Title: Bougainvillea and Other Stories
Author: Bitan Chakraborty
Translated by: Pranab Ghosh
Published by: Shambhabi—The Third Eye Imprint, Calcutta (India)
Date: May, 2016
Price INR 200 (USD 7.50)
Page count: 138
Reviewed by: Saktipada Patra
Bitan Chakraborty’s Bougainvillea and Other Stories is a collection of six short stories translated from their original Bengali into English by Pranab Ghosh. The stories present a writer with a refined sensibility, a social conscience, a mature vision, and a good command of style that communicates a great deal of meaning with precision, accuracy and economy.
When in the opening dedication Chakraborty says, “We essentially ignore the basics of Indian constitution that has been primarily formed to protect and uplift the interests of the underprivileged,” he reminds us of what Amartya Sen said, India’s “terrible record in social asymmetry.” It is not surprising that the writer finds his “inspiration” in his own country and people, especially in the “downtrodden.” Being strongly and pitifully impressed by the pressure of his environment, he presents truth as he sees it and becomes a faithful delineator of common man’s fear and courage, love and frustration, faith and doubt, aspiration and struggle and so on. Chakraborty depicts the emotional life of the characters with all their complications.
The author is adept at picturing people who are lonely and misunderstood and are social misfits. Obviously, Chakraborty has an insight into such life of pathetic helplessness. We find the unrequited love of an unemployed youth, one victimized by the chit-fund authority, the devastating end of a misunderstood radical, and so on. The stories become an indictment of life. Chakraborty’s attitude is one of manly, unsentimental pity for those who suffer alone.
The themes of the stories suggest an “obsession with pain”— pain stretched to breaking point. Chakraborty resorts to dramatic characterization as he effaces himself very often from the story and presents the characters, actions and thoughts as objectively as possible. It is left to the reader to draw inferences regarding the characters.
The stories usually turn upon a crucial psychological moment in the life of the protagonist. The setting is attuned to the theme and the story runs smoothly, moving easily backward and forward in time. It is always helpful to re-read the early part of the story in the light of the concluding one. Sometimes the titles give us a starting point — at least adequate help to adjust our response to what is to follow. At the end, it may prove to be ironical. This happens evidently in “Martyr’s Column,” “Based on a Fake Story,” and in “Wear to be a King.” In “Marty’s Column” we find an ironical play on the word “martyr.” The theme of “Based on a Fake Story” suggests that the story is not at all fake. Its genuineness is emphasized in an oblique way. Fact is stranger than fiction, they say. In “Wear to be a King” we find a contrast between what life is expected to be and what it really is. The “right decision” proves to be wrong, at last. In each case, the conclusion of the story harks back to the title and produces a composite sense tinged with irony and paradox. The tone is ironical and it is clear to every careful and competent reader. Thus, the titles acquire ironic overtures if we regard them as indirect authorial comments.
One begins by noting certain characteristic features in the stories. What we have is not straightforward third person narration. Chakraborty very often eliminates himself from the story. The point of view becomes that of the protagonist. Of the literary devices used by the author, we should carefully note the subtle and effective use of symbols that lead us to the right interpretation of the central experience in the story. In “Bougainvillea” the flowerless plant injures the protagonist and the repeated “pricks” of the plant reveal the wound in his heart. Another image has been used significantly in this story. In the old church Jesus stands with his hands spread, suggesting the message of universal peace. The question flashes upon: “Do the passengers become calm?” The smile on Jesus’ face suggests a mournful irony as it is out of place on the way of the “tiring journey” of this restless life of “sick hurry and divided aims.”
Sometimes a story in this collection may appear to be pointless if one considers the bare events. For instance, “The Assassinator” seems to be a little enigmatic at first reading. As distinct from physical action, there is what one calls psychological action. Chakraborty places himself as it were inside the protagonist’s mind and reports the latter’s observations. The lurking fear in human mind is highlighted and at the same time the questions of the man who has no interest in listening to the answers suggest a diabolical and arbitrary milieu. The animate and the inanimate stand juxtaposed. The doors and the windows become alert though they are afraid of asking the narrator any question. Here comes the sudden awakening. The name “Biplab” used in the story loses its ambiguity and takes on the inevitable connotation to drive home the central message.
The success of each of the stories in this collection depends on how one interprets the nucleus. The images, the tone and the style offer us clues to guide our interpretation of the nucleus itself. We are always likely to be surprised by the complexity of our final judgement.
Saktipada Patra is the former Hornby Scholar of the British Council and he is presently the Resource Person of Oxford University Press and different colleges and universities in India.