Essay: The gaze through time
Novelist Saikat Majumdar wonders how to translate works from an earlier time, in this case a problematic story by Rabindranath Tagore, in an era of cancel culture
A couple of years back, I gave an assignment to my first-year college students in the gateway class for the English major. The text in question was The Rape of the Lock by the 18th century poet Alexander Pope – a mock-epic poem which satirizes courtship and social life among the aristocracy in Augustan England. Written by a poet whose genius is almost equally matched by his misogyny, the long poem moves to a climax where a Baron cuts off a small lock from the hair of Belinda, a young aristocratic woman whom he is trying to court. He does it without her permission, when she’s not looking, in a gesture that is meant to be a sexual triumph for the man. The older meaning of the word “rape”, is “to carry off by force”, “to abduct” or to “seize prey”; not necessarily with a sexual connotation, but not necessarily very far from it either. The “rape” of the lock, at any rate, is an act of violence on the woman that magnifies itself many times over as a symbolic act.
The assigned posts were brief, around 250 to 300 words. For this text, I asked the students to write, in Belinda’s voice, a complaint addressed to a Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH). What if Belinda’s society was overseen by a CASH? Is it possible to translate a contemporary social procedure, urged by a contemporary political awareness, to address misogyny and sexual violence of an era long past? While most of them wrote some brilliant CASH complaints in appropriately archaic Augustan language, one student found the assignment triggering. I had an elaborate discussion with my class the next day. While I got some excellent intellectual and ethical exercises from my students, I also recognized my mistake in using the word CASH in the assignment, which had brought up memories of real sexual infractions.
Pope’s misogyny is the stuff of legend – heck, his misanthropy is, as is the delight he took in his nickname, the “wicked wasp of Twickenham.” But what does one do with the ethical values of another time and place while presenting older literature to contemporary readers? Especially when the values feel downright upsetting? Shows like Downton Abbey and the quirkier Bridgerton might have made the archaic cultures of gossip and gallantry from older England more accessible to a westernized audience worldwide, sometimes by making fun of them. But what happens when the alienating values speak of a culture radically outside that of western modernity? What happens when your job is to present that very work of literature to a global readership? And most importantly, what do you do when your own being and belief recoil from these values? How do you do justice to the text?
My moment came while translating the story Shubhodrishti (The First Look), by Rabindranath Tagore, for a new Oxford World’s Classics edition of his short stories. It had to come because we inherit a past that is deeply problematic. Pope’s world is mine and not, but 19th (or early 20th) century Bengal is a reality that I know and recognize in so many ways, from the collective memories held by family, by generations in the community, and particularly for me, from literature. The vices of the times are not mine, and yet, in some ways, they are. The very opening lines of the story tell us about a man who, after his wife passed away, “did not go looking for a second wife.” Instead – and I continue quoting my attempt at translation here – “he started to spend time hunting.” Vile metaphors are a work of my own mind, I tell myself, and in any case, this is a faithful account of the life of an idle rich man from those times. Don’t we want fiction to have verisimilitude, no matter how unpleasant the truth might feel?
It is one thing for a narrative point of view to present an unpleasant truth, I tell my creative writing students; quite another to celebrate it. You just know when the perspective has become inseparable from the value in question. So, after the rich hunters have pillaged the peace of the village with their gunshots, the girl appears at the bank of the river where the hunting boats idle, and Kantichandra, our widower, is wonderstruck!
“The girl’s beauty was so raw and fresh that it felt as though God had just shaped her and let her out in the world. One couldn’t quite tell her age. Her body had bloomed but her face looked young, as if nothing of this world had touched her yet. She seemed unaware of the fact that she had become a woman.”
Things start churning inside me. How old is our gun-toting widower? From the tentative nod at his age at the beginning of the story, I’m thinking mid-to-late twenties, perhaps, early thirties, maybe? And this is gaze at a girl who might be 13, perhaps?
It’s not the reality of age in numbers that troubles the translator. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the reality in Rabindranath’s time knows that a girl of 14 yet unwed would be marked a social liability back then. And of course the man is older, especially when it is not his first marriage. The age of a man is about as relevant as the crookedness of a gold ring goes a saying in Bangla! All those anachronisms one can live with, and can make peace with.
But the narrative wants this feeling to become romance. And with venerable literary precedents too: “The poet Kalidasa had forgotten to write that on some days the young goddess Parvati would come to the bank of the Mandakini river, holding baby ducks to her chest.” Writing in 2022, how does one pull that off? I am essentially writing a Rabindranath Tagore story in English, am I not? Jorge Luis Borges would understand the burden of that writing, that copying – that rewriting? This male gaze, pouring out of power and privilege of all stripe, spellbound at the rawness of a village girl who might just be going through puberty? A girl – spoiler alert ahead – who, it turns out later, cannot hear or speak either.
The struggle is not with the reality, which makes historical sense. The struggle is about finding an appropriate language for this. How does one translate this without making it sound repugnant?
All I have here is of course my English version, as I write this in English. One translates, in the end, by finding language as affirmative as possible. One hopes the reader, no matter how far removed from the culture of the text, will make appropriate historical adjustments in their head. I will render it into a contemporary idiom, as I’ve tried to do already. I will not retain the older diction and syntax. I will let go of the unique, creeped-out feeling it creates in me. Not just of being disturbed by the emotion contained in these lines. But that of a reader who has a personal-historical link to this world and can recognize in it something familiar, and not just of having a grandmother who was 17 years younger than her husband, something warmer and even more familiar – a literary sensibility inherited from this universe. And the hue of guilt that comes from that inheritance, from that recognition.
The past is always with us. Time is no linear progression. How does one let the sins of the past tarnish the beauty of the present? How does one prevent it from happening?
Saikat Majumdar’s most recent book is the novel, The Middle Finger. He is @_saikatmajumdar on Twitter