The initial image this book creates is a kind of vernacular cross between Laurel and Hardy and Enid Blyton’s Mister Meddle series. Arunava Sinha’s note on the translation is genuinely lovely; it is a tribute to a writer whom he loves. Sinha describes Shibram Chakraborty with enormous affection and detail – indeed, the story of the author is far more captivating than the author’s story! Chakraborty was one of Bengal’s well-loved writers. Totally eccentric and most often penniless, Sinha describes Chakraborty as someone who understood children as equal beings, not nincompoops who needed to be baby-talked to all the time. In Chakraborty’s own words, “Children love my stories because I don’t write for children.” There is a profound, timeless wisdom in this observation, which Chakraborty made in the mid-1900s.
A Bengali writer born in 1902, his work is located squarely within the colonial era and carries all the historical and cultural markers of its time. Chakraborty lived a sort of freewheeling, dervish-like existence – always in penury, yet never really interested in writing for fame or money. He owned nothing and clearing the housekeeping every month was often a challenge. The author’s life, as described by Sinha, is a combination of authenticity, oddness, humor and loneliness. The reason this review focuses so much on the translator’s note is because that was the most engrossing part of the book, and, despite the excitement of reading a translated work by a writer so well-loved and renowned, this book simply did not work.
I am unable to comment on the book and stories in a larger capacity because I couldn’t really get through it fully. Sinha tells us that Chakraborty’s trademark is linguistic “punnyness”. While this is a delightful feature of much of the writing from earlier eras, it is also a tricky one that becomes a major deficiency in this case, despite the translator’s careful and meticulous attempts.
The storyline is a simple one – it tells of the lives of two Assamese brothers, Harshabardhan and Gobardhan – innocent, hardworking men who made it in the big city of Calcutta. The whole collection consists of anecdotes – sometimes bizarre, sometimes silly, but always funny. Or, at least, that is the intent. For example, the author writes of “catching a tiger by its tale.” While debating whether the owl really is Goddess Lakshmi’s (Hindu goddess of prosperity and wealth) divine steed, he says: “It’s owl the oily people whoo give a whit for wealth, don’t you know?” In both instances and in many others in the book, one senses the potential hilarity and the amazing linguistic nuances that these stories contain. In English, however, they just seem lost and misplaced and one is unable to get any real sense of Chakraborty’s characters – who they really are and what they are all about. Chakraborty often features himself as a character in his stories, which is really quite enjoyable and indicative of a genuine love for the kind of humor that is not afraid to turn on itself for the sake of a laugh.
The Merry Adventures Of Harshabardhan and Gobardhan is not a poorly written book at all. It has all the elements of an engaging, thoroughly amusing book, and beneath the surface, a keen set of observations of and social commentary on its time. One instinctively wants to like this book, its wit and idiosyncratic characters, who, even with their frequent political incorrectness, racism and total gender insensitivity, have an honesty about them that is rare. It’s just something that did not work, largely I think, owing to its resistance to translation. So, here’s my advice – if you are looking at buying this book in English, I wouldn’t recommend it. But, if you are a fluent Bengali reader and speaker, please read it in the original and publish a review!
By Anjana Raghavan
Translated by Arunava Sinha
Price: Rs. 250.00
Hachette India, 2014
Subject category: Humour/Anthology