We have come to know of ‘Bengali’ as masculine, urban, and that often used term: “cultured”. Within these three terms, essentially, all of Bengal is lost.
Bengal is more than just a place really. Most places are more than just places, and Arunava Sinha’s book is an attempt towards bringing this idea towards a sense of visibility. But in this idea of ‘placeness’ so to speak, each individual accesses it through their own specific, and often peculiar, contexts. But if that’s the case, how could one possibly claim a place to be just one thing?
That’s the exact point Sinha is perhaps trying to make with this book. If there is no one Bengal, then there is no one Bengali Literature, that is to say his Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told are more a personal comment, than something that should be taken to mean a definitive collection of stories from Bengal, to leave all other definitive collection of stories from Bengal in the mud.
As Sinha suggests in his preface: “These are, simply, stories I have loved and that have made a deep impression on me… In all of them, though, I find one particular quality that haunts the characters, and me. It is the sense of something missing, and the search for it.” This quality of the missing is what sets apart these stories, from famed characters such as the ‘Kabuliwalla’ in Tagore’s story of the same name to the anonymous ‘I’ in Buddhadeva Bose’s story ‘And How Are You?’ we are taken into the fold of this idea of the missing.
There is a very peculiar relation that one has with the idea of forgetting. For example, in the German Philosopher, Martin Heidegger’s works, there is a sense of a ‘double forgetting’. Let me elaborate with an example.
Say you forgot your house keys in the morning while leaving for work, you would perhaps only remember once you needed these keys on your eventual return to your house, when no one was home to open the door for you. This may be a kind of forgetting. But say there were people in your life who you don’t remember having forgotten, whom you are not reminded by passing songs, or scents, or indeed ideas, you would have essentially forgotten that you have forgotten. This in Heidegger’s terms would be a ‘double forgetting’.
It is this kind of peculiarity in the aspect of the ways in which memory functions that is struggled with. We fight ourselves to try and remember a particular film’s name, only to remember it the next day, when perhaps we have altogether given up trying to remember it at all. In Bose’s story that I mentioned before, or even in Premendra Mitra’s ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’, perhaps, it is this sense of not knowing that makes itself evident to the reader.
In this way this collection is beautifully curated as work that deals with memory itself. But there is something more at play here. Maybe by collecting these stories within the binding of this book, Sinha is attempting at preserving his own idea of the Bengal that he grew up with, furthermore trying to, perhaps conserve a memory of the person he was each time he encountered the individual stories recorded here. Could this collection of short stories then be a kind of memoir?
A book which not only gives us an insight into some of the ‘Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told’, but maybe also giving us an insight into both, an idea of Bengal, as well as an idea of Sinha himself. This idea is further established by the wonderful care with which Sinha has translated each story within this collection, each time recreating the textures of the original Bengali within the creases of the language it appears in now before us.
In terms of the stories themselves, some stories I read for the very first time, even though I was familiar with the writers, in this collection.
Ashapurna Debi’s Thunder and Lightning, Udayan Ghosh’s Swapan is Dead, Long Live Swapan, and Mahasweta Devi’s Urvashi and Johnny in particular will remain with me as stories I had no idea existed, but which, from this point onwards, cannot cease to exist. There are twenty one wonderful stories in this collection, kept in a chronological order, making it much simpler for a person not familiar with Bengali literature to come across it and gain insight into the history of literature from this part of India (and currently, Bangladesh), the authors are given brief introductions in the same linear order towards the back of the book, making the interaction between the unique contexts of the authors and the contemporary reader extremely fluid.
While I was forced to raise my eyebrows when I first encountered this book’s title, a memory seeped into my consciousness almost immediately. A class in my first year of under-graduation, from what feels like a lifetime ago, appeared as if out of nowhere in front of me.
A class on Tagore’s Home and the World if I remember correctly, my professor pausing in the middle of the lecture, as if irked by something he had just said, and looking us straight in the eyes, said the following words: “Tagore was like a Banyan Tree, under which no plant could grow, and although larger than life and beautiful itself, in comparison to it, if one is too focused on the tree itself in one’s observations, one misses out on all the beautiful sights around it.” He proceeded to read out to us in that moment some of Jibanananda Das poetry, and all that I had imagined Bengali literature to be up till that moment seemed like barely scratching the surface.
Coming back to my senses from this recollection, as I began reading the collection, I realised soon enough, that with this book I was plunging deeper still, and as I sit at chai with my friends, smoking and discussing the current political situation in the country, I have a feeling that somehere within the many faces that we all keep, and perform, one will be reading this collection again.