Mahasweta Devi’s novel Laayl-e Aasmaaner Aayna (literal translation: Laayl-e Aasmaan’s Mirror) was published in the original Bangla in the early 1960s and is set approximately a century earlier. Unlike Devi’s more political works, this is an opulent romance, centring on the tempestuous relationship between Kundan – born into a family of thugs and raised by his cold-blooded grandfather – and the courtesan Laayl-e Aasmaan.

Moving in and out of their story are a number of other characters, most notably the young sarangi player Bajrangi, servant and close friend to Kundan, and possibly his conscience-keeper, who also shares a complex relationship with Laayl-e Aasmaan.

This is a tale about passion and responsibility brushing against each other. It is about a woman making a long journey – from being a scared young girl named Munni to a much-desired courtesan who can break hearts and cause turmoil – at the risk of being branded a witch. At a broader level, it is about the different ways in which men and women usurp the things they want or need, and about their relationship with power: What does it mean to operate on the outskirts of “respectable” society while also grappling with universal human emotions?

More than 55 years after its publication, Laayl-e Aasmaaner Aayna has been translated into English for the first time, as Mirror of the Darkest Night. The translator, Shamya Dasgupta – a nephew of Mahasweta Devi’s – spoke with about the book and its celebrated author. Excerpts from the interview:

Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna is your first project of this length as a translator. It’s unusual – perhaps especially so for a male translator – to start with a writer like Mahasweta Devi, much of whose work is considered difficult to read. At the same time, this is, as you point out, one of her more accessible, plot-driven works. Tell us something about your relationship with this book, and with Mahasweta Devi’s oeuvre in general.
It’s my first project of any length as a translator, though I rather enjoyed the process. Mahasweta Devi’s books challenge existing power structures and politics, and that, I agree, can make for difficult reading. Her non-fiction writings also make her political commitments clear. But I think her writing is quite accessible. The success of her books are evidence, I think, not only of how powerful her writing was but also of how compelling and relatable her works were, and continue to be, to readers.

I grew up with her books around the house, and certainly feel a bond with them. I loved her children’s stories growing up. I liked many of them, more than the stuff some of the more celebrated “children’s authors” were dishing out at the time. I do recall thinking, then, that she didn’t talk down to her young readers as many of the children’s writers did. That I liked, as, I guess, all children do. So, yes, she didn’t only write political novels!

I did read her more literary books, like Aranyer Adhikar, Hajar Churashir Maa or Chotti Munda Ebong Taar Teer, or the short-story collection Stanadayini, as a boy. But I was young, growing up privileged in Calcutta, without too many cares, and perhaps I did not fully grasp their import. Only later readings and a bit more of political awareness have helped me understand that they were tremendous literary achievements.

It was with Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna that I feel a certain intimacy. Devi did write a lot of “other stories”, for children, especially, and tales like Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna (not too many of these, though, from what I know). And I think it is interesting to translate these too, because it shows the breadth of her imagination. I’m not sure I could translate one of her political works, whether I have the education to do it. But I wanted to try this one.

Translating Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna was a happy coming together of things for me. I knew her well, and when I wrote my first book, on Indian boxing of all things, a copy of it reached her. She must have been in her mid-80s then, and she called up – twice – very, very excited and told me how impressed she was with the book, and my writing. I’m sure she hadn’t read it, she had no reason to. But it was during that conversation I first suggested that it might be worth translating Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna. She was happy for me to do it, after first asking if it hadn’t already been done. It hadn’t. So we were in business.

Asking as a non-Bengali who has known of Devi mainly as a towering figure whose name frequently came up in conversations during the build-up to the literature Nobel: What in your view is her main importance as a literary figure? And notwithstanding your personal affinity for Laayl-e Aasmaaner Aayna, what would you consider her most “essential” work?
I am certainly not qualified to discuss her place in literature, but as I said, Devi’s “highbrow” status did not cost her her marketability, that’s for sure. And that to me says something about her writing. There is so much writing in languages across India that we still don’t know about. At least I don’t. We are fortunate that Devi was translated and so widely. In my travels across Kerala, I was struck by how well known she is there, and how many people have read her in Malayalam.

Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna may not be essential reading for people trying to discover Devi, I’d agree. She was the literary activist, and Aranyer Adhikar, stories like Stanadayini and Agnigarbha, are “essential” reading when it comes to her. My wife, a Devi fan, is partial to Chotti Munda. But to me, Devi was a storyteller just as much as she was an activist. I believe The Why-Why Girl is quite popular now in its translated avatar. To me, that was so her too. She was quite obsessed with mainstream Hindi films, and Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna, or Mirror of the Darkest Night, perhaps comes from that side of her imagination. If you’re not a Devi-discoverer, and just want to read a very good novel, or find a part to her that you, perhaps, didn’t know existed, Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna makes the grade, in my opinion. I read it engrossed for the tenth, or fifteenth, or twentieth time when I was working on the translation.

This book is set largely between the 1850s and the 1870s. Did Devi do a lot of other historical fiction, or is this an anomaly? Though the narrative isn’t pedantic – when it provides information about the thug culture, courtesan life and so on – it does feel like a lot of research would have gone into it. Did she often explore milieus and periods other than the ones she had firsthand experience of?
Yes, you’ve got the period right. It probably goes on till a bit after the 1870s too, and the flashbacks take place sometime before the 1850s.

Her first book, interestingly, was a novel, a personal history, about the Rani of Jhansi. From what I know, she spent a lot of time researching her subject, she travelled a fair bit for it too, interviewing people, and spent time in the libraries in Calcutta, which were probably the best in the country at the time. She wrote a lot on the history of the tribal people and communities she worked with too, recording oral histories and the history of their struggles. Aranyer Adhikar, about the tribal leader Birsa Munda, would have come out of that work. She did do historical fiction. As far as I know, not a lot of period fiction of the genre Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna belongs to, though.

The Lucknow-Calcutta relationship is a much romanticised one in Bengal. The Nawab being banished to Calcutta, the courtesans and thugs and all else, it’s a subject Bangla writers and film-makers have explored over the years. A lot of her work was research-driven, so this one must have been too. It certainly gives the impression of being well-researched. Not just Lucknow, but the references to southern India, Tipu Sultan’s battles with the British, the French involvement in it, even to musical gharanas, particular ghazals and their writers…either she grew up knowing about all this – most likely not – or she researched it, which is more likely.

Devi is often described as a “feminist writer”. These can be reductive labels, but it struck me while reading this book that even within the confines of what might be called a genre work – a melodrama about tempestuous romance, thuggery, family feuds and betrayals – there is a subtle comment on a woman who is the centre of attention for many people, who makes her own decisions and serves as a plot-mover…and of course, given the period and the setting, is judged for it. Do you see Laayl-e Aasmaan as one of Devi’s major protagonists? How does she compare with other Devi protagonists like Draupadi or Jhansi ki Rani or “Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma” (the mother of 1084)?
You know, that’s a tricky question to answer. I would not be making that pitch for the book: the next Draupadi (Dopdi), the Devi heroine you didn’t know about! For me to say that Laayl-e ranks up there with Draupadi and the others would be silly. Those are powerhouse stories, searing; this is a heartbreaking, uneasy one. This is not a story that came out of her political activism, as those did. It is, at its core, a dark romance – and a romance of the era in question.

That said, I think Laayl-e is of a piece with other Devi women, even Draupadi. Like many Devi heroines, Laayl-e is a feminist creation. Strong, she certainly is. And her development and growth over, say, 30-odd years is a remarkable story in itself, especially the fact that she does it almost entirely on her own, on her own terms. She’s judged for it, of course. We still judge women for every second thing they do. I just read about a woman Aussie Rules footballer being judged for not playing with the sort of aesthetics that appeal enough to men.

But, on the surface, Laayl-e seems to thrive on the negativity. She does not care about being liked or loved. She is complex and she doesn’t exist to please – loving and sensitive, ruthless and cruel, vulnerable and powerful. She isn’t operating on a canvas that is bigger, politically and socially, but Laayl-e is negotiating her small, complex, hostile, very male world on her own terms. She’s certainly one of the great characters I’ve come across.

There is also something unusual and invigorating about a woman writer dealing at length with the thug culture. It provides a shift in perspective, allows us to see a side of these men that one might not see in a straight action story. In the Kundan-Bajrangi relationship, for instance, Kundan’s feelings of guilt and responsibility gradually turning into a deeper love, one that perhaps doesn’t even need to speak its name. Or in the insights into men who grow up without a maternal influence in their lives. Is this an aspect of the book that resonates with you?
I did think about family and how she uses that to mould the story. Bajrangi is orphaned as a baby, while Kundan has a large family he feels no attachment to, and he ends up hating the person he was closest to...Laayl-e kind of binds them together and also makes them drift apart, but not quite. It’s fascinating how those dynamics work in the book.

But what you say about a woman writer and a subject is interesting. It does not naturally occur to me that some kinds of subjects are male bastions, largely. But they are, aren’t they? It’s certainly a fresh perspective, perhaps of the sort we might get if Reema Kagti were to remake Sholay (I’d love to watch that). It’s curious – it’s Laayl-e’s story, she is the pivot here, but the Kundan-Bajrangi relationship is the one that really moves you; maybe that is the pivot then? The circumstances in which they come together, their shared history before that, the fact that Bajrangi never knows the full story, how the relationship plays out over time, the power dynamics between them…The world of men, the thug culture, rather than that of the women, the courtesans, is the one that is explored more, isn’t it? I wish I had asked Devi these questions when I had the chance.

Is there anything about her writing style, use of language, or narrative structure that poses special challenges for a translator? Give examples if possible.
No, which is why I felt I could do a decent job of translating it. It’s so smooth, so languid, her prose. Very little unnecessary embellishment, very little that’s superfluous. The structure is, to my mind, close to perfect, moving back and forth in time seamlessly. And it’s very visual too.

I will, however, say that I got the impression that it wasn’t edited much. For example, a character – irrelevant, could easily have been done away with – appears in one place without an explanation. An editor would have questioned it. In another place – just one place in the whole book, mind – she goes on a bit about an elderly woman’s dementia. In an ideal world, a tiny editorial touch might have tightened it some. But these are very minor quibbles.

On a related note, my own editor had a clear guideline: I had to match Devi line for line, as far as possible. This was a challenge, because there’s a tightness to the way we speak in English and an expansiveness to the Bangla. But Devi isn’t around today to approve the translation, so I understand the caution. And that’s a big regret: I wish I could have worked with her on this. It would have been a richer translation, as is the case with any translation where a translator works with the writer and they both understand both languages, and I would have learnt so much.

How is it that this book was not translated for over 55 years? And are there other such works in her oeuvre that have been neglected (perhaps because they didn’t fit the general perception of her as a writer)?
I think a fair bit of Devi’s work has been translated, and by people like Gayatri Spivak, and that explains her celebrity beyond Bengali and Indian shores. Not all, of course, far from it. Oddly, Aranyer Adhikar appears to not have been translated – at least I couldn’t find it. It’s an iconic work. Perhaps even her definitive work.

Since I’ve read her chiefly in the original, and because I was not looking to maintain any sort of continuity of voice, I did not go back to her English translations. In any case, the translations vary vastly, even in voice. I remember Devi telling my wife once that she really liked her own brother Maitreya Ghatak’s translation of her essays.

As for Laayl-e Aasmaner Aayna, search me. Maybe because it’s not as Devi as one might expect, not the sort of book her readers – beyond Bengal – would expect. I don’t know. I have no idea. You’re probably right. But that doesn’t explain why Aranyer Adhikar has not been translated. It should have been the first of her books to be translated, I’d say. Maybe it’s been done in other languages and not English? I don’t know.

In your Translator’s Note, you mention something intriguing: that Devi, in her very old age, barely remembered this book, but she had a dim memory of the film adaptation (the 1968 Sunghursh) and attending the premiere. Which is ironic, since the film is a very loose adaptation that takes liberties with Devi’s story while making it more about the macho conflicts between the male characters. What are your views on something like this being done with her work, and how would she have felt about it?
Okay, so most of this is conjecture and only some of this from what I know of Devi.

She loved mainstream Hindi films. In the old VCR days, she watched a fair bit of Amitabh Bachchan or Mithun Chakraborty and whatever else was popular and available at the time. She was also a big fan of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Balraj Sahni too.

So that could be part of the reason she remembered the premiere so clearly. For someone in her mid-eighties, 40-odd years after writing one of many, many books, not to mention shorter stories, who can blame her if she’s a bit hazy about an early work?

You’re right, the movie is so different from the book, which is really Laayl-e’s story, unlike the movie which is about Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni, and Jayant and Sanjeev Kumar to an extent. All these powerful men. Vyjayanthimala seems almost peripheral in the whole business. And the character of Bajrangi, which is as vital as that of Laayl-e, is ignored altogether till Dilip Kumar’s Kundan adopts that persona at one stage. It’s quite sad, really.

Also, although there is a filminess to the book, it is still a feminist tale, which is completely lost in the film. At the same time, the book is so epic in scope that I have trouble imagining it as a three-hour film. It will have hurt her, I am guessing. But I am also guessing that in the 1960s, when she was still in her early years as a writer, she might have let it go, keeping the bigger picture in mind, of being known and read beyond Calcutta and Bengal. I say this only because she remembered being garlanded on stage by Balraj Sahni, recalling it with fondness, as though it was a big deal.

I could be completely wrong about all of this, obviously.

It’s interesting, what you say about her liking mainstream Hindi films. For someone looking at her from a distance, it seems a bit at odds with her reputation as a fiercely political writer who was – among other things – very involved with tribal rights. You, of course, would have seen a very different side to her as someone who was a much older aunt. What were your strongest impressions of her? Was she someone who shifted easily, in the same conversation, between having a fun, laidback chat and getting sombre/didactic about social problems?
There were many sides to her, yes. As, I guess, it is with everyone. I don’t claim to know very much about her, but I can vouch for the fact that she was not a humourless didact. She sang, she told stories, she supported young people in the family when they were doing unpopular things, she was a master storyteller…some of my older cousins experienced this more than I perhaps did. But that’s to be expected, I guess. By the time I was old enough to have a sense of things about me, she was already a huge name in Bengali literature. I am talking about the 1980s, say.

But, as is often the case in a family set-up, her fame was irrelevant to us. She was the matriarch of the family by the mid-1980s, by when her parents – my maternal grandparents – had passed away; to my mother, Devi was the first – and often only – port of call if there was a crisis, something needed resolving, and things like that. Ma used to refer to her as a tiger – “baagh”, she used to say, the word for tiger in Bangla. And that had nothing to do with her being a famous person.

She exuded strength, and I don’t say this loosely. She was a very strong-willed person who lived entirely on her own terms – I am aware I said this about Laayl-e too – and did what she wanted to. She chose her lifestyle, her ways, her loves and peeves...When we met later, me older, she and we (my wife and I) had more than one serious conversation, and she never talked down to us, two upstarts in their thirties who thought they knew everything about everything. My impression is that she had extremely strong opinions about a number of things and that she was also someone who enjoyed talking to others and engaging with them, not thrusting her opinions down their throats.

Would you consider translating another of her books?
If the opportunity – and the right kind of book – comes along, I’d love to work on more translations. It’s a fun process, frustrating every now and then, but very rewarding. Of Devi’s other works, there are some stories I would love to translate, but I haven’t given this any thought. I also don’t know if I have the education and expertise for it. Also, I first need to know from readers if this one has come out well. If it has, maybe more.