Sankar (Mani Sankar Mukherjee) is arguably Bengal’s best-selling contemporary writer. Born in 1933, Sankar has published over 70 books, including 37 novels, five travelogues, several biographies, essays and stories for children.
His most widely-read book is Chowringhee (1962), a slice-of-life narrative set in and around a fictitious hotel in central Calcutta. With its cast of colourful characters, Chowringhee was a perfect choice for big screen adaptation, and sure enough, the 1968 film in Bengali starring Uttam Kumar was a huge hit.
Two more of Sankar's novels, Jana Aranya (The Middleman) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited), were made into films by Satyajit Ray. In recent years, several of his books have also done well in English translation, winning awards and new readers in India and elsewhere. He talks about his fraught relationship with the Bengali literary establishment, about being translated, and why English is the gateway to the world.
Did you start your fiction career writing for literary journals and periodicals, or did you first publish directly in book form?
Since the 1950s, the practice in Bengal has been to get serialised in magazines, and that is how my first novel, Kato Ajanare, was also first published. It appeared in instalments in the well-known literary magazine Desh, in 1955. Later it was published in book form.
Did your books become popular with Bangla readers quite early? Were your book sales connected to book reviews, press coverage or literary awards in Bangla?
Bengali reviewers have been historically very mean-spirited towards me (laughs). In fact, reviewers would spread canards of every sort about my books. Those who controlled the market were fond of dismissing me. Many of them said I was a one-book author. My books have only received one award in Bangla: for excellent binding.
But your books have always sold astoundingly well. I believe you did some marketing of your own books? I read on your Wikipedia entry that you sold collections of your books in blue packets under the name Ek Bag Sankar (A Bagful of Sankar)?
I never did that. Ek Bag Sankar is just the name of my collection of stories for children. It is a bestselling book. I think it has sold some 100,000 copies, easily. It sold so well that I myself was embarrassed.
When were you first translated?
There was not much English translation in those days, when I started writing. At one point someone thought that the best of Bengal should be translated. But the editor of a Bengali magazine named Achal Patra was dead against it. He said, I will fast unto death, because if this English translation materialises, then the world will find out where Bengali writers have been stealing their stories from.
Fast unto death!? Seriously?
It was a joke, but only partly. Bengalis, you know, they only talk, they do nothing (laughs). But really, since Tagore's Gitanjali, Bengali writers have known that translation is the gateway to world success. Unless they reach London, nothing will happen.
But you didn't try to get your books translated?
Not really. When Arunava Sinha – he was my daughter's contemporary – said he wanted to translate Chowringhee into English, I said, if he wants to waste his time, go ahead. And so he did a translation but it was not published. Many years later, when Penguin Books approached me through my Bangla publisher, I said, there is already an English translation.
The Hindi translation of Chowringhee came out almost immediately after the book was published, and Vikram Seth and Khushwant Singh had both read the book in Hindi. They recommended it to Penguin. Vikram Seth is such a humble person, he was very nice when I met him in London.
They asked me this question in London too: why so late with the translation? I quoted a Horlicks ad to them, which I once saw in the Statesman: “It is not available, but it is worth waiting for”.
What about the Indian readership for English translations? Do you think it has grown larger and more interested in Indian language writers in recent years?
Well, I can say that I got many readers across the country, and the critical attention has also helped in getting new Bengali readers. In Generation Next even the Bengalis don’t read Bangla, so having an English edition that they can read is a great thing.
How was the media reception to the English editions of your books different from the Bengali Press?
I was in London for the London Book Fair, and Chowringhee got raving half-page reviews in the British Press. People say this one book has given Calcutta a calling card. And good literature cannot survive on scandal value. Who Lady Pakrashi was is of no consequence. (Interviewer: Mrs Pakrashi is an important character in Chowringhee, and apparently the publication of the novel led to some speculation about her 'real' identity.)
Critics in English write with an open mind. In Bengal, not so. And there is no advertising or marketing of Bengali books. Sometimes it's just a notice.
Could you give me a rough sense of the number of copies sold of your books? For instance, of Chowringhee in English versus Bengali? And if you have the numbers of any of your other books that have been translated.
Chowringhee in Bangla has sold over 100,000 copies for sure. (Interviewer: The English edition has sold 30,000 copies, according to Penguin Books India.) And as for Bangladesh, the pirated edition sold in huge numbers. I don't think there is anyone from Bangladesh I have met who has not read Chowringhee! Now, thankfully, there is a legitimate Bangladeshi edition, and that is also doing well.
More recently, there is a non-fiction book of mine on Vivekananda that has sold 1,70,000 copies in Bangla. It has also been translated in English, The Monk as Man: The Unknown Life of Swami Vivekananda. Who knows why – he is a phenomenon, and I am just an old man. I get incredible phone calls from all over the country. Two days ago a reader called from Gujarat, and said, tell me, why did Vivekananda choose to wear gerua colour? Was it because it doesn’t get dirty easily?
Do you think having your writing available in English has changed things for you as a writer?
English is a storehouse of all the ideas of the world. People are reading in it and remembering a language that has not yet conveyed itself to the world. Once you reach English, you can reach even China. So why would you want to write something where the train will not move beyond Asansol?
I believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the whole world is one family. Hotel Shahjahan and its characters belong to the world, not only to Calcutta.