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Bittersweet symphony

Bittersweet symphony
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First Published: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 09 46 PM IST

Updated: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 09 46 PM IST
For arguably the greatest Bengali litterateur in the post-Tagore era, there is surprisingly little of Buddhadeva Bose’s vast oeuvre available in English. This seems all the more tragic because Bose was no mean translator himself: He translated Kalidas, Baudelaire and Rilke into Bengali and founded India’s first—and so far only—department of comparative literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in 1956.
In that context, this translation of Moner Moto Meye (1951) by Arunava Sinha must be considered one step towards introducing a largely unrecognized writer to the English-language readership. Though not among Bose’s major novels, its balance of the romance and lyricism of Tagore—still the predominant literary figure in Bengal then, a decade after his death—and a West-influenced modernism makes it accessible to the new reader.
Using the device of a railway waiting room, My Kind of Girl ties together four love stories from four distinct backgrounds in the first half of 20th century Bengal. Stranded at a wayside station, four middle-aged men—a bureaucrat, businessman, doctor and writer—are compelled by the appearance of a couple, newly-wed and very obviously in love, to unlock their own memories of romance.
Still some years away from Raat Bhore Brishti (1967), the novel that would invite an obscenity suit (eventually overturned), Bose’s quartet of love stories is at once innocent and overwhelmingly passionate, in the manner of first love. As each of the men recounts his tale of “my” kind of girl, the narratives look at love through the prism of rejection, denial, acceptance and loss. When the girl remains beyond reach, she survives in the imagination as youth and beauty; the only story where she is won is recounted by the doctor who’d rather not think of the alternatives.
Yet all four stories are grounded firmly in their times. In the first, the wealthy Makhanlal’s gamble for the hand of the professor’s daughter is thwarted: A peculiarly Bengali ethos just about becoming extinct prohibits an “educated” family from marrying a daughter into one that’s only rich. Boy and girl meet merely twice, to disastrous consequences. Quite unlike the story of the Delhi bureaucrat who grew up in a sleepy village next to the girl of his dreams. The full power of that adolescent infatuation comes back in one sentence: “Yes, back at that distant age of seventeen, Pakhi had loved me. ” An amour established on a foggy night, however, does not go beyond the spoken word, the furtive embrace.
The most romantic of the stories, though, is the writer’s, closely aligned to Bose himself. The girl is nicknamed Mona Lisa and three men, best buddies, are in love with her with the absoluteness of the very young. More poetry than prose, this bitter-sweet tale draws more heavily on traditions of European romanticism than the other stories.
It’s this tale, also, that emphasizes the enormity of translating this novel of delicate ideas and nuances. To capture them with the right touch of lightness couldn’t have been easy, yet Sinha does just that. The book is also packaged well: The cover is designed by couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee; the edges of the ivory pages are lined in gold. My Kind of Girl misses Bose’s birth centenary by a year, but it’s got just the right feel.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 09 46 PM IST
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