Why do we have the urge to speak out our emotions? Is it necessary, or even likely, that anyone else would understand what is essentially one’s own? What happens if we do not share our emotions with others? True, no one would know that they exist—but is it not better to let emotions bloom and flourish in the seclusion of one’s own self, rather than have them wither in contact with the world outside? An anthology of nine stories by Buddhadeva Bose deals with such considerations of emotions, spoken mostly in sotto voce or not at all.
Buddhadeva Bose was one of the more talented authors and poets among a generation of highly talented littérateurs that made the middle of the twentieth century, what many nostalgic Bengalis tend to consider as the golden age of Bengali literature. An accomplished poet, Bose was one of the five figures that are credited to have helped Bengali poetry to emerge from the shadow of Tagore and step into the modern era. What is much less known is that he was among the pioneers of the study of comparative literature in Bengal, allowing for a kind of osmosis between the changing literary world of mid-century Bengal and the world outside. Bose was also known for the pithy quality of his short stories—laden not so much with heavy narrative flow, as with deep introspection on matters that appear in our daily lives, and yet with the meaning of which we seldom engage with.
The eponymous first story of the anthology, for instance, is of Birupaksha whose life is changed by the elusive, cryptic message he receives from Esha, a girl he meets during a visit to the USA for an academic conference. Unable to crack what appears to him a multi-lingual riddle that hides a message from Esha—hopefully a love letter—Birupaksha moves deeper into his academic discipline of linguistics to decode the message, and writes a series of works that turn him into a reluctant celebrity. But he had retreated into linguistics precisely because he could thus become oblivious to the world around him—his wife and daughter, the society he lives amidst—and continue to engage with the mind of that woman whom he met only once in his life. He shuns the academic limelight and retreats deeper into linguistics till he despairs of being able to crack the message through his discipline altogether, and begins to re-engage with the world around him, but in a way that holds meaning for him alone—as a continued attempt to make sense of an inscrutable letter written in invisible ink from a person whom he met on a visit to the States, and never thereafter. Was that a kind of life worth living? Birupaksha seemed to think so—much more worth living than the drudgery of his life otherwise, playing the roles of a husband, a father, an academic, an old man. He chose instead to be himself, wrapping himself in a cocoon of make belief—the love of a woman who may or may not have written him a love-letter—but he found a happiness of sorts to have thought that she did.
In much the same way, the other eight stories tell of emotions—muted, unspoken but real. They may take the form of a dream sequence of a man, (“Lovers”) recounting all the very women he had a longing for (be it for a long time or even for as little as a tram ride). Or they may take the form of the muted anguish of a lower-middle class man, (“One Red Rose”) welcomed into the upper-middle class circle of a relation of a friend of his, consumed by his emotions in the company of the hostess and her sister that move him to buy her/them a red rose going beyond his means, yet failing to actually give to them when he is meant to. The stories are told mostly in the form of a dialogue between the conflicting selves of the main protagonist, and only five stories (“the Scent of Tulsi”, “the Strange Course of Love”, “Jayjayanti” “One Red Rose” and “Twenty-five Years After, or Before”) have more than one character at all. Even where there are two protagonists, (“Jayjayanti”, “the Strange Course of Love”, and “Twenty-five Years After, or Before”), they deal with the consequences of emotions left unexpressed—invariably in terms of heartbreak for the one and a measure of yearning for the emotion when it was left unexpressed for the other.
Arunava Sinha needs be complimented for a translation that does not read like one. It is not easy to carry the cryptic elegance and flair of Bose’s Bengali into any other language without losing the imprint of the author himself. It is perfectly normal for any act of translation to be an act of creation in itself, bridging the gaps between idiomatic usages that characterise the source and the target languages. Yet Sinha has successfully effaced himself from this act of trans-creation in such a manner that for someone who is equally conversant in both the languages, this anthology gives the feel that Bose is being read in the original itself.