Wednesday, December 31, 2008

O Calcutta!

There are many pleasures to reading the recently published English translation of Chowringhee - Sankar's Bengali novel from the early sixties. To me, the greatest of those pleasures was to see Calcutta as she looked half a century back. You only have to read a few pages of Chowringhee to be transported to that delightful Calcutta street. And by the time you get through the book, you have been up and down the city, from the shimmering lights of Shahjahan hotel (the fictional setting for the book), to the dark underbellies of Calcutta, where there are stories lurking in every shadow. If you are one who is fascinated by land of Pujo, you will likely be drawn into the book, as I was.

Chowringhee is from an era where writers believed their task was, first and foremost, to narrate a good story. This story is told in the simplest, most natural of forms. Not for Sankar any of the sophisticated tools of a modern novelist. He introduces us to our central character (also called Shankar - no last name) on the first page, and simply tells the stories of people Shankar meets over the next few months as a lowly employee of Calcutta's glitzy Shahjahan hotel.

There are two kinds of people we meet on this ride - the guests of Shahjahan, and the employees. "That's the end of the air-conditioned area", one of the characters says, going up to the terrace where the employees live, "and the beginning of ours". Over the course of
Chowringhee, each chapter is (loosely speaking) the story of one of the characters. As the background of each character gets filled out, I found myself more and more drawn into the lives of these people. Which is another great strength of the book. The characters are varied, interesting and powerfully drawn. It is not easy to let the people go after you put the book down. Bose-da, the smiling chief receptionist, Connie the cabaret dancer, Gomez the unfulfilled musician, Marco Polo the hotel manager in desperate search ... these are not characters easily forgotten.

Then there are the social mores of 1950s Calcutta. From casual references made by characters and from situations that develop into full-blown stories of their own,
Chowringhee draws a picture of the cultural context that existed in early post-independence Calcutta. There is a hangover-like fascination with all things European for one - exotic Parisian entrees are listed with rapture, the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach are praised in exalted tones; hotels in Europe are admiringly noted for the perfection they have achieved ... in all, "enlightened Europe" as one character calls it, is presented with great admiration. There are many such oblique glimpses at the context of the times that Chowringhee offers the reader. As one might expect, not all of it is pretty. And that is one of the reasons the book makes the cut as interesting enough to talk about on Brick and Rope.

The translation is adequate without being spectacular. There are places when Sankar's Bengali puns and poetry show up in dull reflection in the English translation. That said, it is polished enough to convey the multiple shades of key characters, the lyrical beauty of the teeming city, and the grace of the storyteller. And for that, Arunava Sinha and Penguin Books deserve our thanks.

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