Working on the margins of the middle
A passionate novelist must be able to plumb the depths of society and, in The Middleman, Mani Sankar Mukherjee does just that: He explores the dark relationship between the human and the urban souls and the consequent debasement of youth and innocence.
Translated by Arunava Sinha
pp 192, Rs 200
The Middleman, in Sankar's words, is a "disagreeable tale of contemporary reality", a terrifying projection of Calcutta's seamier side - powerful, intense, morbidly disturbing, deeply unnerving and yet captivating and moving.
The Middleman is an English translation of Sankar's original novel in Bengali, Jana Aranya, literally The Human Jungle. When first published in 1976, Satyajit Ray was among the first persons to have read Jana Aranya. He took no time to telephone Sankar to share the idea of making a film based on the novel. When I watched Ray's Jana Aranya in my late-teens, it was difficult to fathom and even more difficult to comprehend the underlying message: frame after frame of human helplessness, wretchedness, loneliness and hopelessness. For the same reasons, it was also difficult to come to terms with.
In later years, when I read Jana Aranya and watched the film a second time as a journalist working in Calcutta, it was a crushing confrontation with reality: an exploitative market that brought into sharp relief the city's social and moral crises. In the early 1990s, when the country was veering toward economic liberalisation, the Bengali novel and Ray's "bleakest" film, drove home the stark and brutally cold reality that all of Calcutta's inhabitants were, someway or the other, middlemen, cogs in the colossal market.
Conditions prevailing now are no different than the hopeless 70s.
Arunava Sinha's resurrection of Sankar's more celebrated vernacular version does not quite match the cultural power the original Bengali exerted. But it does have the essential quality of a translated novel: the capacity to escape, and help the reader escape, time or go back in time. Set in the Calcutta of the mid-70s, which at once experienced the emergence of the radical Left and mass unemployment, Middleman is the story of a young, idealistic, poetic man Somnath Banerjee. Though a graduate, Somnath, who belongs to a middle-class family with little exposure to the frenetic energy of his city, is unable to find a job, even that of a lower division clerk. His friend Sukumar Mitra loses his mental balance in search of any job. So when he meets Bishwanath Bose, who proposes he try his luck in business, Somnath sees hope of making a fair and honest living. He names his company Somnath Enterprises, beginning very modestly as a middleman in all kinds of order-supply dealings - from selling/buying pins to elephants. Naïve Somnath flounders in the cut-throat competition a. Ashamed of his failure, he gives it one last shot to recover the lost capital. He meets Natabar Mitra, a flamboyant "public relations" man who does not find it demeaning to arrange for comfort girls for Calcutta's myriad businessmen. As he sees Mitra operating in Calcutta's boudoirs or in the homes of housewives and other unemployed women, who get sucked into the city's netherworld, Somnath's middle-class morality forbids him from going the same way. He tries to stop himself from becoming another Natabar Mitra, but gives in to the desperate call to establish himself as a businessman, at least in the eyes of his father, at all cost.
Despite the dark characterisation of Calcutta's marketplace, where the laws of the jungle apply, Sankar says he holds out hope and has not lost faith in "fellow humans". In the Afterword to the novel, Sankar reveals that The Middleman is not entirely a work of fiction. Indeed, the characters of the main protagonist and that of some of the other dramatis personae, were inspired by his own location and associations in a forbidding city. As an "agent" for a small factory that manufactured waste-paper baskets, Sankar worked not just the streets of Calcutta pushing the product but also experienced first hand the "humiliating experiences" of its comfort girls. He was the archetypal middleman.
It is this true-story element that makes his work a compelling read.