Found in Translation

Novelist Mani Sankar Mukherji, popularly known as Sankar, belongs to the “golden age” of Bengali literature – the age of Saradhindu Bandopadhyay, Benoy Mukherjee
(Jajabar) and Manik Bandopadhyay. The 76-year-old author, whose novel Chowringhee,
translated into English by Arunava Sinha and published by Penguin Books, won the 2007 Vodafone-Crossword Book Award in the Indian Language Fiction Translation category, describes himself as a “mofussil writer”. But the “mofussil writer” has now gone “global” as his 1976 novel Jana Aranya (The Middleman, translated by Arunava) hits the shelves. Published by Penguin Books, the novel was released in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Sankar was a part of the 50 Indian writers taken to the London Book Fair in April by the British Council and hogged the fair as the star author. Chowringhee, which has recently been published in Britain by Atlantic Books, got rave reviews and full-page coverage in the Guardian, Sunday Times, which described the novel as “as densely populated as Calcutta itself”, and the Independent which termed it as “an utter treat”.
The Middleman, which was a sensation at the fair, talks about the toll that city takes on a youth, Somnath Banerjee. It was made into a film by Satyajit Ray, besides Chowringhee and Seemabaddha.
Sankar is warm as a person and there is a certain sense of old-world charm about him.
He rises from his chair when you meet him at Africa Avenue in New Delhi on Wednesday
and folds his hands in a gesture of namaste when you greet him.
Sankar da swears by three words – simple, sensitive and arrogant – while talking
about himself and his works. “A certain level of arrogance is needed,” he says. His
newfound fame and regeneration as a writer is something he had not “planned” or
“dreamt” about. While in London, he was heartened to hear people in Tubes, trains and buses talk about him.
“I realised that readers everywhere are the same. And Chowringhee has an element of
universality – it has the same effect on readers from Geneva to Zurich or Los Angeles to Lahore,” he says.
Chowringhee, his second novel, was published in Bengali in 1962. Set in 1950s’ Calcutta (now Kolkata), it unravels the “layers of everyday existence” at the city’s largest hotel called Shahjahan and exposes “the seamy underbelly of unfulfilled desires, broken dreams, callous manipulation and unbidden tragedy”. While the novel’s initial success was reflected in it being adapted for a film, a play and translated into major Indian languages, wasn’t its translation into English long overdue? For 45 years, Sankar says, he waited and waited, partly because of his “laziness” and partly because of his “usual
Bengali arrogance”. Sankar, who got a sense of “reassurance and replenishment” with
the kind of response his work in translation has triggered, always thought people would “come to me”. Why should he approach anyone? And, therefore, he didn’t take any initiative. But the renewed interest in his works after the translation of Chowringhee and Jana Aranya certainly “feels great”.
Writing, says Sankar, doesn’t come with an expiry date. And his writings have
“withstood the pressures of time”. He has had his share of struggle and he says that it’s a “wonder” that he’s still alive to see the result. While all the great books are available in translation, all books may not be accepted in translation. And sometimes authors themselves destroy their works in translation. Sankar’s story resembles that of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore whose writings were rediscovered after the translation of Gitanjali into English.
Sankar says that he is rediscovering a “new India” – an India that he had only heard
about and never experienced. For him, it’s great to get “a bit of acceptance” from the new India, the India of young, English-speaking, Facebook generation.
There is a new generation of Bengalis with no direct touch with Bengali who have
rediscovered his writing. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Sankar about his experience of reaching out to a whole new set of readers, different from his traditional readership in Bengal.
Chowringhee is all set to be translated into French and Italian. Sankar says: “I have waited long enough for everything that has come my way only now. It took a long time, but it was worth waiting for.”
Sankar doesn’t run after fame, power or money. He became a writer to prove a point: he had it in him to be a writer. When he wrote his first novel, Kato Ajanare (The Many Unknowns), a famous publisher in Kolkata went around saying that he was a novelist by fluke and would prove to be a one-book wonder. It was to silence him that he wrote Jana Aranya. Set in Kolkata in the ’70s, it was based on his own experiences of a waste-paper basket seller. Jana Aranya has crossed the quarter million mark in Bengali and his publisher has come out with a commemorative edition which lies at the table as he talks about it over tea and cookies.
“I wrote this novel in 1976. It was about living in an overcrowded jungle. And this is 2009. But the ground realities remain the same. It makes me sad,” says Sankar. Those realties are about imperfections and degradation, about unemployment and desperation, about women selling the bodies of their daughters, about brothers eking out a living out of their sisters’ flesh.
The novel had a “whispering message,” and only showed a mirror to the society, says
Sankar. “I can’t shout. I am too small a man to shout. I am no Lenin, Stalin or Roosevelt. I am only a humble chronicler,” says the author.
When he saw the human degradation on the streets, Sankar says, he was “cut to size”,
“torn into pieces”. For Sankar, who has also written biographies of Swami Vivekanand and Sri Aurbindo, all forms of writing, all genres, blend into one way of “expressing yourself”.
Books have unlimited shelf life. They defy all borders. Feluda (by Satyajit Ray), for example, has been read and appreciated by people of all age groups over the years.
Sankar’s books have only begun to enjoy that life.
Everything Sankar has written came out of his own experiences. In his novels, he tried to depict how people in big cities lived, loved and lied. Having written the first volume of the biography of Buddha titled The Unknown Face of Vivekananda, he has nearly finished the second volume and is also about to finish his biography of Sri Aurobindo titled Not So Well-known Aurobindo. “They make for great characters. Some great lives are greater than any fictional character. Fiction and biography can be interchangeable as in biography, characters can be real and events fictional, while in fiction, characters can be fictional and events real,” says the author who is also planning to write a book on cuisine, his other love.
Sankar dons many hats. And at 76, he still wants to do much more. But, at the same
time, he is aware of the constraints of time and space which severally constricts the space for creative endeavours. He has done what he ought to have. But then each
venture is limited by the considerations of health, geography, reason and resources. So, what he has been doing, in a small way, is “finding the gaps and filling them”.
Sankar turns 77 on December 7. But in the “new India” he’s taking youthful strides.


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