazar or the midnight action of College Square as a cruising site for queer people.

Mallick’s characters are quite unabashed about their sexual preferences and it would seem the author himself is not affected by the oppression and discriminatory legacy of colonialism meted out to “homosexuals”. In fact, as the translator quotes, the author has written elsewhere: “Driven and indeed inspired by a sense of duty to accord homosexuality a dignified position in Bengali literature I began writing [Entering the Maze] in a carefully planned and yet entirely frank manner, never taking recourse to the imagination. My own life helped me…”

This then seems to suggest that the stories of the author surrogate or the first person narrators could be partly inspired by Mallick’s lived experience. Chatterjee in his clear-eyed introduction mentions how the author prefers using the 19th century term “homosexual” instead of the 20th century “gay” or 21st century “queer”, thereby implying that Krishnagopal’s idea of homosexuality is one that is “pathological”. “However” he warns, “that should not lead us to think he is guilt-stricken or traumatised.” The stories in this book make it quite obvious that he is not.

Days and nights in Kolkata

The first of these two stories (“The Difficult Path”) draws a memorable portrait of the sexual tensions between the middle-aged narrator and “a dark, harmless boy of about 15 or 16” against the backdrop of the night streets of the city. The boy, who had come to listen to a performance by the popular singer Nachiketa, says he can’t find his home and the narrator accompanies him along the length of Harrison Road, through Sealdah and the shadowy routes of a deserted Bowbazar where danger lurks in the alleys. Sometimes, the scenes in this story bring to mind Hemendrakumar Roy’s Raater Kolkata (Calcutta Nights, a book I had translated for the same publisher) elsewhere, and throughout the book, it would seem, Marcel Proust could have been an inspiration for the author.

The stories are well embellished with historical background among which are vignettes of the impact of the Second World War. As a mirror to the life of the city in those times, this volume provides us with a valuable record. Just as there are mentions of the Japanese bombing raids on Calcutta, the blackouts and the report of an airplane crash, so also there is this interesting detail about military supplies flooding local markets:

After the War, a thousand kinds of military supplies made their way onto the streets for sale: something for everyone. Even now one might find stuff like that in the shops. For students, a variety of pencils, erasers, nibs (I have snapped up about 50 nibs, both blunt and fine), parachute lines (thick and thin) that may be of use to the womenfolk (mother has extracted strings from these lines and has knitted Momu a long skirt), so many kinds of waterproof camouflage fabric (Pnute dādā has made a cover for his car out of such material) …  

The other story in this book, “Senior Citizen”, is a curious record of the risk of bodily harm faced by a queer character who seeks secret pleasure in the public space of a crowded bus. Despite the unfortunate turn of events for the protagonist, the story is never impeded by the weight of pathos. Here too the matter-of-fact style of narration with a pinch of humour, helps to convey the peculiar predicament of one navigating a rainbow of desires.

Notwithstanding its amoral stance and sometimes questionable ethics of characters, this is a gem of a book and the translator has done an excellent job in presenting Mallick to a new audience. It is to his credit that he could successfully render occurrences of chaste Bengali in the book by employing a Shakespearean tongue – and the results are almost always flawless. The use of diacritic marks for names and Bengali words is a choice that may appeal to the academic-minded but without those, too, Mallick’s stories would have been an equally, if not a more, engaging read.

“Byuhaprabesh”, the original Bengali title of Entering the Maze, derives from byuha, which refers to complex military formations mentioned in epics. These cunningly devised formations are like mazes from which only the battle-hardened and the best can emerge alive. As the queer communities everywhere grapple with the unyielding forces of discrimination, attitudes and legalities, Krishnagopal’s stories can provide them succour. His tales can be yet another component of the armamentarium of hope in their relentless struggle to negotiate and defeat the byuhas of heteronormative order.

Entering the Maze: Queer Fiction of Krishnagopal Mallick, translated from the Bengali by Niladri R Chatterjee, Thornbird/Niyogi Books.

Rajat Chaudhuri is a writer and climate activist. His new novel Spellcasters will be published in July. He tweets at @rajatchaudhuri.