Review: Dhanpatir Char; Whatever Happened To Pedru’s Island? by Amar Mitra
A novel that uses myth and surrealism to critique the abuse of power, this work translated from the original Bengali by Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey portrays a world where women are treated like marketable commodities
One of the most prominent figures in contemporary Bengali literature, Amar Mitra’s works critique the use, misuse and abuse of power. Winner of the O’Henry Prize, 2022, for The Old Man of Kusumpur (translated by Anish Gupta), 71-year-old Mitra, who has earlier won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Dhurbaputra (2006) and the Bankim Puraskar Award for Aswacharit (2001), among many others, uses his rich imagination and craftsmanship to create alternate worlds.
Dhanapatir Char, translated from the original Bengali by the late Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, portrays a surreal world where women are treated like marketable commodities. The subject forces the reader to reflect deeply on what could happen if Pedru’s Island were indeed to become a reality.
Incorporating ancient myths, the novel features a giant tortoise, Pedru, which swims all the way from Lisbon with an island on his back, and then goes to sleep. Dhanapati, the head of the island is a descendent of the fearsome Portuguese pirate, also named Pedru, who first settled on the island. He is presented as both, an aged, almost dying human, and as a tortoise.
The Kurma or the tortoise, one of Lord Vishnu’s avatars in Hindu mythology, is linked with the Samudra Manthan when the gods and the asuras came together to churn the ocean to obtain amrita, the elixir of immortality. The story goes that the great serpent Vasuki offered himself as a rope and Mount Mandara was torn out to be used as the churning stick. But the mountain needed to be steadied firmly. To make this possible, Lord Vishnu assumed the form of a tortoise and supported the churning stick on his back. Over time, the Kurma avatar came to be represented in paintings and sculptures in the form of a human blended with a tortoise. Sufism’s Khwaja, who rides on a fish in the world’s oceans to bring succour to sailors also makes an appearance in this novel about a temporary ‘normal’ island placed in the Sundarbans that’s peopled by fisherfolk.
The characters in the novel include Dhanapati, Dhaneshwari, Yamuna, Batasi, Kunti, Sabitri, Pedru and Nabadwip Malakarn. Marriage is not permitted on the island though the men and women live as husband and wife. The women yearn for a normal life with children, which is not permitted. Who hands out the “permission”? The “government”, presented here in the form of the police, which compels the inhabitants to buy and sell the women to different clients in exchange for money. They are then transported to the city and pushed into the flesh trade. The men never raise their voices because they are not aware they can. They live in thatched huts that are dismantled when the island becomes empty every six months and do not own even a piece of it. As a form of resistance, the fisherwomen decide to stop accepting the soap and the toiletries the trader offers them and stay smelling fishy to keep the “government” from selling their bodies. Batasi, the youngest and most beautiful of the island women comes up with this ingenious self defense strategy. It is, however, short-lived as Batasi is forced to rid herself of the terrible odour when she finds she can no longer bear her own stench.
The late Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey’s translation is so lucid and seamless that the book reads like it was written originally in English. This is commendable as Mitra’s intrinsically Bengali work is not easy to translate. The very old Dhanapati almost seems to be alluding to this quality when he tells Kunti, his beautiful 17-year-old “wife”, who desperately longs for a child: “You cannot listen to this story if you try to fathom it with a calendar and a watch. The story of the island is timeless, with a million possibilities.”
Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.