Adhir Biswas, a keeper of subaltern memory

Indian literature is being turned upside down with the subaltern speaking, and I feel it is vital to capture this phenomenon via English translation.

adhir

Adhir Biswas was born in 1955 in a village called Magura in the Jessore district of erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. He arrived in India in 1967 and completed his schooling and graduation in Calcutta. Like many refugees from East Bengal, he lived precariously for many years, eking out a livelihood through various means. But all the while, he pursued his passion for writing. He contributed stories and prose pieces to various little magazines and periodicals. The year 2012 saw the publication of Allahr Jomite Pa (Setting Foot on Allah’s Land), the first of his series of books on refugee memories. It was awarded the Suprabha Majumdar Memorial Prize by the Bangla Academy of the Govt of West Bengal in 2014. Udojahaj (The Aeroplane), Biswas’s four-volume collection of stories, novellas and novels for young readers, was awarded the Vidyasagar Memorial Prize in 2017 by the Govt of West Bengal. Adhir Biswas runs Gangchil, a small artisanal press in Kolkata, which has been successful in making a mark in the world of Bengali publishing.

Adhir Biswas has also contributed through these books to social history. His books tell us about a time, from the lived experience of a marginal man. Rarely is the voice of such people heard in literature.

I met Adhir in early 2016. He knew of me, as the translator of Subimal Misra, the Bengali anti-establishment and experimental writer. Gangchil has republished all of Misra’s books in nine volumes. Adhir gave me some of his books, to read and translate if I felt up to it. My friend and adviser on Bengali literature, Mrinal Bose, spoke well of Allahr Jomite Pa. It was only in 2018 that I could start translating the book. I completed it – but actually the book was only the first of a series of four books, which forms a kind of quartet. The other books are Udbastu Ponjika (A Refugee Almanac), Chalo India! (Let’s Go to India!) and Gorchumuk (A Sip of the Calcutta Maidan). This quartet, completed in 2018, is about refugee remembrance. Chalo India! is about Bengali cinema as seen through the eyes of a refugee boy, and Gorchumuk is about Calcutta’s Maidan, the heart of the city, once again, seen through the eyes of a newly arrived refugee boy.

chala India book by Adhir Biswas

Adhir had once told me, “I don’t forget anything.” In these books, he tells us what he remembers, or rather, he gives us bits and fragments. In the process, he creates a composite picture, something that needs to be viewed at a ‘distance’. Drawing on his memories of his childhood, when he lost his mother, his growing up years, his adolescence and his school and college years, he tells us the story of his impoverished family and their journey to India in the late-1960s and their subsequent fortunes in this country. While giving a sensitive, touching and moving account, the author also reveals his own distinctive mien and sensibility. Adhir Biswas has also contributed through these books to social history. His books tell us about a time, from the lived experience of a marginal man. Rarely is the voice of such people heard in literature. For me, the personal story of Adhir is like a parallel story to that great novel of Bengali literature, Aporajito, by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, which was also made into a renowned film of the same name by Satyajit Ray. That novel was about the journey of a poor brahmin boy from a village into the world of learning, and to the city of Calcutta. In Biswas’s quartet, it is about a dalit boy from across the border who survives poverty, adversity, ill-health and disregard with an indomitable spirit. But he forms and never refuses to disavow a personal aspiration, to be a writer. These books may be read as an expression of that aspiration. And because this story is so different from Aparajito, it is told in a different style. Biswas’s writing is terse and cryptic. That describes his sentences. His words are merely a means to tell a tale. With which he creates a larger picture.

 

udojahaj, book by Adhir Biswas

He defines subalternity and marginality, and he gives us a glimpse into the formation of subaltern consciousness, and the making of an organic intellectual. The writing is non-fiction, but notwithstanding the author’s modesty of expression, the work is of a ‘literary’ nature, rather than ‘academic’.

Indian literature is being turned upside down with the subaltern speaking, and I feel it is vital to capture this phenomenon via English translation. I completed translating the final book of the quartet in the end of 2019, and am currently editing the manuscript for submission. The books will appear in a single volume, and will be published by Stree-Samya Books.

V. Ramaswamy lives in Kolkata. His translations of the short fiction of Subimal Misra include, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America, Wild Animals Prohibited, and This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels.

Also Read: Pariyerum Perumal (2018): Can Love Bloom in Caste Ridden Society?

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