The five must-read books of Bengali literature


For most non-Bengalis, literature from the state is characterised by Rabindranath Tagore's poorly translated verse. But Bengal has a rich history of fiction well beyond the bearded bard.  Award-winning translator of Bengali fiction Arunava Sinha, who has translated 19 Bengali works into English and is working on 14 more, gave Scroll his selection of novels you simply must read.

Pather Panchali: The Song of the Road
Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. 1929.



Along with Tarashankar and Manik, Bibhutibhushan was one of the three Bandyopadhyays whose works dominated the era in Bengali fiction that followed Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopdhyay. Like Satyajit Ray's celebrated film that was based on it, the novel was its creator's first work – and, as a result, all the more astonishing for its maturity and depth.

Taking up the lives of the Roy family – the father an itinerant priest, the mother the classic housewife, and their two children – in a Bengal village named Nischindipur and then in the city of Benaras, this multilayered novel is a superb depiction of the struggle of an entire generation of rural Indians, not just to survive but also to overcome the hardships imposed on them in order to find their true selves.

Both bitter and sweet in its accounts of life and relationships in the village and then in the city, the novel provided a cast of memorable characters both representative and individualistic. A lyrical and yet down-to-earth style marked a significant departure from the effusive prose favoured by Tagore and the dramatic format that Chattopadhyay had picked as its own. Very few novels can forge the kind of bond with readers that this one does.

Padma Nadir Majhi: The Boatman on the Padma
Manik Bandyopadhyay. 1936.



Marking a sharp deviation from the romantic literary inheritance of nature as a participant in human lives, this novel about lives in a fishing community focuses on the psychological workings of the human mind, capturing the existence of machinations, spite and meanness alongside lofty ideals, passion and desires.

Centred on the attempts of a rural businessman to build a utopian commune on an island in the delta of the river Padma, this exploration of the psyches of human beings and the impact of individual choices on society weaves through romantic, commercial and social relationships in the course of telling its tale, building into a magnificent climax.

A true pathbreaker in the the way the novelist wielded his tools, 'The Boatman on the Padma' is a creative landmark whose deftness and detailing have seldom been matched in the huge oeuvre of Bengali fiction.

Jagori: The Vigil
Satinath Bhaduri. 1946.



During the freedom movement, a young revolutionary is sentenced to death. It is his last night in jail before he is to be hanged at dawn. In four mesmerising chapters, we hear four voices: the convict, his father, his mother – all of whom are also in jail – and his brother each tell their versions of the same story. Family dynamics and the political backdrop blend into the intersecting currents of personal relationships and patriotic mission, as the stream of consciousness narratives capture the determination, the doubts and the despair of the participants through multiple perspectives. A superbly innovative novel even by the standards of all the pathbreaking Bengali fiction produced in the first half of the 20th century, 'The Vigil' is unsentimental, graphic and uncompromising depiction of its subject.

Hajar Churashir Ma: 1084's Mother
Mahasweta Devi. 1974.



Mahasweta Devi's best-known novel is a heartbreaking and yet coldly analytical story of a loving mother who is suddenly informed of her grown-up son's death. Identified as No. 1084 by the morgue authorities, the young man was killed in one of the many false encounters that the police used in the 1970s in Bengal to eliminate revolutionary Naxalites. A year after his death, she begins to piece together the story of his involvement with the Naxal movement, getting in touch his former comrades and learning the details.

The novel offers a unique perspective on the armed political movement that shook Bengal in the 1970s, claiming victims among both the urban youth and the rural peasantry, leaving its impact not just on the political and administrative landscape but also on the families of those who died. Crisp and incisive in capturing the thought processes of a generation and the turmoil in the cosy construct of the middle-class family, this novel is still a truly moving human document.

Harbart
Nabarun Bhattacharya. 1993.



Nabarun Bhattacharya's literary genes run deep. His mother is Mahasweta Devi, while his father was the iconic theatre personality Bijon Bhattacharya. Harbart is practically an anti-novel. Telling the story of a middle-class urban outcast – emotionally, psychologically and intellectually – named Harbart Sarkar, this breathless novel, told at breakneck pace in a sardonically journalistic voice, begins with the protagonist's suicide, traces the events leading up to it, and climaxes in a shattering finale that ties in much of Calcutta's modern history and sociology. A bomb hurled at the literary establishment, Harbart is a deeply disturbing and yet strangely joyous novel that reaffirms the victorious power of anarchy.
Location: Banihal 182146

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