Sunil Gangopadhyay, The Lonely Monarch (2005, translated from Bengali by Swapna Dutta, Hachette India 2013)
My high school French and Latin teacher, Brother Gerard, taught us a healthy respect for the art of translation. When he wrote ‘Excellent attempt’ in the margin of one of my exercises, he explained that it was high praise, that all anyone could aspire to was an attempt at translation – the thing itself must remain forever elusive: if you stay too close to the original, your translation won’t sound like natural English, and if you produce something that feels natural in English you will have lost the feel of the original. Kumārajīva (343–430 CE), one of the sub-continent’s great translators of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, said that translation was like ‘chewing rice for others, which would not only lose its original taste, but also make people feel like vomiting’. (Translations of his statement differ.) So translators are heroic people who serve the common good, building bridges between cultures that might otherwise remain dangerously ignorant of each other, but they do so knowing that page after page, book after book, they must fail.
I don’t know any Bengali at all, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Swapna Dutta’s translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay‘s Nihsanga Samrat. But it gave me that delicious sense of access to a place that would have remained closed to me without her labours. The eponymous lonely monarch is Sisirkumar Bhaduri (1889–1959), a pioneer of Bengali theatre, or at least a fictional stand-in for him, as this is a fictional rendition of the real Sisirkumar’s life. His theatrical project was to Bengal roughly what Louis Esson’s Pioneer Players were to Australia, not quite a national theatre but a profound influence on audiences’ tastes, though the comparison underplays the significance of Sisirkumar. The theatre as he found it was ruled by Western conventions, women actors were generally prostitutes, the emphasis was on spectacle. He and his colleagues reached for a theatre that incorporated traditional jatra forms; his partner Kankabati was an educated woman who became even more acclaimed as an actor than he was; his plays were often adaptations from serious novels.
Calcutta (as it is called here) had a thriving theatre scene in the 1920s and 30s, rich with artistic ambition, greed, brilliant collaboration, vicious competition, surprising acts of generosity, sweet loyalty, despair, alcoholism, romance … Sisir, as he was known to his friends, was at the heart of it as an actor–producer. In a postscript to her translator’s note, Swapna Dutta gives brief introductions to twenty characters who were important personalities of the time ‘whom people outside Bengal might not know’: poets, artists, playwrights, scholars, political figures. Without this help, the sense of a flourishing cultural scene would still have been vividly realised, but for foreign readers like me the names would have passed in a blur (actually, they still mostly did, but now I knew the nature of the blur!). Some names didn’t need a note: the great Rabindranath Tagore is partly a kind of tutelary deity whose approval is beyond price for the younger generation, and partly the esteemed elder whose mould they need to break; Sunil Gangopadhyay himself makes a brief appearance as a young man among Sisir’s admirers; and Satyajit Ray, Bengali director of many great films including Pather Panchali, has a moment towards the end of the book.
Sisirkumar takes a troupe of actors to New York in 1930. The trip has its disastrous moments, but it starts with a rapturous welcome. A young Indian man living in New York explains:
Ordinary Americans hardly ever come across Indians. Most of them are under the impression that Indian women are either kept under lock and key or burnt as a sati; that young children who enter the river are devoured by crocodiles; that the roads in India are packed with sadhus and yogis, tigers and snakes. They are clueless about our art, culture, literature or music.
Although there’s no whiff of an instructional intention in this book, I’m at least a little less clueless for having read and enjoyed it.
(Sisirkumar Bhaduri does have a Wikipedia entry, but it doesn’t say very much, and IMDb lists the eight films that he directed and acted in, which were very much a sideshow to his career in the live theatre.)
Full disclosure: Swapna Dutta is a friend of mine, though we’ve never met in person. She contributed a number of elegant stories to The School Magazine when I was editor, including retellings from Hindu and Buddhist classics as well as original stories, and we have stayed in touch by email since. Hachette India sent me a complimentary copy of this book.