Reader’s Writer

New translations introduce English language readers to the prolific Buddhadeva Bose, whose fiction drew deeply on literary Bengal

01 January, 2012

I DISCOVERED BUDDHADEVA BOSE in a love letter. No, Bose hadn’t written the letter to me. That, of course, was improbable—he died in 1974, the year I was born. He arrived in my life 14 years later with these words:

There are some things one just can’t say in Bengali. ... ‘I love you’ or ‘Do you love me?’... For us, these are phrases from poetry, the language of thought but not of actual speech. There is so much we express through gestures only. Instead of saying ‘good morning’, we just give a little smile. We express our love with our eyes, in a touch of the hand, and through commonplace words that conceal deep feelings. And in a country where even now countless people go for arranged marriages and accept those marriages as permanent for the rest of their lives, the occasion for asking such an absurd question as ‘Do you love me?’ presents itself to only a handful of ill-fated individuals.

The person who had used these words, from Bose’s novel It Rained All Night (Rat Bhore Brishti, 1967), was a young boy whom I’d never exchanged a word or so much as a glance with. He could have been no more than a few years older than me but something significant separated us: the invisible barrier of education. He was a ‘rawk-er chheley’, a boy from the rawk, that peculiar Bengali expression that captures the essence of a life lived without middleclass discipline or parental intervention, a semi-orphan life on the streets. He might have been a school dropout, and in writing a billet-doux to me, a girl he had never had the social opportunity to talk with, he was doing something utterly common to Bengali, and indeed Indian, adolescence: using a writer to speak for him. But even though he hid behind quotation marks, like many shy lovers, he had possibly never read a Buddhadeva Bose novel or poem in his life. I hadn’t until then either. In this, at least, we were equals.

As for many of my generation, whose love for English language literature went hand in hand with a rejection of books in the mother tongue, Buddhadeva Bose was a new name for me. That letter—misplaced, misread, misdirected as in a Bose story—reached my mother’s hand before mine. It was she who annotated the quotation for me. “So this is what these young fellows do all day—read obscene novels?” she shouted at me, as if both acts—writing the letter and reading such fiction—were my fault. Her reaction wasn’t very different from the brother of a girl named Swati, regular recipient of letters in the novel When the Time is Right (Tithidor, 1949): “Writing letters! Rascal! Let him return – I’ll thrash him till he’s forced to leave the neighbourhood!”


Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela, an older cousin would occasionally remark aloud, spent their lives writing letters. Did it make sense—this investment in words and words alone? I never argued. I was certain that all good writers began their careers as letter writers: the poet in a third Bose novel, My Kind of Girl (Moner Moto Meye, 1951), is, after all, chosen to be the letter writer because he’s a poet. I kept going back to When the Time is Right through my extended adolescence just for the charm of reading the love letters between Satyen and Swati. Later, when circumstances would conspire to put me in Swati’s position and the man I’d eventually marry in Satyen’s, I would almost be grateful for my mother’s teasing, the memory of that book and how the identification with a relationship that I had considered perfect had tamed my imagination and ideas of romantic love.


I once discovered love letters exchanged between my parents a couple of years before When the Time is Right was first published. I could have read them but I didn’t: it was homage to their privacy, true, but I was also certain that I would not discover anything new, neither about them, nor about the letter-writing tradition that made so many relationships of those times—romantic, marital, filial, cousinly—possible. The last letter in When the Time is Right is posted three-fifths into the novel. This is how it is composed:

Taking a sheet of paper, she uncapped her pen. The first time she had addressed Satyen very formally, relaxing the formality only a notch since then. That day, she used no form of address at all.

‘When are you coming? The vacation’s almost over, and you have to return. I don’t want another letter. Letters are no good. I want you to be the reply.’

Adding her name, she looked at the letter.

Two minutes later, Swati submitted to the trusted darkness of the postbox her life, her future, her fate.

Which letter writer has not at least once written a similar letter? And which non-letter writer has not used a similar excuse: “When Swati asked after college reopened, ‘Why didn’t you reply to my letter?’ Anupama smiled guiltlessly. ‘What to write, and where was the time?’ What did she mean? No time? What was time meant for in that case? Nothing to write? Then what was the constant turmoil in the heart for?”And, as children with working parents know, letter writing is also a game: “One afternoon, Swati wrote herself a long letter, and then, becoming a second person herself, spun an even longer reply the next day; after that, of course, she tore up both letters, because she didn’t enjoy this game anymore, and felt worse when she remembered Gorky’s story about Teresa.” Swati is our closest contemporary: alone, leading a vicarious life through literature, socially awkward, unable to express herself except while writing. Waiting for an outlet to dedicate and direct her words to, “she let loose the major part of the long, lazy holidays ... in a flock of blue-and-white writing.”

And Satyen? Satyen is us too: “This writing of letters – what was it but an indulgence? He loved literature, but couldn’t write himself – so he contented himself with a pale substitute by writing long letters to people now and then.” The last letter in the novel affects him enough to make him cut short his vacation, take a train back to Calcutta and present himself before the letter-writer saying, “That last letter of yours I got in Shillong ...” All that he had despised and been afraid of—an asphyxiating family life, being moored to one place and a person—disappear gradually because of that one letter: “Meanwhile Satyen was thinking about the letter, seeing the blue notepaper before his eyes, sensing its opaque scent in his breath, no introduction, a few, just a few words, and below them the name, the beautiful name, the loveliest name in the world.”

ALONGSIDE THE LETTER-WRITER, I also encountered in Buddhadeva Bose’s novels what I first noticed in Satyajit Ray’s film, Charulata: the woman as reader, a figure that owes much to the history of Western art as can be seen in the recurrence of the ‘Woman Reading’ theme in Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. The solitary figure of the writer is commonplace, but the reader, gendered and distanced, almost defamiliarised when caught in the act of reading, is one of the most fascinating things about post-Tagorean Bengali literature. It begins with Rabindranath Tagore: “In a fit of mild rage, she [Charulata] marched off to her verandah, holding a book by Manmatha Datta and attempted to read it.... ‘Don’t disturb me please,’ said Charu, ‘let me read’” (Nashtanirh or The Broken Nest, 1901, translated by Arunava Sinha, 2010). And here is Swati from When the Time is Right: “She spent the rest of the time reading other books of all kinds, trying to decide during lunch which of her unfinished books to resume reading with her back to the sun, there would never be any lack of books so long as Satyen Roy was there.” The man—whether Tagore’s Amal or Bose’s Satyen—remains provider, but here, of books. This is, indeed, different from a man’s relationship to reading—that act now laden with all kinds of poststructuralist conspiracies. This is Swati again, encountering Satyen’s bookshelves before meeting him:

She saw two bookshelves against one of the walls, one large, one small, but both simple and unadorned – English books in the large one, Bengali books in the small – the books were in different positions – standing, lying, slanting, upside down – maybe he hadn’t had the time to arrange them yet, or did those who read usually keep their books this way?

Books in Bose’s novels seem to make men desirable to women, as if the book were a prop and the bookshelf a metonym for the man. What is also interesting is that Tagore’s Charulata, in the scene above, is “pretending” to read, while Bose’s Swati is a “bookworm”. Much, fortunately, had been traversed.

What the woman as reader needs in Bose’s novels is not a room of her own but another four letter word: time. This, I discovered, Bose had in plenty in his own life. A 10-hour writing day was routine, which explains the prolific production of a man who died relatively early at the age of 66. (His admiration for intellectual labour is evident in When the Time is Right when he describes Tagore’s dead body as “this final jewel of eighty years of uncompromising labour”.) Born in 1908 in Comilla, now in Bangladesh, a place whose music would first influence several Tagore songs, and later Hindi film music through SD Burman, Bose studied at Dhaka University, but settled in Calcutta where he established Kavitabhavan or the House of Poetry, his press, which also published Kavita, arguably the most important Bengali journal of the 20th century. He belonged to what has been called the Kallol group of poets and he published poetry, novels, short stories, plays, essays, translations; he is credited with more than 200 books and collections.

Books, reading, writing, and the allied ecosystem of buying books, gifting them, arranging them on bookshelves, the love of novels and the suspicion with which the ‘upanyas’ was once viewed in Bengali culture, the bookworm and her investment in the humanities—nothing seems to have escaped Bose’s notice. No writer in the history of Bengali literature has perhaps been as concerned with reading, with probing his relationship with other writers as Buddhadeva Bose, and certainly no one has as meticulously recorded the anxiety of influences. These are to be found, for example, in his choice of poets for translation: Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke. Reading these translations retrospectively, 50 years after they were first compiled, one immediately realises that these poems, most of them famous and committed to a colloquial status in the countries of their birth, could have been and perhaps were Bose’s ‘found’ poems—verse that allowed him a self-definition, words in which he found expression and escape, just as the boy who had written that love letter to me had, in turn, discovered in Bose’s.

Bose’s views on ‘inspiration’ were complicated. For one, he refused to take ‘credit’ (his word for it, like Tagore’s, was ‘krititto’) for his poems; in a letter to Naresh Guha (friend and editor) he says, “Truth be told, we don’t write poetry. Some poems write themselves out through us.” He then goes on to link inspiration with Valmiki’s coming to poetry, Kalidasa being Goddess Saraswati’s favourite son, and even with Plato’s theories of inspiration. So many of his poems are simply about poetry, and they reference what he called ‘celestial inspiration’. In fact, in a series that he, tellingly, titled ‘Na Lekha Kobita-r Proti’ (‘To My  Unwritten Poems’), he pleads, “Please come, hurt me, catch me sad/ Bring upon me, for a moment, the free lightning of rape ...” The sexualised imagery in these poems speaks for itself, for the difficult worship of uncertainty and the recurrent impotence of the poet. Echoing WB Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’, he says in ‘Kobi Jeeboni’ (‘Poet’s Life’): “tireless are the poet’s labour at verse, a happy labour, the difficult craft of words.”

The economist Harit, in Whenthe Time is Right, speaks for many poetry naysayers when he constantly criticises poetry for having no utilitarian value and, in the end, being a useless exercise: “We of course are happily spending our days stuffing our faces and writing poetry about the moon while a major battle...” Swati, on the other hand, is allowed to go on for pages about the effect of poetry on her being: “Swati couldn’t look any more, her eyes were glued to the pages of a book, she drank in every note, rhythm, emphasis; like the three-year-old that the poet had spoken of, she listened, enraptured.” The love story in the novel begins—it must be remembered—with a Coleridge poem: “You were teaching us “The Ancient Mariner” ... It was wonderful.” Bose, after having based the architecture of the Satyen-Swati relationship on a shared love of poetry (as evident in their exchange of letters, those prose poems intended for one model reader), joins voice with the poetry naysayers in—what is a lovely irony—his poems. In a famous poem, ‘Kyano’ (‘Why’), he questions: Valmiki, Virgil and Sappho did not bring about wealth and the progress towards moksha; then why poetry, wherein the need for poetry?

“The one in the easy-chair had an enormously – even indecently – powerful body, as though he were a giant beast ... His face was large too, almost as big as a jackfruit, and longish ...”

THIS IS FROM THE FIRST PAGE of My Kind of Girl and is only one example of the considerable energy that Bose spent on describing his male characters. The poet in the same novel uses this piece of self-description for himself and his friends: “rustic, uncivilised barbarians”. And in When the Time is Right, even the literature-loving Satyen, in spite of Bose’s authorial patronage, is the ‘effeminate’ man of letters, while Prabir, Swati’s suitor, is described thus:

Parted in the middle, his hair cascaded in waves on either side; the small eyes were set far apart; he had an enormous face and thick red lips ... Swati suddenly felt as though she had been knocked backwards – her heart seemed to tremble with a terrible dislike ... her senses filling with that horrible, bitter stench.

While Swati and her sisters are “beautiful” from beginning to end—the smoothness of their fair skin and the softness of their curls of hair idealised in a Petrarchan loop—none of the male characters manage to get any kind of appreciation or admiration from the writer. In My Kind of Girl, this line made me laugh: “Did her face resemble the Mona Lisa’s a lot, slightly or not at all?”Either male beauty did not count for much with Bose, or his long literary engagement with Grecian stereotypes as a teacher in Jadavpur University’s comparative literature department had made him indifferent to the unremarkable appearances of the men who surrounded him.


Such aesthetic judgement on physical beauty is all the more interesting when one comes to Bose’s most (in)famous novel, It Rained All Night. Adultery is its subject (the reason for a long-drawn court case regarding ‘obscenity’) but alongside is the ruthless portrayal of middleclass Bengali married life, class relations and a brilliant use of the Casaubon complex. (Casaubon, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, is a scholar looking for the Key to All Mythologies. This dry, even meaningless, scholarship means more to him than a life outside books.) Maloti, an attractive Bengali girl, marries Nayonangshu, a bookish college lecturer who later works in an advertising agency; Maloti gradually finds her marriage falling into boredom and routine. Her husband, she discovers, is unable to satisfy her either emotionally or sexually, these lacks becoming grains of sand in her eyes especially when she gets involved with Jayanto, a journalist. The woman is beautiful: “I had quite a reputation when I was studying for my BA – of being a rather sophisticated young woman, attractive, witty, intelligent”; but the husband, in spite of his props of sophistication, is cold and unaffected by the raw dust of life: “Angshu ... was wearing grey slacks and a tweed coat, with a nice clean tie. Not an inkling of eight hours of hard work could be seen on his face or attire”; while her lover, Jayanto, is “in a discoloured Nehru vest on top of a not-too-clean panjabi and dhoti ... feet and sandals literally covered with dust”. Bose is, of course, setting up a neat Lawrencian binary between the naked beauty of life and an architecture of chiselled values, between the “flesh and blood – simultaneously both slave and queen” that Jayanto awakens in Maloti and her husband’s “father-confessor” tone.

Through much of this outstanding novel, I blamed the lack of passion in the marriage on the husband’s textbookish ways of seeing life, agreeing with Maloti that “if he’d read a little less, he might have understood other people’s minds a little better.” Angshu is like Harit, the communist economist in When the Time is Right, who fails to make his wife happy because of his ridiculous posturing and his choice of a life of ideology over emotion. But I finished It Rained All Night with the suspicion that my assessment might have been wrong: perhaps the lack of male beauty is also an explanation for many of the uneasy marriages in Bose’s fiction? And there is something else besides: Angshu may be similar to Harit, but much happened in the quarter century between When the Time is Right and It Rained all Night. The book-loving, letter-writing, ivory-tower placidity and insularity to the world that gave such charm to the Satyen-Swati relationship is gone. Tagore, then facilitator, has changed into exclusionist arbitrator: “We’d been together to see Chandalika [a dance drama by Tagore], Angshu and I, and together we’d tasted a different kind of pleasure – sensual yet not so – a pleasure in which Jayanto had no part at all”. And so poetry, the love of which had united two young lovers during the war in When the Time is Right, is no longer an unquestioned paradise. “Just because they wrote poetry, were all their sins to be pardoned?” asks Maloti of poets. Therefore those words in Bose’s poem ‘Kyano’ (‘Why’): “There’s no answer anywhere, and the least in a poet’s lazy pronunciations.”

There is something else that I took away from It Rained All Night. Noyonangshu is a part-time translator, and Maloti describes him in the act of translation thus: “Then he set a book in front of him and began to write something – probably a translation of some foreign story, what he’d chosen as a means to earn a little extra money.” A few pages later, after a fight, Maloti shouts at him, saying, “Even so, you do only lousy old translations – you can’t write anything original!” That accusation comes from a cross between the pressures of commerce and the anxiety of authenticity. I thought of the translator Kanai Dutt in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004), and realised how ideas surrounding translation and the enterprise of the translator have changed. Dutt is an upper-middleclass professional helping a scientist in her research; Noyonangshu was only trying to make some money on the side. That is all literature will allow: the commerce between cultures is the greater currency.

“It was impossible (for them) not to imitate Rabindranath, and it was impossible to imitate Rabindranath.”

THESE WERE BOSE'S WORDS about the post-Tagorean generation of Bengali poets to which he, too, belonged. It is a charming, and even romantic (in both senses of the word), ploy to make Tagore the middleman who brokers, supervises and even provides a script with appropriate dialogues in the love story between Satyen and Swati. In Buddhodeb Basu-r Sreshto Kobita, the collection of his ‘best’ poems that he first compiled and edited in 1953, Bose  puts his poem ‘Rabindranath-er Proti’ (‘To Rabindranath’), written in 1942, on the same page (61) as ‘Jamini Roy Ke’ (‘For Jamini Roy’) written in the same year. I believe an intellectual cunning lies behind this juxtaposition. We are all paying taxes for our talent (‘pratibha’; also Bose’s wife’s name), playing games with our self-pity, Jamini Roy has sacrificed his life for us, says the poet. His poem makes of Jamini Roy a Jesus Christ-like figure, an artist paying for our sins. In the poem for Rabindranath Tagore, the poet is ‘bondhu’, ‘priyotawm’, friend and lover.

That difference is significant, and it tells us how and why Tagore, in new instalments of books and poems, gifts of Gitanjali, in “letters from Shillong” (both Satyen’s letters and Tagore’s poem of the same name), in coming to that generation as colloquial despite being such a feted poet, was always ‘friend’ and ‘lover’. Tagore’s death, in the outstanding ‘Baishe Shrabon’ section of When the Time is Right, brings the lovers together for the first time: they eat out together, meet a contemporary poet, Dhruba Dutta, and then set eyes on Tagore’s body:  “the long white mane and the enormous, pale, tranquil, contemplative brow glinted in the sunlight”. Tagore’s death, a section dazzling in its brilliance and one much anthologised, coincides with the death of Swati’s brother-in-law’s (a man quite Tagore’s opposite in every sense except their partaking and involvement in the joyousness of living); a temporary biraha or separation between Swati and Satyen; and Swati’s first achievement as a (letter) writer, that “her letter had not been misdirected”.

One of Bose’s translators is Clinton B Seely, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. I found it interesting that Seely, in his essay ‘Translating Raat Bhore Brishti: Reliving Through Letters’, part of a special Buddhadeva Bose issue of the journal Boidagdha (May 1999), mentioned Tagore in his record of the obscenity case against It Rained All Night:

I seem to recall that on that day, Karunashankar Ray, the barrister representing Buddhadeva, was interrogating the man who had initially brought the case against the novel for being obscene and without redeeming literary merit. My recollection ... is that Karunashankar had asked the witness whether he had read Tagore, something which any self-respecting educated Bengali could be expected to have done. When the witness replied in the affirmative, Karunashankar then asked him to tell the court the plot of Tagore’s novel My Little “Eyesore” (Cokher Bali) or, if not that, then of TheHome and the World (Ghare Baire).


Last summer, talking to Ketaki Kushari Dyson, the translator of both Bose’s poems (The Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose, 2003) and an extract from Tithidor, published in The Picador Anthology of Modern Indian Literature, I became aware of the difficulties, and not linguistic alone, that the work of a post-Tagorean such as Buddhadeva Bose presents to the translator. Both of us had gone to listen to a lecture on Tagore at Wadham College, Oxford, and I took the opportunity to tell her about my admiration for her translations of Tagore, and especially her novel that fictionalised the relationship between Victoria Ocampo and Tagore (Rabindranath o Victoria Ocampor Sandhaney, 1985). We spoke about the post-Tagoreans, and of her translation of the ‘Baishe Shrabon’ section of Tithidor, one that captures and holds, in all its drama and melodrama, the impact of the death—and dead body—of Rabindranath Tagore on Bengali life. Quoting from memory, she directed me to Bose’s work where the influence of the Nobel Laureate is perceptible. Perhaps not ironically, this is to be seen in the post-Tagorean’s rejection of a certain aesthetic made popular and familiar by the older poet.

Amit Chaudhuri sums it up brilliantly in his introductory note to Bose in the above-mentioned anthology: “He represents a break with, and reassessment of, Tagore, with whom his relationship was, if not Oedipal, at least both worshipful and contestative.” That instinct is seen at work in what is perhaps Bose’s most celebrated English work, AnAcre of Green Grass: A Review of Modern Bengali Literature (1948). Also, in his essay ‘Pramatha Chaudhuri’, Bose seems to be talking of himself and many of his generation when he says this of Pramatha Chaudhuri, the Bengali writer and husband of Indira Devi Chaudhurani, Tagore’s niece: “In Rabindranath, Pramatha Chaudhuri saw a genius, a greater master, but not The Master. In spite of the closest association which terminated only with Rabindranath’s death, in spite of long years of literary comradeship, Pramatha Chaudhuri never came directly under Rabindranath’s influence, either in his work or in his life. This is remarkable but not strange. Herein we discern not only Pramatha Chaudhuri’s great integrity, but also his natural lack of sympathy for the type of mind Rabindranath embodies. There is nothing in him of that parching nostalgia which is the ultimate source of most lyrical and all mystical poetry; he is perfectly at home in this world; his fulfilment is here and nowhere else, whereas Rabindranath’s cry has ever been ‘Elsewhere!’... Rabindranath is ever drunk with dreams; Pramatha Chaudhuri is incorrigibly sober.”

One needs to only substitute Pramatha Chaudhuri’s name with that of Buddhadeva Bose’s or, indeed, any name from the  Kallol group of poets to understand how they carried the happy burden called Rabindranath Tagore for much of their writing careers.