Translation Books

A little short on magic: Review of ‘Khwabnama’ by Akhtaruzzaman Elias, trs Arunava Sinha

Arunava Sinha’s 64th published translation, Khwabnama (Book of Dreams), has much less to do with dreams than with the cold, hard truths of life. The original Bengali novel of the same name is considered to be the magnum opus of the famous Bangladeshi author, Akhtaruzzaman Elias (1943-1997).

Khwabnama is a deeply political novel, presenting a series of vignettes from undivided Bengal/ India of the 1940s to Partition, Independence and after. The plot is woven around the Tebhaga peasant rebellion, in which sharecroppers demanded a larger share of the farm produce. Against this background, Elias unfolds the story of the fisherman-farmer Tamiz, whose life is one of crushing poverty, hunger and injustice. He embodies all that is painfully real among the underprivileged. Unlike those who seek to understand their fates through dreams, his way to know his fortune and change it is through labour, ambition, rebellion. Through Tamiz, the reader gets a taste of the various struggles of rural Bengal in the 40s — between landowners and jotedaars, jotedaars and sharecroppers, peasants and fishermen, Hindus and Muslims, communists and socialists, the religious and rationalists.

Running through this grimness is a thin thread of the magical. The ghosts of a long-dead sepoy called Munshi and a wandering fakir called Cherag Ali flit in and out of the plot, pulling readers into mystical spaces where fish turn to sheep, waterbodies form and unform whimsically, and music takes unlikely shapes. Tamiz’s father is a medium between the dead and the living, and Kulsum, his wife, has an uncanny ability to sniff out the deepest secrets. They lead us to Cherag Ali and his mysterious book of dream interpretation, the Khwabnama.

Between the real and the imagined, the living and the dead, the scope of the book is vast. However, it picks up pace only midway and the writing can seem tiresome at places, especially to non-Bangladeshi readers, who do not share an emotional connect with the country. Also, it never quite delivers on the magic realism front. Sinha’s translation, however, is a redeemer. For expat Bengalis distanced from their linguistic heritage, it offers an authentic reading experience, seamlessly incorporating not just the words but also the nuances of Bengali.

Khwabnama; Akhtaruzzaman Elias, trs Arunava Sinha, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹699

The reviewer is a culture writer and an Interfaith Studies scholar.


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