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Empathy for the Man on the Street

By Shyamala A. Narayan

Chakraborty, Bitan. Redundant. Translated from Bengali by Malati Mukherjee. New Delhi: Readomania, 2022. 93pp. Paperback. Rs295. $12.99

Bitan Chakraborty takes us into the life of characters generally ignored by the middle class. Redundant vividly presents the struggles, the hopes and aspiration of two young men in Kolkata: Shubho, in search of a job, working for a marketing company during the day and at a lottery kiosk in the evening, and Kanak who works in a garment shop. We get a clear picture of the other poor people they associate with, such as Yadav Da who sells tea on the street. “Yadav Da sleeps on the benches right here on the footpath and goes back to his village a couple of times a year” (p.11).

Kanak had come to Kolkata for a two-year fashion design course, because “fashion design was the latest craze in the metropolis. Everyone dreamt of becoming another Manish Malhotra” (p.14). He has spent “a full five lakh” rupees, but his dream cannot match real life, he realizes later that “there is no Fashion Design job to be had anywhere. If you have a lot of money, open your own boutique, otherwise sit down quietly and accept whatever you get” (p.83). He manages to get a job as a salesman in a garment shop. When he is declared the top salesperson of the day he is very happy. The novelist uses an appropriate comparison: “Bursting with joy, Kanak couldn’t have felt happier if India had defeated Pakistan at cricket” (p.15).

Small details make the daily life of Kanak and Shubho very real. Kanak is always struggling to outdo Madhumita, another employee, who usually becomes the top salesperson of the day. The reader can experience the difficulties that Shubho has in peddling various toiletry products (soap, shampoo, etc.) They take turns to cook rice and dal in their room, to save money from buying food. Shubho’s unsuccessful attempt to get a steady job in Kolkata is quite heartrending. The breaking point comes when he has to compensate the lottery stall owner for the tickets a customer has stolen. Unable to pay the rent, Shubho cuts his right hand. The “Epilogue” has Kanak at the hospital bidding goodbye to Shubho, whose parents have come to take him back home to their village. He has been discharged from the hospital and advised to change the dressing every alternate day. Kanak gives him two thousand rupees, “Buy some fruits for yourself as you reach home. You have to recover quickly and look after your parents.” The novel has a surprise ending; Shubho uses the money to pay the rent, declaring, “I will never leave this city — whether I live or die” (p.90).

The publisher’s note informs us that “the ending was suitably modified to reiterate the message” about hope: “And no matter what, there is always a reason to live, because hope is the last thing we lose.” This gives us the misleading impression that the original ending has been rewritten. The fact is that the publisher persuaded the novelist to write an epilogue when he accepted the novel for translation. The note should have stated clearly that an epilogue has been added to the original Bengali novel.

The book is unsettling; after reading this short novel, we are moved to look at shop assistants or lottery ticket sellers as individuals with their own hopes and aspirations, not just cogs in the machinery of commercial life. One is impressed that the young author (Bitan Chakraborty was born in 1984) has such empathy for the man on the street. The note by the translator is scholarly and informative, and explains the strategy she has employed, “A small list of words has been retained in the original Bengali, typically because those words do not find a perfect replacement in English. But also because they introduce the non-Bengali and non-Indian reader to the intriguing sounds of words like ghugni or gamcha. All these words are in italics and explained in the glossary at the end” (p.8). The untranslated words help to recreate the ambience, and never interfere with reading pleasure. The book is beautifully produced, without a single printing mistake.

* Professor Shyamala A. Narayan (Retd.) is one of the foremost scholars of Indian English literature. She has more than four decades of research experience in the field, having published six books and more than 100 articles in leading journals. Since 1972, she has compiled the Indian section of the “Bibliography of Commonwealth Literature” published annually in the December issue of Journal of Commonwealth Literature (Sage Publications, London). This is widely regarded as the most comprehensive critical guide to the year’s literary output, and is the primary archival resource for researchers in Indian English literature.

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