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Excerpt

Somdatta Mandal’s translation of A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Foreword

When, in 1882, teenage Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) left for an extended trip to England with her husband, leaving behind her six-year-old daughter, she regarded this as her self-sacrifice in the service of her long-suffering Bengali people.  Even before leaving home, she took on uncomfortable English-style clothing, diet and deportment in order to prepare herself for that alien Western world.  She determined to use her own challenging experiences in order to awaken and uplift her nascent nation, especially by improving the customary roles of women like herself.  She wrote and published her discoveries and evaluation of Britain as a book, England-e Bangamohila, in 1885, even before her own return home.  She would remain in Britain for a total of eight years, even as her in-laws married off her own distant daughter at age ten.  

With this current volume, Professor Somdatta Mandal has added to her already impressive body of books and other publications by making accessible for the first time to Anglophone readers this significant book by Srimati Krishnabhabini Das.  This translation enables non-Bangla readers to deepen our understanding this key transitional period in India’s and England’s connected histories from the acute first-hand perspective of a woman traveller and published author.

One of the striking features of Krishnabhabini’s fascinating account is how genuinely new and unfamiliar to her were her journey and life in England.  By that time, men and women from India had been venturing to Europe for more than four hundred years.  Even over the decade prior to Krishnabhabini’s own visit, many Bengali men and at least half a dozen Bengali women had preceded her.  Indeed, this was the second trip for her husband, Debendranath Das, having returned only months earlier after six years in England where he had narrowly missed entry into the Indian Civil Service and had taken a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University. 

Krishnabhabini, although married at nine and home schooled by her in-laws, had herself long read and heard about England.  But, even to educated middle-class Indian women, distant imperial Britain still seemed overwhelmingly intimidating.  Determined to enlighten her Bengali sisters through her book, Krishnabhabini still seems to have hesitated to assert her own authority to do so, publishing anonymously.  Even her first publisher in Kolkata condescendingly prefaced the book by apologetically asking tolerance from readers for her misperceptions and simple language but applauding her sincere attempt.

In her account, Krishnabhabini repeatedly raises two central dilemmas.  First, how can she and her compatriots preserve their own culture and values while simultaneously becoming Anglicized.  As an example of this danger, she criticizes her contemporary, Ms. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), for having abandoned Hinduism to become a Christian ‘and hence degraded the Hindu race’.  Initially, Krishnabhabini laments with shame how, through her own adoption of a ‘memsahib’ Englishwomen’s dress, she had distanced herself from her Hindu Bengali sisters.  But she takes heart from her conviction that she has done so for their sake. 

Krishnabhabini’s second dilemma is who should be included in her vision for the nascent Indian nation.  As she first leaves Bengal and journeys by train to Mumbai, she notes both the stereotypical differences and also the foundational commonalities among middle-class Hindu women and men of India’s diverse regions.  But she does not identify with people of lower classes or other communities living in India.  Thus, her evocative account tells us much about her own personal perceptions and cultural journeys and those of many comparable people of her time and status.

Through Krishnabhabini’s thoughtful ethnography, we also learn much about English Victorian society and culture.  Insightful outside observers like her can note and record customs and details that are so commonplace for natives that they often remain unremarked.  Her descriptions of the world of middle-class English households, as well as the indigenous racial and other cultural attitudes toward Indians and other foreigners, thus enrich our understanding of this transitional period for imperial England.

Readers of Krishnabhabini’s fascinating and significant book will therefore find much to learn from and savour.

Michael H. Fisher

Robert S. Danforth Professor of History

Oberlin College, USA

January 2015

Chapter Twenty

Last Words

I have seen so many new things in this country and have gained knowledge on so many new subjects; but the more I see and learn about it, the longer I am living here, the more I am remembering India and this makes my heart ache. As I compare this country with that, I understand the great differences between them even more. I am also suffering a lot of mental pain on seeing the pitiable condition of India. Sometimes, I feel totally frustrated and feel India’s sorrow will never be reduced. At other times, I feel a little hopeful and think just as I am feeling for my country, similar feelings are also reverberating in many people’s minds back there. Like me, many people are mentally suffering after seeing the miserable condition of my country and so, hopefully they will compare both the good and bad aspects of the homeland and foreign lands and try to do something for the well-being of our country.

After reading about the knowledge, trade, labour, and women’s education in England, every Indian will understand how much more developed England is in comparison to India. Again, when you read about the English society, domestic life, personal independence of every individual, their love for the motherland, self-respect, etc., you will understand how different English life is from the Indian one. We Hindus are the descendants of the famous Aryans. Right from ancient times, even before the Greeks, our civilisation, religion, knowledge and learning have been famous in the world. We admired truth and courage. Even when all civilised nations had the practice of owning slaves, the Hindus were the only people who restrained themselves from such a heinous act as they did not believe in keeping another fellow human being bonded for life. Their brave deeds and fame spread across the world and their excellence in ancient mathematics, astrology, and philosophy acted as a leading light for other civilised races to follow and get inspired from to make new discoveries. We are the children of those Hindus but why are we in such a state now? Today, we have lost our courage, strength, wealth, prestige, independence, and complete happiness. Why are we residing in our own country in such a pathetic condition? Why have we forgotten the great achievements of the Hindus in cities like Kashi (Varanasi), Prayag (Allahabad) and Mathura today and are paying all our respects to Calcutta only?  Everyone knows the reason why but no one is willing to give the answer or wants to listen to the answer. No one will even admit that this has happened due to our own fault. The English people have two hands, two legs, and no part of their body is different or superior to that of the Indians. Isn’t it our fault that now we are subservient to them?

The Hindu women who undauntedly committed themselves to the fire in order to maintain their sanctity when their husbands left for the battlefield were also, at one point of time, known in all corners of the world because of their bravery. Their religion, chastity and bravery were ideals to be followed but today we, their daughters, are subservient and are being crushed underfoot. Isn’t this the fault of India’s own sons and daughters? Where is the bravery and courage of the Indian women today? Where is their zeal today to offer all the jewelry for procuring food for the soldiers? Today, when we see the sons of India sitting idle like cowards, we ask: where is the zeal to ignite their minds once again? We have nothing now and we have lost everything due to our own fault.  Lack of unity, like an evil serpent, has caused our destruction. It is because of this lack of unity that India is divided into so many parts and after the rule of the Muslims, she has now fallen under the control of the English. It is because of their unity that the people of this very tiny island could defeat the huge Hindustan and rule over it completely. It is because of this lack of unity that we are now turning poor and powerless and in spite of being civilised, we are subservient and considered uncivilised. Tiny termites get together and create huge molehills and if man tries to torture them in any way, instead of getting scared of huge human beings, they come out aggressively in hordes and start taking revenge for the torture inflicted upon them. But we human beings, with huge bodies, do not get together to protest but are afraid to face our rivals instead. 

The Hindus were worshipped throughout the world at one point of time for their civilisation and repository of knowledge; but now they are considered uncultured, lifeless cowards who are subservient to the independent races of people. They are looked down upon and in spite of being creatures of flesh and blood, they remain complacent about it and endure all humiliation. Isn’t it our own fault that we do not even feel insulted about it? The Bengalis are the most intelligent and learned among all Indians but they are cowards and lack bravery. So, what is the necessity for all their wisdom and learning? Other people in different parts of India are not crushed under the feet of the British as the Bengalis are, nor do they quiver in fear after seeing a white man’s face.

These people behave very strictly with women. The educated Bengali youth are busy acquiring degrees and seeking their own pleasure but they are incapable of seeing the silent tears that the Bengali woman keeps on shedding while being confined in a cage. The English women are now struggling to become members of parliament, are creating a lot of commotion and trying very hard to win power for themselves. In a similar manner, if we could strike at the heart of each Indian and ask for women’s liberation, if we did away with our docile and tender nature, and instead of keeping all our sorrows confined within our hearts, could shout and create a commotion in front of them, probably the Bengalis would lend ears to our pain and suffering. But by remaining subservient for a long time, we have lost all our power and strength for an independent life and that is why we are incapable of being equal to men in all respects as the English women are attempting to be. 

There are so many kinds of pleasurable sights in this country but what I prefer to see most are the meetings where men and women participate equally, play games together and also, grown-up women going to school. I love to see how all of them move around like brothers and sisters and play and laugh together. Which Indian’s mind would not be filled with joy after seeing this? But after looking at their happiness, instead of forgetting our sorrow, we become doubly sad.  The more I see the mark of independence on the face of the English woman, the sad and demure face of the Indian woman arises in my mind even more.

Many people lack racial strength, intelligence or unity; but the firm love for their nation has helped them to uplift themselves from a miserable and subservient state. But we do not even know the meaning of what love for the nation is. We spend our days complacently and do not get excited or eager to sacrifice our leisure even when we see the torture being inflicted upon our homeland. Like animals, we only prefer self-gratification and are totally oblivious of the welfare of India. We do not sit down together to have serious discussions on issues that would either develop the nation or bring more harm.

To conclude, I want to say that it is no use lamenting ancient times. Instead, we should specifically think of the present and the future. A truly knowledgeable person should understand the issues related to the past and then, act carefully now as well as in future. When we consider both our homeland and the foreign land together, we understand the reality of the present condition. We should constantly evaluate and then, adopt methods that will improve our present condition and also be beneficial in the future. If we analyse the history of civilised and prospering nations, we find that they have been continuously changing. This change has come very slowly and the gradual development has brought in a new countenance. We also see that those races which have not undergone any change at all and have remained in the same static position for a long time are now declining to a worse position and moving towards an imminent downfall. Just as man, animals, trees etc. change continuously, in the same way the main goal of every race is also to bring forth change. So, the only way to rectify the current miserable state of our country is through change and development.

Many people are excited by the idea that “we have to become independent” and ignite false hopes in the minds of others. But we must first consider whether we have the requisite qualifications to become independent, whether we can retain that independence and whether we have the strength to gain that independence. Before succeeding in our goal, we should know the ways and means to be adopted to achieve that goal. We should know whether we possess the virtues of the race we want to defeat and bring them down from their position as rulers. We have to ascertain whether we have sufficient power, knowledge, and tactics within ourselves. If we don’t have those qualities collectively, instead of showing false chivalry, we have to do away with superstitions and all old and harmful traditions and try our level best to inculcate all their virtues.  

Leaving behind all my friends and relatives, I bade farewell to my loving motherland with a lot of difficulty and am now living in this foreign land. I don’t even know whether I will be able to see my birthplace and my loving friends and relatives again. Many thoughts have been disturbing my mind for a long time and at times, I cannot control the pain and anxiety within me. That suffering has doubled after coming to this foreign land and I am expressing parts of it in this book in order to offer solace to my own mind. If any part of this book seems bad to my fellow countrymen, they will hopefully pardon me by thinking that the more one is hurt, the more loudly one speaks out. Many people could have written this book in a more refined language, expressed the inner thoughts of my mind in better words; but no one else could experience the mental stress and turmoil that this Bengali woman is undergoing for residing in a foreign land.  My readers can discard the bad sections and select only the good portions, if there are any. If even one person is inspired by new thoughts and feelings after reading this book or thinks about his homeland and the foreign land, I will know that all my labour has been successful.   

Here, Mother! I have come to independent Britain
With lots and lots of hope
I thought I will win eternal peace
But Mother India! Where is the happiness?

The more I listen to songs of independence here
The more I see jubilant spirits all around
The more my heart breaks into hundred pieces
And flows away in tears.

This Britain, like your daughter
A tiny country, but vigorous in spirit
Shakes the earth with its strength and bravery
Humanity is scared in fear
Of its courageous feats.

But no one fears us
Finding us cowards, they chase us far away
Mother! They take away all your wealth
And chain you instead.

As I look at this zealous spirit
This great pleasure, rich in wealth,
I despise myself and loathe to remain alive
In low subservient disgrace.

If you were ugly, and
Only with deserts full of sand,
Even that was better than this slavery
And to live a life of abject disgrace.
Only the weak tolerate such torture.

Mother! It would even have been better
If we were all caught in a web of ignorance
If we were savages like the Zulus,
And possessed the wealth of freedom,
We would be free of all pain.

Of what use is the wealth of knowledge
Of art and civilisation
If the priceless wealth eludes us
And glorifies the whole world?
Only heartache abounds!

I can see you suffer
With greater clarity from this distance
But alas! This merely doubles the pain
And increases it further.
Mother! It’s a terrible Bengali life.

So I think once more
If we were seeped in sea of ignorance
I would not cry ceaselessly
Sitting with a broken heart,
In this distant land of free Britain.

I see lots and lots of wealth
In Britain that has come
Floating from India,
Leaving the country forever in poverty
They will never go back again.

I also see the flag in the distance,
Flying with pride on top of the palace.
Inside sits Queen Victoria,
Ruling from Britain our mother India
With the Kohinoor crown on her head.

But, as I contemplate how
The Kohinoor becomes your jewel
And finds a place in the heart of England,
I remember this and such events in history.
And feel overwhelmed.

The goddess of Britain is not above you
O Mother! What injustice!
Even now I cannot think of it
The jewel of Ranjit Singh on her head.
Blood boils in my veins.

About the Book

This is a translation from Bengali to English of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule with Bengal as its capital. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class Bengali lady who accompanied her husband on his second visit to England in 1882, where they lived for eight years. Krishnabhabini wrote her narrative in Bengali and the account was published in Calcutta in 1885 as England-e Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England). This anonymous publication had the author’s name written simply as “A Bengali Lady”. It is not a travel narrative per se as Das was also trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life, such as the English race and their nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, religion and celebration, British labour, and trade. Though Hindu women did not observe the purdah as Muslim women did, they had, until then, remained largely invisible, confined within their homes and away from the public gaze. Their rightful place was within the domestic sphere and it was quite uncommon for a middle-class Indian woman to expose herself to the outside world or participate in activities and debates in the public domain. This self-ordained mission of educating people back home with the ground realities in England is what makes Krishnabhabini’s narrative unique. The narrative offers a brilliant picture of the colonial interface between England and India and shows how women travellers from India to Europe worked to shape feminized personae characterised by conventionality, conservatism and domesticity, even as they imitated a male-dominated tradition of travel and travel writing.

About the Translator

Somdatta Mandal is former Professor of English and Chairperson of the Department of English and Other Modern European Languages at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. Her areas of interest are contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, diaspora studies and translation. A recipient of several prestigious awards and fellowships, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya. She has written two academic books and edited and co-edited twenty books and journals, including three anthologies, Indian Travel Narratives (2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), Indian Travel Writing: New Perspectives (2021) and “India and Travel Narratives” for Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities Volume 12 (3), May 2020.

Among her translations on travel writing are The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose with a foreword by Ashis Nandy, Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore FamilyEnglande Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England) by Krishnabhabini Das, Bangamohilar Japan Jatra (A Bengali Lady’s Trip to Japan and Other Essays) by Hariprabha Takeda with a foreword by Michael H. Fisher, Chitrita Devi’s Onek Sagar Periye (Crossing Many Seas), Rabindranath Tagore’s Pather Sanchoy (Gleanings of the Road), and two travel memoirs of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis along with Rabindranath Tagore, Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe) and Kobir Shonge Dakkhinattey (With the Poet in the South).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Interview

Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest

In Conversation with Somdatta Mandal

Professor Somdatta Mandal

Somdatta Mandal, an eminent academic, has translated so many books and writers that it is difficult to pin her down as a doyen of one great. Her extensive work amazes with its variety intercepted with humour. Reading through her translations, Nirmalakumari’s account of how Tagore was manipulated by Mussolini, is like comprehending and living through history. It adheres and makes an impact to lead to the realisation that history is often repeated, only the cast of characters and locations change. That Tagore could put that behind him and rise above this incident (hyped by the media then) to connect with his vision reflected not just in his writings but also in the institution (Santiniketan) he created and which he reached out for help to keep intact. All this is brought home to us through just one of Mandal’s many translations, Kobi and Rani.

She talks more of her extensive findings while translating and experiencing the world from writings across the ages. She reflects on how Tagore’s vision for Santiniketan remains to be yet realised. Her answers showcase a scholar who shines in any setting not just with reflected light of others she translates but with her own inner convictions laced with a rare sense of humour. She has much to say and share in this extensive interview. We are happy to project her voice to you.

You were teaching in Santiniketan. Tell us a bit about the legendary university. How is it different from others? Has it lived up to what the Kobiguru visualised?

I retired from Visva-Bharati two years ago after teaching in the English Department there for about eighteen years. My area of specialization has been American Literature, Film and Culture Studies and Diaspora Literature. I started teaching in Santiniketan initially thinking of it as a new job at a university, but soon realised that away from the cacophony of life in Kolkata where I was born and bred, working and living all that while, the place would gradually exert its own idyllic charm upon me. Now in my retirement I want to live there in peace and use the place as a writer’s retreat. In spite of being in the news at present for all the wrong reasons, Santiniketan has its own charm, lifestyle and culture that grows within you and cannot be imposed from outside.

I think most people know, but nevertheless let me reiterate a few facts about Santiniketan. Kobiguru had visualized the institution to be different from other standard ones so that away from rote learning methods, students could imbibe the fresh ambience of studying in the lap of nature. As publicity pictures still project it, the classes in the school section are still held open air under the trees, but the university section is similar to other standard institutions.

In fact, ever since Visva-Bharati was established in 1921, it was considered to be a special place of learning inviting teachers and students from all over the world. The poet selected for its motto an ancient Sanskrit verse, Yatra visvam bhavatieka nidam, which means, ‘where the whole world meets in a single nest’.“Visva-Bharati,” he declared, ” represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.” The institution has excelled in areas of fine arts, singing, painting, dance, different Indian and foreign languages, and especially in the idea of rural reconstruction.

Tagore laid great emphasis on universal humanism, internationalism and trans-culturalism. He sought a positive outcome from the East-West encounters. This syncretic culture imbues the vast oeuvre of his work: it has propelled his activism and lives in his pragmatic projects today. His vision was to ultimately strengthen the fundamental conditions of world peace through the establishment of free communication of ideas between the two hemispheres.

Since 1951, when Visva-Bharati was considered as an institution of special eminence by an act of Parliament and was turned into a Central University, problems started creeping out gradually from Pandora’s box. On the one hand, it had to abide by the rules laid down by the University Grants Commission (UGC), follow its basic dictates of syllabi formulation etc. and on the other, the old ashramites and others consistently worried about the institution losing its special character to become like any other run-of-the-mill university. This dichotomy has not been resolved till date and sometimes the conflict between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ takes an ugly shape. Apparently, Tagore had made a special rule that in order to generate local employment people residing within the radius of twenty kilometres of the university should be given jobs but according to Central Government dictates, it should have a pan-Indian profile and recruit people from all over the country. This turmoil has resulted in a sort of stalemate for the past few years.

I mention all this to emphasise that the glory of erstwhile Santiniketan and Visva-Bharati has diminished greatly in the process, and it is no longer the experimental school that Tagore had initially wanted it to be. Even during his lifetime, he went from country to country delivering lectures to generate funds for his dream project and had realised how difficult it was becoming to sustain the institution financially. There is the famous saying that he had even requested Mahatma Gandhi to help and run the institution in his absence. In 1940 a year before he died, he put a letter in Gandhi’s hand,

“Visva-Bharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure, and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.”

Anyhow, after joining Visva-Bharati, I realised that apart from some cursory reading, I hardly knew anything about this great man, this polymath, someone who queried some interpretations of his life and work through a holistic perspective. Also, interdisciplinary seminars and interactions with faculty members of other departments made me aware of many new areas that I was oblivious of. It was quite unconsciously that little by little the spirit of Tagore, his work, his culture, seeped into my veins as it did into that of many of my city-bred colleagues.

My impetus to read and translate Tagore also gained momentum when we had to work for the academic excellence of our department by working for the UGC SAP (Special Assistance Programme). The thrust area of this Departmental Research Scheme was “Tagoreana” – we started visiting libraries and academic institutions all over India and began compiling all available material on Tagore in English. It gave us a clear picture that in reality very few critical books had been written on him in English and the plight of translated volumes was even worse. It seemed as if the work done till date was equal to a few pebbles lying on the vast seashore of knowledge. Along with this comprehensive checklist, at the end of each year, we organised a seminar on different perspectives related to Tagore and his work. Also, in order to justify the seriousness of the project, we started bringing out a book publication every year, with each teacher contributing to it. This was when I got interested in reading and translating Tagore’s non-fiction, his selected letters, his humorous pieces of dramatic skits known as Hasyakoutuk, and different essays and travel narratives. It was a vast gold mine in front of me just waiting to be explored. Here was a man of all seasons and gradually by default, being in Visva-Bharati, all of us gradually veered away from our initial area of expertise and got seeped into reading, writing and translating him. I remembered how in a light vein a professor of the Hindi department saw our first publication on ‘Tagoreana’ and told me, “Even you English professors have now got stuck in the old man’s beard!!”

You have translated lot of Tagore. What got you interested in translation — and as tough a writer as the maestro in English?

Before coming to my translation work on Tagore and how it began, I need to mention here that my role as a translator began in a strange way with a commissioned piece of work many years ago. Professor Sukumari Bhattacharya had an interesting Bengali book entitled Ramayan O Mahabarater Anupratik Jonopriyota (The Comparative Popularity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and she wanted it to be translated into English. Her daughter Tanika Sarkar had begun doing the first few chapters but could not complete it. So, she was looking for a competent translator whose style would not clash with the earlier section already translated. I was given a sample chapter to work on and had to literally go and face her in a serious interview before being assigned the job. She went through my translation meticulously, pencilled a few changes, and gave me the green signal to go on. Translating very difficult Sanskritised Bengali was a real challenge in my life which very often had to be combatted armed with a thesaurus and dictionary. Sometimes, I found that after a whole afternoon’s labour I had proceed only two sentences. Anyhow, after I eventually submitted the entire work, the file somehow got lost. In a bed-ridden state Professor Bhattacharya went through the entire manuscript and approved it, often suggesting a few changes in the use of words. A few months later she passed away and nothing was heard of that translation anymore. For almost five years I would brood over the fate of my unborn first child. Fortunately, when her house was being cleaned and vacated, the lost file was recovered, and the book was published by Anustoop under the joint names of Tanika Sarkar and me.

That difficult initiation as a translator gave me tremendous moral boost and confirmed my capability as a serious translator. Tagore was no longer a problem. The only fear that I had was being too close to the original text as taking liberties with such a canonical writer was unthinkable for me. But times changed. I realised that readability of a translated text was a very important criterion than mere literal translation. So gradually I started becoming even more colloquial with Tagore’s texts. It should read as if it was written in English itself and not in the convoluted style of late 19th century or early 20th century. Contributing to The Essential Tagore volume brought out by Harvard University Press and Visva-Bharati in 2011, to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, was also an eye-opener for me. The extremely meticulous editors Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty made me revise my entries several times in order to make the text read not like a vintage piece but a living vibrant text. Translating some of the skits from Hasyakoutuk was challenging and fun at the same time, as we could come across a different Rabindranath, full of pun, wit and satire, and quite different from the serious philosophical poet he is usually considered to be.

Again, teaching the very poor quality of translation of Tagore’s Home and the World done by Surendranath Tagore during the poet’s lifetime to graduate and undergraduate students at the university made me realise why so many of my non-Bengali professor friends spoke so badly about the text.  Gradually I found myself translating many more different areas of Tagore’s writing. The essays of Pother Sonchoy (Gleanings of the Road) that Tagore wrote during his 1912 visit to England were not travel pieces per se and often ventured into philosophical musings. Niyogi Books readily brought out the volume and it was released in Kolkata at the Oxford Book Store with a lot of fanfare by Sankhya Ghosh and many others.

In the meantime, along with many lesser-known letters, early essays on travel by Rabindranath, Visva-Bharati Publications Department brought out the book Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family that contains entries of travel essays written by nineteen members of the Tagore family beginning from Dwarkanath Tagore to Sumitendranath Tagore. Incidentally, among these nineteen entries, nine were by women of the Tagore family. So you see, translating travel writing and Tagore somehow overlapped without any conscious effort on my part.

Again, translating two travel narratives by Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis (aka Rani) is equally important because they are memoirs based on her travels with Tagore. Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe) and Kobir Shonge Dakshinnatey (With the Poet in the South) narrate the incidents of the poet’s tour to Europe in 1926 and to South India and Sri Lanka in 1928 respectively. Incidentally, though written many years later, the first narrative is the only account of the important seven-month trip that Rabindranath undertook to Europe where he met Mussolini and many important political and social stalwarts of the day. Both these travelogues are included in my present volume of translation entitled Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.

Other than Tagore, you have translated more writers from colonial times to English. Why do you translate mainly travel-related writing from the past? What got you interested in this period and in travel-writing?

My interest in travel writing began many years earlier when it was not even recognised as a canonical enough genre. In a seminar on ‘Travel Writing’ that I had organized in our department, I received a great impetus when Mushirul Hasan, the famous historian and then Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, attended as the chief-guest and delivered the keynote address. He had already worked and edited several volumes of travel narratives especially in Urdu and made it clear that this area of study upheld immense possibilities.

Now let me mention how apart from the writings of Tagore and his family members, my interest in travel literature grew. After work hours, I started spending the late afternoons in our university library and found immense treasure of travel books in Bengali among the unkept dusty stacks, books which had not been issued for as long as fifty years. No one gave me any computerised list of what texts were available and this manual hunting revealed many unheard names of writers. I just picked them up, issued them and dumped them in my car. Some of the books were brittle, some never issued at all. In this way I had picked up Paschimjatriki by a lady called Durgabati Ghose who went for a tour to Europe with her husband in 1932. I liked the text very much and translated it and Orient Blackswan published it as The Westward Traveller with a foreword by Ashis Nandy. Anyhow, in due course of time, I had developed a handsome collection of travel texts and my interest increased with time. In the meantime, to digress a little, I have edited three volumes on Indian Travel Writing, and one special issue of an online journal, the first one in 2010 and the last one in November 2020. The number of abstracts that flooded my mailbox everyday was unusual and in spite of strict deadlines, I had to reject many good papers due to lack of space. I remember the publisher of the first volume returned 90 copies of the book as he said that since travel writing was not included in any university syllabi or course, they were not selling, and he lacked space in his warehouse. Within a span of a decade, the genre has gained a lot of popularity and many scholars are now keenly pursuing their research in this area. 

Speaking about translating writers from the past I find it safer as in most cases the copyright period is over and seeking permission is easier. Also, I must confess how I underwent a personal trauma after translating a living writer. Let me be a bit more specific. Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s Koruna Tomar Kone Path Diye is an excellent narrative about her visit to a seminar in Hyderabad and her sudden decision to travel to the Kumbh Mela. This book interested me a lot and I went through a publisher seeking her permission to translate the text. She asked me to submit two sample chapters and then gave the green signal to go ahead. I completed the entire translation within the stipulated time and sent it to her. Now began the difficult part. She did not like certain sections (“I don’t see myself in it as I should”, she explained) and the manuscript went through innumerable revisions and alterations, often with the consultation of family members and other editors. The cheeky, colloquial tone of the original Bangla text was lost – one perennial problem of translation for sure. Anyhow, the publisher introduced two more editors and in the end the book did come out under a different translator’s name with a due acknowledgement in the foreword for all my effort! So, it was a wise decision on my part henceforth to stick to older writers from the past.

Also, though for a long time, travel writing had been relegated as an inferior form of literature, I found in many texts what I call little nuggets of history. For example, in Durgabati Ghose’s text there is a hilarious incident about her going to meet Sigmund Freud in Vienna. As the daughter of the famous psychoanalyst Girindra Sekhar Bose, she went to meet Professor Freud who was her father’s friend, and what emerged in that meeting is something unusual when Durgabati felt that Freud himself should be psychoanalyzed for his excessive love of dogs. When I mentioned that incident, Ashis Nandy regretted that if he knew about this incident earlier, he would have definitely included it in his book, The Savage Freud. Again, in Crossing Many Seas, Chitrita Devi tells us how she went to visit the British Parliament in 1947 and on that very day saw the white paper of independence being granted to India. Many other such interesting historical events and significant people are often found in very ordinary travel narratives.

What are the challenges you face while translating Bengali to English? How do you solve them?

Basically, I still consider mine as literal translations and do not venture out into bringing in radical changes. The basic challenge I face is maintaining a readable sentence structure as the English and Bengali have different methods of composition. I don’t translate directly into the computer, rather I prefer to do it in long hand. Though it entails more work, I find that I end up usually reversing the order of the sentence when I am correcting and keying it in the computer. If possible, I then ask any friend of mine to read the translation and offer any necessary suggestions for change. This system works well for me. Also, now I usually try and translate everything in the past tense and that makes it more readable. Breaking up long, convoluted sentences into shorter readable ones is another method I tend to adopt. With time and experience, I feel more confident in making such alterations.

Why do you think translating is important? What is the role of translations in a world with 6500 languages?

In spite of all its drawbacks, translation is the only way in which we can open out to other people, whether in regional languages in India or in other languages across the world. Let me give you an interesting example. Recently I reviewed a book called Rebati: Speaking in Tongues. ‘Rebati’ is a famous short story written in 1898 by the famous Odia writer Fakir Mohan Senapati. It is a tragic tale in which the dream of self-actualisation of a young girl through education comes crashing down as much due to a rampaging epidemic as due to a mindset deeply hostile to change. In this particular book, the editor, Manu Dash, has managed to bring in 36 different incarnations of the story. Arranged alphabetically, ‘Rebati’ is presented in twenty-four Indian and twelve foreign languages in all. As the editor informs us, most of the writers commissioned to translate it in different languages have taken the English or the Hindi version as their source text. For the lay reader therefore, it is not possible to vouch for the quality of the translated text. But that we are able to understand the significance of this late nineteenth century story across so many countries and cultures across the globe is what is more significant than the actual quality of the translation.

Is it possible to have cultural exchanges among languages without losing out nuances in translation?

Translation and its problems, especially when the translated pieces are twice or thrice removed from the original source text, is nothing unique and hence even labelled by terms like ‘transliteration’ and ‘transcreation’. In one of his earlier semiotic investigations, ‘The Search for the Perfect Language’, Umberto Eco argued that the Book of Genesis charts the decline of humanity into the chaos of Babel. The poly-linguistic world we live in is one more punishment from God for our baseness and general nastiness. In ‘Mouse or Rat?: Translation As Negotiation’, Eco is back on the subject of this post-lapsarian movement between different tongues, the perilous attempt to express concepts from one language into another. He suggests that translation is a negotiation’ not just between words but between cultures – “Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.”

As a translator I am very conscious about this kind of cultural exchange. Maintaining culture-specific words within the translated version, but at the same time making its meaning clear for the reader to understand, is probably one way of retaining this culture specificity. The lesser the use of glossary the better. Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest novel Whereabouts which she self-translated from Italian into English attests to the fact: “Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways.”

Which is your favourite writer to translate? And why?

None in particular. I just sometimes happen to like a piece of work and feel it should be translated for a greater pan-Indian readership. Sometimes the reverse is also true. In the summer of 2004, I was residing at Bellagio in Italy on a Rockefeller Fellowship when the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine published a new short story by Jhumpa Lahiri called ‘Heaven-Hell’. Upon reading the story about the protagonist called Pranab-Kaku, I was so taken aback by its Bengaliness, I felt that every Bengalis who usually do not read English fiction and yet basked in the glory that a Bengali girl had recently won the Pulitzer prize should immediately read it.  Without a second thought or even seeking any permission from anyone, I instantly sat down and translated the story into Bangla. Later when I returned to Kolkata and gave it to a senior professor to read. he was so impressed that without even informing me he sent it to the magazine Kali O Kolom which published it. I am lucky that no one sued me for copyright violation.

Recently I read a short story called ‘Barnabaad’ (Casteism) by Manoranjan Byapari in the Sunday supplement of Pratidin newspaper called Robbar and felt the urge to translate into English immediately. Dalit writing in Bengali is slowly gaining academic attention and I immediately asked someone to seek permission from the writer to allow me to translate it into English. Byapari, busy with his own electioneering campaign at that time, was thrilled and immediately gave me the permission. The translated story has been accepted by the international journal Transnational Literature and will see the light of day soon. So, you see there is no special or favourite writer for me to translate. Way back in the nineties, I remember I had voluntarily translated some essays on cinema that Satyajit Ray published in Bishoy Challachitra, but I was too naïve to know then that you needed his wife’s permission to do so. The translated pages therefore travelled to the wastepaper basket in due course.

Was it different translating Bengali women from translating Tagore? How did the experience differ?

Usually, the tone of Bengali women’s writing that I have translated to date is much more colloquial and homely, but we cannot always make generalisations. Many women wrote their travelogues at the request of family and friends and not for public consumption. But some women like Krishnabhabini Das took her job of imparting knowledge rather seriously. Also, we should not make the mistake of assuming that all Tagore’s works are of high philosophical and moral content. There are many pieces of Tagore’s writing which are also simple, homely, easy to translate and again there are places where he often quotes from the Upanishads and one needs the help of Sanskrit scholars to understand the real meaning of those quotations. So, there is no such hard and fast rule, and it all depends on what particular work and by which writer we are translating.

Were the Bengali women, like Krishnabhabini Das, you translated any different from the women associated with Tagore? How and why?

This question is more or less a repetition of the last question. Each woman’s writing has a different aim and purpose and so they cannot be clubbed together under some general definitions. The reason for the travel and the target readership is different in each individual case. Published in 1885, Krishnabhabini Das’s England-e-Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England) was published in Calcutta originally without her name in the title. Her identity was just that of a Bengali woman who chanced to go to England along with her husband. Her book was not a travelogue in the true sense of the term, but her aim was to seriously convey the social conditions of England at that time and to educate her sisters back home who were still in fetters and did not know much about female emancipation. Her writing is serious in nature, and she took the help of other sources and books to authenticate and explain everything in detail.

For Hariprabha Takeda, a Bengali Brahmo woman, who went to Japan in 1912 for four months along with her husband to meet her Japanese in-laws there, it was a totally personal affair.  Thus, even though language was a big bar, Bongomohilar Japanjatra [The Journey of A Bengali Woman to Japan] is more intimate in tone and narration where she tries to define the idea of ‘home’ to her readers. For Chitrita Devi, sister of Maitreyi Devi, Onek Sagor Periye (Crossing many Seas) narrates travels to different places in the world in seven different segments. As a member of the P.E. N. network, her outlook and narration is much more erudite and polished than others.

I can go on citing more examples but the basic point I want to make is that the social class and status of the woman narrator is different in each case. For women associated with Tagore, this becomes even more clearly marked. Rabindranath’s daughter-in-law, Protima Devi, wrote Nirbaan (Nirvana) immediately after the poet’s death. This text is very different from the four other women who narrated the last days of their association with Rabindranath. Though the incidents are the same, each woman’s narration comes in different styles. Thus, Rani Chanda or Maitreyi Devi or Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis’s narration have to be read side by side to understand what I mean as to the relationship of the subject to the narrator. My book The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs does exactly that. Translating each woman’s narration separately was a challenge no doubt but when they are juxtaposed together, the point-of-view of each narrator becomes clearer.

Why do you stick to women and Tagore only? Have you ever thought of exploring translations of other writers like Nazrul or Jibonanondo?

As I have already mentioned, this was not a deliberate choice. I am not a feminist as such but somehow at the end of the day I find that I have translated the works of more women than men. Since none of the translations that I have done till date have been commissioned projects by publishers or authors themselves, I just translate what and when I fancy reading and feel inspired to translate. You know translation has often been called ‘transcreation’ and this creative process is something that interests me very much. Though not a creative writer per se, the translating process also gives me liberty in selecting words, style and that grants me a lot of freedom which is no less important than creative writing. About translating Nazrul or Jibonanando, I must admit that I am not very comfortable with translating poetry. I prefer to stick to prose, whether fiction or non-fiction. The more difficult the prose style, the more challenging the translating process becomes. Also, in hindsight I feel since women were marginalised in the creative process and often not taken seriously at all, as a woman myself, it is my duty to explore and translate the writings of women even more.

Have you ever thought of writing yourself?

I have written a lot of critical essays and articles but when it comes to creative writing, my contribution is negligible. However, for a long period of time I wrote small features for the ‘Now and Again’ column published in the Op-ed section of The Statesman. These pieces made me quite popular as often when introduced to strangers for the first time, I would be asked whether I was the same person who wrote that column. Occasionally, I wrote several short entries about any and everything in life that interested me or I experienced first-hand without any false attributes in them. They were written primarily to divert myself from boring academic schedules and I called them ‘Vignettes of Life’when it was first published. Later it expanded into another edition called ‘More Vignettes of Life’ and the last one being called ‘Vignettes of Life Once More’. They contain any and everything that happened to me and in places around me, I am the narrator and the protagonist, and the result is that I have been able to make people laugh. In this troublesome and problem-ridden world, pure laughter and fun are vanishing so fast that I consider these short entries to be really cathartic. As for serious creative writing like writing short stories or poems, I never attempted to do that. Perhaps I am too prosaic a person you might say with very little imagination. 

What is your next project? Tell us a bit about it.

I am at present involved in a voluminous project which I began at least five years ago about different Bengalis from colonial times travelling to Vilayet or England and narrating their experiences in different genres of writing. Though I had to be selective in choosing the travellers over their two-hundred-year time span, sometimes unavailability of the primary texts made things more difficult. I am at present working on approximately forty such travellers, some of whom had written their memoirs in English. For those who wrote in Bengali, I am translating selected portions of their work for the purpose. So it is a quite laborious and time-consuming work but at the same time, very interesting because the multifarious reasons for each person’s travel to the coloniser’s land is mind-boggling. The structure of the book includes a brief bio-note of each traveller along with several sample pages from the actual narrative so that the reader can savour their experiences first-hand. I hope it sees the light of day soon.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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