Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra
[A Translator's Lament
Looking for an Address was ready for final print when we received the news that our dear Nabaneetadi, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, had passed away. It was like a hard punch in the gut. I had so wished her to see the book in print and give it her blessing. But it was not to be.
What can I say about her that has not already been said much more eloquently by her friends, admirers, poets and writers? Nabaneeta Dev Sen was born (1938) in a literary family to Narendra Dev and Radharani Devi. She was educated in Kolkata as well as abroad in Cambridge U.K. and Berkeley, California. After her divorce she returned to Kolkata to bring up her children and pursue her literary career. She was professor of comparative literature in Jadavpur University. She was truly multitalented. She knew multiple languages and published many books of poetry, short stories, plays, essays, novels and travelogues. Throughout her life she received many awards and honors.
I was not fortunate to be in her circle of friends. I only adored her from a distance, across the globe, admired her courage for being a single working mother of two, loved her sense of humor and gentleness and was inspired by her love of travel and (mis)adventures. I saw her only once in the North American Bengali Conference, clapping in rhythm with Sunil Gangopadhyay’s singing, that large bindi lighting up her face.
Nabaneetadi was equally proficient in both English and Bengali. Thus her suggestions and encouragements were particularly valuable to me. I have translated some of her short stories in Parabaas. Her story about learning to ride motorbike (That Terrible Midnight) in the middle of the night still cracks me up every time I read it. Another story (Oh Dear, Dad!) about a father and a family man undergoing sex transformation was written with so much sensitivity and gentle humor decades before people became aware of the issue. Her novel Thikana (ঠিকানা) ('Looking For An Address'), although written in the 90s, is still vitally pertinent, especially in view of the current global crisis of refugees and migrant population. It is my loss that she could not see the final print. I hope she would have been pleased with it.
Following is an excerpt (Chapter four) from the book, which has already gone into press. The book would be available in February, 2020.]
New York metro had a bad name once. But nowadays, apparently, there had been much improvement. Mayor Giuliani was a strict one. Jhilli had become quite adept in travelling alone with maps in hand. She preferred buses, but they often got stuck in the traffic. In a bus she could see the city pass by outside the window; enjoy the daylight and the breeze. MetroCard allowed her to ride both the buses and the metro. One could even transfer from one to the other. Each trip cost a dollar fifty. In terms of rupees sixty per dollar, it sounded a lot but no. It must be counted as one and half rupees here, not sixty. Otherwise you couldn’t step out anywhere, not even afford a drink of water in this country.
New York metro was not as neat and clean as the freshly born Kolkata metro but it was full of diversity. Jhilli could spend hours just looking at the passengers. It seemed that the entire world had collected there. Even the billboards were full of variety. All of them were related to various human problems. There were all kinds of helpline ads. For ageing, loneliness, depression, psychological problems, AIDS, abortions, which human problem was not being helped by other humans? Then there were beautiful ads about a bookstore called ‘Poetry in Motion’ which quoted two to four poems in the train’s wall. Jhilli could recognize Blake’s ‘Tiger, tiger burning bright.’ There were two haikus, ‘Mr. Spider, rest assured. I leave my room neglected.’ Or ‘Mr. Mosquito, do you think I’m deaf?’ Couldn’t such ads be allowed in Kolkata metro? In one corner a serious looking Japanese businessman in a black suit was reading a Japanese newspaper. Next to him a black man was dozing off. He had salt and pepper hair, carried a plastic water bottle and showed a sock-clad toe from a hole in his shoe. His dirty nylon jacket blazed a famous basketball team, ‘Chicago Bulls’. On the other side a young couple sat in close embrace. Their eyes were closed. How would they know if they had reached their station? Or may be that was irrelevant? A young Indian mother got in with two kids, a folded stroller and grocery bags in hand. Amazing. How could she carry so many things? Wearing a half faded salwar kurta, she stood on one side. A horde of teenagers, perhaps school kids; made so much ruckus that one could easily go deaf. The girls were giggling all the time. An old lady sat with a tiny poodle in her lap. The dog had a bow on his head and the owner too was heavily made up. One of the kids of the Indian lady was deeply interested in the doll-like dog. Two Spanish girls were arguing next to Jhilli in loud voices and much eye and hand gestures. Their Spanish sounded rather harsh, not sweet at all.
Wow! So many languages in the streets of New York!
From Hindi to Swahili. This was truly a unique city. Jhilli felt energized. She had learned so much in the Metropolitan Museum. The girl from Kolkata was slowly becoming a woman of the world.
She still had the three dollars from Taibur in her purse. She couldn’t buy food with it today. Pulak was with her. Another day. Perhaps. She must tell Shipra the story. Palash might even recognize him. She had forgotten to take Taibur’s address, though. Jhilli got to sit down in the train after a while. Unlike in Kolkata, people here got on and off quickly, vacating their seats. This particular compartment was much too crowded. Some cars were quite empty at certain times. But this was office hour rush at the end of the day. A tall boy was leaning against the narrow pipe like pillar near the door and reading a book. Many read books on the train, but reading while standing? The boy carried a lightweight backpack. He had an unruly mop of golden hair and wore a black T-shirt and blue jeans. Small, round, gold-framed eyeglasses were perched on his nose. Looking at him, Jhilli suddenly remembered Kolkata. He must be a real bookworm to read like that standing in a moving train. Jhilli shifted her attention to the dog. Suddenly one of the Spanish girls stuck a note in her hand and pointed towards a boy. Jhilli saw him as he got off the train. He turned back to smile shyly at her. The golden head shone for a moment before disappearing in the crowd. Jhilli was surprised—it was that bookworm boy. Jhilli looked at the printed paper in her hand.
What kind of pamphlet was this now? Here there were many who distributed similar pamphlets about various religions.
Looking closely, she realized it was not a pamphlet on anything on religion. It was a torn page from a book. The title at the heading was, ‘In Search of a Woman on the Edge of History’. The rest of the page was one long single paragraph. A part of this was bracketed in blue ink and written in the margin, ‘This section is apt’, then a telephone number scrawled hurriedly, two-onetwo… a Manhattan number. At the bottom of the page in crimped hand, Jhilli could read with difficulty—‘My name is Benjamin’.
Jhilli sat staring at the torn page for a long time. New York indeed was a strange city. Humans like Taibur and Benjamin stay hidden in its inhuman crowd. She saw two miracles in one day. Her thoughts had turned foggy like a glass when breathed upon.
Gradually, as her head cleared, Jhilli started
reading. The bracketed part went—
“She sat next to another man. But she wasn’t aware of him. All these people around her, all the noise, talking, music, nothing was touching her. As if she wasn’t even there. Was she awake or in a dream? She was immersed in herself, in a solitary, isolated small, soft, green island. I was surprised, so manher? Everyone ought to notice her and be stunned. There shouldn’t be any sound in this room. All the light, all the air in this place swirled only around her. All the beauty was there. Her beauty was not exactly human, more like that of a flowing stream, or a still forest. She could capture eternity within this moment. She couldn’t see me, or anybody because her gaze was fixed at infinity, like the planets and the stars. Couldn’t the guy next to her recognize her? He kept a loose arm around her waist, as any ordinary man does to any ordinary woman. Couldn’t he really see her? Suddenly she shook her head and moved a few loose tresses over her brow. And in that instant the whole world lit up soft and bright. This was the woman, for her is civilization, for her is history…”
Jhilli looked away. She felt as if someone had lit a candle within her. The warm wax was melting all around her soul. Spreading a soft light. She tried to remember his face, a shy smile around goldrimmed glasses. Lennon-style. A quick glance from out of the door. She put the page away in the zippered pocket of her purse. It was like a million dollar certificate. She had waited thirty-four years for this torn page. Beauty of a flowing stream!
But those who could tear a page from a whole book could kill a person too. They had no conscience, no thought about others. They could be very dangerous.
They lived from moment to moment. Didn’t worry about the next moment. Yet he was so shy. He had left the next step to Jhilli. Now it was up to her to get in touch or not.
On the other hand, perhaps he didn’t have time to say what he wanted to. This was the only way he could show the depth of his feelings. He could perhaps buy another book but could never re-create this moment. If such a bookworm tore off a page for a woman, he said a lot in that one act.
‘At the edge of history, in search of a woman.’
Published in Parabaas, Jan 2020
The original novel Thikana (ঠিকানা) by Nabaneeta Dev Sen was written in Bangla, in New York, in 1997 and published in a journal in 1998, and came out as a book published by Dey's in Kolkata Book Fair in January, 1999.