A conversation with Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharya, the translator of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar, brought out by Niyogi Books.
In 2017, the Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred pitcher) was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A Times of India report read: “The committee noted that as the largest harmonious conclave in the world, Kumbha Mela stands for values like magnanimity and patience that are very beneficial for the modern humanity. Moreover, the concept of Kumbha Mela goes well with the current international human rights tools because the festival welcomes people from all corners of the world without any differentiation.”
Five years down the line, Niyogi Books brought out a translation of Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar, an epic travelogue translated from Bengali by Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee on the festival at the confluence of the three rivers, Ganga, Saraswati and Jamuna — in Allahabad. An eminent acknowledged writer, whose stories won not just literary acclaim like the Sahitya Akademi award but were translated to prize winning films, Bose’s solo voice stands alone in the translated version — as that of Kalkut, one of the pseudonyms he assumed.
In the early part of the book, Bose gives the reason for his journey into this crowded event which even in the middle of the pandemic (2021) had 3.5 million visitors: “Observing this great variety of humankind on the move is a thirst that is not easily quenched.” Bose’s exploration came long before the pandemic as his book was published in 1954. Then a Bengali film was made on it in 1982.
The writer claimed to have set out to look into the heart of the nation: “I would dive deep into that heart of India. I would identify my own face in this strange mirror of India. That face is my mind. My religion.” And he discovers, “the poor India was there like a faded cloth by the side of a muslin chunni.” While peeling layers of poverty and ‘respectability’, he introduces us to a bevy of characters which include not just Godmen, but also women, who evolved from wifehood to prostitution to godwomen, to young girls forced to marry polygamous octogenarians, to people in quest of lost family members, to men in search of the intangible — and all united together for a dip in the holy ‘sangam’ of three rivers, the ultimate panacea for all ailments and ills for believers. That the author is not part of the believing crowds, but a sympathetic, humane commentator is obvious from his conversations with various people and his actions, which defy boundaries drawn by the respectable god minding devotees thronging the festival. He uses the event to pinpoint the flaws of socially accepted norms and to find compassion for the less fortunate. He laces his narrative with love and compassion for humanity.
The title itself both in Bengali and English conveys the quest for nectar or the divine amrita of immortality which led to a festival that washes away sins with a dip at the confluence. Legend has it that the gods and the rakshasas worked together to draw out the ambrosial drink at this sangam and then, the gods cheated and consumed all of it, judging the other party as too evil to be handed eternal life in a cup. The unbreachable walls had started and perhaps continue even to this date.
The real origin of the festival as Bose contended remains disputed like that of many other cultural lores, though people do continue to quest for miracles in the waters that were supposed to have thrown up the ambrosia. The narrative implies the educated and schooled rarely participated in this event. There is a mention of the prime minister at the festival, but that would be as a dignitary, and not as part of the crowd.
The crowd in its urgency to take a dip at the holy hour, results in a stampede and many deaths. It is a sad and philosophical ending which clearly takes us back to the questions raised at the start of the narrative. “If lakhs of people are blinded by faith, then why not search for the reason? What is that celestial blinker which can blind lakhs of eyes?”
While questioning faith, the narrative exposes the gaps in society with compassion — even between the educated and uneducated that has become a severe point of contention as more fissures into society and creating more boundaries. At the end of the book, one wonders have things really changed from the 1950s when Bose wrote the book to the current experience where the UNESCO, a modern-day construct and belief, has dubbed this festival as a juncture where all humanity congregates? Do they? To enlighten us on this issue, we conversed with the eminent translator of this powerful book, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee.
What led you to translate Samaresh Bose’s In Search of a Pitcher of Nectar?
Samaresh Bose was a celebrated novelist. Social content of his novels can never be over-emphasized. But when he started writing travelogues under the pseudo -name Kalkut, he invented a new creative trajectory. Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, Kothay Pabo Tarey are all classics in Bengali literature. I have been reading and rereading Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney for decades and always felt it should be presented on a national and international platform. Hence, when time and opportunity arose, I took up the translation work and the result in In Search of the Pitcher of Nectar.
There was a Bengali film (Amrita Kumbher Sandhaney, 1982) made with the story of this book. Did you use this as a resource too for your translation? What do you think of the film? Did it capture the book well?
Yes, I have watched the film when it was released. I don’t remember the details now, but the impression remains that it was a reasonably well-made film. But I don’t think it has acted as a resource for my translation work. On the contrary whenever I tried to think of Shyama, the sophisticated face of Aparna Sen would appear in my vision.
In 2017, UN declared the Kumbh-mela as an intangible cultural heritage. And yet, here Samaresh Bose mentioned a stampede within the Mela that killed many people. Do you think things have changed since he wrote this travelogue?
Definitely. Now, the Kumbh-mela is an extremely well-organised event. The way in which the administration handles the flow of lakhs of people is something to be seen to be believed. Even Harvard University researchers had undertaken a study to analyse how an ephemeral city comes up with all the civic, municipal and medical facilities for a temporary period of time. The stampede that Bose mentions are things of the past.
Have you ever been to a Kumbh-mela? Is it as he describes?
Yes, once; obviously inspired by the reading of the book. It was in early 70’s. I found it tallying with Bose’s description to a large extent. It was a lifetime experience for me, because I also went with an open mind, an agnostic as I am.
What in this book strikes you the most?
Two things struck me most in the book. One, unlike all other visitors, Bose’s was not a pilgrimage. He did not even take a dip at any of the auspicious dates and moments. He was in quest of understanding man’s urge for piety. It was as if an atheist’s search for the godhead. Secondly, the technique of writing was a unique blend of travelogue and fiction. His character sketches are something unparalleled in the history of travel writing anywhere in the world. I hope I am entitled to give this opinion, having a modest exposure to the world literature.
You are a felicitated translator. When you translate from Bengali to English, what strikes you as the biggest hurdle? And how do you get over it?
The biggest hurdle in translating from Bengali into English is the problem of culture specific transfer. Here one is not translating from an Indian language into another. Here translation is not just linguistic transfer, but culture transfer also. One has to be very careful where to valorise the source language and where to make some sacrifice for attaining compatibility to the idiom of the target language. I guess I have learnt to strike a balance between the two.
You have translated the Bengali portions fully in this book but not always the Sanskrit or Hindi? Why not?
The Sanskrit and Hindi portions in the text are very well-known quotes from Tulsidas and other celebrated poets. I thought they would communicate even without translation. More importantly, they are all in rhymed couplet or quartet. If the end rhyming is done away with, their linguistic impact will drastically reduce. And maintaining a semblance of rhyming in English was beyond me. So, I left them as they were. The case of the Bengali quotes is totally different. There I could confidently take some liberty and attain the desired impact.
Do you think a translation is better if it is closer to the text or if it captures the spirit of the piece and conveys it to the readers, though it departs from the text as in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat?
It depends on the motive of the translator. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak in her celebrated essay ‘Politics of Translation’ suggested that we should approach the text with love and empathy. If that is achieved, the translator remains as close to the text as possible; and yet he/she can take occasional liberty to capture the spirit of the original. But if the motive is to sanitise the text to cater to a particular reading community, as Tagore wrongly did or civilise the text from the point of view of master-slave attitude, as Fitzgerald did, then it is wrong. We now know how much of Tagore or Khayyam is lost in these English versions.
You have translated major writers from Bengal like Mahasweta Devi, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay and Samaresh Bose. Which has been your favourite author to translate and why?
Well, all the authors I translated so far are my favourite authors. I can not translate unless it is so. I greatly enjoy Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s young adult stories, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s romantic novels, Samaresh Bose’s dexterity in narration and characterisation, Mahasweta Devi’s socially conscious works. I have translated two novels of Tagore also for their universal appeal and extremely thought-provoking themes.
After translating this many novels, are you planning one of your own?
Oh no, I am not a creative person. I hopelessly lack imagination.
Do you have any advice for upcoming translators?
Well, I don’t feel entitled to give advice to anyone, I can only say that a wannabe translator should live with a book for some time before venturing into translation. You should not take up any translation work unless the book resonates with you or speaks to you, so to say.
Thank you for bringing the book to non-Bengali readers and also your time.
 Also known as Samaresh Basu (1924 to 1988)
 Translates to ‘ On the Golden Peak’, part of Kalkut Rachna Samagra (Kalkut’s collected writings), published in 1957 and made into a Bengali film in 1970
 Translates to ‘Where will I find Him?’, published as a part of his collected writings in 1957
 Aparna Sen, the legendary actress from Bengal, acted as a character in this film
(The book has been reviewed and the interview conducted online by emails by Mitali Chakravarty)
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