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The new ‘Kolkata fiction’ genre

The new ‘Kolkata fiction’ genre
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First Published: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 54 PM IST

Telltale: Sankar’s Chowringhee, based on the city, was published in the UK last month. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Telltale: Sankar’s Chowringhee, based on the city, was published in the UK last month. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Updated: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 54 PM IST
Taking refuge behind the translator’s discretion, I cannot reveal the identities of the people in the story that follows. Trust me, it’s authentic. A young Bengali fiction writer had just published a novel with a popular genre of TV show as its backdrop. It caught the eye of a commissioning editor in Delhi on the lookout for a national best-seller.
The story was promising, but all the characters were from Kolkata and its suburbs—with their lives, loves and lies played out against that narrow geographical backdrop. The editor hesitantly asked the author if he was willing to change his novel to include characters, backgrounds and events from across India. To his surprise, the writer agreed readily, even eagerly.
Telltale: Sankar’s Chowringhee, based on the city, was published in the UK last month. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The translated version has not yet materialized—it never may— but it demonstrates a new hunger among Kolkata’s Bengali novelists: to be read by audiences outside their drearily familiar city. Confirms Diya Kar Hazra, editorial director, Penguin Books India: “They’re certainly more open to the idea of their works being translated—they even welcome it.”
When approached a couple of months ago by a publishing house for translation rights, the immensely popular novelist Samaresh Majumdar signed on the dotted line immediately, adding: “Another company had asked me earlier. I said no then as instantly as I’m saying yes now.” The appetite may have been whetted in a symbolic way by the unexpected rapturous welcome accorded to the writer Sankar’s magnum opus Chowringhee, published in the UK in April in an English translation 47 years after it hit middle-class Kolkata’s moral sensibilities in Bengali.
Away from the public glare, other international milestones are being set. Random House, publisher of Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl (Moner Moto Meye, 1951) has just sold the rights to the novel to publishers in Italy, Spain and Germany, for sums that will far surpass its potential revenues from sales of the book in India. It is actually following the lead set by Penguin India, which has systematically been finding buyers in Europe, in particular, for several of its Bengali fiction titles in translation.
With the reputation of Kolkata as a crucible for literary talent already established by a number of Indian fiction writers in English, perhaps the sudden attention to home-grown Bengali fiction was more than overdue. But the blips on the radar screens have less to do with the actual number of books being translated into English than they have with the identity of the publishers—topped by a short (so far), sharp burst of international attention.
After all, mission-driven—a polite way of saying that making money isn’t their primary objective—publishing imprints such as Seagull and Katha have long been bringing out quality Bengali fiction in translation. Among their writers is the fiery, evergreen Mahasweta Devi, one of the candidates for the Man Booker International Prize this year, and two popular Bengali fiction writers, Bimal Kar and Bani Basu.
Many of Satyajit Ray’s writings have been translated. The Kobal Collection
So, for that matter, has Penguin, whose list includes the Bengali language best-sellers of Sunil Gangopadhyay (with his two classics Those Days and First Light), Satyajit Ray (all his short stories, detective novels and science fiction works) and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay.
Nor is this an entirely post-1990s phenomenon. Back in the 1970s, imprints such as Macmillan and Hind Pocket Books had published several Bengali novels in English translation. But it needed the big-ticket names in global publishing—such as Random House, HarperCollins and Hachette, besides Penguin—to create the buzz.
Today, classics as well as contemporary Bengali novels are being lined up for translation. Publishers across the board are not only revisiting perennials such as Bibhutibhushan Bandhyopadhyay—at least two new versions of Pather Panchali alone are in the works—Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, but also experimenting with well-known Bengali writers who remain relatively unknown elsewhere, such as Dibyendu Palit, Premendra Mitra, Samaresh Majumdar or Moti Nandi.
Are we, then, at that crucial cusp between regional obscurity and global fame for Bengali writers? Is there a real window of opportunity for Bengali literature to go global? Is there a unique, irresistible quality that can knit together different authors and their works into a Brand Kolkata Fiction?
One answer may be available in the motivations of publishers in India. Let us graciously ignore the possibility that it has something to do with senior editorial positions being staffed by Kolkata alumni. More important, every successful Bengali novel has attained its status in a competitive environment, making it a safer business choice.
Ask them about a Brand Kolkata, though, and the same publishers shake their heads. Ironically, the very lack of overt Bengali-ness may be vital for global success. Explains Chiki Sarkar, editor-in-chief, Random House India, about the international deals struck for Bose’s My Kind of Girl, “It’s an old-fashioned, elegant love story without the social detail which is difficult for non-Indians to absorb.” Confirms Sankar: “There are certainly novels likely to succeed with readers in other countries. But they have to be chosen individually, not as part of a basket.”
For Bengali novelists who’re now looking forward to being published in English, the compelling factor is recognition, not monetary benefits. Don’t blame them. After all, the standard print-run of 3,000-5,000 copies that all but the hottest stars get for their novels may translate only into royalty earnings of Rs40,000-1 lakh, depending on the price of the book and its success. Even a best-seller by Indian publishing standards will multiply those earnings by a factor of four or five at best.
Sure, an international deal could change those economics. With somewhere between 50% and 70% of the earnings from international rights earmarked for authors, a writer whose novel is sold in, say, half-a-dozen international markets could earn upwards of Rs15 lakh.
So, a few more high-value deals, such as the one struck by Random House India for Bose, will open more doors for both writers and publishers. Expect Bengali fiction to change seriously in that case. Predicts Sankar: “The day will come soon when Bengali writers will write for global readers and not focus relentlessly on the misery and exploitation in their native villages.” Now that could be translated into a winning idea.
Arunava Sinha is the English language translator of Sankar’s Chowringhee.
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First Published: Fri, May 29 2009. 08 54 PM IST