Tell us about Wild Animals Prohibited. Subimal Misra has quite a substantial body of work. How do you select? Why this selection?
I need to be painstaking in my selection in order to fairly represent Misra. That is a serious responsibility. For my first book, I had selected stories from his early years, the late 60s and early 70s.
His writing during that period has a distinct style and quality. I selected the stories on the basis of my own capability and evaluation, but I also received inputs from others, including Misra himself.
I was also in somewhat of a hurry to get the first book out. But I had also tried to educate myself about Misra’s writing and made a list of stories for translation.
So, when I began working on the second book and started thinking in terms of a multi-volume project, I decided to select the stories chronologically, going through the successive decades.
Thus Wild Animals Prohibited covers the 70s and 80s. The selection includes many of the stories his readers consider important, as well as some of Misra’s own favourites.
The vainglorious puerilities, hypocrisies and oppressions of the middle-class, the flesh-trade in Sonagachi, the political bankruptcy, two-facedness and corruption during the CPI(M) era, the violence embedded in every sphere of society, especially against women and Dalits -- these are only some of the themes of Misra’s writing
But some important stories do get left out, in preference to others. Several stories had to be excluded because they were not amenable to translation.
I should emphasise that Misra has continuously moved on as a writer, leaving behind his earlier self. So, for me as a translator, it involves continuous growth.
Gandhi, Kolkata, the affluent section -- they recur in Wild Animals Prohibited and in his other works. What do these recurrent themes tell us about Misra’s take on the state of affairs?
Misra has told me that he has a kind of Gandhi fixation. He acts as a kind of
moral conscience or witness to the travails of his nation, he symbolises purity and innocence.
And in one early story, there is a dead white donkey, which Misra told me symbolised Gandhi -- “for only a donkey would do what he did.” Gandhi’s name also features in Misra’s most well-known story.
But in a part of Misra’s early work, he has also adopted a Naxalite stance, in the sense of doing away with everything.
The streets and people of Kolkata, the language and dialects of the humble folk of Bengal and their harsh lives and everyday exploitation and struggle for survival.
The vainglorious puerilities, hypocrisies and oppressions of the middle-class, the flesh-trade in Sonagachi, the political bankruptcy, two-facedness and corruption during the CPI(M) era, the violence embedded in every sphere of society, especially against women and Dalits -- these are only some of the themes of Misra’s writing.
He chronicles life in Bengal as he saw it in his lifetime. He does not offer any hollow emancipatory slogan, or affect any romantic solidarity with the oppressed.
He merely holds up a mirror to our society, and if anything, celebrates the acts of survival, protest, resistance and subversion by the poor, who the powerful, despite all their power, cannot wish away.
You had once told me in conversation that it perhaps needed a Tamil like you, who has lived his whole life in Bengal, to do this project that no Bengali had bothered to take up. Can you explain?
I have often wondered why no one thought of translating Misra. But actually one gentleman, Sridhar Mukhopadhyay, did translate and publish some stories long before me.
I must salute his valiant effort, but because of poor editing, the translation is flawed, and does a disservice to the author, which is a pity. What I meant by my comment was that being an “outsider” -- despite being an “insider” in many ways -- I have a curiosity, or eagerness, unabashed by ignorance.
So, I might do something that others would not, for various reasons. Most Bengalis tend to live and think “within” a system, and tend to conform to a general cultural pattern.
And West Bengal has witnessed a huge regression in so many respects over the last several decades, which has drastically affected public culture.
So I am like the joker in the pack! The fact that Misra -- or so many more important Bengali writers -- was not translated is also representative of the situation vis-à-vis most Indian writers writing in their languages. Actually, it is not so much about me choosing to translate Misra, but about being chosen for that. This is both an honour and a responsibility.
What lies ahead in your project?
My next book, titled Anti-Fiction, would comprise two anti-novellas written by Misra during the 1980s. It is awaiting publication. I am close to completing Misra’s experimental novel Truth is Manufactured (1997). A selection of stories written in the 90s and 2000s, down to his final pieces, would conclude the Misra project. I am well advanced on that.
After that, I hope to translate stories of the Bengali writer, Jagadish Gupta (1886-1957), an off-the-beaten-track junior contemporary of Tagore and Saratchandra, who may also be seen as a literary forerunner of Subimal Misra and the parallel stream of Bengali literature; and Udayan Ghosh (1934-2007), another much-respected magazine writer and contemporary of Misra.
After 10 years of translating Misra, I think I can now call myself a literary translator, I like it and I think it is important. Actually, translation has become a form of meditation for me. If I find my own unstoppable voice, I shall write. Until then, I shall silently translate. There is much to do, and time is scarce. So I must keep working.
Very recently, a friend and I have formed a literary agency, to initiate publication in English and also other Indian and foreign languages of translations of important Indian writers who are largely unknown outside their language.
I want to start a school for Indian literary translation, so that I can mentor many translators of Indian literature. All this is also a continuation of the Misra project.