Ode to Autumn

A richly imagined novella about ageing women.

August 02, 2014 04:50 pm | Updated 04:50 pm IST

Defying winter

Defying winter

S heet Sahasik Hemantalok (Defying Winter) by noted Bengali creative writer, academic and scholar-critic Nabaneeta Dev Sen is a brilliantly structured, well-knit and flawless production in the Oxford Novellas series.

In her Author’s Note, Nabaneeta Dev Sen has wonderfully laid bare the whole dynamics of creating her central character, Aparajita, a 70-year-old woman, in 1988 when she was still a young woman. It’s a richly imaginative act of drawing a pen picture of ageing with ‘neutral empathy’. It’s equally interesting to learn how she seized the opportunity to write a novella for a new Bengali magazine focused on film, fashion and sex and penned a radically new work about ageing elderly women who had customarily no place in such magazines. In fact, gerontology and its representation in literature was still a nascent idea in Western literary canon in 1988. Theorists like Gayatri Spivak showed active interest in this emerging sociological phenomenon and its literary representation as late as in the early 21st century.

Another peculiar feature of this novella had been the vast geographical distance between the place of composition (University of British Columbia) and the locale and characters of the book (an old age home for women in Kolkata). It reminds one of U.R. Anantha Murthy. Fed up with the boredom of speaking in English for a couple of years in Birmingham, he finally decided to write a novella ( Samskara ) in his mother tongue Kannada to imaginatively reconnect with his roots, his own people.

According to Nabaneeta, the work is about ageing as a maturing process, not as wasting away. The simile of a Kashmiri ‘jamawar’ shawl and the metaphor of a ‘tattered, moth-eaten human life’ immediately recall the lines of W.B. Yeats in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: “An aged man is but a paltry thing/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress.”

One can also understand the disappointment of the author at the truncated title used in the translated version of the novella in several Indian languages as simply ‘The Autumn World’ ( Hemantolok ). It completely misses out on the powerful import of ‘winter-defying’ ( Sheet Sahasik ), an adjective that captures the world of brave, elderly women like Aparajita, Vandana and Sarasi in the most effective way.

Another outstanding feature of this novella is the technique of multiple narration and multiple speech registers to identify different characters. It is probably the greatest challenge to the linguistic competence of the translator. Rightly, the translator Tutun Mukherjee points out: “The most challenging is the use of raw street slang of Kolkata’s red light areas... Of course, the most fascinating of all (and the translator’s agony!) is the coarse, vulgar, amoral, and sexually explicit yet racy style of the intriguing Nistarini...”

It is also a laudable strategy to print in italics words to indicate the transliterated English words and sentences used in the original text. In fact, Nabaneeta’s use of language is a reliable marker of transformation in a person’s character as it is observed in Nistarini. Her journey from the underworld of Rambagan to the enlightening liberal world of ‘Sandhyar Kulaay’ (Twilight Shelter) is brilliantly traced by changing contours of language.

The ‘Introduction’ is a comprehensive mapping of Bengali Women’s writing since 19th century — an extensive research Tutun did earlier for an anthology Three Sides of Life: Short Stories by Bengali Women Writers as well.

The glossary is very useful as it provides descriptive notes on various cultural registers found in the original text. The glosses are highly informative and quite well-researched too.

Finally, the making of the book perfectly suits the format of a good textbook that could be recommended in the curriculum of the higher education institutions. The content is quite relevant to the study of gerontology from social, psychological and gender perspectives and it may open up new vistas of research in future.

Sheet Sahasik Hemantolok (Defying Winter), Nabaneeta Dev Sen; Translated from Bengali by Tutun Mukherjee, Series Editor - Mini Krishnan, Oxford Novellas, Rs.250.

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