The name of Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012) has become iconic in contemporary Bengali literature, and his passing marks the end of an era. A prolific writer, he will be remembered for his poetry, novels, stories and essays, but most of all for his ability to bridge the gap between elite and popular culture. Soiled Clothes, Sujal Bhattacharya’s translation of the Bengali novel Dhulibasan (1990), reminds us that the bulk of Gangopadhyay’s work still remains untranslated, and that his reputation among readers in the non-Bengali world rests on a few translations alone. The narrative focuses on the experiences of Mandira, a woman from Kolkata married for 26 years to a British member of parliament and settled in the UK, who suddenly leaves her husband and returns to India. She chooses to retire to Sukhchar, a small village near the Sunderbans, and leads a secluded life, isolated from friends and family. Drawn at first to the simplicity and austerity of her rural existence, Mandira begins gradually to get involved in local politics. Sukhchar is a backward place riven by prejudices based on caste, class, religion and gender. Most of its inhabitants live in abject poverty and ignorance.
In this area, in collaboration with a powerful construction company, plans are afoot to build a giant fertilizer plant, a move that will displace a large segment of the village population, and probably pollute the environment and upset the ecological balance of the region. Thrust into the role of a social activist and local leader, Mandira soon discovers that the situation on the ground is far from simple. Her personal past also catches up with her, in the shape of Biman, her ex-lover, who now represents the construction company that is eyeing Sukhchar as a potential hunting ground. As Mandira wrestles with public pressures and personal demons, her encounter with sexual violence changes her life. In the novel’s unexpected denouement, she finds the courage to shed the trappings of convention in order to seek out her selfhood as a woman and as a human being.
Gangopadhyay’s text combines the personal with the political, to suggest that the two, ultimately, cannot be separated. The narrative presents a cogent commentary on various forms of social prejudice, based on perceptions of difference. The narrative of Mandira’s break with her British husband and her journey away from England provides occasion for an impressionistic portrayal of cultural difference. The urban/rural divide is underscored in her journey from London to Kolkata to Sukhchar. The turmoil in Sukhchar as the village gears up for ‘development’ provides the context for the turbulence within Mandira’s psyche, as she searches for her identity as a woman. Yet, despite the evolution of Mandira’s character and her eventual and surprising experience of emancipation, the text does not imagine an altered social world. Mandira’s ‘freedom’ can only be experienced in detachment from society, symbolically afloat on a boat in mid-stream. At the end, the gulf between Mandira and her own daughter and son-in-law appears as great as the distance that now separates her from Chayan Ghose, the local leader at Sukhchar who is unable to rise above his communal prejudices.
In an important way, this is a novel about a woman’s search for freedom. Yet this freedom is articulated in terms that include a range of other forms of difference commonly invoked in conventional attempts to fix one’s identity. ‘Mandira feels herself floating like an errant planet free of its orbit, away from caste, creed or religion. She is no longer a mother, wife, or even a stubborn emblem of emancipation. The veils have been ripped apart, and she stands unabashed in the glorious nakedness of womanhood.’ Gangopadhyay’s novel seems prescient in its projection of societal issues that haunt our world even today. The text remains disappointing, though, because of its simplistic espousal of cultural stereotypes. The social argument seems forced, and the entire narrative seems to self-consciously strive for political correctness. Some of the weakest passages are those that catalogue the projected negative effects of the fertilizer plant. The sketchy account of Mandira’s life in London, and the reactions of her daughter upon her arrival in Kolkata, present the East/West divide in stereotypical terms. Many of the minor characters, especially those Mandira encounters in Sukhchar, seem to be present in the narrative only to serve the author’s ideological argument. Least convincing of all is the figure of Javed, too flimsily portrayed to bear the ideological weight of his role in the narrative. In spite of its protagonist’s transformation at the end, the text for the most part appears formulaic and predictable.
The translation, unfortunately, also leaves much to be desired. It abounds in literalisms (including the title), awkward expressions and grammatical errors. One is not sure whether the translator or the editors should bear the greater responsibility for such lapses. To take a few examples: ‘ “Poisonous gas?” rebuffs Dipak’; ‘The young lady bursts into peels of laughter’; or, ‘she recoiled herself into a cocoon’. Since translations are the medium through which Gangopadhyay’s work reaches the non-Bengali speaking world, such literary undertakings demand an approach more committed, and more inspiring.
Radha Chakravarty is an academic and a translator.