Kaliprasanna Sinha, born into wealth, spent his brief life in the Calcutta of the mid-nineteenth century busying himself with social and literary work that must have baffled his peers, to whom anything not effete was pointless. Men of his background had two aims in life, summed up in the pecksniffian Bengali saying, taka orano, taka porano—blowing away money or burning it. If anything else was to be burnt around them, it should be widows, not midnight oil, except to watch a baiji dance. Kaliprasanna Sinha, though, slaved on and brought out at enormous cost to himself the Bengali translation of the Mahabharata for which he is still remembered.
Hutom Pyanchar Naksha, which Chitralekha Basu has translated, was a collection of short, satirical pieces that Sinha also wrote. Everything we need to know about the man, his milieu and the context of his work is in Amit Chaudhuri’s brilliant foreword to this book, in the three chapters—Kaliprasanna Sinha the Trailblazer, The Translator in Wonderland and Introduction—with which Chitralekha Basu eases readers into her translation, and in the detailed footnotes with which she ends each sketch. Some may well find these more interesting than the sketches, which will be for most both humdrum and arcane.
Though the translator describes these sketches as ‘A Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta’, they do not really embrace the city and its inhabitants. Instead, this was a book by the rich, of the rich, for the rich. The stratified society of 19th century Bengal, even more than now, was like Dante’s Inferno, the damned moving only in their circle. Kaliprasanna Sinha’s circle was peopled by the very rich and their hangers-on, and it is them he tries to pillory. That world was a tiny sliver of the city’s cosmos.
As Chitralekha Basu points out, Babus were the targets of Sinha’s satire. These, however, were not the babus we know, men who cannot push pens because their thumbs are strained by twiddling. These were Babus in upper case, the upper class of Bengali Hindu society in the 19th century, Sinha’s peers. Over the next decades, the word sank in caste and case, going from honorific to pejorative.
But these sketches also show that for someone who accepted the need for social reform, Kaliprasanna Sinha was at the same time weighed down by the prejudices of his class. Like many who have inherited wealth, he seems to have looked down on those who had earned it. His sketches tend to be sniggers about those he considered arriviste, and on the brahmins who were parasites on his class; he chose soft targets.
In her introduction, Chitralekha Basu describes the sketches as ‘the story of a people trying to find their feet at a time of rapid and tectonic shifts in history—the sanctioning of widow remarriage, the Sepoy Mutiny, the peasants’ resistance to cultivation of indigo by the British planters and many such’. This is wildly overstating the case for an author who would have been caught up in these currents eddying about him but who wrote entirely on the rich, their pastimes and their preoccupations.
Much more than those Sinha wrote about, it is the absences that are of interest. ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ rarely appear, which perhaps, in the compelling logic with which Kolkata is now ruled, means that Kaliprasanna Sinha was a Marxist before his time. Even in the sketch in which he rushes the reader through his childhood, there are only fleeting references to his mother and grandmother. The stray woman who does appear is usually a fishwife, dancing girl or prostitute, women not in purdah.
There is, however, an exception in a passage in which Sinha writes with anger about the custom of guruprasadi, still practised then among the Vaishnavites of East Midnapore, in which a bride was offered to the family guru before she could live with her husband. It is a shock to learn that a form of the droit de seigneur was being practised so close to home, not exacted by a squire from his serfs but a gift given by families of all castes to their gurus. Without being too harsh on my Vaishnavite forebears, it is perhaps not surprising that a race which saw rape as purification accepted colonial rule so easily.
Barring this grim aside, almost every sketch is on the celebration of a festival, which reminds us how few the opportunities for entertainment were in 19th century India, even for the rich. Their lives seem to have revolved around these religious festivals, with enormous time and money spent on the preparation of shows and tableaus, which would attract the common man as well, who usually appears in the sketches as part of a crowd thronging the rich man’s compound to gape at the shong, the outré and clownish figure, bizarrely dressed, who would be its centre-piece. How the hoi polloi of Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Bengal would envy the simplicity of our age, when their descendants can see the shong every time they put on the television, shrieking away in a chaste white sari.
A Bengali may find it interesting that in Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Calcutta, festivals like Charak, Gajan, the Rathyatra and the Snanyatra were almost as popular as Durga Puja, and that extortion in the name of the goddess was already common: ‘those who went collecting subscriptions for a baroyaari puja were much like a bailiff who had come to enforce Regulation Eight’. Till today, Durga Puja is funded by levies raised from the community, each family paying what the local dadas thought it could. One can argue, in another sweeping generalization, that a century and more of the collectivization of the means of worship has prepared Bengalis for the dominion of god-fearing Marxists.
For whom is this translation meant? The number of readers, not Bengali, who might have an interest in an obscure set of pieces on Bengalis of the 19th century, must be very small. Even so, the readership cannot be very large, so it is remarkable that there are publishers now in India who are prepared to bring out such books, and bring them out so well.
Chitralekha Basu claims Amit Chaudhuri as the only begetter of her translation, since he had ‘kept insisting that Hootum’s Sketches deserved a far wider audience than it has had so far, being a milestone work in the lead-up to the arrival of modernism in Indian literature’. As she explains elsewhere, the argot that Kaliprasanna Sinha used for his sketches was the antithesis of the formal language in which books were written in his day, making it, simultaneously, important as a stylistic pioneer and almost untranslatable. The problem for a translator is that a translation that captured the idiom and tone of the original, the newness that made it valuable, would also have to be in an English that was as new, a voice of an emerging sub-culture. That would have confused most readers, so Basu has chosen the sensible option, using the English of a bilingual Indian of the 21st century, but that removes the rationale for translating these sketches. We should take this simply as a labour of love. The heart has its reasons, which are good enough.
But does it work as a translation? Good translations from Bengali into English, like the babus in Writers’ Buildings, are very rarely seen. It is of course immensely hard to translate or interpret from one’s mother tongue into another language. Even those who learn a foreign tongue so well that they become bilingual can rarely be as sensitive to the cadences and nuances of their second tongue as they instinctively are to those of the first. They can pick up inflections in the foreign language and render them masterfully into their mother tongue, but not the other way around. An ‘Indo-Anglian’ poet once told me that he published in English because he knew his Bengali poems were not quite there, whereas he could not make that judgment about what he wrote in English.
Chitralekha Basu’s translation is generally very good, the style easy and unforced. It is a pity, therefore, that there are so many small lapses that an alert editor should have picked up and corrected. As an example, page 20 carries the line, ‘The canon went off with a dull vroom’. Anyone who has sat through sermons will agree that this is what canons often do, but this was not what Sinha was writing about. Nor is the footnote on page 38 about ‘provisions complimentary to each other’ on an exchange of courtesies. And then there are unpardonable solecisms like ‘dispose off’, ‘disposing it off’ and ‘riff-raffs’. Instances like these are strewn throughout the book, and detract from the very considerable joy of reading it. If there is a second edition, these should be corrected.
Satyabrata Pal, a former High Commissioner to Pakistan, is presently a member of the National Human Rights Commission.