Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Confessions of a Bibliophile on the Eve of St. Valentine’s Day

Today the world seems to gird up its loins to celebrate the universal day of love tomorrow, and young and old lovers continue to look for novel gifts for their sweethearts assisted in their endeavor by kindly online-vendors, blogs, newspaper supplements and  innumerable other agents in the cosmos who have something to sell. The process of helping (or hauling out, if you will) lovers in their hour of travail by handing them evanescent Valentine’s Day Special offers unequivocally proves that there’s still good in the world and Paulo Coelho was absolutely right when he wrote the following in The Alchemist: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."

On the eve of the impending holy day of love and devotion, I felt it was my moral duty as a writer, however paltry my skills may be, to compose a write-up on love. My buoyant writing-spirit, however, took up an apathetic stance as I imbibed more and more of the cloying lover’s day stuff. I wonder how one can help imbibing them when V-day is around the corner; they seem to hound you ready to pounce on you on one of your weak moments. I don’t want to sound like one of those dyspeptic philonoetics you meet so often these days, but then of late I have started detesting the conventional ways of love to be displayed with unflinching etiquette on Valentine’s Day so much that my dearest wish is to bung bricks at those who follow the customs without questioning their real efficacy in matters of love.

As I ruminated on love like any other law-abiding citizen, I found my thoughts turning to a different kind of love, the love of books. This idea which made me shout “Eureka” filled my skeptical mind with hope. When it comes to books a bibliophile has a lot of love carefully stored in the nooks of her cardiac organ. A visit to my bookcase proved my unspoken assertion to be true that indeed those rows of books dwelling in the wooden case have made me the person I am.

Not long ago I read an article about book-lovers in a Bengali newspaper’s Sunday supplement wherein the writer had said that those who read tend to be proud about their reading and more often than not display their learnedness in their public interactions. I wonder if such a display is as erroneous as it is considered to be. Only a reader knows how painful interactions with non-readers could be. And even though the Facebook walls are filled with quotations worth pennies about the habit of reading and how important and life-changing books could be, more and more people I interact with seldom show any interest in the actual reading of books. I being a loner in that respect have preferred until now to hide this incongruity of loving inanimate texts which animate my life like nothing else; so on the eve of Valentine’s Day I wish to profess my love to my beloved books and their authors. I wish to raise my voice and say “You are the butter to my bread, the breath of my life.”

The name that comes to my mind as I dwell on the topic of bibliophilia is Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, or P.G. Wodehouse. The mere recollection of his name illuminates my mind with a “spontaneous overflow of emotions”. Overtime I have read most of what Wodehouse had to offer, my special favorite being the Jeeves stories and the Blandings Castle saga. The presence of Wodehouse in my life has been that of a doting father amusing his child after she had lost one of her pet toys. I in my case I had never lost my toys but have often mislaid my peace of mind. When prospects in life look uncertain I still turn to Wodehouse, and before I know it the nebulous sheets have passed and I am left smiling with a recollection of something Bertie Wooster said or something Gussie Fink nottle did. So substantial is my reading of Wodehouse that I can express this with a certain modicum of confidence that I can look into the eyes of any expert in humor literature without a tremor. It feels great to consider the change that reading Wodehouse had brought in me. For one Wodehouse, and only Wodehouse, made me realize that reading is more fun that fidgeting with useless gadgets and thus saved me from spending enormous sums on procuring cellular phones with baffling applications and other worthless accessories. Secondly, Wodehouse made me realize that there is indeed an elixir in life we could all afford, and that is a smile. It annoys me to see that people smile so less these days. Having read such inimitable Wodehouse classics like Code of Woosters, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Very Good, Jeeves, etc., I cannot but be good-humored and always armed with a smile at any time of the day.

I know as a student of literature I am risking my scholarly aptitude when I confess that my love for apparently silly stories of a somber encyclopedic butler (Jeeves) and his weak-headed employer (Bertie Wooster) made me love literature, that these fictional tchotchkes which Florence Cray, one of Wodehouse’s snooty erudite female characters, would dismiss as bad reading made my life a garden of Eden, or better still. Nevertheless, I hold my head unabashedly high in my love for the man who made the world smile to his efforts rather than plunge them into seas of despair. One advice for the agelasts: thou must head for the hills when thou spotteth a book by monsieur Wodehouse.

I realize I have dwelled a little longer than I should have been on the subject of Wodehouse, and now I must talk about my other beloveds. Names of the composers of numerous hardbound and paperback paramours fill my mind, and I must choose carefully. The contestants are: Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Umberto Eco, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Khaled Hosseni, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov and Satyajit Ray. I will start with lady V, Virginia Woolf that is. To tell you the truth it was her death that fascinated me and made me love her books. The first book by Virginia Woolf I ever read was her  AWriter’s Diary published by her husband Leonard Woolf after she had died. It amazed me to read the occasional accounts of her creative writing, how thorough she was about her books, how humble and confused at times and how pitiably crestfallen when somebody criticized her. The diary made me love Virginia Woolf, the person and not the author. The last entry in the diary had been made only a few days before she had drowned herself and there wasn’t any hint as to that ending, which, I thought, she might have planned well before she composed that last entry. I remember crying after I had finished the diary and read all about her death on the internet. The only way to allay my disturbed thought as to how painful death must have been for Woolf was to read her books. And that’s what I did. Mrs. Dalloway gave way to The Waves, To the Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room and A Room of One’s Own. The last book, which is perhaps one of the earliest books on feminism, had been a particularly interesting read for me.

And now I must say a few final words of love before I end my write-up about Kingsley Amis and Vladimir Nabokov. These two writers, the former with his overtly confident, school-master-ish ways and the latter a sesquipedalian who stunned me with the way he ravished the English language for the purpose of artistic composition, made me yearn and crave for a writing life. I never said more vehemently the words I want to be a writer, I want to write so badly than after I had read a book either by Amis or by Nabokov. Truly, Nabokov’s Lolita is despicable and shocking in many ways, but his labile use of the English language, his abstruse esoteric style  more prominent in Pale Fire than in Lolita are virtues worth envying. As for Kingsley Amis’s cigarette-smoking protagonists in both Lucky Jim and Take a Girl Like You, I would say that never have I seen characters so well-rounded, so energetic than when Amis painted them; he is undoubtedly the fodder for aspiring creative writers like us who wish to master the art of characterization, style and technique.

Without further ado, I now bid my dear readers farewell with the hope that too might spare a thought or two in the direction of their favorite books on this St. Valentine’s Day and try their best to convert non-lovers of literature into paramours of fiction.

Wish you all a very happy St. Valentine’s Day!!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Aranye Eka

Aranye Eka

Original short story written by Sunil Gangopadhyay
Translated from Bengali by Barnali Saha

Picture Courtesy:

Modhu was alone in the forest. He, however, constantly felt that somebody else was around him. The animals and the birds were there, the branches of the trees broke and fall, dried leaves were shed, he was aware of all that. Yet sometimes queer sounds were heard, there was this snapping sound of breaking branches which startled Modhu time and again. 

The ankle of his left feet was sprained; Modhu was limping. He made a stick with a broken branch of a teak-wood tree. When walking he was scared of making noises himself, he strode cautiously. Sometimes he looked around.

Modhu hadn’t been in the forest in the last seven years. Before that he came with the evict-elephant group. There were fifty-sixty people at that time. People didn’t generally come to the forest alone. Especially in the last few days people were failing to muster enough courage to visit the place at all.
Modhu was hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything since the previous night. Who knew when would find something to eat? There weren’t any fruits in this forest. At times innumerable mauled fruits of the banyan tree lay here and there; even the crows did not partake of them.
Finding a rather clean spot Modhu sat down with a thud. He leaned against a mangrove tree. Suddenly there was a rustling sound among the dry leaves. It was as if someone was approaching. Modhu was startled. Terrified, he got up to see that it was no human being but a big-sized mongoose. It stood around ten arms-lengths away and stared at Modhu.

Had it been a field-rat instead of a mongoose then Modhu would have run and tried to kill it. But mongoose meat is no delicious treat. They are hard to kill as well.

Modhu made a shooing noise a few times. The mongoose wasn’t scared. It continued looking piercingly in the same direction. Their teeth are terribly sharp. If it bit the windpipe then—

Modhu dashed his stick to the ground violently. When this didn’t help either he threw a piece of stone in the direction of the mongoose. It then sluggishly entered the bush.

A new thought occurred to Modhu. The mongoose might have wanted to come to the place where he rested. That meant snakes could be present somewhere in the vicinity. It might have detected the presence of snakes.

Modhu wrenched his body and scrutinized the surrounding. There was a hole in the mangrove tree, it seemed suspicious. The snake was what he feared the most. There wasn’t a lot many tigers left in the forest. Once in a while one or two of them emerge. Sometimes leopards could be seen. The number of bears decreased considerably as well. What remained were the elephants. There wasn’t anything as such to fear about elephants, save that he caught a few of them and became an elephant ruffian.

The previous week around five elephants invaded the farmland of a neighboring village. The villagers threw burning flambeaus to evict them. When a tusked elephant tried to break down the houses, a tin of kerosene was thrown at it. And then when the fire from the burning flambeaus touched… It would have been better if it had died; instead it fled from the spot in a terribly wounded state. If Modhu found himself before it—anyway, Modhu thought he now feared human beings more than animals. If confronted by animals he could find some escape route, but if the villagers came to know of his existence, they would surely do something to him. He needed to hide in the forest for four-five days, then if he could leave the forest and reach the railway station… Modhu had fourteen-fifteen rupees with him.

It was Pori who destroyed him.

Everything was over between him and Pori. Modhu wanted to marry Pori. She seemed pretty healthy, would be efficient as a farmhand.  Pori’s father, however, set the rate as two hundred rupees. Apart from that he asked for a bullock, a pair of goats and ten saris. Where would Modhu get so much money from, he didn’t have any zamindari in Europe! He gave Pori’s father a piece of his mind and said that he could get a better girl than Pori in half the price mentioned.

A great feast was given on the occasion of the sraddha (the ceremony done in Hindus in memory of the bygones on the particular days after the death) ceremony of Byakababu, finding him alone therein Pori approached him and said, you couldn’t arrange for the money, could you? What kind of a man are you?

Here Modhu couldn’t show the same kind of temper he exhibited in front of Pori’s father. He said in a bland tone, can’t you wait for another year? I planted tobacco leaves this season. If insects don’t attack then—

Giving a waggish smile with her thin lips Pori said, my father cannot wait any longer. A lot of people are offering large sums of money.
Modhu said, your father wants money and you want nothing?

At that time for some unknown reason Pori started to twirl her hair braid and looked away and said, am I expected to go to the household of an utterly indigent person who cannot arrange for any money?

The words caused Modhu to flare-up. In exceptionally pure tongue he said, you have so much lust for money; you see in the end you will find yourself rotting in the household of some rich businessman who is afflicted with white leprosy.

He didn’t want to see Pori’s face after that incident. Within the next one and half months Pori was married off, and along with her husband she went to live in a tea garden near Sankosh.

Modhu bought a pair of goats with the hundred and ten rupees he saved for his marriage. After eight months the pair of goats gave birth to three kids. Modhu was happy to sell them all on the next market-day for a hundred and fifty rupees.

After four years Pori returned to her father’s house. Her babies never survive. After birth they throw out their arms and legs a bit and then die. The same thing happened thrice. Pori was very sad.

Suddenly one day Modhu met Pori near the edge of the tobacco-field. He was removing the silt from the drain with his spade; Pori stood just behind him, her face was pale, the look in her eyes seemed somewhat obscure.

Modhu was startled to look up and suddenly find Pori before him. She struck him as a girl whom nobody knew. That time at the Rath-er mela when Khudi’s mother had been possessed, she had that same kind of look on her face. Pori now looked just like her. Modhu was sad. 

Scared, he asked, how are you, Pori?

In a bland tone Pori said, Modhu, you ruined me!

I? What did I do to you?

You didn't let me be happy.

Modhu climbed up from the drain. His hands were daubed with mud. While rubbing those hands he said in an embarrassing tone, Pori, I never did any wrong to you. I am poor, and have remained the same. Had you married me then you would have endured a lot of pains. But you and the contractor—
You cursed me; you said my husband would have white leprosy.

I didn’t mean anything. The contractor doesn’t suffer from that disease.

Yes he does; it’s a secret.

My words don’t mean anything. I am taking them back anyway. Did I ever willingly want to harm you?

Every year my babies die.

Don’t you have doctors at your tea garden? Contractor-babu has a lot of money—

No treatments were successful.

Modhu was feeling sad for Pori. At that time there was a sudden gleam in Pori’s eyes. She grabbed a bunch of Modhu’s hair and shaking him she said, you bastard, you won’t let me become a mother? You have so much jealousy in your heart?

After that Pori began to approach the pedestrians and tell them that because of Modhu’s imprecation her babies never survive. Some of them believed her, they looked askance at Modhu. Poor Modhu had to run around to save himself.

Then at night the day before yesterday, Modhu was found in Pori’s room. Contractor-babu arrived unexpectedly at midnight. Poor Modhu wasn’t guilty at all; he thought that if he were to stop Pori from spreading such words he needed to befriend her first. 

Modhu begged Pori to forgive him and said, please don’t disrepute me anymore! The young kids run away whenever they see me—

Pori said, you won’t have a bad-name if I ever become a mother. But I won’t become a mother; my husband has white-leprosy—

Modhu had a god-fearing nature. He was a motherless lad. His father saved him when he was a child by making a vow at the altar of Maa Sitala (a Hindu goddess). The mention of unrighteous practices scared him. At first he didn’t consent to Pori’s offer, but then once, twice, thrice—.  The contractor was an exceedingly knavish man. He arrived as noiselessly as a wild-cat. He had solid news. Such rumors spread easily.

On the one hand Modhu already had a bad reputation because of his imprecations, and on top of that if the contractor gentleman took him to the Panchayat then there were would be no escape for him. He could be beaten to death. Madhu thought for a few moments, he then detached the wooden bolt from the door with a forceful pull and brought it down on the contractor’s head. After that he didn’t wait to look around, he just ran.
The blow had indeed been forceful one.  After running for a bit Modhu thought that probably he might have killed the contractor gentleman. The thought seemed to benumb his limbs. Little saplings were sprouting in his tobacco-field, that year he put a straw awning on his hut, ordered a shirt from the tailor, all those things remained behind. Running hastily Modhu entered the forest.

Leaning against the mangrove tree Modhu fell asleep. Upon awakening he grabbed his stomach. His stomach gave the impression of burning furiously.  Around five-six beedis remained in his pocket, but he must have dropped the match box when he was running. There wasn’t any way to smoke the beedis despite them being there in his pocket. What more he even had twelve to fourteen rupees in his pocket, yet he was now dying of hunger, it seemed outrageous. How could the dignity of money be kept alive? He neither wanted to rest nor walk. Nevertheless, he got up and started to saunter.

After walking for a bit he clearly heard the sound of approaching feet. It sounded like the sound of human feet. Madhu rushed to hide himself in the bush. The forest guards sometimes come to that area to see if somebody was illegally cutting tress, or to get a bribe. Hunters could come to kill the roguish elephant; but they won’t come to such an interior spot in the forest.

Modhu kept on looking cautiously. A little later he observed a couple of guys who seemed to be more scared than him approaching in his direction. They looked like gentlemen. They had disheveled hair, wore torn shirts, yet their faces retained a certain degree of suavity.
Modhu gave out a sigh. He had no difficulty in recognizing them. They were political babus. They traded arms and ammunition. Onetime they outwitted the police, now the police outwitted them.

Madhu wanted to see if the gentlemen had any food with them. But their hands were empty. They didn’t have any baggage with them either. Madhu was dejected.  If they had food with them Madhu might have approached them and squatted on the ground.
The two boys walked forward and then sat leaning against that same mangrove tree where Madhu had been resting a few moments ago. They brought out a packet of cigarettes.

One of the two said, a mad elephant always come by itself, isn’t it?

The other wearily said, I don’t know!

Then he stretched his body in order to sleep.

Modhu was debating whether to walk out of the bush or not. The next moment he sprang up. The young man who was lying jumped up like a spring in a mechanism and started to cry, oh, god, oh god, I am dying! Something bit me—

It didn’t take Modhu a second to understand that he was beaten by a snake. Modhu was also lying in that same spot. It could have beaten him as well. Why was Maa Manasa (the snake goddess) so kind to him?

The other lad leaned and said, what happened? Why are you shouting like this?

The other chap said, I am dying; my body is burning—

At that moment Modhu stepped out of the bush. As soon as the other lad observed him, he pressed his hands together and said, we are from the village, we came to pick up wood. Then dragging the legs of the other young man he said, there’s a snake there. You better come away from that spot.
The snake couldn’t be seen. Nobody had the courage to look into the hole on the tree. Modhu inspected the bite marks and understood that it was a fatally poisonous snake.

The snake bit the young man on the nape of his neck. He seemed perplexed. He didn’t know what to do. He muttered, a rope, a rope is required now. Don’t you need to tie it up with a rope?

Madhu recalled the song of Maa Manasa—

 ‘If a snake bites you on your head, where would you tie the amulet?’  The poison would travel to the brain very soon. It wasn’t sure if he would live for even fifteen minutes.

Modhu noisily threw a big ball of spit on the ground. Then he opened his mouth widely and said, babu, see if I have any open sores in my mouth.

The young man said, why?

Why don’t you see!

No. I don’t see any sore.

Do you have a knife?

No sooner the young man had brought out a knife than Modhu used it to make a gash near the nape of snake bitten lad. Then just like some ferocious beast he put his mouth on the nape of the young man’s neck and began sucking his blood.

Every time he filled his mouth with the blood and then spat it out on the ground. The other chap stood stunned.

The snake-bitten lad was facing the ground. He had little consciousness in his body. Modhu continued sucking blood from his neck and spitting it on the ground. His heart was racing at that moment. If he had even a small open sore or a cut in his mouth then he wouldn’t survive.

This continued for half an hour, then Modhu went to a side and threw up. He put his fingers in his mouth and threw up for a long time. He couldn’t throw up much though in his empty stomach. He came and rolled the lad. He examined him by pulling his eyelids and placing his hand near his nose.

The other chap hurried cried out, Ajoy, Ajoy!

The young man faintly replied, what?

Modhu sprang up and said, o, he has survived!

In the next moment after he had jumped Modhu felt dizzy and fell on the ground. Scared, he tried to grab the ground. With his blurry eyes he tried to say, I don’t want to die. It seemed the whole firmament and the ground was shaking with the intention of pushing him and rolling him down. In a weak tone he said, o, dear, please don’t throw me out.

Modhu regained his composure after a little time. The venom of the snake didn’t enter his system. He was dizzy because he jumped in an empty stomach.

Modhu got up once again. And then he said, babu, please stay here. I will get some water for him.

After he had walked a few steps, Modhu came back. In an embarrassing tone he said, can you please give me your matchbox; I want to smoke a beedi.

The lad offered him cigarette, but Modhu didn’t take it. He went to a side and lit his beedi. He felt relieved. One can live without eating, but one cannot survive without partaking of an addictive. A couple of puffs from his beedi generally cleared his mind.

Modhu knew where to find water. He saw the place in the morning. Slowly he walked to the spot. It was a pit of dirty water. He scrutinized the surrounding cautiously for once to make sure no wild animals or beasts were near.

Modhu squatted near the pit. He leaned and picked up a handful of water. When he straightened afterwards he experienced an unusual sensation. It was as if a revolt had broken out inside his body. Unknown objects were running about in his blood stream. Modhu understood it was joy. He never felt this joyous ever before in his life. He saved someone’s life. Someone was dying, and Modhu saved him. A person who would have certainly died was saved by Modhu. It seemed that the joy inside his body would come bursting out of his system. 

Taking water in his cupped palms Modhu looked up. Only a small portion of the sky was visible. Darkness was about to impend in the forest. All the tress seemed to be observing him.

Modhu cried silently. The tear drops from his eyes poured on the water in his cupped palms. He posed a question to some invisible authority in his mind, I was angry when I hit the contractor gentleman on his head. In exchange for that I saved somebody else’s life. Will I not be forgiven for that?
Nobody replied to Modhu.

Glossary of Non-English words:
1. Beedi: A thinn Indian cigarette filled with tobacco flake and wrapped in a tendu leaf and tied with a string at one end.
2 .Maa Manasa: The snake goddess
3. Maa Sitala: A Hindu goddess
4. Sraddha-"Sraddha, Sanskrit Śrāddha, also spelled Shraddha,  in Hinduism, a ceremony performed in honour of a dead ancestor. The rite is both a social and a religious responsibility enjoined on all male Hindus (with the exception of some sannyasis, or ascetics). The importance given in India to the birth of sons is to ensure that there will be a male descendant to perform the sraddha ceremony after one’s death." Source--
5. Rath-er mela-The event of 'Ratha Yatra' is marked by this fair

Translator’s Note: All rights to the original short story Aranye Eka belong to the author Sunil Gangopadhyay. This translation is an attempt by the translator to pay homage to one of her favorite writers in Bengali literature. 
The translator has no rights to the original Bengali short story. PLEASE DO NOT COPY OR USE ANY PART OF THIS WORK WITHOUT PERMISSION
Original short story published in Panchasti Priya Galpa by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Published by Sahityam