Book Review | The Great Unknown

Mani Shankar Mukherjee
Photo credit: specialoperations / Foter / CC BY-SA

[ This review appeared in the Sahitya Academy journal Indian Literature in its May June 2012 edition. ]

The year 1955 was a significant year in world literature. It saw the publication of Nabokov’s Lolita as also Marquez’s first book titled Leaf Storm and Other Stories. In the same year, a Bengali gentleman, Mani Shankar Mukherjee, penned his first novel ‘Kato Ajanare’ in Bengali, in memory of his mentor and benefactor Noel Frederick Barwell. The latter happened to be the last British Barrister in Calcutta High Court with whom Mani Shankar Mukherjee was a clerk or babu. Barwell introduced his young associate to the court, life and their peripherals, and that included literature. It’s said that Mani Shankar Mukherjee penned his debut novel because he wanted to honour his mentor in some way. He thought of many methods but finally arrived at writing a book about him as the best he could do.

The Great Unknown Book ReviewKato Ajanare which first appeared in Desh magazine in 1955 went on to be an unprecedented success and the writer ‘Sankar’ was born. He soon followed up with another popular novel Chowringhee and then Jana Aranya, and Seemabadha. These books were made into successful movies and the latter novels provided the scripts for two of Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy movies. Yet, like many towering literary figures writing in non-European languages, Sankar’s fame was confined to Bengali. But the non-Bengali world was to know him in some years to come.

In 2007, Arunava Sinha’s English translation of Chowringhee took the English-reading world by storm. This publication became a turning point in the exposure of regional literature. The Chowringhee translation initiated a demand for popular fiction being offered in English translation from regional languages. Sankar’s books acquired a new readership across the globe. His Jana Aranya came out in 2009 under the title The Middleman, translated again by Arunava Sinha. The 2009 London Book Fair had ‘Indian Writing’ as its theme and Sankar became the most feted writer at the LBF; half-a-century after his writing career had taken off. In an interview at the LBF, he said, “It’s my wish to see Kato Ajanare translated into English some day.”

Sankar’s wish came true in 2010; with Penguin publishing Kato Ajanare in English translation. The phrase Kato Ajanare could mean ‘So Much Unknown’ or even ‘The Many Unknowns’ in Bengali. But Penguin’s translation of Kato Ajanare by Soma Das is titled ‘The Great Unknown’. And the dedication says “In sacred memory of the late Noel Frederick Barwell’s exalted soul”.

This is the 1950s, the place is Old Post Office Street of Calcutta; in fact the novel opens with the sentence “This is the High Court”. And the narrator is a fifteen-year-old boy, Shankar, who is being introduced to the High Court and the ‘legal’ life, by a host of older men, chiefly his boss, the Barrister.  The Barrister, strangely, is never named. Sankar once gave a reason for this anonymity of the boss character in an interview with the Telegraph daily of Kolkota. “I didn’t mention Barwell sahib by name in the book, because I didn’t want to intrude into his privacy without his consent. So, I dedicated the book to him.”

Shankar is an undiluted rustic and hopelessly raw as he begins his narration and his awe of the ‘high life’ around him is obvious. Reminiscent of Vikram and Vetal or the 1001 Nights, there is a story at every turn of the page, and some times stories open up within stories. Every passing character has a life story. This makes the book almost a labyrinth of memoirs than a novel; but a rare one in which the novelist and the translator both make sure the reader doesn’t lose his way. We get to see the progress of the boss and his assistant through Court and Life as we listen to each person they meet.

The sheer range of personalities that cross the path of the narrator is astounding, and the reader often wonders what happened to them thereafter; but by then we are already in the midst of another legend. The aging Lebanese groom-hunter who ends up as Rani Meera Adityanarayanan had hardly claimed my empathies when Biren Bose came in with a tale that required greater compassion. Helen Groubert, Sunanda Sen, Chokka-Da, Shefali Mitra, Miss Triton; the list of people we meet is long and each character is built in deft yet detailed strokes. It has to be added that none of these characters come back to take their tale forward. Perhaps this has something to do with the times the story reflects.

Reading these stories in a continuum sketches the big picture that’s life around a court in the Calcutta of the 1950s. What’s great is that the sketches are still contemporary. The book pronounces that life’s pain, sorrow and suffering have always followed similar patterns and that the decade the booklover accesses it from does not really matter. Fate, hope and hopelessness are the threads that weave the tapestry of life in any era. Reading a winding chain of stories might perhaps intimidate a lesser reader but it could be that the format suited serial publication, which was how Kato Ajanare initially was revealed to the audience. I found that several small sittings gave me the best reading experience with this book rather than a single stretch of reading.

In Kato Ajanare, we also see the picture of an Indian city when the British have left and the country is finding her feet. Yet, the British personnel who are still around aren’t treated like enemies. They continue to play their parts in the normalcy that is the 1950s Calcutta and the reader is given to understand there is an easy and unprejudiced acceptance of their roles. The novel is a rare merge of poetry in prose; and bonus marks to the translation which allows the non-Bengali reader to access the world of Bengal’s own Sankar.

A Clipping from Chowringhee’s film adaptation by Ray.

But translation is a tough art and there are some bare patches where the language comes across as standing by in utter helplessness to convey Sankar’s skill. At times, thinking in Bengali and retaining the flavour of the language takes away the rules of writing in English, especially when literal translation is attempted. The reader is denied a smooth read on these occasions.

Right on page 2, the last paragraph has this sentence, ‘If more than three people expressed a desire to ascend together, there were strong chances the doors would open straight in heaven’.  On page 3, the last but one paragraph of Bibhuti-Da’s conversation reads this way. “Lots of more books are also needed.” In the last paragraph on the same page, the text goes this way. ‘He offered me a seat, looking at me with melancholy eyes.’ The occasions where the Indian languages use a noun as adjective may look slightly forced in English, as in the use of the word ‘melancholy’ here.

At another page, the text reads like this, slightly jarred. “The complete history of a love story was hiding in the jungle of these letters.” On page 153, I found this sentence, “Sahib’s narrative was interrupted as we were startled by Trilochan Singh. He told us that dinner was ready”. A reader not familiar with Bengali is perhaps right to think that dinner being ready is surely not startling information? On more reflection and taking into consideration that most of the text has conformed to an entertaining read, this sentence does convey the effect of interruption too. My intention here is to point to the perceptions that the reader can form on the text. A sense of ambiguity always accompanies some part of a translation, some where. I do believe that is more to do with the differences in nuances of Indian languages and English than the capability of a translator.

But apart from these pebbles that interrupt the smooth flow of prose, the translation offers a fair reading experience that does not disown the flavour that must be Sankar. Fifty five years of waiting for wider recognition outside the original lingua franca has thus come to fruition to the iconic author, Sankar, who continues to be a cult-figure with a huge following, now stretching outside the realms of Bengal.

An Interview with Mani Sankar Mukherji.

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