Alo Shome has received much acclaim for her translation of Bengali classics into English. This includes Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Krishna Charitra – an exploration of the personality of the Hindu god Krishna that goes beyond myths and legends – and Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s novel Bishad Sindhu, a gripping narrative focusing on the battle of Karbala. Her most notable work of translation is Many Threads of Hinduism, a collection of essays by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. This compilation explores diverse topics like the Vedas, nationalism, and the origins of religion.
Shome’s translation of Didi, by Bengali writer Nirupama Devi, has just been published. Didi, published in 1915, is Nirupama Devi’s most highly acclaimed novel. At its centre is a supremely talented woman who is troubled by her strange circumstances. When her husband – carried along by forces beyond his control – marries a young village girl, the protagonist is relegated to the status of a co-wife. Set against the backdrop of colonial Bengal, when child marriages and polygamy were common and divorce was taboo, the novel deftly explores gender disparities, polygamy, and an unexpectedly profound relationship between co-wives – a relationship that transcends rivalry and resembles a sisterhood.
In a conversation with Scroll, Shome delved into the intricacies of translating Nirupama Devi’s fiction, reflecting on the writer’s position within the Bengali literary landscape. Excerpts from the conversation.
What attracted you to Bengali writer Nirupama Devi and why did you choose to translate Didi?
Choosing a book for translation is a difficult task for me as I only select books that are in the public domain to avoid copyright issues. As most good books in this category have already been translated – some of them, multiple times – my list of options is always short. But yes, I did wish to work with a woman writer, if possible, for my fourth translation project, as the earlier ones involved books written by men.
As humans, we instinctively seek some balance in whatever we do. For example, I consciously looked for a Bengali work connected to any religion other than Hinduism after doing Many Threads of Hinduism and Krishna Charitra. I was thrilled to find Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s Bishad Sindhu – a superb retelling of the tragic lives and deaths of Hassan and Hussein, the grandsons of Prophet Muhammad. I am the second person to translate the novel into English. The first translation – by Fakrul Alam from Bangladesh – was published in 2016. Fortunately for me, nobody else seems to have translated Didi, an outstanding novel, into English.
How would you position Nirupama Devi within the Bengali literary landscape? Will Didi help modern English-speaking readers understand the social milieu of the late 19th and early 20th century Bengal from a woman’s perspective?
I think great literary works by women have mostly received unalloyed admiration. It is a different matter, though, that women generally get fewer opportunities than men to sharpen their talents. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf creatively makes this point by imagining Shakespeare’s sister, a talented artist whose potential is wasted in a male-dominated society. In the case of Nirupama Devi, her works were well received during her lifetime. Even Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was an admirer of her writings.
From the beginning of the 19th century, book publishing flourished in Bengal, thanks to the Christian Missionaries’ efforts to print translations of their holy books for distribution among the masses. Taking advantage of the improved technology for producing books, publishers of other genres also looked for good manuscripts. Along with their male counterparts, women writers began to publish their works. As intellectual activities by women were undesired by our patriarchal society, they often had to hide their identities behind pseudonyms. Even Nirupama Devi used pseudonyms – “Shrimati Devi’ and “Anupama” – during certain periods of her writing career. Yet, a band of women writers won genuine popularity for their undeniably meritorious works. Nirupama was among them.
Before India became independent, Nirupama and her best friend, Anurupa, were very popular authors. In several old houses in North Kolkata, one can still find preserved collections of their writings, albeit with time-worn, brittle pages. But their books were all but out of print for a few decades after Independence. With the partition of Bengal came major challenges of resettlement. Amidst this turmoil, another wave of commotion arose with the advent of the Naxalite movement. Conflicts and issues concerning tribal communities further complicated the situation.
Naturally, readers wished for stories related to these new upheavals. Tara Shankar Bandopadhyay, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, Buddhadeva Bose, Mahashweta Devi, and Sunil Gangopadhyay, among others, wrote excellent novels on such themes. Many of their novels also reflected the complex social realities of the years leading up to Independence, as Bengal had become a strong base for the freedom struggle.
Ours is a different time. I trust that a good translation of a powerful novel about two endearing women with vast differences in their character will genuinely interest English-speaking readers while enhancing their understanding of Bengali society and Bengali women in early-20th-century Bengal. I was thrilled to discover that two volumes of Nirupama Devi’s collected works in Bengali were published by Karuna Prakashani of Kolkata in 2004. In fact, my copy of Didi is part of that compilation.
Did you need to make any conscious decisions or adaptations for the translated version to resonate with contemporary readers?
Yes, I did need to make adjustments. My manuscript was too long for today’s readers. So, my publishers advised me to shorten it. I mainly deleted large portions from two chapters. The passages I removed would have been of little interest to contemporary readers. In the story, Amar, the central male character, contracts typhoid and eventually recovers. One of the deleted portions dwells on his illness for very long. Another deleted portion has elaborate descriptions of the illness suffered by Manda, another character in the novel. After deleting those portions, I had to mend the narrative slightly to make it seamless again. A book published in 1915 was expected to provide details of the treatment given to patients at that time. Those details did not add any splendour to the novel but were given to meet the expectations of the novel’s early readers.
Were any cultural references or particularities in the Bengali text that were difficult to convey in English? How did you deal with that?
Yes, there were some cultural references and particularities in the original that were difficult to convey in English. For example, in the novel, zamindar Haranath and his assistant, Shyamacharan, refer to Surama and Charulata as “Ma”, a term commonly used in Bengal to address a younger woman affectionately. It would not have sounded natural in English for a young girl/woman to be referred to as “Ma”, which also means mother, by her elders. So, I replaced that form of address with “child” to convey that special sense of a “beloved younger woman”. In other places, I have used footnotes to explain the significance of local rituals and traditions.
After translating works by male authors, did you find any notable differences in narrative voice, language, perspective, or style when translating the work of a woman writer? How did this impact the process of translation?
If “voice” pertains to the depth of understanding and sensitivity of articulation, it is worth noting that men have written in women’s voices and vice versa. Thomas Hardy created Tess and George Eliot, Silas. In India, male novelists – including Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay – have written poignantly on women.
Good literature is not gender-specific, though it is only natural that every author will have a distinct perspective on their world, a special style of writing, and a particular degree of fluency in the language they are writing in. As a translator, I did not find any distinctly feminine quality in the narrative voice, language, perspective or style in Didi.
That said, I had found it arduous to describe the outdoor scenes in Bishad Sindhu. I remember reading descriptions of desert scenes to find the right tone for depicting a very thirsty man running on hot sands for miles. In Didi, the action mostly takes place indoors, involving needlework, cooking, etcetera. These are spaces and activities I am familiar with, so it was easier to find linguistic equivalents for the Bengali words in English.
Were there any specific moments in the novel when you felt a strong connection with the voice or perspective of the female characters? How did you ensure their unique voices were conveyed faithfully in the translated version?
No, I don’t remember identifying with any of the female characters in the novel. Surama is much too capable and persevering, while Charu is too simple-minded. Uma’s life is too sad, and Manda is too full of goodness. I, therefore, could not relate to any of them.
Their unique voices were given to them by the author. It was incumbent on me as a translator to not let my preferences influence the rendering of those voices. To faithfully capture the voices in English, I spent time looking for the most suitable linguistic equivalents for Nirupama Devi’s words in every context. I then tried to construct the most fitting sentences with those equivalents to convey the essence of the original text.
In Didi, Charu develops an instinctive connection with her husband’s first wife Surama. She refers to her as “Didi” even before they meet. Was such an emotional kinship between co-wives possible within the social context of the novel? Do you think Nirupama Devi depicts reality, or intentionally diverges from the adversarial relationship expected in this situation? Is she suggesting a radical possibility?
Yes, I do think she is suggesting a radical possibility. Women can be rivals. But, I believe, women are more often friends. In certain situations, even women in love with the same man can be friends.
When the novel commences, Charu is beginning to have womanly desires but is not old or wise enough to understand the position of a second wife in her husband’s life. She feels that having a co-wife is like having a sister of her own. Surama does not have the heart to dispel Charu’s misconceptions. In fact, she decides to gain from the positivity radiated by the childlike Charu. She feels spending more time with Charu will cleanse her mind. So, two women, who would commonly be considered rivals, become friends. One brings love and innocence to their companionship, while the other brings love and wisdom.
Though there is a difference in age between Surama and Charu, they are both around 13 when they marry Amarnath. As a translator, was it challenging to faithfully render the early maturation of girls – and the co-existence of childlike qualities and womanly feelings – in a social context vastly different from ours?
The early maturation of girls and the co-existence of childlike qualities and womanly feelings in them were realities in 18th- and 19th-century India, as well as many other parts of the world. Depicting her young women characters convincingly in Didi was one of Nirupama Devi’s challenges as a novelist, a challenge she brilliantly overcame.
As a translator, I had no role in creating or developing the characters in Didi. I was just an instrument to convey the author’s intended meaning to English-speaking readers. I hope I have succeeded with this.
While Surama has an unmistakable air of maturity, Charu exhibits a touching innocence. Through their close relationship, does Nirupama Devi point to the transformative potential of solidarity between women, even in contentious situations, despite their contrasting personalities?
We have already noted how Surama decides to gain from the positivity of Charu’s childlike nature. The two co-wives develop a deep friendship, convincingly portrayed by Nirupama Devi throughout the novel. Though both the characters develop as they encounter various situations, they remain true to each other. The novelist seems to have taken special care to show that women’s bonding is beneficial for their gender and that stressful situations among women can be managed with patience and understanding.
In your opinion, what is the significance of translating works by women writers, particularly in the context of literature and cultural representation?
Feminism does not mean a battle between women and men. It rather signifies the evolution of human society so that it can enrich itself with the contributions of women, not just as mothers and wives but in various other capacities. In that sense, the significance of translating women writers lies in enabling their voices to be shared and their cultural positions to be represented.
However, in my opinion, merit should never be compromised. Bad literature or any kind of deficient creative work should be not lauded simply because of the artist’s gender.
What aspects or elements of the novel did you find particularly enjoyable or satisfying to translate?
I enjoyed translating the passages where Surama is in deep thought, grappling with her instinctive desires and her sense of duty. It was also interesting to work on the passages where Surama’s profound sorrow is described. I gained much satisfaction from translating these passages, which seemed to pose a challenge.
The passage where Uma, a young widow, is shocked by Prakash’s declaration of love for her, leaving her confused about her own feelings, so much so that she cannot stay upright, was truly a poignant piece of writing. I took extra care while translating it.
I was charmed by the discussion between Haranath and Shyamacharan about Amarnath’s financial condition. Haranath is a large-hearted father who is extremely cross with his son. He is trying his best not to give in to Shyamacharan’s request to help the boy. Surama is fanning Haranath with her palm-leaf fan, as is expected of a daughter-in-law. A progressive gentleman, Haranath always wants her to be present at such meetings, where matters related to zamindari are discussed. I was amused by Haranath’s sudden outburst at being fanned when the weather is already cool!
Although the novel portrays Surama as a strong woman and a superb manager, she ultimately finds herself weakening and surrendering before her husband in an abject manner. In the Introduction to the novel, you argue that this was the author’s way of conveying that society needed to change for women to live their lives with dignity. How do you think contemporary readers will respond to the ending of the novel? Will they understand this implicit critique of society?
Readers are intelligent people. They will understand the author’s implicit critique of society. Still, many of them might wish that something better had happened to Surama.
In one sense, Didi is a tragic story. And the villain is not any single character but the collective mindset of an age that needed reforms. The fact that Surama cannot break free from its grip indicates that she, too, is a product of her times, despite her exceptional qualities as an individual.
Since you are also a homemaker, how do you allocate time for your translation work amidst the responsibilities of managing the household? Could you provide some insight into your working process?
I worked on this translation, just like my other translations, in the manner of a lady doing needlework or knitting. Women fond of those crafts are often seen working, as if effortlessly, with needles or crochet hooks, weaving out beautiful objects while they are laughing and talking with their family members or friends. These scenes have always fascinated me because what these women create, with such apparent ease, is intricate and exquisite! Taking a cue from them, I wrote my translations in longhand in thin notebooks whenever I found a break from my other duties. I often wrote, for example, while spending time with my husband, in front of the TV, watching cricket. I revised what I wrote in longhand when I typed it out later. Of course, the more difficult parts of the books were done at night before sleeping.