If Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Putul Nacher Itikatha (1936) is a landmark novel in 20th century Bengali literature, Manindra Gupta’s novella Nuri Bandor (2016) is an evocative representative of more recent trends. Bandyopadhyay (1908-1956), affectionately called Manik by his admirers, has been translated into English and many other languages, but these are mostly of his shorter fiction. Putul Nacher Itikatha received a translation in 1968, but it is now out of print. Ratan Kumar Chattopadhyay’s meticulously-executed rendering titled The Puppet’s Tale (2022) finally fills this surprising gap.
Gupta (1926-2018), born a generation later, and a stylistic innovator of no small account, receives his first translation with Pebblemonkey (2022), done by Arunava Sinha. Although radically different in tone, style, craft, and sensibility, the two authors share the serious novelist’s deep interest in human affairs as played out in the world and have significantly contributed to the development of the novelistic form, leaving a lasting impact on Bengali letters and completely justifying the fresh translations.
As Samantak Das’ thoughtful preface to The Puppets’ Tale reminds us, Manik’s training in mathematics in Presidency College (abandoned in favour of a career in writing), coupled with his wild boyhood in the erstwhile Santhal Parganas and a later interest in Marxism, firmly moulded his views of literary art: “for the novelist, the world was a laboratory, and human activity the primary focus of a writer’s attention. […] For him [Manik], the creative writer of fiction and the rational person of science had to keep going back to lived reality; to do otherwise would be irresponsible. In Manik’s own words [Das’ translation], ‘I write in order to reveal those aspects that cannot be made known through any other means.’” Indeed, the spare yet richly-suggestive prose and the intricately crafted yet deceptively simple plot ensure that the insights that Putul Nach offers about human affairs is possibly not articulable “through any other means”.
Among the many striking elements of Manik’s novel, a significant point of discussion is the symbolism of the title. Manik himself noted how the title and publisher’s blurb had turned the author into a fatalist, reducing human beings to puppets and slaves of fate. But “those who do not judge […] understand that this book is a heartfelt protest against those who make human beings dance like puppets” (Das’ translation, p. xiv).
The title refers not to a specific puppet: the enlightened village prodigal and prodigy Shashi daktar (doctor), whose story this is. While jerked around on the strings of other people’s expectations, he is not innocent of acts of manipulation himself. The rural setting of Gaodiya village, often symbolic of both surpassing beauty and unbearable squalor, of narrow self-interest and noble sacrifice (often demonstrated by the same character), contributes robustly to these manipulations.
Even a rendering such as “a chronicle of puppetry” will not capture the authorial challenge issued in such a reconfiguring of the common metaphor for fate. Providence in the novel is not an inscrutable force that toys with individuals, but a function that arises out of the choices people make every day: their actions, emotions, intentions, and self-delusions. As in all great realist novels, Manik’s characters seem entirely natural, their voices and motivations wholly appropriate to their socio-cultural backgrounds and personalities. Also, all their stories, entangled in Shashi’s life, show how people become both puppeteers and puppets in their mutual interactions. Shashi is not among “those who do not judge,” and this is his tragedy. It is only in the loss of his hopes and ambitions that he learns what Virginia Woolf calls the “melancholy virtue of tolerance.”
Although the conflict between a morally corrupt feudal father and his progressive idealist son primarily defines Shashi as the type of angst-ridden modern Bengali manhood, the dynamic between Kusum and Shashi would illustrate the kind of oppositions Manik sets up to protest the tendency of human beings to use others.
In the original, the omniscient narrative voice moves between the points of view of the major characters, revealing their inward thoughts in flashes of sinewy prose, throwing in a spare comment or a rhetorical question for good measure. Particularly, Shashi’s restlessness and ambition, his hopes and dreams, his moments of spiritual transport and blindness to the emotional needs of himself and others, his love-hate relationship with his village and patrimony are suggested with a lightness of touch and a lack of sentimentality that set Manik’s style apart from other major novelists of rural Bengal. Kusum, the brilliant wife of a simple farmer is, however, almost never seen from within. Her acts of manipulation are transparent and enough to make her devotion to Shashi apparent to those with eyes to see, without any narratorial need to step inside her head. The love between Shashi and Kusum is a love like few others, but is never professed.
Kusum is noted for an eccentricity highly inappropriate in an unlettered village wife and Shashi finds her by turns irresistible and repugnant, never divining till the end the reason for her irrational behaviour, nor the workings of his own heart. In perhaps one of the most celebrated scenes in the history of the Bengali novel, when Kusum asks Shashi why her body feels like a stranger’s when he is near, Shashi remains silent, forcing the narrator to exclaim in exasperation: “ Shorir! Shorir! Tomar mon nai Kusum?” (“Body! Body! Don’t you have a mind, Kusum?” p. 109). Even among Manik’s remarkably sensitive portrayals of women in the novel, Kusum stands out as a masterful creation. Her innate wisdom and sincerity shine through all the barefaced lies she tells, while Shashi’s idealistic adherence to moral principles blinds him to his own omissions.
Pebblemonkey, on the other hand, is a magic realist novella, much more modest in scope but nevertheless offering a similar indictment against the human tendency, in this instance, to invade and manipulate the natural world. Set in a timeless present that is also ancient and pregnant with possibility, this allegorical fable teaches tolerance through the experiences of a pebble high above the snowline in the Himalayas that is transformed into a monkey. In the illustrious tradition of Prince Myshkin, the everyman-monkey negotiates the world of human desire and finds it perplexing. His first encounter is with a hermit who makes him erudite in spiritual matters and imposes upon him a vow of celibacy, which he promptly breaks, “the only saving grace being that she is not of his species” but a deer called Doenna. He finds maternal nurturing in the figure of Ranima, an “extraordinarily beautiful” and tech-savvy Adivasi queen with five husbands, who are on a pilgrimage in the mountains. The reference is clear and the encounter reverberates throughout the novel, and not only as an illustration of the ways humans use the mountains.
Apart from Ranima, all the humans that pebblemonkey has relations with—whether at a mountaineering conference sponsored by the Norwegian government or while mediating between Jungle Book-like forest animals and Srivastava & Srivastava Orchard Company to negotiate a peace treaty when war seems imminent—try to exploit the environment for private benefit. The yoking of incongruities amplifies the satire, and while the story has an unexpectedly unironic and heteronormatively contented conclusion, it does press absurdism into service to drive home serious eco-critique. But for all its intellectual acrobatics, it cannot match the sheer power of Manik’s simple realism. It can dazzle with its charm, wit, and humour, but despite getting its priorities right, the Sahitya Akademi award-winning Gupta fails to provide the warmth of human understanding that his radical literary predecessor does with deceptive ease.
The translations are another matter. Sinha’s work is insipid, mechanical, and flattens out the already uninflected style of the original, without in any way trying to capture its wordplay or ironic mood. The silent elision of the onomatopoeic tags that Gupta uses to intensify the whimsicality of the narrative severely cramps the rendering of stylistic innovations. The inexplicable translation of “ milan” (union) as “copulation” leads to a sentence as unintentionally absurd as “[t]hey are lying on their back, chatting after copulation.”
But if Sinha’s attempt is half-hearted, Chattopadhyay’s over-careful literalism perhaps impoverishes Manik’s style even more. Chattopadhyay’s admiration for the work and the care taken are beyond question. Elaborate glossaries, a detailed introduction, and Das’ preface make for an informative edition. But the language oscillates between quaintness and colloquialism, and disrupts the poignancy of Manik’s prose. For example, in the iconic scene between Shashi and Kusum discussed above, Chattopadhyay’s rendering of “ mon” as “mind” in one of the most resonant phrases in Bengali culture is particularly ill-advised. While perfectly acceptable in a literal sense, the contrast that the highly-charged emotional context implies is better expressed in the “body and soul” than in “mind and body” dualisms. Here, as in several other instances, Chattopadhyay’s painstakingness does Manik a signal disservice.
Debapriya Basu is Assistant Professor, English, at IIT-Guwahati.
- Although radically different in tone, style, craft, and sensibility, Manik Bandyopadhyay and Manindra Gupta share the serious novelist’s deep interest in human affairs as played out in the world.
- Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Putul Nacher Itikatha, translated as The Puppet’s Tale (2022), is a modern Bengali classic.
- Manindra Gupta’s Pebblemonkey, on the other hand, is a magic realist novella, much more modest in scope but nevertheless offering a similar indictment against the human tendency, in this instance, to invade and manipulate the natural world.
- For all its intellectual acrobatics, Pebblemonkey cannot match the sheer power of Manik Bandyopadhyay’s simple realism.
- The translations of both books leave much to be desired.