Veteran Bengali writer wins coveted O. Henry Award for 1977 story

Sahitya Akademi awardee Amar Mitra wrote Gaonburo when he was 26 years old

April 06, 2022 06:02 pm | Updated 06:02 pm IST - Kolkata

Amar Mitra. Photo: Special Arrangement

Amar Mitra. Photo: Special Arrangement

Amar Mitra wrote the story back in 1977, when he was only 26; today, it has fetched him the 1919-founded O. Henry Award, whose past winners include William Faulkner, Saul Bellow and Raymond Carver.

The award has reinforced Mr. Mitra’s belief that the short story — titled Gaonburo in Bangla and The Old Man of Kusumpur in English — must have some “internal force” for even the Western audience to find it relevant after 45 long years.

“It has often been hailed, at various times, as a ‘wonderful story’. Maybe it really is a wonderful story. I don’t remember the last time an Indian writing in an Indian language getting such a recognition,” Mr. Mitra, recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award and several other prestigious honours at home, told The Hindu.

The story is about a man’s journey to a remote village to meet a seer-like figure who is supposed to have answers to all of life’s problems. As he makes the difficult journey, people who help him along the way pile him with their own problems, asking him to present their case to the old man.

The story, which drew from Mr. Mitra’s experiences as an employee of the West Bengal’s Land Reforms Department, lay forgotten until it was translated by Anish Gupta in 1990, when it began to draw the attention of non-Bengali audiences. It started earning praise at literary gatherings in India. The principal of an American college, who happened to be present at one such festival, was so impressed by it that she urged Mr. Mitra to quit his day job and devote himself to writing full-time.

“I told her that quitting my job was out of the question because writing brought hardly any money in India, particularly in Bengal,” said the Kolkata-based writer, who spent considerable time in rural Bengal during his years as a government servant. The turning point for Gaonburo came in 2019 when Mr. Mitra was attending a literary meet in Kazakhstan.

“During the inauguration, I was among the four writers on stage, and I made a 40-minute-long speech on mystical life, which drew heavily from my short story. Suddenly, eminent participants were coming up to me and praising me. One Arabic journalist begged that I must have the story translated. On returning home, I requested Anish [Gupta, the translator] to take a fresh look at Gaonburo and send it [to one of the prestigious publications] abroad,” Mr. Mitra said.

In 2020, the story was sent to the reputed American literary journal, The Common, which published it in March 2021. Mr. Mitra was officially communicated about the award on April 4 this year.

The writer Parimal Bhattacharya said about the honour: “The short story has always been the strength of Bangla literature, and Amar Mitra winning this prestigious award for one of his short stories is a nod to this rich tradition. We should celebrate this, not only because of an international literary recognition coming our way after quite some time, but also because translators might now look at the rich storehouse of Bengali literature and make more works available to the English reading public.”

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