With a recent translation, Sunil Gangopadhyay's Bengali novel Blood is set to entice a new generation of readers
Renowned Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Blood is the story of Tapan, who spends years running away from the trauma of his father’s murder at the hands of a British officer, only to run into Alice, the daughter of his father’s killer, while on a visit to the UK.
Renowned Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Blood is the story of Tapan, who spends years running away from the trauma of his father’s murder at the hands of a British officer, only to run into Alice, the daughter of his father’s killer, while on a visit to the UK. A recent translation to English from the original Bengali by Debali Mookerjea-Leonard, an author and a professor of English and World Literature at the James Madison University in Virginia, brings out Tapan’s turmoil and the complexities that arise when he finds himself haunted by the past he strove to leave behind.
Mookerjea-Leonard writes that she read Gangopadhyay’s work for the first time in 1990 on a wintry evening in Kolkata and found it again, a couple of years later, on the shelves of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. Re-reading the book, which had stayed with her over time, she was to be able to appreciate the novel’s sophistication much more than before and vowed to one day translate it into English. What she wanted to share with her non-Bengali speaking friends, colleagues and American students was “first and foremost the joy of the narrative that I first experienced as a young reader,” she explains.
“I knew that that the rush of the narrative was key to the achievement of the novel’s literary purposes," Mookerjea-Leonard says, "so I wanted the English version to preserve that sense of narrative rhythm and pace.”
Blood, set 18 years after Indian independence, invokes the question of whether a friendship is possible between the English and Indians, exploring the coloniser-colonised dynamic post-British rule in India. The protagonist Tapan, leaves his home in erstwhile Dhaka, Bengal (now Bangladesh) hoping to never return and goes on to become a physicist in the US. Here he encounters Ted, an English nuclear scientist and a homesick Tapan finds a friend in this man, who is fascinated by the teachings of the Gita.
Gangopadhyay’s narrative of this friendship, which is far from uncommon today, denotes the possibility of moving on and developing a bond which transcends national borders and the trauma of the colonial past. Mookerjea-Leonard explains, “In describing the camaraderie that Tapan and Ted share, the novel acknowledges the possibility of friendship between Britons and Indians. In fact, the two men develop a close friendship. There, the colonial past or their respective nationalities cease to matter.”
“This is all the more remarkable given that, in important ways, racial consciousness, the coloniser-colonised dynamic, if you will, was always played out on the ground of masculinity.”
But Tapan and Alice’s relationship is one that raises this issue most fundamentally, the translator notes, “The Englishman no longer stands barring the way between the Indian man and the Englishwoman. Indeed, Tapan’s friend Ted helps facilitate Tapan’s relationship with Alice. And she is open to his advances. The trouble is now something less defined, more troubling... The novel seems to provoke the question of the postcolonial condition when it’s no longer a matter of racism or enforced exclusion.”
Gangopadhyay — who founded Krittibas, a Bengali poetry magazine, with his friends — authored numerous novels, travelogues and collections of poetry during his lifetime, many of which have been translated into English, including his Sahitya Akademi Award-winning work, Sei Samaya (Those Days).
Of the process of translating Blood, and the difficulties in preserving the colloquial dialogue in the English iteration, Mookerjea-Leonard says, “Certainly, there were passages that took longer to translate. I have spent whole mornings choosing between synonyms because I could not resolve which word choice better captured the sense of the original. I planned on translating the entire text before returning to revise it. However, that didn’t work out, since I found it difficult to move on without making sure that each word, sentence, or paragraph carried the nuance of the original to the fullest. I took a long time translating the first three chapters of Blood.”
Given that translation is derivative, it is essential for the translator to remain faithful to the original. However, the faithfulness is not only to the letter of the source but also, perhaps more importantly, to its spirit.
“The translator’s task is much more than finding English equivalents for Bengali words, it is also about conveying the literary qualities and 'feel' of the original. Finally, the translation must be in some sense pleasurable to read. Certainly, Gangopadhyay’s novel is eminently readable, and that was something I wanted to bring to the translation,” Mookerjea-Leonard says.
Today, 72 years after independence, the immigrant consciousness has shed the misgivings which were a direct result of the colonial regime, as more and more students embrace a globalised world, migrating to various countries in search of better job opportunities, more freedom or a higher standard of living. The novel however serves as a poignant memory of what it meant to live the immigrant life at a time when the sacrifices made for the freedom movement were still fresh in the minds of the young.
The translator notes that for her part, when she travelled to America in 1992 to pursue her doctorate at the University of Chicago, she had made plans to return home after completing her studies. A chance meeting with a fellow student whom she would go on to marry and a job offer that she received even before her PhD led her to stay in America for good. However, living there, she says, “I had come to appreciate the opportunities the US has offered me.”
“Maybe I have to do a bit of straddling between the two worlds I simultaneously inhabit,” she concedes, “but that is fine with me.”
In her way, she has reconciled the East and the West. “I don’t see my being in the US as tearing me away from my roots,” she remarks, “It is more like giving me other skies to fly.”
Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Blood translated by Debali Mookerjea-Leonard has been published by Juggernaut Books
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