There Was No One At The Bus Stop
Penguin Rs 150 pp 121
Penguin Rs 150 pp 122
Two novellas in Bengali have been published in their English translations by Penguin this year. The first, There Was No One At The Bus Stop, is by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay and the second, titled Illicit, is by Dibyendu Palit. Both Mukhopadhyay and Palit are well-known figures in contemporary Bengali literature, which isn’t saying much, considering the sad state serious Bengali writing has been over the last 30 years. It is clear, even from Arunava Sinha’s sincere but unwieldy translations of both the novellas, that Mukhopadhyay and Palit were attempting something that was a half-way house between literature and cinema.
There Was No One At The Bus Stop deals primarily with the neuroses of two well-heeled Bengalis who, almost at the behest of the author, must remain chronically unhappy. Debashish, an artist, haunted by the recent suicide of his wife Chandana, walks into the life of Trina, an ‘arty’ housewife who has drifted away from her husband and her children. Trina has been plagued with psychosomatic disorders in middle age and is accustomed to loneliness.
The story covers a time-span of 12 hours in a day when Trina is supposed to meet her lover Debashish at a bus stop in Ballygunge in south Calcutta. One wonders why the two are making such heavy weather of their current state. Surely, raging hormones cannot exclusively visit the young. People in middle-age too can lay claim to them. But Mukhopadhyay, in 1974, could only have laced his story with a pseudo-liberalism, which, makes it cripplingly sentimental at its very core.
Dibyendu Palit’s Illicit is written in 1989. Here again, an extra-marital relationship is dealt with a certain degree of panache but not with the detachment and irony necessary. Over the years there has been a certain cosmetic change in the perception of human relationships, particularly of the need for sexual fidelity among married couples. Wags then, as now, weren’t in the least impressed by any such intellectual excursions into the unknown.
Illicit has Partha and Jeena, both married to their respective spouses, going off for a romantic escapade in Puri, Orissa. The storytelling is aimed at the bhadralok readership of say a ‘literary’ magazine like Desh. Palit, without warning, even manages to get Jeena to wear a bikini and have Partha make love to her on the beach.
Bengali readers, at that time, may have been shocked and titillated at such goings on but would have heartily approved of Jeena’s guilt and her flight from Puri to her family in Calcutta. Ultimately it is conservatism that triumphs — as usual.
Partha Chatterjee is a Delhi-based writer