The stories that comprise the volume under review are of a sort that does not seem to be written much anymore, or maybe just not publicised enough, in the era of Incredible India, when achhe din are always around the corner. These are stories where the “lived-happily-ever-after” goes for a toss—things do not always work out right, justice is not triumphant in the end, and God does not beam happily from high above with a rainbow over his shoulder. Human nature is revealed to be what it often is—dark, gloomy, cruel, or at the very best, just indifferent to the plight of others—rather than what we wish it would be.
Subimal Misra is one of those little-known authors writing in Bengali who have not been noticed at all by those outside the Bengali-reading public, and quite often not even by them. Having begun to write from the late-60s, Misra has produced nearly 20 volumes of stories and (what he calls) anti-stories. Misra’s prose is influenced considerably by the film-making techniques of the French film-maker Jean Luc Godard.
The extreme irreverence that pervades Misra’s works has progressively attained such dimensions that people with very conservative and prudish sensibilities are revolted by his prose-style, let alone his treatment of the narrative. Misra, however, has admitted that to be the very impact he wants to have upon the reader. Hence, he has come to acquire a cult status— based on account of his remarkably clear-sighted approach to the human condition, using (for want of a better word) a Leftist prism—largely among a niche audience of thinking people.
The twenty-five stories (and anti-stories) of the volume are drawn from Misra’s works of the ’70s and ’80s. Varying in length between 22 pages and two, the stories are chosen by the translator, V Ramaswamy, without any central narrative—perhaps appropriately, because Misra himself is deeply contemptuous of the idea of a central narrative.
Ranging from themes like harassment of an old passenger by a bunch of disrespectful youth on a bus (“Historic Descent”) or the journey of a village bumpkin picked up by a politico and inducted into the police, who later decides to become a politico himself (“By the Roots”), Misra has put together quite a few stories that are laced with a deep sense of contempt for the decadent bourgeois society of India in the ’70s and ’80s (and maybe even of today). Perhaps the most enjoyable storyline is that of “Gem of a Man”—two stories, apparently completely unrelated (but maybe not quite), told together.
Finally, a word on translator V Ramaswamy. His translation would stand out as among the best translations from Bengali to English in a very long time. Reading this volume, a native speaker of Bengali would be excused for thinking that he is not reading Misra in translation at all. The signature figures of Misra’s speech, his style and delivery have all been captured by Ramaswamy with such effortless ease that the translation has become an act of trans-creation, and the translator has become almost inseparable from the author.