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Found in translation

When I paid my respects to an author I wanted to meet because of the persona he projects, writes Amitava Kumar.

brunch Updated: Feb 13, 2016 21:57 IST
The writer as rebel: One cannot conceive of the existence of Subimal Misra’s writing without the Naxalbari uprising. In Misra’s stories, translated from Bengali, images of poverty and protest jostle for space with piquant critiques of middle-class pretensions and sexual hypocrisy.
The writer as rebel: One cannot conceive of the existence of Subimal Misra’s writing without the Naxalbari uprising. In Misra’s stories, translated from Bengali, images of poverty and protest jostle for space with piquant critiques of middle-class pretensions and sexual hypocrisy.

I wanted to meet him. The problem was that I had been told he doesn’t see anyone. He is also quite sick, an invalid, confined to his bed. But I had a piece of paper with his address on it and I was standing at his doorstep in an ordinary housing estate near Jinjira Bazar on the fringes of Kolkata.

His name is Subimal Misra. He writes his stories in Bengali; over the last few years his work has appeared in English translation. When I read him for the first time, I saw that his stories rebelled against dominant literary conventions. His stories were anti-stories, a violent mix of fragmentary narratives and essays, even statistics, juxtaposed together to deliver a shocking statement. “The bloodier the Naxalite movement in West Bengal grows, Vidyasagar’s visage gets chopped off again and again, and the more the pavements of Kolkata become infested with sex-magazines.”

It was revealing that the first of his translated works carried the following dedication: “To Jean-Luc Godard, who taught me language.” Like the French filmmaker, Misra offered a montage of images. In one of his celebrated stories, the rotting corpse of a peasant’s wife keeps appearing in unlikely places, including inside the crate that has brought Gandhi’s golden statue from America.

No price tags in Bengal: Instead of a price, Misra’s books only have a suggested exchange amount.

Misra’s work would have remained unknown to me had it not been for the dedication of his translator, V Ramaswamy. A second volume of Misra’s stories, Wild Animals Prohibited, has now been published. In these stories too we encounter the characteristic juxtapositions: images of poverty and protest jostle for space with piquant critiques of middle-class pretensions and sexual hypocrisy. News-items, scraps of dialogue, as well as commentary rub against each other, sometimes in stylised and varied font, calling attention to the fact that what we are reading has been written, it is an artifice, and ought to make us think.

It is possible to say that one cannot conceive of the existence of Misra’s writing without the Naxalbari uprising. The rejection that we see in him of any pious celebration of postcolonial achievements or of the great Indian democracy returns us to the revolt of the late sixties.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that one of the main reasons I wanted to meet Misra was because of the persona he projects in his interviews. There, we learn that he has never sought mainstream publications, doesn’t attend literary festivals, and instead of a price, his books only have a suggested exchange amount. Once, when asked about his goal in writing, Misra said that he didn’t have any goals in the commonly understood sense. And added: “While watching Sholay, I only wanted to know the name of Gabbar Singh’s horse.”

Thereby hangs a tale: Misra said that he didn’t have any goals in the commonly understood sense. And added: “While watching Sholay, I only wanted to know the name of Gabbar Singh’s horse.”

I read somewhere that Misra had once worked as a lecturer but he had torn up his degrees and started teaching at a school close to Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red-light district. In his classes were often the children of prostitutes. Before going to Mishra’s home, I went to the school where he had once worked, Banga Vidyalaya. A pretty teacher there, one Miss Tudu, told me that her students, often poor and living on the streets, were “fast-learners.”

In nearby Sonagachi, although it was still morning, women stood in clusters, waiting for customers, their hair still wet from their bath. Men with towels on their shoulders, greed in their eyes, urged me to follow them.

I went to Jinjira Bazar instead. A man outside Misra’s building told me that Misra’s sister lived in a flat on the floor above. The sister opened her door and then, after I had introduced myself, asked her husband to go down to find out if Misra would see me. I said, “I just want to pay my respects.”

Misra’s flat was small. A female attendant was there too. I entered a small room, its shelves packed with yellowing books, and was then led into the bedroom.

Misra was sitting up in bed, under a pink mosquito net, a quilt drawn around his shoulders. His hands shook when he raised them to return my greeting. His sister, speaking in Bengali, said that Misra had fallen off the bed one night and remained on the floor for hours.

Last year I had taught a course called ‘In-Between Novels’. The books in that course were part-essay, part-novel. Included were works by Elizabeth Hardwick (Sleepless Nights), Renata Adler (Speedboat), J.M. Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello), Teju Cole (Open City).

I might have said that I saw that Misra’s work belonged in that course. I didn’t tell him that I was also working on a book like that. I didn’t thank him for his work nor did I feel I could ask any questions. Misra’s brother-in-law took a picture of us together, my head inside the mosquito net beside Misra. Then, I left. He hadn’t said a single word.

The Bookist is a monthly column

From HT Brunch, February 14, 2016

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