Food for train journeys

By Supriya Chaudhuri

27 July 2016

Arunava Sinha’s collection of translated Bengali short stories offers a quirky mix of the expected and the unknown.
A drawing by Nandalall Bose illustrating Tagore's short story "The Hero". Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/

A drawing by Nandalall Bose illustrating Tagore’s short story “The Hero”. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/

In his compelling introduction to this collection of translated Bengali short fiction, Arunava Sinha tells us 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”. This is one of the more remarkable features of international modernism, a phenomenon which included the modern short story: around the end of the nineteenth century, all over the world, in France, in Russia, in England, in North America, in Turkey, and in the Indian subcontinent, similar literary developments were taking place at roughly the same time. But in order to understand both the modernity and the historical specificity of the short story, we need to recognise its kinship with – but also its difference from –  a much older form, the tale, present from the earliest antiquity in every literary culture, and transmitted through both oral and written traditions.

In India, collections of tales are at least as ancient as the 11th century compendium entitled Kathasaritsagara (The Ocean of the Streams of Stories), which draws upon earlier anthologies made up of even older individual units. The tale is a narrative form driven primarily by plot, and therefore constitutes a fictional repertoire that can be endlessly drawn upon by the storyteller. Many oral cultures attach great importance to the storyteller as a repository of traditional narratives, passing them on to her successors. By contrast, the modern short story subordinates plot to the apparently arbitrary and unformed materials of the realist fragment, or ‘slice of life’. Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay ‘The Storyteller’, emphasises the capacity of the tale to achieve perfection through repetition: to this he contrasts the short story, which, as he puts it, “has removed itself from oral tradition and no longer permits that slow piling one on top of the other of thin, transparent layers… in which the perfect narrative is revealed through… a variety of retellings.” In effect, the tale can be told many times, the short story can only be told once.

For this reason, as we see in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Storyteller, the obvious analogy to the form of the modern short story is the photograph. In its capacity, miraculously to preserve the static, unplotted, there-ness of the event itself, the photograph simultaneously inhabits, contains and resists narrative. As Henri Cartier-Bresson, greatest of modern masters, described it: “a photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.” The instant of time captured by the photographer Malfatti in Vargas Llosa’s novel, like a thief with his camera (that phrase too is Cartier-Bresson’s), defeats narrative in its mimetic plenitude, and draws us into the logic of the moment, of the presence of the figures themselves. This analogy is important for another reason. In A Short History of Photography, Walter Benjamin spoke of the capacity of the photograph to catch what we might describe as ‘unintended’ objects: to record what exists in the materiality of our present, but remains unnoticed by us. This he calls the ‘optical unconscious’, a level of reality available only to the camera:

It is a different nature which speaks to the camera than speaks to the eye: so different that in place of a space consciously woven together by a man on the spot there enters a space held together unconsciously. While it is possible to give an account of how people walk, if only in the most inexact way, all the same we know nothing definite of the positions involved in the fraction of a second when the step is taken. Photography, however, with its time lapses, enlargements, etc. makes such knowledge possible. Through these methods one first learns of this optical unconscious, just as one learns of the drives of the unconscious through psychoanalysis.

On such a reading, the short story appears a fundamentally modernist genre, preoccupied with a crisis in narrativity, or reproducing, like the lyric fragment, the breakdown of narrative in the modernist novel. But at the same time, the short story invites us to look ahead to an unfolding, a disclosure, an ending in time, and therefore is not wholly estranged from the tale.


The short story is generally held to have been inaugurated in Bengali literature by Purnachandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Madhumati’, published in Bangadarshan in 1873. Within the next two years, his more famous brother Bankimchandra had produced his own exemplars of short fiction with ‘Jugalanguriya’ (1874) and ‘Radharani’ (1875), and the 16-year-old Rabindranath Tagore attempted the form with ‘Bhikharini’, published in Bharati in 1877. But sustained experimentation with the form of the modern short story actually commences with Tagore’s contributions, from 1891 onwards, to the journal Hitabadi, edited by the positivist thinker Krishnakamal Bhattacharya. No copies of these issues have survived, and the stories, on the evidence of a contemporary review in the journal Nabyabharat, met with disfavour because of their lack of plot or purpose. Nevertheless, Tagore went on to contribute no less than thirty-six stories over the next four years to Sadhana, edited by his nephew Sudhindranath and published from the Tagore household in Jorasanko.

Many of Tagore’s stories were written when he was looking after his family’s estates in riverine East Bengal, living in a houseboat on the River Padma or in the estate house in Shilaidaha. Closely linked to the Bengal countryside in which they were produced, they evoke what French philosopher Gaston Bachelard called the feeling of ‘intimate immensity’ in their treatment of land, river and sky. Here, and in the letters he wrote to his niece Indira Devi anthologised in Chhinnapatrabali, Tagore is creating, for Bengal and perhaps for Indian modernity, a poetics of landscape that imbued a familiar vocabulary with enormous resources of affect, produced new ways of seeing and inspired new modes of visual representation, in painting and in cinema. What we remember most clearly about the stories of this period is their creation of the setting of rural, riverine, pastoral Bengal, of humble individuals brought face to face, at critical moments, with the vastness of nature and the cruelty and indifference of human beings. There is a remarkable passage, in the story titled ‘Subha’, of the speechless young girl sitting under a tree, at noontide, looking out at the infinite expanse of the natural world and feeling her kinship with it.

But in subsequent decades, the short story was taken over by Tagore’s modernist successors to record aspects of urban existence, especially in the darkest periods of Bengal’s history, the years of famine, partition, human displacement, and political and social unrest. Its development feeds into and overlaps with the emergence of modern Bengali auteur cinema, which frequently takes its subjects from great modern short stories: a trend exemplified by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, among others. Arunava Sinha’s collection draws, as he tells us, from his own reading of Bengali short stories, so that the adjective ‘greatest’ in the book’s title is an unapologetically personal claim. Beginning with Tagore’s story ‘Kabuliwallah’ (made into a film by Tapan Sinha in 1957), Sinha takes us on a varied and fast-paced tour of modern short fiction in Bengali, packing twenty-one stories into a handy, well-produced volume ideal for taking on – say – a train journey.

Incidentally, in the unsigned preface to the first issue of the modernist journal Parichay, the editors – probably the poet Sudhindranath Dutta – wrote of the typical Indian railway journey that:

Even in this country one may see a carriage full of people travelling in silence, looking away from each other because they are not acquainted. Yet even the norms of civilized behaviour cannot always quell the human desire for company. Suddenly one requires a match for one’s cigarette, the urge to check the time on one’s neighbour’s wrist-watch becomes intense, curiosity about who is alighting where cannot be held in check, and civility is breached, one feels oneself to be made whole by another’s company. This desire for acquaintance [parichay] builds societies, makes arts, creates literature.

Dutta implies that the objective of the railway journey is not simply to get to one’s destination, but also the friends or acquaintances one makes on the way: and this ‘desire for acquaintance’ is what makes literature. The railway journey analogy might thus prove a useful for a book like this one, which takes us from wayside station to wayside station, ensuring an abundance of conversation and new acquaintances in the course of the journey.

There are many familiar names in Sinha’s collection, The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told, apart from Tagore himself: Pramatha Chaudhuri, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, ‘Banaphool’ (Balaichand Mukhopadhyay), Premendra Mitra, Buddhadeva Bose, Narendranath Mitra, Ashapurna Devi. At the same time, there are surprising omissions, like the third of the great Bandyopadhyays, Manik, author of such unforgettable short stories as ‘Prehistoric’, ‘Burnt Turmeric’, and ‘Haran’s Grandson-in-law’. Ritwik Ghatak, a great short story writer as well as a great director, is rightly included, as are Satyajit Ray, Mahasweta Devi, and Moti Nandy. Given that any collection of this kind is likely to feature the most familiar fiction from the past hundred years or so, it is good to have less well-known work by Sanjib Chattopadhyay, Sandipan Chattopadhyay, Udayan Ghosh and Amar Mitra, while Nabarun Bhattacharya’s ‘Flapperoos’ is something of a postmodern cult classic, as is Mahasweta Devi’s unforgettable ‘Urvashi and Johnny’. For myself, I would have preferred a more representative ‘Banaphool’ story, greater representation for the Bengali ghost story, and Dalit short fiction – by Manoranjan Byapari, for example – but I was deeply moved by some of Sinha’s selections from recent writers, especially Sanjib Chattopadhyay’s ‘The Marble Table’, a painful but utterly authentic portrait of Indian male domestic tyranny. So instead of quarrelling with the translator’s preferences, it is better to submit to them, allowing the book to serve both as a window to the immense resources of the short story form, and as a sampling of those resources.

As a translator, Arunava Sinha is unique. He has spent half a lifetime translating Bengali fiction (and sometimes poetry) into immensely readable and accessible English versions, attracting international fame for his wonderful rendering of Shankar’s Chowringhee, though probably his most ambitious effort so far has been Rabishankar Bal’s Dozakh-nama (2013). He has won virtually every translation prize in the country and has single-handedly performed for modern Bengali literature the huge task of giving national and international visibility to its range, versatility and depth. In many ways this is truly a labour of love, since translation has never been a highly rewarded or highly regarded task in India, a land of imperfectly bilingual professional critics. Against all the odds, Sinha has built up a truly impressive publications list, including at least 34 titles, if not more. This collection of short stories is by no means his first attempt at translating shorter fiction: he has earlier published translations of short stories by Buddhadeva Bose, Anita Agnihotri, Satyajit Ray, and Saradindu Bandyopadhyay. Sinha is an excellent guide to Bengali fiction because he can draw on his own wide reading and his professional engagement with the field. His translations are fluent, readable, accurate and sympathetic and this is a book full of surprises – as delightful, quirky, painful, horrifying, moving, as life itself.

~ Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor Emerita at Jadavpur University.

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