Savage Seers

The hidden story of modern Bengal

01 May 2016
Many Bengali readers may not have heard of Subimal Misra. Thanks to the translation of his work into English, he is getting a new audience.
Many Bengali readers may not have heard of Subimal Misra. Thanks to the translation of his work into English, he is getting a new audience.

SUBIMAL MISRA is a retired schoolteacher who lives alone in a flat on Kolkata’s southern edge. For the past five decades, he has written stories for Bengali little magazines, including Kabitirtha, Bigyapan Parba and Jari Bobajuddho. He has also written and self-published over 20 works of fiction, which, for decades, he sold himself from a stall in the little-magazine section of the annual Kolkata Book Fair. His works have no copyright, and are free for anyone to reprint. He has repeatedly said that he is against the commercial use of his work, and that he is “protishthan birodhi”—anti-establishment—meaning he opposes not just the political establishment but also the formidable publishing and media establishments in West Bengal.

Despite his prodigious output in little magazines, he has never won any awards, is not on any school or college syllabi, and is absent from major literary events. His readership is, at best, in the thousands, and comes nowhere close to that of the giants of Bengali literature, such as Sunil Gangopadhyay or Nabaneeta Deb Sen. Many Bengali readers may have never heard of him. The result has been a productive obscurity, 50 years of experiments aimed to upset and unsettle readers. “Shofolota ele ami bhoe pai, karon notun kichu korle shofolota shonge shonge ashe na,” he writes in a collection of his stories. (I am afraid of success because nothing that is truly new succeeds immediately.)

Now, due to the efforts of V Ramaswamy, his English translator, he is finally finding an audience. Ramaswamy, a third-generation Kolkatan who worked for years as a social activist in the city’s post-industrial slums, translated some of Misra’s early writings, which were published in 2010 as The Golden Gandhi Statue from America. Misra dedicates the volume “To Jean-Luc Godard, who taught me language.” He writes in a jarring, unpretty prose, heavily inspired by the French director’s cinematic tactics—such as jump cuts and montage. He eschews the easy coherence of narrative, compelling the reader to do the work of piecing together the fragments of news clippings, slogans, surveys, interviews, jingles and more that are crammed into what he calls his “anti-stories” and “anti-novels.” Most of the pieces in Golden Gandhi are like textual collages: images and utterances meant to rattle the reader’s expectations about fiction, and to jolt her out of her usual habits of thought. In the title story—or anti-story—a sharecropper’s wife dies and her corpse turns up at various places across Kolkata, until finally, a box carrying a new golden statue of Mohandas Gandhi, which has been imported from America, is opened at the city’s airport, and the smelly rotting corpse is there too, draped over the gleaming specimen of the father of the nation. In another piece, called “Uncle Seer,” an old man saves a young woman who is sick with cholera after her fellow villagers abandon her, and then demands sex in return. “If a good deed’s done, without asking a price,” Uncle Seer says, “It’s either a lie or an artful device.” The community, which had forsaken the woman, is outraged by his demand. They return as a mob and beat Uncle Seer to death.

Kushanava Choudhury is a former Books Editor of The Caravan. He is the author of The Epic City: The World On The Streets of Calcutta (Bloomsbury 2017).

Keywords: Bengal literature artists Kolkata Satyajit Ray writers CPM Subimal Misra Ritwik Ghatak short stories communists