The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 13, 2003

Troubled lives, turbulent times
Aditya Sharma

Waiting for Rain
by Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay. Translated from the Bengali by Nilanjan Bhattacharya. Penguin Books. Pages 217. Rs 250.

Waiting for RainJUST as a second-rate translation can mar a good literary work, a good translation often goes on to make it a shade better than the original. Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s novel — Waiting for Rain is a fine piece of translated writing meriting a round of applause for its translator Nilanjan Bhattacharya. This novel was initially published in Bengali in 1985, but an English translation was not available until recently. To most English readers, novelist Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, might be an unfamiliar name but in Bengali literature he occupies a place of prominence. Born in 1935, he completed his Masters from Kolkata. For a brief duration he worked as schoolteacher until he finally shifted over to journal ism and joined Anand Bazar Patrika for which he still writes. Recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1991, he has penned numerous other novels and short stories. The translator Nilanjan Bhattacharya is based in New York. Nevertheless he retains an abiding interest in translating regional literature into English.

The events of the novel are set in Calcutta of the early 70s when the Naxalite movement was in full swing, bringing young men into its violent fold. Its story to some extent, resembles the theme of the film Maachis, insofar as it too deals with the distressing consequences of revolutionary movements on the lives of ordinary men and women. The main difference is that while in the movie the theme was romanticised, in the novel there’s no such extravagance.


The prose of the novel is smooth and has a pleasant rhythm to it. Reading it is as effortlessly as swimming with the current. The story of the novel is narrated in the first person, but with a difference. Contrary to the usual pattern in which the story is told by the principal character, we find in this novel not one but two protagonists. Both of them (Somsundar and Manju) narrate their respective stories in alternate chapters.

Manju’s story centres around her relationship with her beloved and other characters. Her life is secure, monotonous and nothing substantial happens to her. However, one day she goes to a bar, gets drunk, swings in the arms of a couple of gentlemen and finally collapses on the dancing floor. This incident leaves the readers clueless about the significance of the proceeding. Perhaps the object was to offer some excitement.

The story of Somsundar focuses on his suffering with occasional glances into the better times he has lived through. His family goes through turbulent times when first his elder brother and then he himself join the Naxalites. This situation is further aggravated when his brother suddenly disappears and there is no clue his whereabouts. The narration of a incident in which Somsundar escapes after being surrounded by hired killers is particularly good. The entire sequence is picturesque, horrific and hair-raising.

Along with the narration of the main story the novelist has also put together absorbing sketches of the other characters. He has adeptly described the pathetic circumstances of the peasants, unemployed and the lepers by portraying the inhuman conditions in which they were forced to survive during a drought. To keep their body and soul together many of them literally take up begging in the streets while the more unfortunate ones have to live on rodents. The journalistic stint of the writer had been of an exceptional assistance to him while penning down ground realities with such remarkable clarity.

However, the novelist seem to have unconsciously justified some of the dark deeds of the male protagonist. Somsundar harbours revengeful thoughts, smashes various musical instruments of his one-time beloved, Mala we read anything against him. He is definitely not as noble and as blameless as he is portrayed to be. It appears that the novelist at some stage grew so fond of him that unconsciously he adopted a rather considerate attitude towards him, much like an indulgent father would favour his favourite son.

The novel winds up on a pitiable but realistic note. Somsundar yearns to return home from his association with the Naxalites but finds it difficult to do so. He longs to relish friendly moments with his family and friends. Ultimately he knocks down his comrades and leaves the organisation knowing it fully well that he wouldn’t be spread. The readers can only pray he was.