1 October 2011

Book Review: Harbart


A new translation finally gives us a closer sense of this madcap modern classic.

Nabarun Bhattacharya Tr. Arunava Sinha
Tranquebar Press
150 pp; Rs 195

FIRST PUBLISHED in Bangla in 1994, Harbart brought its author Nabarun Bhattacharya — the only son of writer Mahasweta Devi and playwright Bijon Bhattacharya — a swift and certain radical cachet. The tragicomic tale of one Harbart Sarkar — orphan, general oddball and communicator with the dead, Bhattacharya’s novel is also a mordant history of the Bengali present. It opens with the discovery of Harbart’s body — he has committed suicide after a night of drunken revelry with the local young layabouts — and moves backwards in fits and starts, taking us thro ugh episodes from Harbart’s orphaned north Calcutta childhood, jerky flashbacks into the lives of his parents and his transition from idiot savant to spiritualist.

Its cinematic quality is something theatre director Suman Mukhopadhyay noticed when he read the novel, choosing to inaugurate his filmmaking career with a dizzyingly energetic adaptation of it, the critically feted Herbert (2008). And having watched the film before reading the book, this reviewer feels compelled to quietly confess that she sort of likes the film better.

Having got that out of the way, however, Harbart is a strange and wondrous book, unlike anything you’re likely to have read before. Bhattacharya’s prose has been hailed (as well as attacked) as shaking up the genteel world of Bangla literature with its uncompromising references to the bodily and the sexual, in the unfettered language of the Calcutta street. And yet the Sahitya Akademi, which awarded Bhattacharya’s novel in 1997, published a translation by Jyoti Panjwani in 2004, which coyly papers over much of what gave the book its transgressiveness and immediacy. Which is why Arunava Sinha’s new translation is important. What Panjwani renders as “Drink and you vomit; don’t drink and you still vomit. This is why I don’t like drinking with you all. Slumbering loafers! Drunken loafers!” becomes, in Sinha’s version: “… Vomit if you do, vomit if you don’t. That’s why I swear I don’t like drinking with you arseholes. Fuck getting high. Fuck getting drunk.”

No English will never quite capture the madcap feel of the original, but Sinha’s version is idiomatic enough to allow us into Harbart’s surreal universe, where the nymph in the Park Street antique shop appears first as his neighbour Buki of “the ever-so-slightly-insolent breasts”, then as the naked Russian woman facing the machine guns in the Fall of Berlin, and he himself moves in and out of parallel dimensions: “Harbart raised the collar of his overcoat and now it was impossible to think of him as anything but Hollywood.” Or later: “Harbart kept waking up with a start. May Day, 1992. Boris Yeltsin had arranged a spectacular concert of ghosts in Russia. Millions of communists saw the ghosts of capitalism.” This is not a easy book, but it will always be an intriguing one.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 40, Dated 08 Oct 2011

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