Good eyes, evil eyes

The painting of the eyes on an image of the goddess Durga on Mahalaya is considered to be a holy event in which those classified as chamars (leather workers) under orthodox Hinduism cannot participate. Nandini Guha’s translation of Anita Agnihotri’s Bengali novel, The Awakening, focuses on a chamar, Arjun Das, who is allowed to do so by a pro-reform image-maker Ram Pal.

The so-called evil eye of the chamar wishes to make Durga-images that have the “mystery of life” in them, images of a “mystery” that “can neither be touched nor held.” In Arjun’s own life, one caste is not permitted what another is under orthodox Hinduism, one class cannot afford the Durga image another can, all bodies do not have the power to elect their political representatives or to serve as representatives although the Indian Constitution gives equal rights to all citizens, and good does not necessarily triumph over evil.

Agnihotri’s novel deals with life in Bengal from the 1960s to the end of the twentieth century, a period of violent Naxal rebellion coupled with extrajudicial police action, popular land reforms and anguish over industrial stagnation, the flight of investment and talent from the state, and the official arrival of globalization. These changes find their way into the moulds of the goddesses and gods Arjun makes each year. These moulds are the “signs of his progress.” Arjun’s “saga of hard work, half-empty stomachs and sleepless nights” does not fetch him the success he desires even though the eyes he paints each year witness the changes around him — changes that are not free of injustice, changes that at times do not even show an awareness of injustice.  

The images of Durga that Arjun creates represent the victory of good over evil just as the images of the male gods do. But in real life, under orthodox Hinduism, women can neither be priests nor function officially as idol makers. They are murdered for dowry, raped and molested, and sent to their parents’ homes when prenatal sex determination tests reveal that they will birth daughters.

Arjun admits to himself that the “magical writing of eyes, the paint and clay were all part of a spell of fantasy — which extinguished itself as soon as he climbed down from the scaffolding.” To save his daughter who was asked to abort her female foetus, he borrows money that he would not have taken to support his work. Is contemplating what is good more important than acting out ideals? This question connects Arjun’s story with the other stories in the novel that flow into his story and out of it too — like the river from which the idol makers collect clay and in which the idols are immersed each year at the end of the ceremonies — running through the text.

The baby birthed by Arjun’s daughter arrives in Arunima’s lap, Arunima who had lost her Naxal sons to police violence in jail. Is the world of Arjun’s granddaughter more just than that of Arunima’s sons? Is survival enough? These questions surface here and also when the Welfare Board for Scheduled Castes and Tribes allows Arjun’s son to take a loan that will allow him to make shoes, the traditional occupation of chamars. Did Arjun’s struggle as a “low” caste idol maker cramp his son’s occupational desires? The powerful examination of these questions suffers at times due to the riverine treatment of the stories — dissolving, floating, but not sticking, suggesting falsely that the effects of the stories on each other can be easily washed away.  

In this translation that stutters and falls into grammatical ditches, Nandini Guha is generally able to capture the essence of Anita Agnihotri’s work. It would have been very useful if the translator had included a short essay on Agnihotri in this edition or even an interview with the author to make the flavour of the original text more accessible to the reader of the translation.

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