Part of our fascination with Saratchandra is the desire to see what we could have become had we not become ‘impure’ or ‘modern’.
Three Classics: The New Arrangement, Pointing the Path, Bindu’s Son, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, translated by Jadu Saha, Shipra Publications, Rs. 450
Business is good for the Saratchandra industry: “Devdas” and “Parineeta”, film adaptations of Saratchandra’s novellas, were — to use trade parlance — “superhits”; Bengali television serials rip of
f his stories without acknowledgement; the titles of most of his stories and novellas have been appropriated by Bengali film-makers; Jadu Saha’s translations of three of Saratchandra’s more popular novellas is one more addition to the growing space of the reclamation of the Bengali writer.
The notion of revival implies loss; the revivalism of Saratchandra is associated with that sense of loss, allied with the sense of recovery of the “authentic”. “Authenticity” and the “real” are words that are often used to uphold Saratchandra’s supremacy over his contemporaries. Tagore is “inauthentic”: he was Brahmo, he allowed himself intellectual transactions with the “West”; his aesthetic and his sensibility are “modern”, a word which the Bengali temper associates with the seepage of influence and a perforated sensibility. Tagore is “made”; Saratchandra is still unmade or, at least, yet-to-be-made. For, much has been made of Saratchandra’s “lack” of education by positing it against Tagore’s acquired learning, as if it were a great virtue that shaped his aesthetic, like Milton’s blindness. “I received no education for want of means,” Saratchandra is quoted as saying. The “no education” is only as half-true as Jonson’s description of Shakespeare’s “little Latin and less Greek”. The Tagore-Saratchandra binary has been the subject of many literary addas in Bengal. Saha’s juxtapositions are familiar to the extent of being tired, beginning from the almost naïve “aristocratic Tagore”-“poor Saratchandra” to the slimy “best writer”-“most popular writer”. Ascribing “mass appeal” and a language of the marketplace to a “poor” man like Saratchandra is, of course, ironical.
Why was he so popular? Apart from the “stories” and the charm of their settings, Saratchandra appropriated the concept of “identification” for his own narrative ends: identification worked inversely in his case. The men and women who read him are not just like the men and women in his fiction; the men and women who read him become the men and women of his fiction. The question of his readership is an interesting one. The subject and, in many cases, the defining condition of his novellas is poverty. The characters of his stories, thus, could not have been his readers. And herein we find the seed of a modernist debate, one that continues to be used against the Indian-writer-in-search-of-an-audience, as if looking for a reader were an immoral gesture — this disjuncture between the subject of a work and its audience is, in many ways, a post-enlightenment one (Was Defoe writing for Crusoe, for only one possible reader?)
Another important reason for the renewed interest in Saratchandra is allied to the “route to root” culture of our times: Saratchandra was, after all, a diasporic writer, a fact that is often glossed over by his critics. (He was not just a Bengali writer; Bhagalpur and Burma were more important in defining his sensibility than the setting where his stories are placed.) The need to compare one’s footprints before and after the moment of departure and the greater urge to turn loss into gain and myth into history are common impulses of the diasporic citizen. That is perhaps why Saratchandra’s women are as much idealised and exaggerated mixtures of myth and history as Ravi Varma’s flesh-and-blood goddesses.
Part of the contemporary fascination with Saratchandra comes from this half-wish on our part to see ourselves as our forefathers, to mark the alternative route we might have taken had we, almost decidedly, not become the “impure” creatures that we are today. The other part comes from a voyeuristic urge to record or gaze upon a different history of becoming, to check whether we could have been “better” than what we are now. There are other reasons for his abiding popularity: his use of the language of the kitchen; his “realism” and “simplicity” (Saratchandra’s self-analysis); and our conditioned reflex to expect a “happy ending” in a story, for, Saratchandra’s stories are, ultimately, fairy-tales for adults.
There are recurring themes in his work: sacrifice (it is women who sacrifice; if at all men sacrifice, they carry the burden of the discontent) — in Bindu’s Son, a novella about an aunt’s maternal love, sacrifice is elevated to martyrdom; depiction of social evils without commentary (Saratchandra is storyteller without trying to be a social reformer) — The New Arrangement is the story of an abandoned child bride Usha; the conservative moulds his aesthetic, the provocative only occasionally tinges it — in Pointing the Path, a novella in the rich boy-poor girl mould, it is tradition which prevents Guni from accepting the widow Hem.
Saratchandra does not pose too many difficulties to the translator; Jadu Saha’s translation succeeds in communicating the sense of where the story comes from, in recreating the lost-and-found innocence of Saratchandra’s works. In spite of a few grammatical slips (especially those of prepositions), this book adds to the much-needed body of work that makes interaction and exchange between cultures possible through translation.
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