If you have studied English Literature in an Indian college or university, there is no escaping the great debate and divide: Native Writings Vs. Indian Writings in English (IWE). While there are many points of argument between the two it essentially boils down to these: the "Nativists" largely contend that literatures in Indian languages are far superior and "Indian" than the ones written in English in India. The debate between the two sides of this argument can be so heated and full of academic invective that I am surprised that the two sides don't settle it with blows. I don't belong to either side. As long as the literature is readable I don't really care if some people consider the "vernacular" writings to be better to those written in English or if another group of people contends that it is IWE that is currently India's face in the literary world and encompasses a sufficiently strong body of work to be considered a world literature. I do think that while the literary merits of the different books in various languages and cultures can be a matter of debate, debating the "Indianness" of a particular literature is too narrow minded a focus. I also consider Indian Writings in English to be sufficiently "Indian".
A bigger issue while debating the literary merit of any book is to ensure that it is widely accessible and available to as many readers as possible. Given the huge diversity of our peoples, most Indians know at least two or three languages. However usually the proficiency is "functional" and a person would prefer reading in a single language (or perhaps can manage in another as well). That does mean that a goodish bit of the native Indian literatures are not accessible to people who don't speak that language. Similarly IWE is not read by people who don't know English. This is where translations play such a big role. I am surprised and dismayed that India doesn't have a strong publishing in translated works.
Penguin Books since many years has tried stepping into this space. For more than a decade now Penguin has been translating and publishing classics of Indian literatures into English. From the few translations that I have read, they are doing a far better job of promoting and making Indian literatures more accessible than the rabid academics.
All that about Indian literatures, IWE, and translations was prompted after recently reading It Rained All Night by Buddhadeva Bose. This slim novel was first published as Rat Bhore Bhrishti in Bengali 1967. I picked up the translation by Clinton B. Seely. Some random marginalia about the book:
- Buddhadeva Bose's It Rained All Night has all the ingredients of a juicy, salacious scandal. There's a lovely protagonist, their's the lack of satisfaction or contentment in a marriage, their's a "weak" and intellectual husband Vs. a gruff "doer", and there is infidelity set against the genteel backdrop of middle-class Kolkata of the sixties. There is little wonder that some idiot back then charged the book with obscenity and had it banned. It Rained All Night, is however not prurient but rather a deep exposition of marriage, the expectations from a marriage and how two people who so want to be happy and love can be apart because their notions of love are different. This is something that was probably recognized by the Kolkata High Court which overturned Buddhadeva Bose's conviction and the ban on It Rained All Night.
- Many would consider looking at It Rained All Night as a strongly feminist work or at least a work that has a strong feminist undertone to it. The book at one level seems to justify Maloti's infidelity, for all purposes and means, as a married woman's need for love — just love, pure and simple. A feminist reading is not invalid but reading the book purely as a feminist text would be unfortunately limiting. Considering the broad social context of the genteel class of Kolkata of the sixties — a time when women were not granted their sexual rights (not that the situation has changed drastically even now), and the heavy taboo associated with infidelity in Indian culture it is tempting to read an assertion of female rights into Maloti's infidelity. That, I think, would however be a very simplistic and reductive reading of the book. For me the story is more of an analysis and exposition of how two fundamentally different people in a marriage are unable to bridge the gap between them and make their relationship work. It is to me a story about how a sensitive and yet prideful Nayonangshu, the husband, is unable to reach out to his wife in spite of realizing that the marriage is falling apart. It is a story about how a clear-headed and sharp Maloti is unable to communicate her desires and longings to her husband. It Rained All Night does an excellent job of showing how communication breaks down in a marriage and how a lack of communication and an unwillingness to understand and bridge differences will eventually would tear a married couple asunder.
- Having said that, it has to be admitted that It Rained All Night does show a wife whose need for love and passion breaks the commonly held views of the "sanctity" of marriage. The emphasis on a woman's right to herself, her body and the unabashed exercise of her sexual rights is very strong. At a fundamental level, Maloti is attracted to Jayanto, because she craves for passion and a love that is actual and not some idealized notion (held by her husband). This unapologetic depiction of a woman's need for passion must have been very brave, especially in the sixties.
- The book does a fine job of showing two different kinds of love — Nayonangshu's idea of an "ideal" and "pure" love is shown as the "intellectualization" of love. Maloti is shown to believe in a more earthy and physical idea of love. Nayonangshu thinks so much about love that in a way he looks down upon the physical aspect of it (not that he denies it, he wants to possess Maloti entirely). His love is a distillation of all the ideal love that he has read in literature. Maloti tries to understand what Nayonangshu desires but ultimately finds it limiting and incomplete. She understands to some extent the "intellectualization" that her husband brings to his notions of love but is unable to subscribe to it. Nayonangshu loses Maloti because he over thinks love and is unable to move beyond thought. Maloti drifts away from Nayonangshu as she feels his world of thoughts has no room for her and is unable to relate to it.
- There is little or no action in the novel. The narrative of It Rained All Night comprises alternate chapters that show the thoughts of the two protagonists — Maloti and Nayonangshu. The first and the third chapter's are Maloti's, the second and the fourth bare the thoughts of Nayonangshu. In a way one could look at each alternate chapter as the two protagonists justifying their position and actions in an "argument." The first-person narrative chapters enable the author to bring out not only their thought and feelings but also the extensive mental turmoil of both Maloti and Nayonangshu. There is a final chapter that is in third-person that sort of serves as a summation. This final chapter to me was the weakest part of the book — though I do realize that Basu needed the third-person chapter as a device to bring the novel to a "physical" closure. As you would expect for such a novel, there is no closure to the story. We just see the two sides and know that the story will continue. How it will end is not told or perhaps left to our own inclinations.
- While there is little action in the book, It Rained All Night starts dramatically and explosively with Maloti defiantly proclaiming her infidelity: "It’s over— it happened — there’s nothing more to say. I, Maloti Mukherji, someone’s wife, and someone’s mother—I did it. Did it with Jayanto. Jayanto wanted me, and I him … How did it happen? Easy. In fact I don't know why it didn't happen before—I’m surprised at my self-restraint, at Jayanto’s patience." The novel then moves largely backwards in time to apprise us of the facts, events, thoughts that led to Maloti sleeping with Jayanto. The dramatic start belies the measured delineation and the interiority of the characters' turmoil and thoughts to follow.
- Apart from Nayonangshu and Maloti there are no other characters in the novel. Their daughter, Bunni, and Jayanto — Nayonangshu's friend and ultimately Maloti's lover, are the only two other characters of some note. Both Bunni and Jayanto and any other character are always seen through the prism of either Nayonangshu's or Maloti's perspectives. This device in a way also helps readers understand how the two look at the same people and events differently and serves to underline their differences.
- Nayonangshu, comes across as a tortured man, inert to some extent with low self-esteem (or rather a self-esteem bubble that is easily pricked) and jealous. He also comes across as extremely sensitive, intellectual and conflicted. In some ways the new assertive Maloti is his creation. He thinks he wants a wife who will be his intellectual and emotional equal and he pushes Maloti to change her ways and to conform to his ideas. Maloti, perhaps otherwise would have been happy to stay in the comforting confines of a joint family and manage the traditional "womanly" duties. However once Maloti is recognized by his friends as a person in her own right and when he realizes that many of his friends visit their home not to converse with him but to listen to and see Maloti, Nayonangshu's insecurity flares up. It is notable (as compared to traditional or typical notions of Indian husbands) that in spite of his insecurities he never bans Maloti from interacting with his friends. Even when he realizes what is happening between Jayanto and Maloti he is extremely reluctant to ban Jayanto from visiting their home. His idealization of the idea of love and his ambivalence to physical love is also very well brought out. In spite of all his intellect and sensitivity he however is unable to unbend and bridge the widening gap between him and his wife.
- Maloti comes across as a passionate woman who on the nudging of her husband tries to change herself to fit into his notions of how she should be. This to her is how she shows her love for him. However she is also assertive enough to resent (perhaps passively) Nayonangshu's insistence that she conform to his ideas of a woman and love. This translates into an inflammable anger and a torn self where she would like to preserve her marriage but is angered by her realization that to Nayonangshu only wants her to believe and follow his ideas. She resents the realization that her husband wants to be seen as a liberal and her "emancipator" but in reality doesn't want to offer her true emancipation or recognize her as an individual with her own beliefs and needs: "I am just a means to satisfy his physical appetite, some sort of machine to provide him his comforts — and once I became convinced of this, was I still supposed to remain his gentle Sita-like wife? No, I want love — love in every sense of the word. I want to be flattered, worshipped. I want devotion, I want to see myself as larger than I am... How can I reject someone who is madly in love with me? Why should such strength be expected from me alone? I am human, I am a woman. I have a body of flesh and blood." As she increasingly and "dangerously" gets attracted to Jayanto she is irritated that Nayonangshu is unable to climb down is intellectual ivory tower, assert himself as her husband and throw out Jayanto.
- Maloti is at times practical or realistic enough to realize the social expectations of matrimony: "The main thing is the family. You married me. We ’re husband and wife — we still are... why not just let our entire lives pass like this, like the lives of countless others." She perhaps would have accepted life/fate if Nayonangshu had banned Jayanto from their home and would have continued in the construct of their marriage. It is Nayonangshu who is unable to accept a hollow marriage and continue in it. As a translator and a husband in love with his wife, he understands "there are some things one just can’t say in Bengali". He confesses: "In a country where even now countless people go for arranged marriages and accept these marriages as permanent, the occasion for asking such an absurd question as ‘Do you love me?’ presents itself to only a handful of ill-fated individuals. I am one of those unlucky ones." He refuses to ban Jayanto as he knows that it will make Maloti a husk of her former self and that it will also make Jayanto unhappy. Rather than making three people unhappy, he feels that it is alright if he stays unhappy while Jayanto and Maloti find happiness in each other.
- A beautiful piece of writing in the novel is (and one that serves to show Nayonangshu to be kind of person he is) when Nayonangshu finds a notepaper on which Maloti has scribbled "Jayanto, please come back" over and over again. For a short while Nayonangshu is morbidly gleeful — he has evidence and he can use it against his wife the next time they quarrel. But soon his nature asserts itself and he begins to wonder what would presenting the evidence achieve. He can't make Maloti love him and would end up making three people unhappy. Over a period of time he forgets where he has hidden that piece of paper.
- The novel is wonderful and explosive in its candor and the rejection of middle-class thoughts and values. For a novel about infidelity, there is very little physical love or lust in the novel. The readers realize that while Jayanto and Maloti come together it is because in their own way they are similar — people who can never say "I love you" but actually believe in showing love — and that the two genuinely love each other. For whatever little passion that Buddhadeva Bose writes into the novel it is written with much sensuousness. Nayonangshu's contemplation of a semi-clad sleeping Maloti after she has just slept with Jayanto is beautiful. Even more wonderful is how Nayonangshu, covers up Maloti, before waking her up to save her any embarrassment.
- Perhaps the only thing to kvetch about is the translation itself. Clinton B. Seely's translation gives very little of the ethos in which the story is rooted. The Bengali backdrop of the story or the fact that it was originally written in Bengali is hardly noticed in the translation. Apart from a few Bengali words and mentions of places in Kolkata and the a single mention that Jayanto always prefers calling Maloti by her "daak naam", "Lotan" , there is no Bengali flavor to the the tale (tellingly, Nayonangshu is unable to ever bring himself to call Maloti by her nickname because it doesn't fit into his ideas about her). Now there is no judging if this is a drawback on the part of the translator or of the original leaves little scope to bring in the local flavor. I suspect the latter is true because the novel largely plays out has the thoughts of the two protagonists. Having said that it would have been nice if the translation too had managed to capture the Bengali flavor of the story more strongly. A case in point is the excellent translation of the Marathi Kosala by Bhalchandra Nemade into the English Cocoon. The translation captures the cadences of Marathi perfectly.
- To me the greatest reason for recommending the novel is how beautifully it balances between the thoughts and actions of Maloti and Nayonangshu. To bring back a point that I had raised earlier, if one were to read this story as two sides presenting their arguments, it will be difficult to make up our minds about who is correct or who is to blame. When either Maloti or Nayonangshu are baring their thoughts and conflict you do feel they are right but it is always tempered with the perspective of the another. Buddhadeva Bose's triumph in It Rained All Night is to show how neither Maloti nor Nayonangshu are solely to blame but how both are responsible for what happens.