Categories
Editorial

Catch a Falling Star…

Art by Sohana Manzoor
For when your troubles starting multiplying
And they just might
It's easy to forget them without trying
With just a pocketful of starlight

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away (never let it fade away)
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day

'Catch a Falling Star' by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss

Perhaps, it is time to find that fallen star popularised by pop singer Perry Como is 1957. Optimism glimmers faintly, sometimes even conceals itself, in a world passing through a dark phase in history. For instance, few of us would know that we might find more answers to tackle  climate change as dinosaur fossils (from the time an asteroid hit the planet) have been unearthed recently. That sounds like solutions can be had to what was perceived as inevitable doom.

Another bit of news that perhaps will cheer some is the first anthology of Borderless Journal will soon be available in market. It has been accepted by a publisher, an old, trusted and reputed name from India, Om Books International. They have bookshops splattered all over — should make it easy for buyers to access the book. Hopefully, you can target the anthology for your Diwali or Christmas gift hampers. Om Books has one of the most iconic editors-in chief, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. A multiple award-winning editor, he has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and is currently churning out wonderful books from Om with a fabulous production team, working with whom has been a pleasure. Ray Chaudhuri is an outstanding film writer and poet. He is part of a group that is creating a film archive online. To know more about him or his views on publishing, you can read our online conversation with him.

The energy one gets from optimism like starlight from a fallen star, lightens the darker shadows that create gloom with the war leading to rise in prices and threats of recession in a post pandemic scenario. Lesya Bakun, the refugee from Ukraine whose story we carried last month, finds her starlight by sharing updates of her story.  She added to her narrative with the news that her cousin has been taken as a prisoner of war by Russia from the besieged factory in Ukraine. Though sharing does not alleviate suffering, Bakun’s ability to cling to hope and imagine a future where she gets her dream highlights the strength of her convictions. The other thing that is revealed by her narrative and media coverage is exclusivity and boxes of ideology split humankind, erase families, cities, countries, lives and sanity. The war can appease only the lust of warlords. Against this desolation caused by the devastation, what could be the starlight that would lead to a happier future?

Laughter. Unleashing the ability to laugh at oneself is as potent as laughter that generates relief and lightens our mood, so that we can view differences as whimsical, treat them with tolerance and compassion and not destroy the diversities that add colours to the world. Perhaps, that is why Tagore took to humour too. Somdatta Mandal has translated a series of humorous skits by Tagore. We are featuring one of these called the ‘Ordeal of Fame’. Yet another translation or transcreation of a poem called ‘Lukochuri’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ reflects the playful in Tagore’s oeuvre. These, along with Rhys Hughes humour on the pandemic in poetry and prose, bring good cheer into our journal. Hughes has also used his column to tell us why he curated a new humorous anthology of verses by seventeen poets called Wuxing Lyrical. I wonder if he is serious or joking!

We were fortunate to have a tongue-in-cheek online discussion with an academic with a witty sense of humour who started a book based on his PhD research with a limerick, Amit Ranjan, author of John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostan, Lawyer for the Ranee. While Ranjan brought to us a narrative of an Australian who challenged the colonial mindset, went to court representing the Rani of Jhansi, wrote for Charles Dickens in Household Words and moved around the world just like one of us, hopping jobs and looking for a life, we have diverse cultural streams woven into the journal with translations of a Balochi folktale from Fazal Baloch, a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi and Professor Fakrul Alam’s translation of Jibananda’s poetry, an ongoing project in Borderless.

The Nithari column has yielded us a story that was written in a mix of Hindi and English by Yogesh Uniyal and translated fully to English by Nirbhay Bhogal. We have strange stories this time. Nileena Sunil’s short narrative and Paul Mirabile’s longer one set in Madrid explore the unusual. More stories delve into the intricacies of the human mind.

As we trot around the globe, Suzanne Kamata tells us about a Monet museum in Japan where she ate madeleines made with the artist’s recipe! Meredith Stephens sails to Tasmania with her camera and gives us a glimpse of nature’s plenty. Ravi Shankar relates his trekking adventures among the Himalayas in Nepal, with awesome photographs of these mountains, while Kenny Peavy who lives in Indonesia dwells on the value of falling down and getting up in a light humorous vein against the backdrop of nature – though metaphorically perhaps the world needs to do that. We have G Venkatesh’s story about his stay in Johannesburg where he discovers that skin tones do not matter.

Ratnottama Sengupta makes the whole world look like a home with the story of a legendary screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Mahabharata for Peter Brook’s play (1985) of the same name and the subsequent film (1989) — with characters drawn from all over the world. Candice gives us an overview of the pandemic, with more focus on US where she lives.

Mike Smith travels back to another time when an ailment called World War II raged and has revived a writer from the past, HE Bates (1905-1974). We have another essay by Dan Meloche on a legendary book which turned 100 this year — Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Rakhi Dalal revisits more than a century old translation by Devabrata Mukherjee of Tagore’s The Post Office which bears relevance to the present day as it shows how the human spirit endures over even the darkness of death.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Radhika Gupta’s Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential, by his assessment a book that inspires youngsters to take charge of their future. On the other hand, there are books that explore the darkest in humans. Basudhara Roy has reviewed a collection short stories by Sunil Sharma called Burn the Library & Other Fiction. Indrashish Banerjee reviews Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest novel based on modern day crimes, Villainy, from which we are carrying a book excerpt too. The other excerpt is from a narrative written from a refugee’s perspective, Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, translated by Isis Nusair from Arabic. Born in a refugee camp in Damascus, this Syrian-Palestinian poet defies all genres to touch hearts with brutal honesty. No less sincere is Michael Burch’s poetry on summer that ushers in the season as much as Sohana’s beautiful painting that we are using as our cover photo. We have poetry from not just Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri but also by George Freek, S. Srinivas, Tohm Bakelas, Abin Chakraborty, Marianne Tefft and many more. As usual, I have not mentioned all the treats in store for you. Delve into our contents page and browse to find out more.

Before winding up, I would want to extend my thanks not only to our team and contributors, but also to our publisher who is willing to republish our content with some tweaking. Thanks to our readers who, I hope, will be excited to have selected content between their palms as a hardcopy anthology with 49 of our most iconic pieces. We have more than a thousand published works. This anthology will be an iconic sample that you can carry anywhere with you even if there is no internet – that would include Mars and Moon!

I wish you happy reading, happy dreaming and hope… plenty of it.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Interview

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: A Seeker of Serendipity

In conversation with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee presents the Swarna Kamal Award to Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri at the 60th National Film Awards ceremony in New Delhi in 2013. Photo provided by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

Sandman, the mythical dream maker from Scandinavia, is said to sprinkle magical sand on sleeping children’s eyes to inspire beautiful dreams. What could Sandman have in common with a much-fêted editor who has worked with many celluloid stars and writers?

They both vend dreams – one makes dreams for children and the other is tries to fulfil dreams of writers attempting to create a beautiful book. Meet one such seeker of serendipity Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, an eminent award-winning editor, who has brought out books on and by film personalities of India as well as assisted less-known writers find a footing in the tough world of traditional publishing. His magical sand is impeccable editing and an open outlook that stretches beyond the superficial glitter of fame and delves deep to look for that hidden well from which he draws out the best in a writer.

Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema twice and the inaugural MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has worked with famed writers like Gulzar and Arun Shourie as well as Bollywood stars like Rishi Kapoor and with the prestigious Satyajit Ray Archives. He has a book called Icons from Bollywood (2005) with Penguin on films, a set of fifteen essays. And he writes wonderful pieces on films for various sites like Cinemaazi, an archival film website,  and Free Press Journal regularly.

But, Ray Chaudhuri is not just a film buff as he tells the world. He has a well-kept secret like ABBA’s ‘Nina Pretty Ballerina’, who would wear dancing shoes after work and turn into a phenomenon. He emotes beautiful poetry but hesitates to publish…He does have a book of verses though called Whims brought out by the Writers’ Workshop. In this exclusive, Ray Chaudhuri, who has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and now is the Editor-in-Chief of Om Books International, tells us how he turned from a dry accountant to a seeker of serendipity and what it takes to publish with traditional publishers.

Please tell us what started you out on your journey as an editor and writer.

I have always loved the word serendipity. It accounts for whatever good I have experienced. I loved reading of course but went on to become an accidental editor. I started very early – loved books. Went through the age-specific lists – Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, and Tintin (which I love still), then slowly to Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse, Satyajit Ray, Feluda and Shonku, Somerset Maugham, Camus and others.

In fact, I remember, during summer vacations, my mashis [aunts] would often ask to pluck grey hair from their heads and would pay me at Re 1 per hair. So, if I managed 25, I would have money to buy a Tintin. Or novels that were sold in second-hand shops at Rs 10-15. I wanted to study literature and humanities but at the time the stream was looked down upon. People whose opinions we respected kept saying, ‘Will you be a schoolteacher after studying humanities?’ I wish I had said yes at the time.

Anyway… Science I was sure I wouldn’t take. And humanities I wasn’t allowed to. So, I took up commerce, graduated, did my M.Com, studied for chartered accountancy and cost accountancy. Then for years worked in accounts and finance. And hated it. I would leave jobs and go off quite regularly.

Meanwhile, I had started writing poems and on films (as a means of escaping the drudgery of accounts and finance). These were published in magazines regularly. In fact, I won the Filmfare Best Review Award that they had every month a few times. Then, Writers Workshop published my first book of poems. And by this time, nearing thirty, I had had enough of accounts. I realised that any creativity in accounts would lead to jail! And I was damned if I could put up with another day of matching debits and credits. I enrolled for a mass communication course at XIC Mumbai, then started a magazine on cinema on my own, and subsequently moved to publishing and editorial.

What pushed you into publishing others over writing yourself for we can see you are an excellent writer too?

I have often asked myself: do I have anything to say that will make a difference to someone reading? Can I ever write an opening sentence as eloquent as Camus’s The Outsider? Or create a character like Larry Darrel in Maugham’s Razor’s Edge? Or one line like Rilke’s ‘For the Sake of a Single Poem’. Or, in fact, a draft of an unpublished novel a young friend of mine, Ramona Sen, asked me to read recently to comment on editorially – it is so good … could well be the next big thing in publishing. And the answer has always been ‘no’.

I look at what goes for writing today. It dismays me that books have become all about posting your picture with the cover and getting likes – it has to be more than getting FB likes, more than announcing your book as bestseller on social media. I would be mortified about unleashing anything as mediocre as these on anyone.

And then there’s also the question of what being a ‘writer’ means for you as an individual. Some of these authors and poets I meet are so conceited … I have doubts about myself as a person … you know, as Matthew 16:26 says: For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? These doubts about whether my writing amounts to anything, whether it says anything about me as a person have kept me from writing and more importantly publishing my writing – barring of course my columns and features on cinema.

Editing and publishing other people’s work is more impersonal – I can keep myself out of the equation. Though when you really like a book, you do tend to get emotionally involved.

You have authored a book of poems, Whims, and Icons from Bollywood. Tell us about these.

I guess both came off just like that – I wonder if there was a case of wanting to show off at the time I had published them. Today, I would think twice. The book of poems, Whims, was published by Writers Workshop, and I was rather proud at one time that Professor Lal deemed it worthy of being published. I often told myself that some of the best Indian poets began with Writers Workshop. I just sent it off to him on a whim.

Icons from Bollywood was a more organised affair. I was working at Penguin at the time. Its children division was doing a series of books on icons – the arts, science, music, etc. Since everyone knew my interest in cinema, I had even met a few of the icons, the publisher, Sayoni Basu, asked me and I agreed. Eventually as no two people could agree on the ten names for the book – all the books in the series had ten icons – this ended up having fifteen names, the only book in the series with fifteen essays. It did rather well, got some good reviews in Dawn and Guardian and a few others.

Is authoring a book more challenging than editing and publishing for another? Or is it the other way? Please elucidate.

Of course, writing a book is more challenging. When you edit, you are working on adding some value to what a writer has already put down. You are not creating the world. At best, you help the author develop his work. It is challenging because often you are the first reader outside the author’s circle and your opinion also shapes the book. But writing is way more difficult. You are literally creating something out of nothing. Even writing a single line of good poetry is tougher than editing.

Tell us what moves your muse for poetry and prose?

That’s tough. It could be anything. For instance, in my college days DTC buses used to have a single passenger seat right at the front. I would often look at it and imagine how lonely it might feel. I eventually wrote a poem on that. Or when my folks narrated the story of Gulzar’s film Lekin to me, I was moved enough to write a poem. The sight of a battered old man, dead-drunk, lying by the roadside led to a story – what if that man had a past when there was hope and love in his life. Being in love has been a muse: I once wrote 21 poems for a beloved friend’s twenty-first birthday. The sight of my son’s sleeping face, his soft breathing, when I wake up at night and look at him. Even hate inspires you. The sense of disillusionment I felt about a ‘great’ poet’s pettiness and hypocrisy led to one of my best poems. My own frailties. The light at dusk, a tired day going to sleep. Lost friends … lost ideals. A good film. A bad film. Anything really.

We have read a lot of film pieces by you. When did your interest in writing for cinema start and how did it take off? Did it ever stray to film industries in other countries?

I think the love for cinema developed once I started studying commerce. The subjects bored me. Films offered me an escape. It helped that there were 4-5 cinema halls within walking distance of both my home and my college. I would often get away from college and make my way to a theatre. In the three years of graduation, I watched 169 films in halls. I watched the first-day-first-show, 12-3, and then would make my way to the evening one 6-9. I used to make a list and write down synopsis of what I felt. This was the 1980s, theatres were in awful shape, a really bad time for films and so most of what I watched were utter crap. But that was a lesson in itself. And I really enjoyed the escape to another world, even if a trashy one.

Slowly, with the coming of cable TV, there were more options. The VCR had come in and with that a few more options. Pirated prints from Palika Bazar. I had meanwhile written a few reviews for Filmfare and won a series of best review awards. That boosted my confidence in both my writing and my understanding of cinema. I also did a course in film and TV from the XIC, Mumbai. I started contributing to journals. I ran and wrote for the journal I started in Bombay, Lights Camera Action. But things took off after I started writing on Bengali cinema for Film Companion. And then with my association with Cinemaazi. I must thank Anupama Chopra and Sumant Batra for this. Couldn’t have happened without them.

I publish primarily on Bengali and Hindi cinema but write on a lot of international films for my own self. It’s tough finding time to watch, write, while keeping to the demands of a regular job and other freelancing assignments that one needs to do to keep the home fires burning. I envy the people who have money to spare, don’t have to worry about a job, and can keep churning out books.

Please tell us a bit about Cinemaazi – is it a website founded by you? It seems to be an archive, there is mention of an encyclopaedia?

Cinemaazi is the kind of serendipity I have been looking for as editor and film lover. It’s an initiative to document the history of Indian cinema across languages under the umbrella project Indian Cinema Heritage Foundation, a public charitable trust. The Foundation is also creating a freely accessible digital archive and encyclopaedia of Indian cinema and its people. No, I am not the founder. It’s entirely the brainchild and vision of Sumant and Asha Batra. Sumant is the kind of collector you can only be in awe of. I met him first at the Kumaon Lit Fest that he runs. And we shared a common love of cinema. In 2019, he started talking of a site to document the history of Hindi films, using his huge collection of film memorabilia. My only contribution, if you could call it that, was suggesting we make it a site on pan-Indian cinema, not just Hindi. He agreed and I worked on getting some material on Bengali and some other languages. Also kept contributing to it with articles and some video essays – we did a six-hour-long oral history project with Dhritiman Chatterjee. Cinemaazi got off to a very good start in January 2020. But by March 2020 we were all locking down. And it affected an endeavour taking its first steps. But it kept on working thanks to a small dedicated team. And now it’s poised to take off in a big way. I would have been very happy to engage in a bigger way with Cinemaazi, but as Sumant says, ‘he can’t afford me’, whatever that might mean. Sigh! I guess one ceases to be useful after a time. I am happy to have been a part of it in a small way in its first years.

You have worked with many icons of the Indian film industry like Rishi Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, Gulzar. Please share with us a few of your more interesting experiences.

The big names I worked with like Gulzar and Rishi Kapoor and Arun Shourie were like perks of the job. Yes, they were FB like/share moments except that I seldom shared those days. I miss Rishi-ji a lot … and often go through the WhatsApp messages he sent me… With Gulzar-ji, it was all about poetry and translations. Never worked on a book of films with him, though I did commission a series of monographs on three of his films that came out after I had left the publishing house.

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri in conversation with Gulzar and Meghna (Gulzar’s daughter) in Jaipur Literary Festival

The Satyajit Ray association was immensely satisfying. We ended up publishing five very rare books that I think not many editors would have dared to – imagine doing a book on Satyajit Ray’s unmade film on Ravi Shankar! The ones I really enjoyed were the first-time authors I was privileged to publish, people like Balaji Vittal, Anirudh Bhattacharya, Akshay Manwani, Rakesh Bakshi, Parthajit Baruah … and so many. They had no reason to trust me as editor and publisher. I have never been a big-name editor. But to have had them trust me with their books, books that did well, was quite humbling.

I was privileged to have someone like Vishal Bhardwaj trust me with his first book of poems in English. And through Vishal, I came to know Rekha and worked on a series of festival appearances with her – she has so many stories that she should do a book. With Sharmila Tagore, I worked on a book on Mansur Pataudi that did very well. Authors like Krishna Shastri, Sathya Saran and Gajra Kottary became close friends. Rakhshanda Jalil … whom I love and admire – she did a wonderful book on Shahryar with me and a couple of other translations of Gulzar and Kaifi Azmi. There was Nasreen Munni Kabir and her book on Zakir Hussain…

The more interesting encounters are the ones that ended badly. An author, who again published first with me and went on to publish 4 more, turned on me because I took on his rabid right-wing wife on the CAA and their obnoxious reference to ‘urban naxals’ … I was abused and received a lot of threatening messages and calls … I lost a friend and an author, but I am glad I could take a stand on a matter on which many of our ‘liberal’ friends and authors remain silent. Another ‘great’ poet, someone I considered God, turned out to have feet of clay and whose behaviour I find traumatic even today. But those are for my memoir! They taught me a better lesson than anything else could.

You have worked with big multinational names like Penguin and HarperCollins and even brought out collection of books on films. And now you have moved to working with one of the oldest and most iconic publishers from India. Is the experience any different?

Well, the best thing about not being with an MNC is that one is not part of the toxic environment they breed. It was killing after a point. And often they wouldn’t take on an idea just to spite you, even though some of the books that got commissioned were unbelievably bad, had me scratching my head, wondering what I had missed. And they can be very demeaning to authors. And short-sighted too. I remember signing up Rahul Rawail’s memoir of Raj Kapoor. And the publishing house actually reneged on its commitment after sending him an offer. It put me in such a bad place with him. Thankfully, I could get him another MNC publisher. And the book is now getting such rave reviews.

Yes, it’s challenging working in a smaller space. You have nothing going for marketing –  not that the biggies do anything much on this either, unless you are already a big name which makes it easy to market. Then you don’t have budgets for advances and for marketing. So, immediately your commissioning acquires a different take. But that also makes you look for good young talent. I am glad I have found quite a few, thanks to agents like Suhail Mathur and some goodwill I might have built up in the last few years. Authors I am sure I wouldn’t have been allowed to publish in the MNCs. Now, whether they sell and work in the market is a gamble.

Writers find it challenging to use traditional publishing. In an attempt to make their writing visible, many are turning to self-publishing and publishing with independent small publishers. What do you think of this trend?

I think it does take a little more time in going the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing is quicker. But then authors also need to be patient. Traditional publishing can give them benefits of a good editor. Give them more time to polish their text. However, it seems more and more authors are in too much of a rush to publish. Getting FB likes and shares is more important than working on your text. Authors don’t feel like they need good editorial intervention. Publishing is all that matters, whatever be the quality of writing.

Unfortunately, traditional publishing too has failed to give good editorial inputs. Some of the stuff I read by the MNC publishers are atrocious. I think everyone wants a book out too quick. When I started out as an editor, we had months to work on a book. These days, authors tend to ask for a marketing plan even before they have completed the first draft of the text. And publishers are only too willing to get on the treadmill. And the post-publication efforts of MNCs also operate on the 90-10 principle: 90 per cent of marketing budget is spent on 10 per cent of the biggies. So, I guess self-publishing works. Some of the most successful mass-market writers we have today started with vanity or self-publishing, then were picked up by the traditional publishers. And the writing continues to be as bad.

Can you tell us as a publisher, what do you look for when you accept or reject a piece of writing?

I don’t think any publisher has figured out what makes a book work. Most of them go by herd mentality: mythologicals are selling, let’s do them, in trilogies, since it’s fashionable these days. Short stories don’t work. Fitness/self-help, yes, let’s do. 

Basically, one looks for (i) is the content engaging (ii) is the writing interesting. Take, Akshay’s book on Sahir … I found the content wonderful. And so well done. Or Balaji-Anirudh’s book on RD Burman … the research was impeccable. And though people were sceptical, saying these people had been dead for decades, one felt that these books had that special something. Or more recently, the anthology on motherhood that Om is publishing. I was immediately interested in the theme and the variety of essays on offer – to have Kamala Das and Mannu Bhandari, Shashi Deshpande and Shabana Azmi between the same covers is…. There’s a collection of essays on the pandemic that I have commissioned, coming out soon – again, from Shashi Tharoor and Vidya Balan to an anonymous gravedigger and migrant worker – the range is incredible. The book that we are doing with Borderless Journal, for example. What a wide variety of international writing! Or the book on cybersecurity. Or for that matter, Suman Ghosh’s Soumitra Chatterjee book, which gave some fascinating insights to the director-actor relationship. I knew people would think it niche, but what if we could make it big? It has the potential.

Thank you for that. What is your vision as a publisher and writer of the future of publishing and writing?

I am too small fry to talk of the future of publishing. It’s a tough time for publishers. At the end of the day, all those 500 likes on FB won’t help if those liking don’t buy books. Social media reach is no guarantee of either good writing or good sales.

The way Westland folded says a lot about how untenable big advances are. Authors must realise that. While publishers must make efforts to sell more of the books they publish so that even if advances are small, the royalty on sales works out.

I think there’s also a lot of snobbery around English-language publishing in India. On the part of publishers, authors, translators, agents, literary festivals. I know an agent, one of India’s most successful, who doesn’t deign to pitch books to me because I am not with the top MNC publishers. Though apart from a hefty advance, there is nothing I cannot deliver that the biggies can. One of the most popular cover designers, who worked closely with me when I was at Penguin and Harper, just put me out to dry when I approached him for a cover on the Soumitra Chatterjee book. He couldn’t be bothered even to respond given that I was with a smaller publisher now. The most popular translator won’t give me time of day, though I edited his/her first book. There’s this author couple I published after both their individual books had been rejected at other publishers. But once they realised that prosperity lay in ingratiating themselves with what they perceived were other more popular and powerful editors … though none of their books have worked in terms of sales so far in the last ten years.

Most editors I have come across give off vibes like they are god’s gift to the language. I mean, not even two per cent of the population engages with the work you do. What are we so uppity about? The local cobbler attends to more people than what your average book gets as readers.

And this snobbery impacts the kind of publishing we do. We are suckers for big names, big advances. We have to move out of that. And out of this herd mentality of publishing. Give new writers, new themes a chance. At the same time, new young authors need to reflect on their work and not rush into becoming a ‘published’ author. It’s not instant noodles or coffee. Books and authors take time to develop. We need to give books that time.

Thank you for giving us your time and also taking on our anthology.

Click here to read poems by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Excerpt

Tagore’s Four Chapters in Translation by Radha Chakravarty

Title: Rabindranath Tagore Four Chapters

Translator: Radha Chakravarty

Publisher: Penguin, May 2022

‘It’s time to utter some harsh truths,’ he declared. ‘Who are you to surrender me, to the nation or to anyone else, I ask you? You had it in your power to surrender the gift of tenderness—a possession that truly belongs to you. Whether you call it service or a boon, it doesn’t matter. If you permit arrogance, I shall be arrogant. If you demand that I come to your door in humility, I can do that too. But today you belittle your own right to offer a gift. You set aside the inner wealth you could have donated from the storehouse of a woman’s glory and say instead that you are handing over the nation to me. It is not yours to give! Not yours, not anyone else’s. The nation can’t be passed around from hand to hand.’

The colour drained from Ela’s face.

‘What do you mean? I can’t quite understand,’ she said. ‘I say that the ambit of women’s glory, even if it seems to be circumscribed, has inner depths that are limitless. It is not a cage. But the space that you had designated as my nest, by giving it the name of the nation—that nation constructed by your party, whatever it may mean to others—that space itself is a cage, at least for me. My own power, because it can’t find full expression within that space, falls sick, grows distorted, commits acts of insanity in its attempt to articulate that which is not truly its own. I feel ashamed, yet the door to escape is closed. Don’t you know my wings are tattered? My legs are tightly shackled. One had the responsibility to find one’s own place in one’s own nation on one’s own strength. I possessed that strength. Why did you make me forget that?’

‘Why did you forget it, Antu?’ asked Ela, her voice full of anguish.

‘You women have an unfailing ability to make one forget—all of you. Else, I would have been ashamed of having forgotten. I insist a thousand times over that you have the capacity to make me forget myself. If I hadn’t forgotten, I would have doubted my own manhood.’

‘If that is so, then why are you rebuking me?’

‘Why? That’s what I am trying to explain. By deluding me, you carry me to your own universe where your own rights prevail. Echoing the words of your own party, you said that you and your small group have determined the only path of duty in the world. Caught in that stone-paved, official path of duty, my life-stream spins in a whirlpool and its waters grow muddy.’

‘Official duty?’

‘Yes, that Jagannath Ratha—that grand, sacred chariot of your swadeshi duty. The one who initiated you into the sacred mantra decreed that your only duty is to hoist a heavy rope onto your shoulders and keep on tugging at it—all of you together—with your eyes closed. Thousands of young men tightened their waistbands, braced themselves and grasped the rope. So many of them fell beneath the chariot wheels; so many were crippled for life. At this juncture, the moment came for the Ratha Yatra—the ceremonial chariot procession—in reverse. The chariot turned around. Broken bones can’t be mended. The masses of crippled workers were swept aside, flung down upon the dust-heaps by the roadside. Their confidence in their own power had been so utterly demolished at the very outset that all of them agreed, with great daring, to let themselves be cast in the mould of puppets of the government. When at the pull of the puppeteer’s strings everyone began to perform the same dance moves, they thought in amazement, “This is what the dance of power is all about!” When the puppeteer loosens the strings ever so slightly, thousands and thousands of human puppets get eliminated.’

‘But Antu, that only happened because many of them began to dance wildly without keeping to the rhythm.’

‘They should have known from the start that humans can’t dance like puppets for long. You may try to reform human nature, though it takes time. But it’s a mistake to imagine that destroying human nature and turning men into puppets will make things easier. Only when one thinks of human beings in terms of their diverse forms of inner power can one understand the truth about them. Had you respected me as such a being, you would have drawn me close, not to your party, but to your heart.’

‘Antu, why didn’t you humiliate and spurn me right at the beginning? Why did you make me a culprit?’

‘That’s something I have told you time and again. Very simply, I longed to be one with you. That hunger was impossible to overcome. But the usual route was closed. In desperation, I pledged my life to a crooked path. You were captivated by it. Now I have realized that I must die on the path I have taken. Once that death happens, you will call me back with open arms—call me to your empty heart, day after day, night after night.’

About Rabindranath Tagore Four Chapters

This is a brilliant new translation of Tagore’s controversial novel. Passion and politics intertwine in Char Adhyay (1934), Rabindranath Tagore’s last and perhaps most controversial novel, set in the context of the freedom struggle in pre-Independent India. Ela, a young working woman, comes under the spell of Indranath, a charismatic political activist who advocates the path of terror. She joins his band of underground rebels, vowing never to marry, and to devote her life to the nation’s cause. But through her relationship with Atindra, a poet and romantic who grows disenchanted after joining the group, Ela realizes the hollowness of Indranath’s machinations. The lovers now face a terrible choice …

This new translation brings Tagore’s text to life in a contemporary idiom, while evoking the charged atmosphere of the story’s historical setting.

About the Author

Rabindranath Tagore, Renaissance man, reshaped Bengal’s literature and music, and became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. He introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit. He was highly influential in introducing the best of Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and was a living institution for India, especially for Bengal.

About the Translator

Radha Chakravarty is a writer, critic, and translator. In 2004, she was nominated for the Crossword Translation Award for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi.

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

Categories
Essay

Reflections on Nobel Laureate Bunin’s ‘Un Petit Accident’

Mike Smith reflects on a short fiction by Russia’s first Nobel Laureate, Ivan Bunin. Could it be a precursor to flash fiction?


Portrait of Ivan Bunin by Leonard Turzhansky, 1905. Courtesy: Wiki

Un Petit Accident‘ (A small Accident) is one of those tales which will need more words to discuss than will be found in it.

First published in the late 1940s as part of a trio of short pieces this little tale might be seen as a forerunner of our present-day flash fictions and micro fiction. Yet it is in a tradition that stretches back through the prose poem or Illumination to the anecdotes and exemplars of much earlier times. Only recently cast into English, this translation is attributed to Maria Bloshteyn and dated 2017.

Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) fled to France in 1920 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution but unlike many émigrés he was already an established writer and his work is not solely related to the experience of exile.

‘Un Petit Accident’ in my paperback copy of Russian Émigré Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (ed. Bryan Karetnyk, Penguin Classics), runs to a mere 29 lines, yet it packs a punch you might think would need a much wordier arm behind it. For me it’s both a master work and a master class in the short story, illustrating perfectly Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’, and his advice to ‘take everything out that isn’t the story’.

Like a slow camera pan, it traverses the cityscape of Paris. It takes in the sunset, the Palais Bourbon, the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower, before zooming in, near The Madelaine, on the rushing, choking traffic of a Parisian evening. The final shot, in what, to twist the metaphor slightly, might be thought of as a slideshow rather than a moving picture, focuses on a single detail, the significance of which we are left to consider.

There are no named characters, seemingly no protagonist and antagonist, no obvious cycles of increasing jeopardy. The ‘Inciting Incident’, if it is not that sunset, might be in our imaginations and for later. Or perhaps the ‘Obligatory Scene’, if it is that final image, must serve the function of both. It seems that everything that happens in this story has already happened by the time we see it. Yet there is no sequence of actions as such, only the sequence of images that we might mistake for mere setting.

As with much longer short stories, there is the vestige of that common structural oddity of placing the most striking event or revelation slightly ahead of the actual ending, making it part of the preparation and contextualisation of the true ending. And following that shock there is a little addition which poses the question, raises the issue, on which I believe the author wishes us to ponder; the view to which he has brought us.

The collection is furnished with a section of notes about both the writers and individual stories. What they say about this story reveals a lesson in the form. Bunin is quoted; “ ...even with the greatest writers, there are only isolated good passages, and between them – water…”

Karetnyk’s notes go on to say: “these miniatures are an attempt to distil prose into its purest form.” Presumably, that is by getting rid of all that water.

Earlier in the piece he has described Bunin’s tales as ‘terse’, but in this case I did not find it so. Rather the opposite. I’d want to use the word lush. That opening sunset, painted in a three and half line, verbless sentence – which a professor of English in the nineteen seventies categorized because of that lack as being a ‘label’ rather than a ‘message’– is rich with colour: “…the enormous panel of sky covered in strokes of murky colours, mellow and many hued…” The city too is awash with description: ‘Slim spikes of greenish gas flames are strewn throughout the pistachio haze of the city,’

It’s one of the most description packed little tales I’ve read. It brought to mind the startling contrast with an earlier and longer tale by Mary Mann, in which a bare half dozen words sprinkled throughout describe the rural Norfolk in which her story is set. It is sometimes averred that description kills story, disrupts the narrative, brings action to a halt, but here Bunin’s tale is almost all description, a colourful, noisy kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. “Now darkness falls, and the candelabra of the Place de la Concorde cast their reflective silvery glow, while up in the black summits the lugubriously flowing lights of the Eiffel Tower flicker like lightning.

The sequence is constructed of easily imaginable images, and when we have reached the ending and come to re-read the piece, we might pay more attention to the ambience of those sounds and sights. They are what make the context for our arrival at the final image. They are what prejudice our frame of mind for understanding and speculating about the deeper meaning of what we are being brought to encounter. The purpose of the story, and you might argue, the storyness of it, is in our reaction to what we ‘see’. Conrad is quoted as saying he wanted to “make us see” in his writing and Bunin here does just that. But it is up to us alone to grapple with the significance of what we have been told.

On closer inspection we might see that Bunin has given us more than just intense colour, form, and movement. That it is a single paragraph story is notable. In a story of thirty lines there is room for a handful of paragraphs, but the fact that Bunin uses one alone need be no ‘petit accident‘. It gives the story a structural unity, such as you might expect to find in a painting or photograph.

The painting has it for me, with those ‘murky’ and ‘many-hued’ colours, but a painting of what? Despite the lack of protagonist or antagonist, at first glance, there is the anonymous man on whom our gaze comes to rest at what might be called the ‘crisis’ of the action, and there is one other ‘character’, referred to rather than present, and whose ‘unseen hand is smoothly conducting’. At this change point in the story, as the traffic locks and our focus is narrowed down onto and into a single vehicle, it ‘seems as if the hand has flinched’.

Seems’ is one of those words that, in a short story especially, should set our radars tingling, because it usually denotes, or at least raises the possibility, that what seems is not what is. And whose hand might that be which might be doing something other than flinching? It certainly isn’t a human hand. Is it a hand that has acted decisively? And the ‘fiery Babylon’ that Bunin describes with its ‘spikes of greenish gas’, its ‘darkness’ blazing, might seem more Hellish than Heavenly. I was reminded of apocalyptic visions in John Martin’s paintings.

My last paragraph contains a ‘spoiler’, and those who read to find out what happens next might prefer to stop here!

When we reach the story’s end, we are told of a “fast little auto, vividly yet softly lit inside” where a man in evening dress is “slumped over his steering wheel“. The narrative thread is almost imperceptible. The movement, lights and sounds, have seemed random rather than directional. Bunin’s tale has been told in the present tense, yet here, at the sticking point of the end, we are seeing events not so much unfold as having already unfolded. The focus neatly closes in, with mention of ‘matte top hat’, then closer still: “His eyes are closed…” The final words pull back a little, as we have recoiled from what we have recognised: “his young, tritely classical face is already looking like a mask.”

It is a mask, we understand, from behind which the spirit of life has already withdrawn.

Russian commemorative coin issued on Bunin’s 125th birth anniversary. Courtesy: Wiki

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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