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Literary Review

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Recognise yourself?

`The novel itself is a symbolic representation of a consumerist society where individuality is lost and where the body, mind and self are reduced to one homogenous mass.'

ORIGINALLY published in Bengali in 1972, Lokenath Bhattacharya's Babughater Kumari Maachh was first translated into English by Meenakshi Mukherjee and published in 1975, during the Emergency. This is in itself highly symbolic, for its subject matter deals with precisely those issues that the Emergency has come to symbolise — censorship and the loss of freedom.

The novel begins with Aparesh Nandy (Or is he Animesh, or Akhilesh? He is no longer sure of who he is and what he has become), once a writer, imprisoned in a nameless detention camp, forced to daily fill up blank sheets of paper with words. We are not told why he or the people incarcerated with him have been imprisoned. His jailors hint that his reward for this task will be freedom, and this motivates Nandy to complete the task set before him.

Through his compulsive, tortuous and desperate writing to fill up the pages, the plot unfolds. We are told that he and his fellow inmates are prisoners in a prison filled with the most unimaginable luxuries. Though provided with every creature comfort imaginable, the inmates are naked, surrounded by fully clothed guards. The crowning indignity is being faced with gilt-edged pictures of overdressed men and women hanging in their rooms — to remind them of what they were, and to realise what they have been reduced to.

The inmates have no identity to speak of — no names, clothes, relationships, memory or language, none of the bonds that defines their character. The writer seeks to establish his identity with the reader through his writing. He becomes the writer and the reader, the speaker and the listener. "I cannot resist words," he says. "Desperately I hold on to words and think here is something I still possess, here is something I have not yet forgotten ... You know what terrifies me most? I am beginning to forget the language — the right words seem to slip away from me to some distant field which I will not be able to reach' (p.5).

Time and space have no value or meaning in this prison, and the only way in which he can remember what he looks like or who he is, is through the mirror hanging in his room, the one anchoring factor in his otherwise soulless existence, with no newspapers, books or people to bring him news from the outside world.

Amidst this dark and terrifying, soulless existence, in their daily routine the inmates are reduced to the level of animals kept in a gilded cage — they eat, sleep, defecate and mate mindlessly, their purpose apparently to "breed" healthy children through "compulsory copulation". In a chilling reminder of the Nazi dogma, the narrator says: "they will probably bring up these children to believe in a preconceived ideology and make them soldiers in their army. These children will have no fine sentiments, no spark of intellect or culture — in their perfect bodies they will have the courage and energy of animals. After we are wiped away, sacrificed at the altar of history, then a new chapter in the life of the nation will begin through these young people' (p. 23).

Women are reduced to the level of a commodity in this prison, as the book's title suggests: The virgin fish of Babughat are the most tasty, as they have never spawned. So, too, are the women who have never been pregnant. "Eggs? Don't make me laugh, sir," says the shopkeeper selling fish to the protagonist in his childhood, "these are virgin fish from Babughat, absolutely fresh" (p.10).

* * *

Lokenath Bhattacharya was a prolific writer but he always remained outside the mainstream of Bangla literature. Though 15 of his books have been translated into French, only Babughater Kumari Maach has been translated into English. It is a disturbing novel that insidiously enters one's consciousness and continues to haunt with images that are frighteningly apt in contemporary India. Language, identity and the self, form the main thrust of the narrative. The novel itself is a symbolic representation of a consumerist society where individuality is lost and where the body, mind and self are reduced to one homogenous mass. This is a world without tenderness and love, almost impossible to imagine.

It leaves us grappling with questions about our own identity in a world increasingly without boundaries: Who am I? What is my identity if I am cut off from a social, family context? Do I remain myself or am I nobody without these symbols of identity, somebody without a history? The author has the answer: "a man cannot survive unless he relates himself to someone else," (p.9) and this is precisely the dilemma that the protagonist finds himself in, cut off from all social ties.

Language plays an integral role in his identity. With no news from the outside world, he and his fellow inmates live in a vacuum, in a world without information, and he begins to lose his language. His writing reflects this, with its chaotic pattern and lack of focus. The loss of his language plays a crucial role in the loss of his identity, a significant concept in the context of India's Colonial heritage and the debate over English and the Indian languages.

The novel is a searing reflection of our times. The protagonist knows that he has been imprisoned because of his writings, which were unacceptable to those in power. Yet, the rest of his fellow inmates, with no political leanings, and no controversial stands, have also been imprisoned, which begets the question, are we imprisoned in the society that we live in because of our apathy? If we do not vote, or we pay a bribe, or we don't report crimes to the police, do we have the right to moan about the state of our society?

In its examination of the depths to which humanity can be reduced, Babughater brings to the forefront of our consciousness possibilities for a better life and hope for the future.

The Virgin Fish of Babughat, Babughater Kumari Maachh, Lokenath Bhattacharya, translated from Bangla by Meenakshi Mukherjee, OUP, 2004, p.139, Rs. 195.


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