The Return of Khokababu— The Best of Tagore | Translated by Sipra Bhattacharya
The young son of his master and mistress drowns in the river, setting the family servant off on a cycle of regret, repentance and, finally, rejection. A dead widow revisits the location of her skeleton, being used by medical students, to recount her crime of passion. A neglected wife gains strength from the tragedy of another married woman to break free of her shackles.
Events such as these abound in the short stories that Rabindranath Tagore wrote as part of his humongous literary output, which included poems, songs (alongside the music for them), novels, plays, essays and even question papers. And now, the latest in a long line of translations of his stories—by Sipra Bhattacharya, who has also chosen the stories in the anthology—reminds readers once again why Tagore took to the form so happily once he started practising it.
The Return of Khokababu— The Best of Tagore: Harper Perennial, 384 pages, Rs350.
True to his practice of covering different territory through each of the written art forms he practised, his stories were mostly about the emotionally marginalized. Barring exceptions such as the story translated as The Broken Nest (Nostonir, made famous, of course, by Satyajit Ray as Charulata), which is more a novella than a short story, all of them dwell on the specific dimension of personality around which the story is built. Background and circumstances provide the theatre where the drama of the marginalized is played out.
What makes them worth reading today then? Perhaps the fact that in that isolation and the resultant exclusion lies a universal continuity of the sensation of loneliness. That raises the question of the appropriate idiom for translating Tagore. Every generation deserves its own Tagore, and translations have the opportunity that the original text does not—of relating the work more closely to the present-day reader.
Of course, as an anthology for a generation that may not be very familiar with Tagore, this one gets half its act spot-on in the stories featured. Sure, the usual suspects are all there—from The Broken Nest to Manihara, from Hungry Stones (Khudito Pashan) to the eponymous The Return of Khokababu (Khokababur Prottyaborton), from A Wife’s Letter (Streer Pawtra) to Kabuliwala. But so are a number of other lesser-known gems: one of the finest love stories in the world, One Night (Ek Ratri), the sardonic Pride Destroyed (Darpaharan) to the ironic Matchmaking (Patro o Patri), for instance. As a single-volume anthology, it’s an excellent if orthodox selection.
Unfortunately, Bhattacharya doesn’t take up the second—admittedly more difficult—part of the challenge. Her translated Tagore is necessarily archaic because of her choice to retain the floridity of the language. Nor does it consistently capture the different registers in his narration—from sardonic to sympathetic, from ruminative to passionate—that the different stories have. In attempting to faithfully translate the words from one idiom to another, the blueprint remains but the fluid airiness, stemming from Tagore the poet, is lost.
Still, the stories themselves more than compensate. Romance, heartbreak, humour —and, above all, the terrible tragedies of unrequited and unfulfilled expectations, emotions and relationships—are depicted with a masterly touch that makes Tagore as remarkable today as he was in his lifetime, when his writing rocked the status quo. At a time when so much of writing is about minutiae and fragmentation, his ability to depict a human condition in a few lyrical strokes is bound to make a powerful impact.
Arunava Sinha is the translator of Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl, and of Sankar’s Chowringhee and The Middleman.
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