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Stranger than fiction

The Enemy Within was noticed and discussed when it first appeared in Bangla a decade ago. The English translation just published targets a much larger readership, says MEENAKSHI MUKHERJEE.

ANY reader who has gone past the slightly baffling initial chapter of this novel is not likely to be able to put down the rest. After a deceptively slow beginning, two interlocking stories gather momentum to move breathlessly towards a climax — a bizarre death followed by unexpected revelations.

One strand of the narrative is set in the turbulent Calcutta of the early 1970s, rocked by the Naxalite movement; the other focuses on an apparently peaceful industrial township near the Bihar-Bengal border 15 years later. Events of 1972 and those of 1987 are juxtaposed — seemingly at random — with no explanation. Only towards the end the connections become clear. It is like a detective story: after finishing the book, one realises that the clues had been provided all along, but the reader, caught up in the swift pace of action, did not pause long enough to notice them.

When the original Bangla novel Antarghat came out in the late 1980s (it is unforgivable that the date of the initial publication should be left out) the readers were only too familiar with the context. Many urban and upper middleclass young men as well as women of Calcutta joined the Naxal movement with idealism and radical dreams — who eventually got sucked into spirals of mutual destruction. The acts of violence by these revolutionaries were countered by excesses committed by the police. Brutal measures were taken by the State to suppress the movement in West Bengal and a large number of young people, some of them bright and promising students, suddenly vanished from the scene. Some must have been tortured, maimed and killed in State prisons, some escaped out of the country, some bought their freedom by turning informers.

There was an uncomfortable silence about these acts of betrayal which Bani Basu's novel dared to break. The book was noticed and discussed when it first appeared in Bangla, and it received an award in 1991. The English translation appears more than a decade later and targets a much larger readership who might need a frame of reference. This is provided by the author in an admirably terse and succinct Afterword written specially for the English version. Bani Basu traces the history of the Naxal movement in Bengal in three pages of dispassionate prose, yet manages to convey a sense of anguish that led her to write this novel.

The book had a period of gestation, because when she wrote it the movement had long been over in West Bengal, although it continues in different forms in some other regions of India. She concludes her Afterword thus: "I did not mean the book to be a social discourse. It is a human drama, not of crime and punishment, but surely of sin and retribution."

How important is context in a novel? There was a time when people blissfully believed that in order to enjoy or evaluate a novel one had to concentrate on the text alone; the printed pages within the two covers of the book were all that mattered. What lay outside might be politics or sociology or history — it certainly was not literature. No serious reader of fiction would subscribe to this view today.

The messy world we live in, its arbitrary violence, insidious power-play, its changing geography — seep into all human activity — including writing or reading a novel. Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost can hardly be read without taking into consideration the devastation of Sri Lanka in the last two decades and the emotional impact of continual terror. Coetze's Disgrace never mentions race, but the post-apartheid tensions in South Africa remain its unspoken sub-text. It may be possible to read The Enemy Within without looking at the Afterword and still be moved by its human dimension, but for a layered response to the novel an awareness of the political situation is necessary.

In the novel the young girl who was initiated into the movement was an articulate student, a dissenter by nature. She first came into the limelight for having asked her lecturer in the English Honours class why they should be taught Twelfth Night. When the leaders of the movement picked her out, she had many questions for them too, but she was told: "There are times when no time is left for questions. Nor for answers." She was already deeply involved in the movement when her innocent elder brother was killed in broad daylight, and in dismay she wanted to quit. But she was quietly reminded — in the words of Macbeth: "We are in blood steeped in so far that, should we wade no more, returning was as tedious as go over." There was no way out. Eventually she and her other two brothers were rounded up by the police for interrogation by the usual methods, but this is only hinted at, not described.

In the strand of the story picked up 15 years later, many people from the movement reappear but under different names and in unexpected roles. Since suspense is a key element in this psychological thriller, the reviewer must refrain from summarising the plot. But apart from creating suspense, the novel also foregrounds dialogical questions, handling them dialogically rather than propounding any thesis.

It is brave of the translator, considering this is her first attempt, to hold forth in the Translator's Note on the act of translation in theoretical terms. The not-so-theoretical points that she ends up making — about retaining the names of flowers and kinship terms and not explaining cultural details — are by and large generally accepted translation practice today, and seem gratuitous. But Jayanti Datta has conveyed in English the compelling power of Bani Basu's gripping narrative, and that is more important than her views on translation.

The Enemy Within, Bani Basu, translated from Bangla by Jayanti Datta, Orient Longman: New Delhi, 2002, p.170, Rs.225.

The reviewer is a noted writer and literary critic based in Hyderabad.

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