Ten years ago, V Ramaswamy, a social activist in Kolkata, began translating the Bengali anti-establishment and underground writer, Subimal Misra (whose final two books were published from Dhaka in 2010).
His second collection of Misra stories, Wild Animals Prohibited, has recently been published by HarperCollins.
Why is Subimal Misra important in Bengal and beyond today?
A reviewer of my first Misra book had actually written that it was “one of the most powerful books published in recent times.”
Subimal Misra chose to depart from conventional narrative writing to introduce film language into Bengali literary fiction, to take an anti-establishment stance and focus on the lives of the marginalised and underdogs of society, juxtaposing this with a look at the lives of the middle-class bhodrolok and of those wielding power, and thus carry forward the stream of parallel Bengali literature.
Besides, throughout his writing life, from 1967 to 2012, he remained true to his anti-establishment stance and kept himself far away from the mainstream publishing industry and commercial publications, and chose to write exclusively for little magazines, and he published, produced, and sold his books himself, especially during the Kolkata Book Fair.
All this makes him an important writer to me, but more than that, there is a philosophical, ethical, social, cultural, and political dimension to his writing and his writing practice, which to my mind is very important.
It was relevant and important when he began writing, and not only in Bengal but wherever power is played out in human society, and although it is a different world and a different time we now live in, Misra’s relevance and importance still remains.
A friend who began reading Wild Animals Prohibited wrote to me that neither time nor translation can tame Misra.
He is a unique and powerful writer of the world and of our times. With his feet in Bengal, he writes for Bengali readers.
Although only a certain class of Bengali readers relates to his writing, and especially his experimental work with the language itself, which is inherently untranslatable, I think much of what Misra has written belongs to Indian and world literature.
And hence the imperative of translation. I was happy that some Bengali readers heard Misra’s name through the translation and then went on to read him in Bangla.
You have been engaged for 10 years on the Misra project. What made you take this up?
I should say at the outset that although I have lived in Kolkata all my life, I only learnt Bangla for three years in elementary school, and much to my regret, never read anything in Bangla and know next to nothing about Bengali literature.
So my translation of Subimal Misra was entirely a fluke. One day I met a literary friend, Dr Mrinal Bose, and I asked him casually what he had been reading -- but my question was a sincere one, towards enlightening myself about contemporary Bengali writers.
He said he had stopped reading because he did not think much of the writing that was being published. I said that there must surely be at least one contemporary writer whom he regarded well.
Dr Bose thought for a while and then mentioned Misra’s name.
I immediately said I would translate him. That may have been a casual remark, but I think underlying it was a seriousness, and an aspiration, to relate to the world of literature of my home and kormo-bhumi, Bengal, and also the conviction that I would be able to share it through the medium of English.
Dr Bose also put me in touch with the author and kept prodding me thereafter to begin, which I finally did, in a moment of bored idleness. Since Misra’s short fiction seemed more accessible to me, I began translating his stories, or anti-stories as they are known.
I am engaged in running my family enterprise, so I gave the translation whatever time I could. I was very fortunate to receive Misra’s consent and blessings and his continuing support, and I was fortunate to find a leading publisher who was willing to publish my translation.
The first book was published without much thought; it was also my own early foray in translation. It was well reviewed, I was even shortlisted for an award, so that was encouraging. But I was fortunate to be selected for the Sangam House writing residency, where I began the next book, with the unlimited freedom for immersion in one’s work that such a residency gives.
It was while working on this book that I really got deep into Misra’s writing and implicitly took upon myself the project of translating a fair selection of his short fiction spanning his entire writing life. In Subimal Misra, I had finally found a spiritual kinsman.
The concluding part of this interview will be published tomorrow.