17 August 2008

Book Review: Two Sisters

Two Sisters
Rabindranath Tagore
Rupa & Co, Rs. 95

This tale of two very different sisters, published in 1933, is one of Tagore’s last novels. The elder sister, Sarmila, is a type who appears often in Tagore’s literary universe – the grihini, or housewife, in whose seemingly prosaic world lies the possibility of poetry. The younger sister, Urmi, is more attractive, but also flightier – she embodies the new educated woman. Sarmila is devoted to her husband Sasanka, and when she falls ill, calls in her sister to help keep her household in running order.

The novel proceeds to unravel the complex web of desire and guilt created by Urmi’s arrival, while providing an effortless portrait of an Anglicised, Bengali world where “the pursuit of medical science” vies for attention with tennis matches and sitar classes. Simultaneously, psychological character study and sharply ironic social commentary, Dui Bon is written with an enviable surety of touch, always perceptive and never heavy-handed.

Krishna Kripalani’s translation, Two Sisters, was first published in 1943, two years after the author’s death, and has been reissued by Rupa as part of their Rabindra Rachanavali series. Many Tagore translations are now old enough to be in the public domain, enabling these paperback editions to be made available very reasonably: Mashi & Other Stories, for example, is priced at Rs 95, and Dak-ghar (The Post Office), Tagore’s richly symbolic play about an imaginative and lonely boy, at Rs 50.

The reader might object to the clumsily literal, old-fashioned English of the translation (“…she was afraid lest Sasanka should again after his bath get engrossed in work and Urmi’s day be rendered fruitless for want of his leisure”), but that would be quibbling, at these prices. In fact, this literal quality pushes the reader to imagine the Bengali that lies just below the surface, occasionally breaking through to reveal its presence – and that, as the German theorist Walter Benjamin famously said, is what translation should always strive to do.

Published in Time Out Delhi, 2007

No comments: