I do not make new year resolutions. However one ‘resolution’ I made this year, if it can be called that, is to read as much Indian writing in regional languages as possible. So, am attacking my pile of books quite religiously to find such gems and read them. An unintended (but not entirely unwanted) consequence of this renewed vigour is that the never-ending pile of books-to-be-read seems to be growing.
I came across the Bengali translation of Buddhadeva Bose’s most famous work, Tithidore or When the time is right (by Arunava Sinha) a couple of weeks back. I had heard of Buddhadeva Bose earlier, from one of my profs in college (a known translator in her own right) as being the person responsible for introducing comparative literature in India. Bose headed the Department of Comparative Literature in Jadavpur university from 1956-1962.
Buddhadeva Bose is considered the most versatile literary figure in Bengali after Rabindranath Tagore. His literary output is prolific – An outstanding poet, his first collection of poetry was published in 1930. In 1935, he started Kavita, the flagship magazine for Bengali poetry, which he edited and ran for 25 years. An outstanding poet (more then 200 poetry collections), he also wrote more than 40 novels – of which Tithidore is his most acclaimed. Other novels include the banned Raat Bhorey Bhrishti (It rained all night, 1967) and Moner Moto Meye (My Kind of Girl, 1957). He was also a prolific playwright though he gained recognition for that after his death in 1974. An eminent literary critic, translator (he translated Baudelaire, Rilke and Kalidasa into Bengali), short story writer, writer of essays and letters, editor and publisher, Bose has firmly cemented his place as a seminal figure in the post-Tagore modern literary scene in Bengal.
Tithidore (When the Time is Right), published in 1949, is on the face of things, a family saga that spans roughly two -three decades before the end of the British rule. Rajen Mitra, a gentle kind man living in Calcutta, has five lovely daughters (Shweta, Mahashweta, Saraswati, Saswati and Swati) and one son, Bijon. The story is about his youngest and favourite daughter, Swati. As she grows from a child to a sensitive, introverted woman, we witness the various ups and downs that the Mitra family and the country goes through in that period.
If you are looking for a conventional, structured novel to read, this may not be for you. There is no structured flow, as in a beginning and an end in this novel. It is a modern novel that heavily uses the stream of consciousness technique and captures the drift of human life. This novel brilliantly captures the little events and accidents that take place in most of our lives, changing it’s course. The politics of the time (circa 1915 to circa 1941-42) is constantly present in the background – Harit, the not-so-nice and communist husband to Saswati keeps harping upon the war and the approaching Japanese armies. The freedom struggle also makes its appearance. However the focus is the family and not the politics. First we are introduced to Rajen Mitra and his wife, Sisirkana. Then it shifts to their children and their childhood, centering on the growing consciousness of Swati, the youngest girl.
As such there are no major plot developments leading to drama – nothing really happens. In fact it is this lack of drama that is present in abundance in the novel. At times, it looks like a plot is being developed for a dramatic closure, but it doesn’t happen. For example, Bijon, the son, who is in general resentful at not being loved by his father and is a fairly irresponsible man becomes involved in a business that is indicated to be a shady one. But it does not amount to anything much – he does not fail and get disgraced or get arrested for some criminal wrongdoing. Or for that matter, when Swati rejects Prabir Majumdar, a colleague of Bijon’s, there are no dramatic scenes either. He does not confront her or Bijon after his rejection; instead he is shown later helping generously with preparations for her wedding. Or for that matter, there is a lot of talk about the impending Japanese army’s invasion and it seems that the wedding may be disrupted. But nothing happens. The novel is non-dramatic and one gets the impression that the life of the characters seem to be drifting on a day-to-day basis and it seems to be going nowhere. (But isn’t that how real life is?) As I read this work, I was constantly reminded of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, especially that line -“Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.” Even in this book, just as in life, “the essential doesn’t change.”
Despite this aimlessness, the reason why this book works so well is because of the splendid characterisation and depiction of normal day-to-day scenes. We are led into Swati’s consciousness and mind and see how she slowly grows aware of her love for Satyen, a teacher in her college. Their love affair is developed mainly through letters and books. It is their shared love of poetry (the love of Coleridge in particular) that brings them together. Books, reading, writing form an important part of this novel. Swati is shy, socially awkward and unable to communicate verbally. Literature is what provides her company in her lonely existence and she feels comfortable when she expresses herself through writing. There is this beautiful passage when during her summer vacations, she is at a loss as to how to spend her time and uses her time to write a letter to herself. She has by then written to Satyen, her busy sisters, a friend from college and is bored as she waits for the one reply to come. “One afternoon, Swati wrote herself a long letter, and then, becoming a second person herself, spun an even longer reply the next day; after that, of course, she tore up both letters, because she didn’t enjoy this game anymore, and felt worse when she remembered Gorky’s story about Teresa.“
For today’s readers, it would be difficult as to why Swati and Satyen take so much time to become aware of their love for each other and then articulate it in a round-about way. But this novel is product of its times, when marriages were arranged by parents. All the little moments are described beautifully – the ordinary moments that form the majority in everyone’s lives – be it the family reunion when Shweta and her family come home for the Durga Puja; or the visit to the cinema or when Satyen and Swati attend the mourning and funeral of Rabindranath Tagore, followed by their halt to have a cup of coffee. The author also builds up a contrast to the death of Gurudev. Just after his death, the reader is told of the death of Shweta’s jolly and good husband Pramathesh. His death is sudden – there are no hints given previously. While we do hear about Gurudev’s ill health, Pramathesh’s death happens, out of the blue. Also contrasted with the public mourning and outpouring of grief at Gurudev’s death is the personal grief that the Mitra family undergoes at this loss. It is proof of Bose’s exemplary skill that Pramathesh’s death is a shock. I actually felt bad – despite the fact that Pramathesh is one of the minor characters of the book. It may have to do with the skilful way, the author highlights the character of Pramathesh vis-a-vis Harit during the description of the Durga Puja family reunion. The differences are quietly thrown up. Pramathesh, despite Harit’s efforts to show him down emerges the winner. His good heartedness and simplicity is more appealing that the unpleasantness, disdain and contempt of Harit. Harit, the most annoying character, sees himself as an intellectual who worships Stalin and gives more importance to his preferred ideology than his wife and marriage.
What also struck me was that in the last part of the novel, the narrative just stops and the story ends. Satyen and Swati are about to get married and thats what the author describes in the last hundred pages – a typical Bengali wedding – with a minute focus on both the groom and bride’s sides, the various preparations, discussions (between friends and relatives), social gatherings, rituals and observations. There is no movement (in terms of story) at all.
The ending is very interesting – almost poetic and lyrical. The marriage is over and the family comes back home. “Shweta looked up at the sky, stars, silent; Swati didn’t stir, Satyen didn’t stir, both silent; the shadowy light of the lamp on the tray; hidden, shy, words that couldn’t be said, unforgettable; the door opened, dark; neither of them spoke, neither of them forgot; two of them in the dark room, two of them in the dark, side by side; shrunk, taut; didn’t speak, didn’t forget; Shweta stopped; Rajen-babu, with his hand on the wall; taut; two lives, creatures, throbbing hearts, throbbing bodies; no eyes, eyes, open windows, black; black outside; stars in the black sky; distant, other side, other world; all that had happened, not happened, would keep happening, eternal; a sky of stilled stars looked on.”
I know a lot of people who prefer to read a work in its original language. It is always difficult to translate a work from one language to another – certain nuances, meanings and import can get left out or not come across properly. But since I cannot read in any language except English and Hindi, I welcome translations whole heartedly. And this is a good translation because it manages to strike a chord in a lay reader like me and the lyrical quality of the prose comes through. One understands why Tithidore is considered Bose’s most acclaimed work – despite not reading it in its original.