Book Review: One Dozen Stories (Naina Dey)

One Dozen Stories: Collected Bengali Short Fiction in Translation
Naina Dey
Kolkata: Avenel Press, 2020. 
Pages 168, 
Price ₹ 250 INR


Less is Resolved, More is Suggested

            In the Foreword to Naina Dey’s translation into English from Bengali of twelve short stories of classical and contemporary Bengali writers, Prof. Sanjukta Dasgupta quotes the American fictionist Eudora Welty who described the short story as a genre where one can work more by suggestion. Prof. Dasgupta goes on to write that a short story can create a lasting impression because “of its layered nuances, its either linear or non-linear networks of associations, memories and subjectivities”. It is true that short stories being micro narratives compared to the novel have certain advantages over the more expanded form of fiction in being more suggestive and thereby having a sort of insidious nature in penetrating a wide readership without being noticed. Historically short stories have served in propagating social reforms by shaping the vision of the people. That the short stories work through suggestions without the direct imposition of any ideology helps it to penetrate within the psyche of the readers through the aesthetics of literature. Naina Dey’s collection of translated Bengali stories, One Dozen Stories, stands out not only in the selection of the stories but also due to the adeptness of conveying in the target language the nuances of source language culture. It does help that Naina Dey is a Bengali and a professor of English at the same time.

Naina Dey
            Naina Dey has chosen twelve stories of eight Bengali writers to translate, which gives her a wide variety of Bengali short fiction to showcase not only in terms of themes and styles but also of generations in the development of the short fiction in Bengali. There is parity in terms of gender representation of the writers too. On one side there is a diversity of male writers, Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Narendranath Mitra and Nabakumar Basu and on the other side there are female writers, Ashapurna Devi, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Anita Agnihotri and Esha Dey. Interestingly both Rabindranath Tagore and Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay come right at the end of the collection perhaps to dissuade the readers from viewing the landscape of Bengali short story writing from the perspective of the two stalwarts. The collection starts with Ashapurna Devi’s story “Chinnamasta” (“The Severed Head”) and ends with Tagore’s celebrated story “Streer Patra” (“The Wife’s Letter”). Both these stories center on female characters. Ashapurna Devi’s story was first published in 1949 and depicts the change in the relationship between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law after the death of the husband/ son. It is a rather disturbing story in its literal context but it attains a grave symbolic meaning at a psychological level. Tagore’s story has almost become a feminist manifesto in its own right with numerous translations of it appearing. Naina Dey’s translations of both these stories come as close as possible to simultaneously satisfying a reader who is aware of Bengali culture as well as one who is getting introduced to Bengali culture. There is another Tagore story in this collection, “Shesh Purashkar” (“The Last Reward”). It is one of the unfinished stories from Tagore’s Galpoguchha collection. Naina Dey justifies the inclusion of this fragmentary story on the argument that the story “reveals in embryonic form the Nobel Laureate’s profound preoccupation with the rewards of virtue and truth.” 

Amit Shankar Saha
            The story by Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay that Naina Dey has chosen to translate is “Puimacha” (“The Spinach Vine”). It is one of the most heart-touching and sensitive stories in the collection. It is a tragic story with an existential sense of life going on despite death. Naina Dey has finely brought out the master storyteller Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay in her translation of a story of rural poverty and predicaments, which is almost surreal and deeply poignant. There are two stories translated of Suchitra Bhattacharya, “Atmaja” (“The Son”) and “Ashabarna” (“Discrimination”). The former story, as the title suggests, is the story of a son who has recently lost his mother after a protracted illness. It is a story of complex feelings arising in the son of bereavement and relief amidst his duties of performing various rituals. The latter story depicts the latent class prejudice that exists in our society. Sumita’s pride at helping a man in need turns to disgust when she realizes that the poor man’s son may become an engineer and will destabilize the class hierarchy that exists between them. Both the stories delve into hidden corners of human psyche and explore their appearance in niche circumstances.

            Anita Agnihotri’s story “Ranabhoomi” (“Battlefield”) is a stunning story mixing history and contemporary life of mundane domestic strife. The narrative of the Battle of Plassey and the treacherous murder of Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah is intertwined with the story of Abhiram which ultimately coincides metaphorically at the end when Abhiram will remember his “mother’s anger, his sister’s ill-humour, his wife’s tears, and keep them hidden in his breast like the mango tree struck by the canon-ball.” The irony of the coincidence of the political and the personal at the symbolic level cannot be ignored. It beautifully brings out the excellent storytelling of Anita Agnihotri in the backdrop of the history and culture of Bengal. There are three stories of Esha Dey. “Anya Jagat Anya Nari” (“Another World, Another Woman”) is a rather humorous story of a Bengali civil servant’s wife in newly independent India trying to “civilize” a poor domestic in a remote corner of Orissa. “Lapis Lazuli” is the story of a jeweler obsessed with his possession of the semi-precious stone in his collection. The set of lapis represents old beliefs and customs which he ultimately has to let go. There is a subtle poignancy in the story. The third story, “Satilakkhi” (“A Devoted Wife”) is filled with irony and humour where we see the wife of a crippled man goes in search of him when he deserts her to get back her transistor radio. It depicts the gendered subaltern in a new light.

            The two stories of Narendranath Mitra and Nabakumar Basu are more contemporary and urban in flavor. Narendranath Mitra’s story “Chor” (“Thief”) is the story of a kleptomaniac who in the end finds that his honest wife who has been struggling to make him give up his habit of stealing has now turned to a thief herself. The story works at various levels and is a psychological study of man-woman relationship and the temptations of doing a wrong for minor benefits. Nabakumar Basu in his story “Feydaa” (“Gain”) takes the readers beyond the shores of Bengal to a diasporic Bengali family where a visiting grandmother, Amiyabala, rediscovers herself in the company of the caregiver, Michelle, and simultaneously exposes the materialistic aspects of the pride of living abroad. This entire collection of Bengali stories translated into English takes the readers through a whole spectrum of Bengali life and brings out various aspects of the short story explored by its exponents in Bengali. Naina Dey’s book is a commendable addition to the corpus of Bengali literature in English translation. 

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