New from the old

New from the old

An unforgotten old romance is rekindled and fading dreams are revived in Ramapada Chowdhury’s novella Second Encounter. Originally published in Bengali as Je Jekhane Danriye, and translated into English by Swapna Dutta, the slim book follows Anupam, a professor, and his sudden, unexpected encounter with his old flame, Anjali. There are feelings between them that have remained unresolved, but in the two decades since their last encounter, families, spouses and children have all changed their lives.

When the novella opens, Anupam is on a holiday in Musabani, a mining town. Far removed from the cares of bustling Calcutta, Anupam finds Musabani idyllic, but is soon confused when he meets a woman at the weekly market. The woman in question is Anjali, someone he’d known as a teenager, a woman he’d been besotted with. A misunderstanding, it is given to understand, led Anupam and Anjali to go their separate ways... but whatever feelings they’d shared have remained, as they discover. Many of the characters in Second Encounter are quickly introduced right at the beginning of the book.

The usually staid Anupam begins obsessing over Anjali, and during one of their conversations, he discovers that whatever he feels for Anjali is reciprocated. There’s a bit of suspense woven into the tale at this point, as it’s unclear why Anupam harbours such strong feelings after what is a very long time of separation from Anjali. And then, abruptly, family seems a burden for both of them. There are moments when Anupam wishes his wife far away. He’s been thinking of Anjali for years now, off and on, right through his marriage, the birth of his children, and work as a professor. Both he and Anita are, to all appearances at least, happily married.

But lurking beneath the surface are desires and broken dreams of what-might-have-been, which eventually lead to more complications than either of them foresaw.

Anupam and Anjali are well-sketched characters, and so are their spouses. Anita, Anupam’s wife, is impressed with Anjali and a little jealous of the other woman’s wealth. Ranen, Anjali’s husband, is a geologist, and seemingly well off. He and Anjali have a large house that is beautifully furnished, and yet, there’s something missing there. Whether that something is an actual absence or a mere fantasy conjured up by Anjali’s fevered longing for what she does not have, is developed over the course of the story. As for Anupam, he has his own problems and secrets that he tries to justify and hide from his wife, who, apparently, is rarely satisfied with what she’s got. Shifting points of view give the characters their own space in Second Encounter, allowing them to develop and view the world through their own prejudices.

Jhumjhum, Anjali’s daughter, is vivacious and sensitive to the world around her. Bappa, Anupam and Anita’s teenage son, is quiet and excitable at the same time. He is fascinated by Jhumjhum, her manner of speech and her carefree air, so unlike his own reserved self.

What such a second encounter means for both Anupam and Anjali is subtly explored through their conversations and interactions, and how they deal with memories and the shadow of misunderstanding looming over their heads. They were teenagers when something happened and that something is slowly revealed. It was an incident that caused a rift — sometimes it appears that what Anupam and Anjali feel for each other is an infatuation.

The novella captures a range of human emotions, and to its credit, appears neither too long nor too short, beginning where it does, and ending with an air of mystery.

The translation, while for the most part smooth, does stumble now and then with awkward references and past, present and future tenses all mixed up. Also, the phrase ‘burst out laughing’ appears far too many times over the course of the book, sometimes in quick succession. Maybe its equivalent in the original Bengali was as prevalent?

Second Encounter is a short and interesting read. There are subtle observations on an old romance that has been idealised in the minds of those who remember it. That Anupam and Anjali should meet up quite unexpectedly in a market is strange, but the story is deftly told. Musabani, with its Santhal residents, mountains and geology, has a certain air to it — of an older, simpler time, and of a life in the hills untouched by the harshness of the city — and Second Encounter does recreate the dream, like ambience of the place.

Second Encounter
Ramapada Chowdhury, translated by Swapna Dutta
2016, pp 118

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