Book review by Basudhara Roy
Title: Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural
Translator: Devalina Mookerjee
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
The book decides to arrive on a crisp Friday morning, its sunshine so keen and abundant that any thoughts of the supernatural can only be merrily chuckled over. The cover, however, is strangely disconcerting. It takes me time to mark that the brilliant art on it actually depicts skulls. Not ordinary enough to be dismissed as mere biological specimens, the skulls seem to represent, in their complexity, vibrancy and the silhouette of birds that haunt them on every side, a text that is both hauntingly familiar and eerily not so. Bibhutibhushon’s short stories exploring the supernatural and tantra, a practice associated with dark forces and the Goddess Kali, translated by Devalina Mookerjee from Bengali — could not, perhaps, have been showcased better.
Bibhutibhushan (1894-1950) was an eminent Bengali writer whose best known works are his novels, Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) and Aparajito – both immortalised into films by Satyajit Ray, Chander Pahar (Moon Mountain) Aranyak (Of the Forest). Some of these books can be found in translation.To one even remotely acquainted with Bibhutibhushan’s oeuvre, his stories offer a definite assurance of being in good company. In reading , Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, however, what the reader might fail to bargain for is the almost complete obliteration of the physical world by the world of the book, and by the time the journey through the nine translated stories therein has been made, one is no longer sure where one world ends and the other begins.
It takes time to step out of the frame and to express admiration for the conduit that has led to this extraordinary experience in fiction – the translator. To transcend spatiality and temporality and conjure these tales again for an entirely different readership in an entirely different language is likely to have been a project fraught with its own pointed challenges. Mookerjee, however, seems to have successfully met them all, so much so that in the context of the English language, these spooky, unsettling tales offer not the slightest semblance of foreignness, even when they deal thematically with something as acutely local and specialised as tantra. The language is sparklingly contemporary and in its inflections, energy and dreaminess to allow these nine narratives to carve their own particular niches. The pace of the collection stays heady throughout and the atmosphere is completely overpowering.
Of special significance is Mookerjee’s nuanced and insightful twenty-seven paged ‘Introduction’ to the collection that calls upon the reader to visualise concrete connections between social justice and the genre of the supernatural. Mookerjee writes: “Seen against the background of what people are capable of doing to each other, stories of ghost may be seen as corrective mechanisms in the scales of justice. A person who has been wronged returns to tell their story, perhaps to wreak havoc on their tormentors. A disbeliever sits in a séance for which the medium is clearly not prepared, and chaos ensues. We have a word for this already. We call it karma.”
The ‘Introduction’ serves, also, as a brave attempt to place Bibhutibhushan’s writing in current socio-cultural perspective, and to bridge the disparate worlds of rural Bengal that birthed these stories and that of the contemporary English reader of these tales who could belong to almost any geographical space on the global map.
The first two stories of the collection are centred around the protagonist after who the book has been named, a dabbler in the dark arts, Taranath Tantrik. The remaining seven stories are each unique in their own ways as they chart their individual journeys into the terrain of the invisible and the occult with remarkable skill and clarity. “Human beings have historically shown very little need of support from the otherworld to behave in perfectly horrible ways with other people. This is the point at which the darkness of the uncanny and the darkness of people converge,” avers Mookerjee, pointing out how the surreal is often only another dimension of the real revealed in a disjointed spatial-temporality.
Not all of the nine stories strike with equal power. If ‘The Ghosts of Spices’ appears quite facile and juvenile in its description of a march-past of spice sacks on the deserted nocturnal streets, ‘A Small Statue’ appears rather simplistically cinematic in its dream presentation of the tableau of the monk, Dipankar’s life. In the most evocative stories of the collection like ‘Maya’, ‘The House of His Foremothers’, ‘Arrack’ and ‘The Curse’, however, the quiet, intricate weaving of setting, psychology and idea dazzles in its brilliance, leaving behind a sense of both fracture and healing.
Bibhutibhushan’s poignancy is at its unsurpassable best in his delineation of place and in his exploration of links between physical place and human placed-ness. His most unforgettable stories are those in which people and places interact with each other organically and without inhibitions, creating a documented identity of both being-in-place and place-in-being. In ‘Maya’ for instance, the house acquires an identity of its own as its past inhabitants gently draw its present dweller/s into the folds of its mystery and inexplicable self-sufficiency. In ‘The House of His Foremothers’ similarly, the ghost-girl Lokkhi mourns for the bereft house more than her lost family and consistently haunts its silences in the hope of resurrection for the house which, unlike her, still lives across the family’s generational lifetimes.
To allow one’s imagination to be overpowered by these stories is to experience a strange welding of the probable and the improbable into the arc of the possible — to be awakened to a new dimension of being in which while vision remains at par, the other senses experience a heightened participation with what is positively undefinable but utterly undeniable.
Taranath Tantrik and Other Tales from the Supernatural, by thus placing the reality in the larger context of a world that still evades the cartography of reason, becomes a portal to a widened, heightened and more enlightened worldview. It helps remind of the intersections between our own human finitude and the infinite world with its geo-historical consciousness incapable of forgetting and thoroughly unable to forgive.
Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Drawn to gender and ecological studies, her four published books include a monograph and three poetry collections. Her recent works are available at Outlook India, The Dhaka Tribune, EPW, Madras Courier and Live Wire among others.
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