The JCB Prize for Literature announced its 2022 shortlist on 21 October. This is perhaps the first time that an Indian award, not earmarked for translated work, has picked only translations from various Indian languages into English for its shortlist. In the weeks leading up to the announcement of the winner, on 19 November, Lounge is running free-flowing conversations between the shortlisted author-translator duos, on the very act of translation, being translated, and what happens to a sense of place and idiom when they move languages.
The third in this series is a conversation between Manoranjan Byapari, the author of Imaan, which was shortlisted for the Prize, and its translator Arunava Sinha. The book, whose Bengali original is titled Chhera Chhera Jibon, is about the eponymous protagonist, who enters prison as an infant, along with his mother, who is charged with the murder of his father. He spends 20 years in the prison and a juvenile home. On his release, he becomes a ragpicker at the Jadavpur Railway Station. Despite finding a community of rickshaw pullers and tea-stall owners, Imaan continues to find the outside world bewildering; he craves for the security of the jail, wishing to return to it. Byapari, who’d also once spent time in prison, does not read or understand English. He does not have the opportunity to read the English translations of his books. What he does know, however, is how the sections of Indian society that do read and speak and write in English behave with him and others of his class. Byapari and Sinha speak to each other about the gulf between the worlds of the characters and those of the readers, especially those reading Byapari in translation.
Arunava Sinha: Manoranjan-da, when I read the Bengali original of Imaan, which you titled Chhenra Chhenra Jibon, or Fragmented Lives, the first thing that occurred to me was the space that the novel occupies. I used to study in Jadavpur University, which is practically next door to the Jadavpur railway station, around which most of the characters live (and die). And of course it was always full of people, but it never occurred to me that so many of these people one saw there also lived there. The people in your novel play only functional roles in the lives of the rich and the middle class, and only after reading it did I begin to wonder about the relationship between these two groups.
Manoranjan Byapari: The characters in Imaan occupy a space that is visible but the characters themselves are invisible. That’s because the middle class and upper class are in denial about their existence in any area that they themselves occupy. The rich have created mentally gated communities, if not always physical ones, and they choose not to see the ragpickers and labourers and agents and petty thieves and pickpockets and servants who live right next door to them, whose paths intersect with theirs, but whom they still think of as not there.
AS: The language barrier between your characters and the middle class is a big one. Even when everyone is supposedly speaking Bengali, the kind of Bengali used by the inhabitants of Bosti No.1 and Bosti No.2 is quite distant from the one spoken by the residents of the flats and houses nearby.
MB: I did not write this novel to preach or to induce guilt among my readers, who consider these people—my people—invisible, not part of their world. I wrote it to alert them that there are other worlds, other societies, other groups of human beings, in the same space as theirs. My novel is set in and around the Jadavpur railway station, which stands for a number of such locations in every big city in India. And there are hundreds of thousands of middle- and upper-middle class people who live within a stone’s throw of such stations. I hope they read Imaan, so that they know of this world of people right at their footsteps.
AS: The moral and ethical standards by which the characters in Imaan live, and sometimes die, are also rather alien to the world I come from. There is an abundance of petty criminals, and physical power dominates. And above all there is great uncertainty of life. It would be impossible for those who have the privileges of education and a steady income to take the kind of risks we see the people in Imaan taking, but nor would they be able to survive such uncertainty. There’s a whole vocabulary and subtext of this uncertainty that runs through your Bengali novel, that I had to introduce into the translation.
MB: The people in Imaan operate within a different ethical framework from the one that the urban rich are used to. Things that are considered criminal—or, for some people, sinful—by this class are normal ways of earning a living for the characters in my novel. I don’t want to delve into the question of who or what is responsible for forcing them into these circumstances but I want my readers to realise that these forms of professionalism are easily accepted in the society I am writing about. In fact, skilled thieves or pickpockets are objects of admiration.
This is a precarious existence, and none of these people has the security of income, a roof over their heads, two square meals a day, or family. Life itself is under constant threat. Naturally, the strategies for survival adopted by such people will not make sense to those who take these things for granted.
Most of all, you will not meet people in Imaan who whine about what life has thrown their way, or the life they have been thrown into. They go about their days with cheerfulness and determination, despite the tremendous uncertainty in their lives.
AS: Your characters do things, particularly where their love lives are considered, that might be considered licentious behaviour by a conservative urban middle class. But they seem quite comfortable and do not question one another’s behaviour in this regard.
MB: Middle-class inhibitions or actions used to demonstrate morals are not to be found among the people within this section of society. Most relationships begin as physical ones, or are motivated by the desire for sex. My characters are neither ashamed of this, nor do they make any effort to conceal it. Physical needs are an integral part of the necessities of survival, alongside food, shelter and clothing, and no one looks askance at anyone else for seeking it. This is not to say my characters have sex like animals—they are also driven by feelings and attraction. But they are direct about this, without indulging in the mating games of the middle class. This is not the kind of lyrical love play of the gods that many educated people are familiar with. This has its own sights, sounds and smells, all raw, all real.
AS: Imaan’s is such a unique story—going into jail as a baby in his mother’s arms and stepping out into the free world only after he turns 18. And it struck me again that even when we read novels about prisoners and convicts, they seem to be written by outsiders sometimes pretending to have an inside view. But your fiction clearly does not come from your imagination alone.
MB: Imaan is based on a real-life character, someone I actually met when I was in jail. I changed the name, of course, but the backstory, as they call it, is identical. It is natural that when he does get out of jail, the only people he can really get along with are the kind he has met in prison already. What he discovers, of course, is that there are very many more so-called criminals in the world compared to the numbers in jail. And soon he concludes that the jail is a safer space, but of course this time he will have to commit a crime to go back to the safe haven of prison. Imaan is not exactly the central character in this novel, there is no single central character, in fact. But it is his release from jail that enables the world of this novel with all its characters to be revealed to readers.
AS: The language barrier between your characters and the middle class is a big one. Even when everyone is supposedly speaking Bengali, the kind of Bengali used by the inhabitants of Bosti No.1 and Bosti No.2 is quite distant from the one spoken by the residents of the flats and houses nearby. This complicated the task of translation, since it meant finding ways to convey the differences in these two versions of the same language. And then of course the translation takes the novel to an audience that is even further removed from the characters of Imaan than the Bengali-speaking middle class of Calcutta. How do you expect your novel to be received by English language readers when they read it in translation?
MB: English language readers might be astonished to learn of this world. They will have almost nothing in common with its physical elements, the way people live, sleep, eat, defecate, bathe, love, die, earn a living, bribe the police, go to jail—indeed, every aspect of their existence. It will all come as a shock, as will, perhaps, the fact that there is little of the despair or despondency that educated and sophisticated people seem to experience all the time. I cannot read or write English and can barely understand a few words when it is spoken. So I am interested in finding out what the response of readers in this language will be to this novel that is almost 100% outside their lived experience.