Chandak Chattarji first encountered Jibanananda Das’ short stories over four decades ago, in a slim volume that he had bought out in Darjeeling. Until then, like many Bengalis with a taste for literature, he had only read poetry written by Das, widely seen as the greatest poet in the language since Rabindranath Tagore. In these stories, Chattarji found an exploration of the same themes that animated Das’ verses. These stories contained the same weariness in the face of an indifferent world, and yearning and nostalgia for rural Bengal that marked the melancholy and lyricism of Das’ poetry. They fascinated Chattarji enough that, once he retired from his position as the principal of Air Force School in Kanpur, he began translating these stories. The result is the book Three Stories, published by Paperwall and launched last week in Mumbai.
For the 82-year-old, translation has always been parallel to reading. It is an activity that, he says, started out purely as a creative exercise, meant for his own pleasure. As a postgraduate student at Calcutta University in 1954, whenever he encountered a particularly moving poem, Chattarji would translate it and soon he had accumulated an impressive collection, all transcribed by hand on numerous sheets of paper. Many of these translations were of Das’ poems. “I have always been drawn to the melancholic aspects of Jibanananda’s poetry, perhaps because my ruling element is melancholy,” he says, “They reveal aspects of human life that are not evident in the work of most other poets. For example, a poem called ‘Aat bochor ager ekdin’ (One day, eight years ago) shows why some people commit suicide although they lack nothing in life: ‘He had love, he had hope — in the moonlight — even then who knows what ghost he saw, who knows why he woke up with a start, or perhaps he had no sleep for ages, so now he sleeps in the morgue. Is this the kind of sleep he wanted!’. This reminded me of Shakespeare’s concept of sleep as a form of death, and because I also love Shakespeare, I found an affinity between him and Jibanananda.” Besides the challenges of writing slowly by hand, the biggest difficulty Chattarji encountered while translating Das, was what he describes as the poet’s “Bengaliness”, something that is not easy to convey in other languages, particularly English.
After graduating from Calcutta University, Chattarji pursued a career as an English teacher in some of India’s most prestigious schools such as St Paul’s in Darjeeling and La Martiniere in Lucknow, besides a few years in Ethiopia. Through the years, he kept writing as well as translating, eventually releasing his first book of poetry, titled Summer Knows, last year. He was persuaded to publish his translations of Das’ stories by his daughter, poet and writer Sampurna Chattarji. The stories selected for publication were Shadow Play (Chhaya Nat), Tale of City and Village (Gram o Shohorer Galpo) and Bilash (Bilash). He says, “These were the three stories that were collected in a volume I’ve had for over 40 years. These were also the first three stories of Jibanananda to be published, so it seemed a natural choice to introduce the English readers to the iconic poet’s short
fiction through the very same trio of stories that introduced the Bengali readers to his short fiction.”