One winter evening in Calcutta, when I was ten, we ran out of food in our third floor flat. It was a freak concatenation of circumstances, not poverty, that led to our predicament, but the fact remained that we had nothing to eat and no money to buy food. And so, to stave off my hunger pangs by distracting me, my mother decided to perform a heroic task. She read me a short story, one of her favourites.
My mother loved reading, but not aloud. She did not care for the drama that it involved. A short story, to her, was almost like a guilty secret, something she hugged to herself. She would consume these delicacies at a single sitting, unlike novels that stretched out interminably. Naturally, these were Bengali short stories. It was the 1970s, Bengali literature was in its heyday – as it had been for some forty years – and who needed fiction in another tongue?
She began reading out loud a story of an ox and its miserable owner. As she read, her voice broke, though to my young ears the pathos seemed entirely unnecessary, for I was much more interested in the fate of the animal than of its human owner. But as she continued with the tale something extraordinary began to take place – I wasn’t so much listening to the words as I was seeing and hearing all that was going on. I was right there in the very scene that was being described, not as an invisible observer, but as someone who was part of the story.
To this day, I cannot make a story my own unless it places me right in the middle of the action. And no novel can do this, for there is too much reflection, thought, shift of perspective, and other “distractions”. But a short story, ah, now that’s one breathless ride. And so it was that night, when I even forgot to be hungry.
But when the fate of the beast was known, I felt the urge to repay my mother for her act of sacrifice. So I plundered the cache of coins I had saved up. All of them were foreign, except for two commemorative Indian coins, one for a rupee and the other for ten rupees. Those denominations were only available as paper currency at the time, which made the coins collectors’ items. But no matter, it was money well spent. I wanted my mother to get her favourite Chinese meal from the restaurant next door – chicken asparagus soup and prawn chowmein.
From that night onwards, the Bengali short story has been my companion in grief and in joy. Take, for example, that glorious English summer day when I sat by a stream running through leaf and fern, almost certainly about to make a sudden sally. On that day, on a university campus in Norwich, in weather as magnificent as a human being can expect, I was in great humour and it was in that mood that I read one of the stories that feature in this collection: a story about a man who was quaking in fear at the prospect of an encounter with his son-in-law.
Or, to mention another time that a Bengali short story loomed large in my life, one evening, I was crouched beneath a desk to shut myself off from the world, loaded down with a despair whose origin I simply could not trace. In my hand was a copy of a tattered “little magazine” from Calcutta in which there was a story about a mother who refused to acknowledge that her Naxal son had died. My own sorrow was forgotten as I plunged into hers.
Only at the end of the story did I recollect an episode from my teenage years when I had gone to inspect a row of bodies gunned down by the police to check whether a relative was among them. (He wasn’t.) So it is that I have my personal story to go with every story in this collection.
I am no scholar of Bengali literature, but I have had a passionate relationship with it for some forty years now. That passion has given me the courage, after all these years, to put together a selection of Bengali stories that I consider among the greatest ever published.
I must make clear though that this is not a selection based on literary eras, canons, trends, or any other form of critical sieving. Nor is it meant to be a representative cross section of the Bengali short story. These are, simply, stories I have loved and that have made a deep impression on me.
Somewhat fortuitously – I wish I could claim that it is by design, but, frankly, it’s not – the stories here collectively show the rich variety to be found in Bengali literature, in terms of form, voice, setting, and subject. In all of them, though, I find one particular quality that haunts the characters, and me.
It is the sense of something missing, and the search for it. In every story I have come to cherish, there is inevitably a seeking of what is not, what probably cannot be. But then again, isn’t this what differentiates the meaninglessness of daily events from the world that comes from the imagination of an artist?
For all the stories in my mother tongue I’ve read ever since that day in my childhood when I was disabused of the notion that Buddhadeva Bose and the Buddha were the same person, I had only a fleeting notion of how the form came to be. It was not even emotionally wrenching when my uncle, something of an unsung poet, informed me that Rabindranath Tagore was not in fact the inventor of the short story.
He did, however, assure me that the Bengali short story did not evolve slowly from a primordial swamp, but sprang up, more or less fully formed, around the same time as its counterparts in other languages around the globe. The first short stories in the language – which were probably the first in India as well – were not gritty slice of life accounts, nor did they reflect the reality of Bengal or the world in any meaningful way.
It was, in fact, only with the arrival of Tagore – he wrote almost till his death in 1941 – that the Bengali short story became a representation of real life. Redolent with the lyricism of his poetry, the Versatile One looked as much at the inner lives and psychology of his characters as at their circumstances, relationships, and positions within the complex matrix of class, caste, religion and gender.
With Tagore’s shadow always looming large over his contemporaries, it needed Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s rare combination of sharp societal observation and high emotional quotient to give the short story a new form. He brought his readers much closer to the people and situations he wrote about than Tagore did, even as he attacked orthodoxy and hypocrisy.
Two strands joined the Bengali short story after this. From the Bandhyopadhyays – Bibhutibhushan and Tarashankar – came studies of ordinary people, from both villages and cities, though each of them wrote in his own distinctive style. And other Bengali writers, living and writing as they did in an environment of relatively enlightened education and ideas, responded not just to their home but also to the world. The anxieties of the World Wars, the freedom movement, and oppression of the downtrodden turned Bengali short stories into bundles of discontent, disillusion, anger and irony.
Gradually, short story writers turned their lens inward. They focused a merciless gaze on the flaws, inconsistencies and desires of individuals. As urban lives shrank into smaller physical, mental and emotional spaces, the short story became a powerful means of capturing the innate opposition between a degradation of circumstances and the potential for human greatness. From Satyajit Ray to Nabarun Bhattacharya, from Sunil Gangopadhyay to Sandipan Chattopadhyay, they narrowed the width of the canvas and dived deeper into the darkness of the mind and heart.
But even as this was taking place, other writers continued to create on a larger canvas, constructing narratives laced with heightened political, social and gender consciousness and ideology. They adopted techniques like unreliable perspectives, authorial intervention, breathless monologues, narrators-as-characters, and other evolving forms of storytelling. In the hands of powerful writers and craftspersons like Buddhadeva Bose, Premendra Mitra, Ramapada Chowdhury, Mahasweta Devi, Ritwik Ghatak, and, always, Ashapurna Debi, the Bengali short story became something of a panoramic marvel, spanning worlds without number.
At the risk of repeating, this is not a potted history of the Bengali short story. It is a selection that has been made from my close and devoted reading of the Bengali story throughout my life. You will find here authors you know and those you haven’t heard about. Many of the writers you’d have expected to find here are included. It is because their reputations have not been lightly earned.
I cannot claim I would have discovered these stories had they not been written by famous, even canonical, authors. But still, these stories spoke to me on the basis of what they are, not because of the aura of their creators. And, yes, all of these stories are from the Indian part of the Bengali-speaking world.
You will not find here some names whom you might have been expecting to feature because they are acknowledged as great short story writers – which they are. It is just that I have no romance to recall with their stories, though I have read, admired and marvelled at them. But somehow I haven’t found myself in them – I have been compelled to read them with my mind and not with a combination of head and heart, that elusive thing that we Bengalis refer to as “mon”.
And so, welcome to an anthology of my personal love affairs. Like the one, for instance, from the day of my university convocation, when I was meant to be collecting my graduation degree. But I wasn’t present at the ceremony. Instead, I was knocking – my heart hammering louder than the sound of knuckles on wood – on the door of the master moviemaker who also wrote the most unusual short stories. I had translated one of them, and this was the day he was going to pronounce judgement on the translation. What graduation degree could have been worth the thirteen minutes he spent with me, making three suggestions, offering his illustrations, and then showing me out?
Or, I could go back much further, to the day when I was perched in the crook of the friendly branches of the guava tree in my grand-uncle’s yard, stealthily reading the short stories of the robed and bearded great-uncle of Bengali literature, not willing to give my officious elders the joy of knowing that I was enjoying them immensely.
As I eavesdropped on a little girl and her peddler friend from Afghanistan, there was the crack of a gunshot and the palpably hot whoosh of what turned out to be a bullet from an air rifle whizzing past my earlobe. My slightly shortsighted grand-uncle had mistaken me for a local urchin out to steal fruit, and let go with his weapon. This particular collection of short stories might not have come into being had his eyesight been better.
I was born and brought up in Bengal. My cultural, intellectual and emotional compasses were all set to their true north in Bengal.This collection is my personal statement of gratitude to the land which has given me a literature (of which the short story is the most important part) that has given me my life as a translator. Dhonnyobaad.
Excerpted from the Introduction to The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told, Selected and Translated by Arunava Sinha, Aleph Book Company.
(Disclosure: the writer is a consulting editor at Scroll.in.)