Translated by Arunava Sinha
Books evoke emotion, they make you feel satisfied, like you have eaten a big cream cake or depressed, like you have just fought with a good friend.
What emotion does this book evoke?
The most overwhelming emotion is pity, with a dash of helplessness. After getting so involved with Harbart, and his short unhappy life, you are bound to think to yourself, “why didn’t someone do something?”
But that’s the thing about real-life too right? You see people digging themselves into a hole, but you merely watch. It is only in stories that good angels come and rescue people.
Now, to give a synopsis, (be warned there might be spoilers ahead), this is the story of Harbart. Poor Harbart is an orphan, who lives with his mad uncle, rough but caring aunt, and a gaggle of ill-natured cousins and nephews. Harbart is not very educated but loves books. He reads, over and over again some books left to him by his late father. One of this books is about the afterworld and how to communicate with ghosts. Poor Harbart in his naivety believes it as the gospel truth.
When Harbart is in his twenties, his nephew Binu comes to Calcutta to study. Binu is the only person who treats Harbart with some amount of respect. Harbart forms a deep and affectionate connection with his nephew. Binu is also a Communist, and actively participates in their meetings. During an agitation, Binu gets shot. On his deathbed, he calls Harbart and tells him to retrieve his diary from its hiding place. Harbart is so overcome by grief and fear that he supresses this memory entirely. Two years later, triggered by the visit of Binu’s father, he dreams about Binu giving him the same instructions through a flock of crows.
That is the turning point of the novel. Harbart decides to start his own business of communicating with the dead. The young unemployed men of the community flock around him for free booze and cigarettes, praising him because he now has a little bit of money. But Harbart is no con-man or businessman. He lives in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud.
This book is an art movie waiting to be made. The visuals of old lanes of Calcutta are so stunning, you can almost imagine living in the house with Harbart. You see Calcutta in its decay and debauchery. There is also a smattering of sexuality. Harbart’s short crushes are all at once innocent, yet lustful in their own way.
Also, a few lines about the translation; it’s really well-done. Having suffered through terrible translations of Parineeta and other Bengali short stories, I can now fully appreciate the skill of a good translator. You get the writer; you get what he is trying to say. Perhaps the true test of a good translation is that you forget it is one.
Overall, this book is for serious reading, and I would recommend it to people who prefer reading about the reality of life.
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