The Nocturnal Attack (Nandita Bagchi) - Translated by Sriparna Das

Sriparna Das
These days it became increasingly difficult for Mandira to get up from the bed in the mornings. A strange lethargy engulfed her body. Chills in the hands … shivers in the knees … unsteadiness in the back! Hundred and one varieties of aches from arthritis, spondylitis, and what not! And they were all sending her the age old signal, ‘Mandira, you are getting old!’

How many times had Dr. Haldar suggested her not to sleep on a soft bed? ‘Mrs. Kahali, please stop sleeping on a soft bed. Start free-hand exercises also, a little at a time. Otherwise you will suffer when old age will approach. You will also make other family members suffer along with you.’ But did she pay any heed to that?? No. Mandira, as indulgent as always, could never sleep on anything but on a six-inch foam mattress.

Nor did she have the patience to put any effort to do exercises. That apart, where was the time? It was always rush-hours from the word go. From the second she left bed in the mornings, there was always doing this and that for the children in the morning, and then their father’s necessary things to attend to, a little help here and there regarding their son’s studies! It was always midnight when she would get to bed. Between all these chores, there are items like saas-bahu, news, ghar-ghar-ki-kahani, etc. And how could one forget about all those piles of answer-sheets! It was truly a headache to teach subjects like mathematics. The girls probably had only cowdung instead of grey cells inside their brains. Sometimes, it is she who risked her mental faculties while explaining some problems to her students. And to top all these, the nuisance of checking the answer-papers! Can one really blame the spondylitis?

But even if she didn’t do her exercises regularly, she was very serious on one account. She never forgot to take her daily intake of calcium and vitamins prescribed by Dr. Haldar. She also used the lumbo-sacral belt with precision. She had actually wanted to take the H-R-T. But the thoughts of the horrendous side effects were enough to discourage her. Instead she had started using anti-oxidants recently. It seemed that anti-oxidants helped to retain youth. Limping, fat, aged women were a horror for her. Her son, Rit, would always comment, ‘Mom, you are hypochondriac number one! You can always make a hit film with Govinda. Want to give it a try?’

But why did the index finger on the right hand have a burning sensation today? Mandira removed the curtain and lifted her glasses from the bedside table. Yes! She was right. There was a small, reddish wound of the size of a methi-seed, again. Why didn’t she realize it at night? It was the fifth or sixth time this was happening!

Thrice she had got up from her sleep at night. As soon as she had moved her hand thapas—that was the sound on the floor. Then there was that rushed affair … switching on the lights, running after them and finally crushing them under her sandals and sending them to the same hell from where they had been let loose. In spite of all these, why could she not feel it at night? Was she very tired? She felt as if she had a deep sleep last night. Even if it was the case, so what? Some animal would dig at her flesh and have a feast of it and she would not feel? How was that possible? ‘Shame on you, Mandira’, she chided herself.

This became a family joke, she knew that. She was not so slow that she would not notice her children’s winks and smirks or her husband’s glimmer of a grin hiding behind the moustache. And that was natural too; she was also wise enough to expect that. After all, the beasts bite her and no one else, did they not? Rit said, ‘Mom, I’m sure you don’t wash your hands properly with soap after dinner. They come to lick your fingers, tempted by the smell of mutton gravy. Most probably they are meat lovers like me.’

But they had no way of knowing that Mandira, being the paranoid that she was, washed her hands thousand times a day. Would they not start teasing her by calling her a maniac if they knew that? Hubby darling had suggested using the mosquito-net. Mosquito-net!! The very thought of it suffocated her. Weren’t all the companies, that produced those commercial insect-repellents, flourished and made money because of people like Mandira? Everything was being tried mats, liquidators, sprays, powders, chalk lines everything. The house was full of all kinds of chemicals that were available in the market, thanks to the advertisements on the T.V. channels and the newspapers. They served to kill one or two here and there, but did not wipe them out totally. No, that was certainly not the case as was claimed by the advertisements. An old slipper was ever-present behind their bedroom door. If once, somehow, one could manage to aim properly—the END. The most effective cure of all! Bhavani, the cook, said, ‘Boudi, they come to take revenge on you, you know. Look at the way you kill them!’

What else could she do? She just could not stand those creatures. So many beautiful species became extinct, why could this one not go that way too? She was not the kind of delicate darling to be scared of insects and lizards and things like that. But, these creatures? She felt a kind of vendetta. Her hands simply grew restless. They roamed everywhere … from kitchen to store-room to every single corner of the house. When one went to the toilet, with sleep-laden eyes at night, they would simply fly on to you or slip inside your nightie the moment you switched on the light…frrrr….frrr….impossible, totally intolerable! How could anybody tolerate them?

She would be content if she could kill at least one of them a day, even without doing a single one of her regular chores. It felt like doing a noble work, almost the feeling of a soldier at war! But she could not remember how, where and when this enmity started.

The sound of the ringing door-bell broke into her thoughts. The young doctor from the flat next-door had come by to give the keys. He was going to his chamber. The wife had gone for her management classes. They kept the key with Mandira-auntie when they went out for the day. He also knew about the incidents of ‘cockroach-bites’. Mandira took a risk. She told him, though after much hesitation. The young man asked very seriously, ‘Auntie, have you ever seen them?’

Mandira’s antennas were more sensitive than the cockroaches’. But what was the point in arguing? It would be just a battle of words. Was he going to drop his ‘I-am-the-best’ attitude? So her antennae talked to themselves, ‘Hmm! So kiddo, you think I am a case of mental disorder? You young people have too much of an ego problem. You think you know everything?’

An oblique smile and an arch of her eyebrows were enough for the young doctor to walk away as fast as possible. Terrible lady, he thought!!

Bhavani and Mandira were watching T.V. in the evening when Deepti’s call came. Deepti’s husband, at this age, had been posted to Pune again. There was no provision to take the family along with him. Poor thing! She was very lonely. Her daughter was also married off. So they talked regularly over the phone. Since they were children they had shared all their secrets. So they knew everything about each other. Deepti had a peculiar problem.

She could not stand lizards. She practically became hysterical when she spotted one. With eyes popping out her head, Deepti would start making funny sounds. She would simply start jumping up and down the place.

Did Mandira suffer any less of her share of scratches and bites? No! After her marriage, Deepti’s in-laws had tackled this problem quite sympathetically. But now, being all alone on her own, she faced the real challenge! First thing that she did in the morning was to open the kitchen door with a big bang. All nuts and bolts almost fell out of their places. Then she clapped her hands very loudly. They had been to the zoo once in their childhood. That was really a scene, as Mandira recollected their trip to the crocodile section. Deepti and her elder sister had vomited and done what not! And what about that incident when they had gone to Nandan to watch Jurassic Park? That was another story altogether. Deepti was so scared and did such things that they had to come out of the movie hall. Mandira sat next to her in the hall and her saree was almost torn to bits. Such were the heights of Deepti’s terror.

After that incident, and after Sandip’s suggestion, they had taken Deepti to a psychiatrist. He had laughed the matter away. ‘This is a small mental problem’, he had said. ‘This is called reptile phobia. There is no need of medicines. Only take care to avoid the animals in question.’ That was his suggestion.

But, Mandira’s case was completely different. How was it connected to psychology? She did get small reddish wounds on her fingertips. It did have physical evidences.

After dinner, all the members of the Kahali family usually get together. This was the only time of the day to be with each other. Everybody interacted with the other at this time. Rai had become quite an extrovert since she had joined college. She always caricatured her teachers. At the same time, she christened her juniors with nick-names. Like, Pinki…the boy wearing the pink shirt, Subodh…the boy who oils his hair and parts it in the middle…! And many more like these!

But today, she entered like a hurricane and announced, ‘There’s some news today’.

It seems today Rai had worn a black skirt with a black top to the college. As accessories, she had chosen a pair of black platform shoes and a black bag of micro-fiber. And, at the entrance to the department, one of the juniors gave cat-calls and had commented, ‘Black diamond’.

Rai was very excited.

‘We couldn’t spot the culprit among the crowd. But tomorrow, we have to take actions. After all, we are seniors. No respect for that? How dare they? They know that the ragging session is going on! In spite of that… …!’’

Rit quipped, ‘Hey didi, never mind. I think they referred to your matching complexion. Nothing more.’ That started it. The siblings started fighting among themselves. Bhavani came to clear the dinner table. For the time being, their quarrel was postponed. Bhavani went to bed after finishing the chores for the night and finishing the preparations for the breakfast in the morning. The children also went to their respective rooms. Mandira did not approve of the ruckus of the music system after ten in the night. The sound of this hi-tech machine irritated her like anything. Maybe that was another sign of her approaching middle age. That apart, this was a multi-storied building. There were many elderly people and small children in the building. So, now Rit would have a head-phone stuck to his ears. This was another fashion of the times…listening to pop-jazz and what not kind of music in high volume. Very soon, this generation will become deaf.

They would be awake for a long time now. Rit had his board examinations approaching. He had some extra pressure from studies. But Mandira failed to understand how he managed to synchronize this music and math! And Rai was an owl too. She was now deeply absorbed in some Robin Cook thriller. Mandira changed into her nightie. She started applying cream on her face after taking all the necessary medicines. Then she switched off the light and went to bed. For Sandip, this was mid-night: he was snoring in a very grave tune, maintaining a perfect rhythm like some classical music concert.

She was into a dream of some kind. It was after mid-night. A feeling of childhood, like the vaccination taken during small-pox, came back to her in her sleep. Then she sensed it … drifting in and out of sleep, the antenna of her sixth sense perceived it! She jumped up from the bed and switched on the light. Yes! The dark brown creature was running away on the white marble floor. But Mandira was not the person to let it go. She started running after it with a pair of sandals. She even forgot her back pain. Sandip was very irritated as his sleep was disturbed. He shouted, ‘What is this? I’m not going to tolerate this for nights together. I am going to take you to an asylum tomorrow. That will be the end of everything.’

Mandira also got angry. She too raised her voice and said a thing or two to Sandip. And taking the advantage of their quarrel to the fullest, Mr. Brown slipped in to their wardrobe. How did they manage to go through such small holes!

She went to the bathroom and splashed some water on her face. She tried to sleep again. But it was not that easy. Like a very attentive student, Sandip had resumed snoring with full concentration. What a beautiful sense of timing and rhythm, really! Tossing and turning on her bed while thinking about that cockroach, Mandira suddenly recalled her grandmother’s death. She had gone to their ancestral house in Behala after her grandmother’s death. The corpse was kept waiting for somebody. There was no ice. When Mandira had reached, she had seen the corpse covered with millions of small red ants. How horrible! Did the cold silence of death attract the ants?

The wall-clock screamed five. She had to get up in an hour or so. Sleep finally eluded her. She would have a bad temper today. Poor students!

Turning to the other side, curling her knees, Mandira turned into the fetal position. One gets a very pleasant sensation by lying down like this. But nothing could be soothing now. Some wood-pecker was droning on kattar…rrrr….katt…rrr. She started thinking about other things…the ants served a link to the thoughts. Nowadays, this was another thought that caught her fancy. The thought of death! She never forgot to read any of the ‘sad demise’ items in Bengali newspapers or the obituaries in English dailies. One morning, the electric toaster, as soon as it was started, made a peculiar noise and conked. Mandira saw that a lizard had hugged the coils with its four legs in a mortal embrace. She had not been able to take out the lifeless body of the dead animal by any means. It had a tight grip on the deadly wires … why… did it grab it with the fear of death in its mind? She had let the toaster be like that. She had to rush to school. Bhavani never touched electric machines. What if it gave her a shock!

She recalled it again at afternoon, after she came back from school. As she opened the toaster to clean it, she found hundreds of thousands of ants feasting on the dead creature. It did not have three-fourth of its flesh left. The skeleton came out. Mandira literally shivered. Did death have smell? How did the ants get to know?

No, she did not have any more time to indulge in such fantasies. She turned restlessly. It was six. She had to get up. Bhavani came to give the bed-tea. Her head felt heavy. The vein behind her ear also sent messages of migraine. Bhavani’s guilt-stricken statement did it all.

           ‘Boudi, there is no cheese. We have run out of it’.

Rit couldn’t do without cheese for breakfast. Otherwise it was generally a battle royal. He was an adolescent now. It was impossible to reason with them at this age. And the maid-servants! Really, there should be a limit to everything! How careless they were! The thing had to finish completely and only would then they inform you!!

The driver, Manik, received a severe scolding for being late. If she did not leave by quarter past seven, she would surely be stuck in the traffic jam at Beckbagan-Minto Park crossing. Mandira had to drop Rit at his school before going to her school. Sandip would leave for office sharp at nine but only after the car returned. Rai commuted to college by mini-bus. She had used the car in her early days to college but had stopped using it since the boys teased her too much about it.

And today, of all days, Mandira had a double period for class XI in the first hour. The girls were very subdued today; maybe madam’s foul mood had elicited it from them. Poor Piyali though had to face the punishment for being late to the class; she had to stand outside the classroom for one full hour. And that was not enough. All the junior girls’ comments were an extra to it. The comments were no milder than the fiery weapons of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. The break for the tiffin came as a real relief to the poor girl.

The break came as a relief to Mandira too. She started feeling better after stepping to the staff-room. Today was Anindita’s, one of her young colleague, marriage anniversary. There had been an abundance of cake-pastry-doughnuts-patties from Kathleen. Everybody seemed to be talking to her at the same time… … ‘What did your husband give? Was it a surprise? What’s your plan for the evening? Are you going out? Or… … is it an evening only for the love-birds?’ It went on.

Saturdays were scheduled for Mandira’s weekly shopping. This was the only available day to do other household chores. The evening was for socializing. There was no dearth of relatives in the city. Today, of course, there was a party at Sandip’s boss’s house. There were lots of perks and then some extra for a senior executive of a multi-national company. All her style and extravaganza were due to Sandip’s job only. Otherwise, the meager amount that she earned as a teacher would have never sufficed to maintain this kind of a life style. But then, the risks were also many. Sandip never risked his boss’s good-will.

After finishing her shopping, Mandira paid a visit to her regular beauty parlor. Today she did henna for her hair and facial too. A couple of strands of grey hairs had started announcing themselves nowadays. Pedicure and manicure were a real waste of good money. She would rather use the pumice stone during bath and apply the petroleum jelly. And then, remove the old nail-polish and wear any shade that would match the saree. That would be enough. Who was going to lift the saree up to her ankle and notice anyway?

The evening was a success. The feeling of buoyancy could almost be equated with the soap bubble! The Thapars were very hospitable. One needed to learn the art from this community. Food and drinks and jokes and laughter wafted throughout the evening. Mandira really liked this couple. They had stayed in Delhi for a couple of years after her marriage, of course in connection to Sandip’s job. Since then, she had always admired this community’s style of life. Really, they knew how to enjoy the present! Why could we not be like that? Why could we also not glide through the bubbles of happiness in life? Why did we always sit on the stack of gunpowder? And why did we, only we, always let the future bother us so much? Was it some kind of genetic disorder or a deep-rooted feeling of financial insecurity? But then you needed to know how to earn money! That was really an important aspect. And what was the need of so much honesty anyway?

Sandip’s voice, thick with liquor, broke into her thoughts. ‘Darling, should we make a move?’

Sunday morning dawned with a cloudy sky. Every year, around this time, the depression in the Bay of Bengal sought the untimely rains, and clouds in the sky, for some unknown reason, mirrored the dark clouds of Mandira’s mind. That was a recent trend too. Her mind had turned very mushy and sentimental these days. Problems of middle-age perhaps! Who knew what happened and why! All her mental wires were tangled with one another. The result was a short-circuit of the mental faculties. And then, only groping about in the darkness! Blurry eyes!!

Sandip woke up really late in the morning. Anyway it was a Sunday morning and added to that, last night he had had one drink too many. He had a horrible hangover. Mandira called out for Bhavani in the kitchen, ‘Make a cup of black coffee for Dada, Bhavani.’

The coffee had its effect. The head had just started to feel normal when the telephone rang. Sandip was overjoyed to hear Sukomal Chaudhary’s voice from Salt Lake. ‘Hello. What a pleasant surprise! So, finally you remembered us! What took you so long?’ And then, suddenly, he sobered. ‘Oh! Is it? When? Very sad!’ An anxious Mandira tried to catch his attention waving her hands. What was it? Who? What happened?

Their very old friend Mr. Ahmed had suffered a cerebral attack. He had been in deep coma for a couple of weeks. There was no response. Immediately, Mandira’s mind acted like a vulture. Death was approaching Mr. Ahmed. The news had traveled to the other world.

Last night’s rich and spicy Punjabi food was still having its effect on Mandira. The news had a more serious effect on her mind. She called up everybody who was supposed to come for adda and asked them not to and instructed Bhavani to cook only rice, with potato and bitter gourd in it and a plain fish curry.

She went to the drawing room and sat there for some time. Some Hindi movie was going on. All the house maids were watching it very attentively. She could not sit there. The thorn in her mind was making its presence felt very effectively.

She took an old issue of Readers’ Digest from her son’s room and went to her bedroom. She removed the rubber-band from her hair, loosened her petticoat at the waist and lay down on the bed. She tried to read an article or two from the book. But her restlessness did not let her concentrate. The letters and words were taking Mandira’s eyes forward but her mind was not grasping anything. Suddenly one paragraph caught her attention.

A group of boys and girls were sailing in a boat through the Amazon in South America for some research work when their boat capsized and one of the girls fell in the river. The girl, who was an expert swimmer, did not even stand a chance to use her knowledge of swimming. She was unconscious when she was dragged out of the water after two to three minutes only. Both her legs and her thighs had been eaten away by the infamous piranhas. The scent of her menstrual blood had madly attracted those silver beauties to her. A bunch of ten-inch demons!

Mandira started to sweat profusely. A nagging pain started at the left side of her chest! Her throat became dry from some unknown fear. Would the cockroaches also eat her up like that some day? Why did they come to her? What scent attracted them? Did they too think that she was dead?

Translator’s Note

Reading Loneliness: Translating ‘Souptik’

“God, but life is loneliness … despite the false, grinning faces we all wear”.

                                            The Unabridged journal of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

This short story, titled ‘Souptik’ in Bangla, (‘The Noctural Attack’ in translation) appeared in an anthology titled Iti tomar Moni (Yours, Moni). This is the first published book of Nandita Bagchi, published by Punascha in the early 2000s. Nandita Bagchi was a relatively unknown name at the time, unlike today when she is a well-known writer, published by many publishers including the leading mainstream publisher Anando, in Bangla.

This note begins with the assertion that reading is translation[1]. Since experience and transformation lie at the heart of both the performances[2], being a more intense critic, a reader-translator’s encounter/s with the text represent an enhanced critical intimacy that stems from a continuous process of engagement with the text, through dynamic experiences of life that open up new and more possibilities of meanings. Unraveling of these meaning/s, and the choice of validating the same is the political stay of this note.

Reading ‘Souptik’ in the early 2000s as an urban, educated woman was an experience that could never deliver the full potential of the possibilities of meanings. It was difficult to negotiate the nuances to understand Mandira, the protagonist, mainly, because the context to read the text was not fully available to the reader-translator. The text remained intriguing simply because the achievement of the ‘complete’ (seemingly) meaning could ‘not’ be performed. Taking well into account the fact that meaning formation is never a complete performance, it could not be denied that even in its incomplete scope, ‘Souptik’ represented a located experience. The experience of an educated, urban working woman, with a loving family, lacking nothing in life suffers from anxiety and feels choked with all the certainties in her life.

The politics of translating this story resided in this choice -- the choice to read an engaged literature and add agency to the narrative of women who are trapped in the monotony of their everyday life. The ‘partial’ konkretisation[3] of this experience gathered further momentum as all the known apparatus to cope with ‘normal’ life came crashing down with Covid19. Revisiting the story now as an urban, educated and working woman, opened up a new form of konkretisation. The experiences of ‘stay-at-home’ and the social restrictions induced a better understanding about the anxiety of structures and phobia/s of entrapment.

The politics of choosing this text for a vertical translation resides not exactly in the manipulation of the language as such, but more on the politics of the expressed narrative. It absolutely becomes the reader-translator’s choice to add visibility to the relatively invisible syndrome of women’s loneliness in serious literature. The translated text aims to voice located narratives of multiple women who suffer from unhappiness and just like Mandira in the story are either ridiculed, mocked at or face indifference from family and larger society. The purpose translating this narrative is to recognise the fact that loneliness becomes a political condition to filter gendered experiences. The tendency to judge, attribute negative characteristics or to ridicule a woman’s unhappiness or anxiety is also the politics of patriarchy to ask the same woman to ‘fit’ in to the normative permissible characteristics.

This translation is an attempt to delineate, primarily, a woman’s everyday encounter and engagement with such anxieties that constantly push her to question the validity of her experiences. Further, this translation is also an act of reading into the politics of reading until the text presents the reader with the context that eventually allows her to recreate the meaning, to the best of her present sensibility.

 

References:

 Biguenet, John and Rainer Schulte eds. The Craft of Translation. Chicago and London. Chigaco University Press. 1989. PDF.

 Cook, Deborah. ‘Translation as A Reading’. The British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 26, Issue 2, Spring 1986, pp 143- 149. Accessed 16 Mar.2012.

  Gadamer, H.G. Truth and Method. London New York. 2004. Pp 389. PDF.

  Iser, Wolfgang. ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.’ New Literary History, Vol 3, No 2, 1972, pp279 – 299. JSTOR.www.jstor.org/stable/468316. Accessed 7 Jan.2010.



[1]Rainer Schulte. Hans Gadamer, Deborah Cook

[2] Rainer Schulte

[3] Wolfgang Iser 
***

Bionote: Sriparna Das teaches Translation Studies at the University of Hyderabad. Her research interests includes areas of Translation Studies, Gender Studies, Multilingualism, Folk Culture and Media Studies.


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