A window to the past

In the world of Indian literature, Sankar’s Chowringhee was a landmark: it was the book that set off the trend of accessible, engaging translations of regional language popular fiction. Chowringhee was a refreshing break from the dreary, issue-based, literary works that were being translated earlier, and Arunava Sinha’s excellent translation helped further. So expectations are high from The Great Unknown, the latest book by Sankar to be translated.

The book loosely follows the career of a lawyer’s assistant in the Kolkata High Court, beginning in the late 40s, and going through several years. Along the way, we meet the regulars at the courthouse: other assistants, solicitors, librarians. Most importantly, since this is a lawyer’s office, we hear about various clients over the years — a Lebanese woman abandoned by her husband, an old English spinster unwilling to leave her home, a Bengali girl duped by a smooth operator, and many more. Not all of these are court cases.

It would be wrong to read the book as a novel. The stories are generally self-sufficient, and characters don’t recur. It is structured more like a memoir, charting the progression of the narrator and his boss through their careers — the boss being the last English barrister in the Calcutta court. The format makes more sense when we consider that Kato Anjanarey, the original Bengali novel, was first published as a serial in a magazine and later collected into a novel. The book was Sankar’s debut novel and a big hit. As he says in the preface, “In this book, I have not focused on the law. I have merely tried to capture the people of (the court), whom I have loved.” This focus makes the book a warm, human document instead of a legal whodunit or thriller. We sympathise with all of the characters that we meet, and there are few absolute rights and wrongs.

Sankar’s eye for detail also makes The Great Unknown a window into the past. The book is set in the years when India was just learning to be independent and the close interactions with the British were beginning to die down. But traces of the empire still abounded: the English lawyer who is the narrator’s employer, his friends, career diplomats who have made their living in the Indian kingdoms, girls who travelled to India to marry princes. Well-off Indians thought nothing of completing their degrees in England.

Modern history books would have us believe that the British were the villains, and all Indians hated them. This book presents a truer picture: by the time 1947 arrived, the two societies were closely intertwined, and Indian independence had a huge social impact on the British people who were left behind, or refused to go back.

Several of the stories feature women who have had a raw deal in their married life. These women are of all kinds: from demure, traditional Bengalis to cigarette-smoking English lasses. But again and again, we see that men hold all the aces in society and get away with hurtful, even criminal, behaviour. One wonders how much society has really changed since those days — the stories echo recent newspaper headlines and TV serials.

The translation, by Soma Das, is quite smooth and unobtrusive, although there are a few places where sentences seem out of place in English. Even so, the book reads well, and ideally digested in short chunks, the way the original readers would have read it all those years ago in a magazine.

How many great books are lying hidden in installments in regional language magazines, never collected or translated? The Great Unknown has survived that ordeal and arrived in the hands of readers again. One hopes many more will follow.

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