Sucheta Dasgupta - “Trailokyanath’s ghosts have interesting qualities” - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

Sucheta Dasgupta - “Trailokyanath’s ghosts have interesting qualities”

Feb 21, 2024 04:35 PM IST

On her translation into English of the work of Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay, who invented the genre of speculative fiction in Bengali literature

What drew you to translate Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s stories of magic realism?

“Trailokyanath’s ghosts are of two kinds: the metaphysical and the metaphorical. The metaphysical ghosts are the regular definition of bhoot, they are the souls of dead men, women and children. The metaphorical ghosts are subaltern characters living on the fringes of mainstream Bengali society, which is genteel and complicated.” (Shutterstock)
“Trailokyanath’s ghosts are of two kinds: the metaphysical and the metaphorical. The metaphysical ghosts are the regular definition of bhoot, they are the souls of dead men, women and children. The metaphorical ghosts are subaltern characters living on the fringes of mainstream Bengali society, which is genteel and complicated.” (Shutterstock)

I did not plan on translating Trailokyanath’s stories when I read them back in 2011. My husband had bought me the collection and I had immediately located him as an early speculative fiction writer. At that time, I had been trying to sell my own stories, and people kept asking me, what genre do you write in, and so on, and though the right answer would have been literary fiction, it ended up calling my attention to the phenomenon of genres. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term comprising magic realism, fable, fantasy, supernatural and science fiction. Though he also wrote social realism and comedies of manners, Trailokyanath is best known as a children’s writer. So, I was chuffed to read his magic realism (‘Lullu’, Kankabaty, Beerbala) and science-fantasy (Damrucharit, surprisingly it has loose elements of science fiction). Then my father suddenly passed. He once told me to write in Bengali for Bengali audiences because he felt that those who read exclusively in English, at least in India, just don’t have the appetite for the really urgent, really mind-expanding, boundary-pushing ideas. I had written my body of work in English, so all I could do by way of serving his wish was to disseminate the work of a Bengali first, give the world a new reason to celebrate Mr Trailokyanath. So, I had told him I would take up this project, which he accepted with a taciturn nod and it became a promise of sorts.

Unlock exclusive access to the story of India's general elections, only on the HT App. Download Now!

386pp, ₹595; Niyogi Books
386pp, ₹595; Niyogi Books

Tell us about the ghosts of Trailokyanath

Trailokyanath’s ghosts are of two kinds: the metaphysical and the metaphorical. The metaphysical ghosts are the regular definition of bhoot, they are the souls of dead men, women and children. The metaphorical ghosts are subaltern characters living on the fringes of mainstream Bengali society, which is genteel and complicated. Literal wraiths, their sheer resilience has given them superpowers. They are governed by rules of ghostship. When someone dies, someone else is appointed to be their ghost. For this “job”, there is competition and furious lobbying. Now these two kinds of ghosts frequently overlap and it is a whole interesting exercise to discern which is which. The ghosts have interesting qualities. They are crushed in the oil man’s wheel to yield a bottleful. They are actual marbles that children wager bets on. They edit a newspaper. Some are even demons who feast on human flesh. Be it by Ursula K Le Guin or by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, magic realism, by definition, has a radical agenda. Being in the employ of the British government (Trailokyanath was curator of the world-famous Indian Museum and an early Indian English writer as well), Trailokyanath was no rebel or socialist, but his imagination of the metaphorical ghost is what, I believe, fulfils this requirement.

Author Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay (Wikimedia Commons)
Author Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay (Wikimedia Commons)

How did you choose the stories in your collection?

Well, the publisher selected them as part of the first volume. We are looking to bring out a second. I chose all kinds of stories, including realist fiction, as I wanted to give the reader a taste of his oeuvre. I purposely avoided Damrucharit because it has been done to death in schools and colleges and also because it was being worked on by the scholar Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, who has independently identified elements of speculative fiction in Trailokyanath’s work.

What were some of the biggest challenges while translating the absurd humour and satirical elements?

Contrary to what we have been told to believe, I do not consider Trailokyanath babu as a satirist of special note. His humour is more on the goofy, campy side and his sarcasm does not have bite. In his social commentary, too, he is not saying anything original. What touches the modern reader is rather the innocence and empathy of his gaze. That said, surprisingly enough, I found the exercise easy going. I typically completed a chapter in an hour, sometimes two hours.

When it comes to the mechanics of the translation, I think two decisions that went in my favour were my deliberate choice of the Victorian style and the inclusion of a glossary. The style of Trailokyanath’s prose is formal and weighty even while his tone is irreverent and wry. The original is in the sadhu bhasa or the pure language. So, in general, I leaned towards using fine words but also exact ones, so that the humour would be laid back yet unmistakable as typical of the fin de siècle gentleman. But I also made sure to use the modern idiom for effect and wherever it was a natural choice.

Yes, I did an atheist, sex-egalitarian reading of the text using the singular “they” as the third person generic pronoun for the characters; for example, I wrote the great creator, themselves, keeping all the letters lowercase or small, where the author refers to this universal concept, but I did not miss a single joke or fact. Trans-creation was out of the question, being an original writer.

Trailokyanath is a cultural anthropologist’s gold mine. Did you know, for instance, that Nishapur is not in India but in Iran? Also known as Neyshabur, it’s the seat of the primordial, magical kings of Zoroastrian texts. Most of Trailokyanath’s heroines are old maids at 12, because after the death of 11-year-old Phulmoni Dasi following forcible intercourse by her 35-year-old husband, it is what had come to be mandated by the 1891 Age of Consent Act.

Translator Sucheta Dasgupta (Courtesy the subject)
Translator Sucheta Dasgupta (Courtesy the subject)

What do you think shrouded Mukhopadhyay’s stature in the literary landscape during his own time?

Rabindranath Tagore described him only as a children’s writer, damning him by faint praise. He was also aloof from the freedom movement, which was the zeitgeist of his times.

Which is your favourite story in this collection and why?

It is Vidyadhari’s Missing Appetite. It is about actual kitchen politics in the lawyer Neelambar Ghosh’s residence that curiously approximates social dynamics of the corporate world.

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

Unlock a world of Benefits with HT! From insightful newsletters to real-time news alerts and a personalized news feed – it's all here, just a click away! -Login Now!
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On