What does it mean to be a dalit in Bengal, that is, in a culture where Tantric, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi/Islamic thought have mingled and occasionally clashed for centuries? This collection of stories goes some way towards answering the question, though I have to record my disappointment that no women writers are represented among the sixteen authors translated in this volume. This is not the editors’ choice, since they are following an anthology published in 1996 of stories published in the influential Bangla dalit periodical Chaturtha Duniya, edited by Achintya Biswas, Manohar Mouli Biswas and Kapil Krishna Thakur. Nevertheless, the predicaments of women are often central to the plots of the stories, such as the fate of Maya, the girl who is possessed by the goddess Kalyaneshwari in Achintya Biswas’s ‘The Deceived’, or Runu in Kapil Krishna Thakur’s ‘The Other Jew’, who escapes torture at the hands of the man who killed her sister only to be ravaged by the members of a ‘youth club’ who want to extort money from her uncle. In a familiar trope, the women’s vulnerability is a metonymic representation of the overall lack of security felt by their communities.
The treatment meted out to the women underlines the hypocrisy of ‘untouchability’: rape is the one touch that never pollutes the perpetrator, only the victim. Just as problematic is the central situation in Goutam Ali’s ‘Bazaar’ where a wife of the bhadralok class hires ‘young and buxom’ maids from the villages to be the sexual playthings of her husband and prevent him straying to the ‘bazaar’ of sex workers.
Ranged on the other side is the panoply of love: is love strong enough to break the chains of convention? In Susnata Jana’s ‘Mukunda and An Extraordinary Love Affair,’ the father overhears his daughter turning down a love proposal from a ‘princelike’ boy from a higher caste; as he stands in the gloom, he is assailed by mixed feelings of disappointment and relief. In Utthanpada Bijali’s ‘Fisherman’ the author says of the fifteen fishermen on the trawler, ‘On land they have different castes—Jele, Poundrakshatriya, Teli, Namashudra, Kaibarta and so on, or they could be Muslim. But here they form one group, one family’ (p. 171). The fishermen finally come to the realization that the castelessness they experience on the water ought to continue on land; they should not get ‘infected’ by the hegemonic view of caste. The Poundra caste is a case in point: they were in historical times a tribe with a distinct political identity, but they have since been assimilated as a caste. The darker side of love is seen in Anil Gharai’s ‘Reincarnation of Parashuram’ where a couple trying to save the life of their child are persuaded by a gunin (witch-doctor) that the aged mother-in-law is sucking away his life. The father kills his mother, but the child dies anyway, and thus he goes to the gunin and kills him so that justice may be done. By contrast, in Nakul Mallick’s ‘The Son of a Peasant’, a low caste zamindar teaches a high caste one a bitter lesson in tolerance.
The range and depth of these stories are impressive, and taken together they fill a deplorable gap in our understanding of Bengali culture. Bengal has always been rather defensive about the question of caste, preferring to subsume the question under that of class which fits more smoothly into Leftist discourse. But this predominance of class discourse has not done away with caste distinctions in Bengali society: instead, it has just made it more difficult to talk about them without attracting a defensive counterattack from the left. Granted, the history of caste in Bengal is different from that in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra, but it does exist, and it does need to be recorded and investigated. The fact that there are accomplished chroniclers of dalit life among us is handsomely demonstrated by this collection.
Sadly, however, the rather uneven quality of the translations is a bit of a drawback. The editors claim that they have tried to preserve authenticity, but many of the decisions they have taken are hard to justify from an artistic point of view. For instance, the lack of articles in Bengali grammar has led the translator of ‘On Water and On Shore’ to produce a passage like this: ‘We had such a lot of fish, and all gone bad. The pain in the hands still hurts. Having to constantly open the knots on the fishing nets has cut and chipped the fingers’ (p. 69). Clearly the speaker is referring to his own hands, and the addition of the inappropriate ‘the’ does not help the English text in any way. In many other places also, the translators have reproduced the sense of the Bengali words, but not their meaning in context.
Unfortunately the debate over how to translate Indian text for an Indian/foreign readership is far from settled. Editors looking to the academic market to discover a good industry standard for scholarly translation are met instead with a bewildering variety of paradigms and theories, all apparently equally justifiable and worth adopting. Furthermore, if the linguistic register of the original text deviates from standard Bengali in any way, using perhaps a mix of languages, dialect, or Indianized English, then the problems are compounded. In this volume, the standard of translation does not contribute anything much to the current discourse, which is a pity because these stories really need to be presented to a wider readership than they have hitherto been. If these stories are to reach a readership beyond India, they will probably not make it in their current avatar. It is arguable that in the Indian scenario, perhaps doing one translation for an Indian audience and another for sale abroad might make editorial sense, but it is hardly feasible as a commercial strategy. Surely translation should reconstitute the source text across the bar of language as a living breathing entity, not as an anatomical map without soul?
Rimi B. Chatterjee is with the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.