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Yet another urban saga

Last updated: 07 August, 2010
SAMHITA ARNI 18:11 IST

Salman Rushdie, once controversially claimed that all worth-while contemporary Indian writing was to be found in English...

His statement restricted the range of Indian literature to a small circle - as another writer, Amit Chaudhari eloquently put it — “a handful of writers..who live in England or America and whom one might met at a party.”

There’s much to take issue with in Rushdie’s sweeping statement. Nonetheless, his views reflect a prevalent understanding of Indian literature, that believes the concerns and themes of works in vernacular languages and in English to be worlds apart. Compare, for example - the setting, style, themes and characters of ‘A Suitable Boy’ with that of ‘Legends of Khasak’. One reflects an urbanised, westernized India, struggling with the conflict between tradition and modernity, subject to change. The other explores a rural, isolated India that has remained unchanged for centuries; where the boundaries of myth and reality blur.

But it’s reading There Was No One At The Bus Stop that one realises that such distinctions are generalizations. Originally published in Bengali in 1974 Srishendu’s Mukhopadhyay’s novella explores adultery in the world of upper middle class, cosmopolitan Calcutta - an issue and an social milieu that is extremely familiar to the world of the Indian writer in English.

Trina, Mukphopadya’s self-involved and frustrated female protagonist, has embarked on an adulterous affair with Debashish, her neighbor from across the street. Debashish’s glamorous but empty-headed wife has committed suicide before the novella opens. In the aftermath of his wife’s death, Debashish is worried by the growing distance between him and his young son. Meanwhile Trina, frustrated and suffocated in her marriage, feeling useless in her expertly run household and ostracized from the lives of her independent children, debates leaving her family. She imagines living, across the street, with Debashish. With skill Mukhopadhyay depicts the cultured suffocation of the upper middle class. Aspects of his novella betray an almost European sensibility — particularly his restless, fevered exploration of the inner and outer worlds of his characters, and the carefully developed sense of ennui that looms large over the lives of his protagonists.

There was no one at the bus stop is like a french new wave film - seemingly plotless, without a clear cut sense of resolution. Compare Mukhopadhyay’s novella with Agnes Varda’s film Cleo five to seven — Trina, like Varda’s eponymous, flaneur-like heroine, ceaselessly circles around the conflict at the heart of the novella. In both works, internal journeys reflecting external ones, as Trina and Cleo restlessly wander through their homes and city streets, killing time before appointments and assignations. History is present in every object, thought and gesture, and Mukhopadya’s seamlessly transitions between past and present, finding, in absences, the living presence of the dead.

Debashish’s glamourous dead wife, Chandana, emerges as a powerful, contrary character - a petty, superficial woman, who in taking her own life and escaping her narrow world, possesses enviable courage and conviction.

Mukhopadhyay takes us to a familiar, much explored world - the anglicised, upper middle class urban milieu of the seventies, and reveals and articulates hidden truths. There was no one at the bus stop may be a frustrating read for those who expect a story of action . But for the connoisseur of literature, Mukhopadhyay’s novella is an excellent way to fill an idle hour.

There was no one at the bus stop
Srishendu Mukhopadhyay translation by Arunava Sinha
Penguin 2010, pp 121
Rs 150

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