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No bypassing a tale well told

Kishore Babu's amnesia and the travails of the Marwari community in Kolkata form the backdrop of "Kalikatha Via Bypass" by Alka Saraogi. OM GUPTA meets the author, who has transcended the limitations of working in Hindi and been recogni sed by international publishers... .

IT IS a well-known fact that Hindi and other Indian language publications suffer from anonymity due to the absence of good translations. Alka Saraogi's Hindi novel "Kalikatha Via Bypass" would have met the same fate had not the author translated it herself, in 24 days, after waiting for its translation for two years. The moral of the story is that a good work - like water - finds its way without the props of good publishers and translators.

But the time taken by "Kalikatha" to traverse the globe through English, Italian, French and many other translations was nothing compared to the time span covered by the protagonist. There is no linear narrative in the novel. It gives the impression that the author is using a hand-held camera and showing us whatever she chooses to describe. This runs more like a fast-edited action film whose many characters and events make you feel engrossed in the whole milieu. At places one gets the impression the novel is autobiographical. Alka Saraogi diplomatically replies that all novels are autobiographical to some extent.

At one level "Kalikatha" is the colonial and post-colonial history of India and at another it is about the trials and tribulations of Marwari settlers. But more interesting than these two dimensions is the quintessential quest of a restless soul who due to a head injury shuttles through three phases of his life. None of the characters has been painted in black or white but in shades of grey. The author has been rather harsh on the Marwari community while describing its mindset and life style. Though sympathetic about their noble spirit, she is not comfortable with the way they have negotiated life in the metropolis. There is no mention about the general impression that the Kolkata Marwaris have made tonnes of money at the cost of local Bengalis. On the contrary she has focussed on the Marwari section that struggled no end and lived on the margin. The portion in which she highlights the interaction between Marwaris and the British makes for fascinating reading. She has cleverly woven the structure of her story using the ploy of loss of memory of the protagonist Kishore Babu, interspersing it with the narrator to provide links.

There is even a double entendre in the title "Kalikatha Via Bypass". Kalikatha represents both the story of Kaliyuga and that of Kalikata while Bypass has been used for Kishore Babu's heart surgery as well as for the bypasses - or shortcuts - which we all take in daily life. The novel is replete with so much information about the periods and personalities it covers that it could pass off for a reference work.

Alka Saraogi's brief published data says she has done her research from Calcutta University, but she maintains that she is mostly a housewife when not writing or reading. Presently she is working on a bilingual novel about a 17-year-old handicapped boy studying in a missionary school, part of which is written in English. Originally brought out in Hindi by a relatively small-time publisher, it made a deep impact in the heartland of printed Hindi. And people who mattered lapped it up. The book bagged many awards and the English and European language publishers made a beeline to take it their readers. While we wait, we have "Kalikatha" for company.

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