In Arunava Sinha’s English translation of the Bengali classic Chowringhee, by Sankar, the reader may find herself immersed in an alternate universe that feels both immediate and ethereal, both crushingly mundane and undeniably surreal. Chowringhee tells the story of a naïve young man trying to eke out a living from the streets of brutal mid-twentieth century Calcutta. After a string of joblessness and despair, he is eventually hired as a clerk at the famous Shahjahan Hotel, where his own story will take a backseat to the stories of all those he comes in contact with, the personal tragedies, backgrounds and desires of all that pass before his eyes in a seemingly endless train of ghostlike characters. What is unique about this novel is its temporal seamlessness, how the texture of time acquires a gauzelike quality, how past and present are so deliciously weaved together as to create a dreamlike aura that surrounds every character and every event.
The translator will doubtless find herself wondering which particular passages were the most challenging, where, perhaps in a beautifully crafted sentence that effortlessly conveys a state of mind or emotion, Sinha spent hours, perhaps days, toiling over an untranslatable concept. I have absolutely no idea how Bengali functions, what hidden meanings and worlds its speakers can convey to each other. And thus, I wonder: was that dreamlike sense of passage, that vagueness that surrounded all events and characters also a quality of the Bengali version, or is that something transmitted in exchange for something lost in the conversion to English?
In some passages particularly the metaphors are so vivid as to convey an undeniable truth, yet so rare as to make the English reader wonder at their uniqueness:
“He should have left […] but he stood there like a slab of prose in our poetic world…”
This was pronounced as someone interrupts a three-way conversation that had waxed philosophical with a pragmatic announcement, an unmovable “slab” of reality, that is to say, duty, which always comes, eventually, to dispel the more lofty endeavors of the mind.
And in “darkness hadn’t quite disappeared yet –but the bride had started throwing coy glances from behind her golden veil” the reader is moved to imagine dawn as a soon-to-be discovered bride, a vivid image that conveys and describes eloquently but simply, without the necessary stringing together of adjectives and nouns.
Whatever the answer, whether it was the Bengali influencing the English or the English taking on a specially dreamy quality to engage with the story, English literature is all the richer for it.