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What I’m Reading: My Kind of Girl, by Buddhadeva Bose

My Kind of Girl is a nov­el by Bud­dhade­va Bose, an impor­tant 20th cen­tu­ry Ben­gali writer. In addi­tion to the books he wrote in his native language–he was a fic­tion writer, a poet, a play­wright, and an essayist–Bose also trans­lat­ed into Ben­gali the works of Baude­laire, Hold­er­lin and Rilke. My Kind of Girl was brought into Eng­lish by Aruna­va Sin­ha, whose name I did not know until I picked this book up, but whose web­site appears to be an organ­ic anthol­o­gy of South Asian lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion, and I’m excit­ed to have dis­cov­ered it. Sinha’s trans­la­tion of My Kind of Girl was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 2009 by Ran­dom House India, but the edi­tion I read was put out by Arch­i­pel­ago Books, a press that you should know about if you don’t, and that I hope you will con­sid­er sup­port­ing. Arch­i­pel­ago only pub­lish­es lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion, from lan­guages as far flung as Ice­landic and Ara­bic, with plen­ty more in between, per­form­ing a cru­cial func­tion in our cul­ture, where, on aver­age, only 3% of the books pub­lished in a giv­en year are in trans­la­tion (and the web­site that link takes you too is worth know­ing about as well).

Trans­la­tion in gen­er­al, but lit­er­ary trans­la­tion in par­tic­u­lar, is often the only way that peo­ple from one cul­ture are able to gain sym­pa­thet­ic and empa­thet­ic insight into the peo­ple of anoth­er. It doesn’t always work that way, of course. One of the Per­sian poets I have trans­lat­ed, for exam­ple, Saa­di of Shi­raz, was first brought into French in the 1600s by a man named Andre du Ryer, who thought it was impor­tant for his com­pa­tri­ots to be aware of a Mus­lim writer whose pro­gres­sive-for-their-time val­ues (and in some ways pro­gres­sive for ours as well) mir­rored their own. Then, in the 1800s, when the British became inter­est­ed in clas­si­cal Per­sian lit­er­a­ture because Per­sian was the lan­guage of the Moghul courts of India, Saadi’s works were among those Iran­ian works trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, as John D. Yohan­nan wrote in The Poet Sa’di: A Per­sian Human­ist, to help make “British rule in India more effi­cient.… In oth­er words, the Sa’di of the Enlight­en­ment had giv­en way to the Sa’di of the colo­nial age” (6).

If you take a moment to think about it, some of the most influ­en­tial books in west­ern cul­ture, start­ing with the Bible, both the Jew­ish and the Chris­t­ian ver­sions, are actu­al­ly works in trans­la­tion. Here are a few oth­ers: Dante’s Infer­no, the Ili­ad and the Odyssey, Anna Karen­i­na, War and Peace, the poet­ry of Sap­pho, and more. We so take for grant­ed the val­ues these lit­er­ary works have brought into our culture–from our ideas about good and evil, heav­en and hell, to how we under­stand love and adultery–that we for­get we learned them from some place else. Even a book like The Girl with the Drag­on Tat­too, along with its com­pan­ion vol­umes, demon­strates how valu­able lit­er­ary trans­la­tion is as a medi­um of cul­tur­al exchange and cul­tur­al change. My Kind of Girl is a much small­er, more qui­et, and mod­est book than any of the ones I’ve just men­tioned, but it nonethe­less pro­vides the same kinds of insights, explor­ing love through the sto­ries told by four mid­dle-aged Indi­an men, strangers to each oth­er, when a Decem­ber snow­storm pre­vents their train from get­ting through and forces them to spend the night togeth­er in the sta­tion wait­ing room. A young cou­ple look­ing for some pri­va­cy inspires the men to start rem­i­nisc­ing about what it was like to be young and in love, and they decide that each one should tell a love sto­ry. My Kind of Girl, in oth­er words, is a kind of Can­ter­bury Tales writ small, with­out the com­ic bawdi­ness and cyn­i­cism that marks many of Chaucer’s tales.

The first man to tell a sto­ry, the only one that is not auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, is the con­trac­tor, who nar­rates the tale of Makhan­lal and his love for Malati, the “not exact­ly what you would call beau­ti­ful” daugh­ter of the “semi-impov­er­ished col­lege pro­fes­sor” who lives next door. Makhanlal’s moth­er, Hiran­may­ee, who val­ues edu­ca­tion, sets about try­ing to arrange a match between Malati and her son, but Malati’s fam­i­ly is not inter­est­ed. They don’t want their daugh­ter mar­ry­ing into the fam­i­ly of a “mere” shop­keep­er. Hiran­may­eee is insult­ed, deeply so, and when, sev­er­al years lat­er, cir­cum­stances make it pos­si­ble for her to gloat over her neighbor’s mis­for­tune, she does so with glee. Makhan­lal, how­ev­er, who has (or so he thought) quite inno­cent­ly car­ried his love for Malati all this time–he is not the most self-aware of men–wants to help. When he does so, he learns a painful les­son in how class and gen­der and the con­trac­tu­al machi­na­tions and hid­den agen­das that often accom­pa­ny mar­riages in cul­tures where they are arranged inter­fere with love, con­t­a­m­i­nate it, so that even when you think your love is inno­cent and with­out guile, it very like­ly is not.

Of the four sto­ries, only one, the doctor’s, ends hap­pi­ly, and it is telling that his is the only tale in which he meets the woman he loves as an adult, already a professional–she requires med­ical attention–and under cir­cum­stances where falling in love is the last thing on his mind. Nonethe­less, each tale is quin­tes­sen­tial­ly the sto­ry of a man liv­ing in a cul­ture where men and women exist in sep­a­rate spheres. None of the women these men love is real­ized in this nov­el as any­thing resem­bling a three dimen­sion­al char­ac­ter. Indeed, except for the doctor’s Bina, the women in these sto­ries are not much more than emp­ty ciphers onto which the men project their own desires and beliefs about love, women, the future and more. Makhan­lal loves Malati, for exam­ple, with­out hav­ing spo­ken even a word to her; and the same is true for Gagan Baran Chat­ter­jee, the gov­ern­ment offi­cial, who falls in love with Pakhi through a “con­ver­sa­tion of the eyes.”

Yet each sto­ry also reveals how the man whose love it relates is either forced, or strug­gles, to meet the woman he loves as a real per­son, with all the poten­tial for fur­ther love, dis­ap­point­ment, bit­ter­ness and sweet­ness that moment con­tains. This is how the writer puts it after hear­ing the tale of Makhan­lal:

The girl of our dreams, who lives in our heart, Makhan­lal want­ed to see her for one time as a real person–that is all that is real, all that mat­ters, noth­ing else does. Sure­ly Makhan­lal would have mar­ried a girl of his mother’s choice after they moved to their new house–by now he must have a full fam­i­ly of his own chil­dren, he must be earn­ing a lot too–but none of these sub­se­quent events can­cel out the ear­li­er one. What­ev­er Makhan­lal had to get from his Malati, he has got­ten already, he will nev­er lost that don’t you think?

My Kind of Girl explores this idea in a poignant and mov­ing way. It’s a book worth read­ing.

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