Over the last couple of years, mainstream publishers have been promoting, visibly and hearteningly, a fair share of translations from Indian languages. They are justifiably mining a treasure trove of sharply layered, nuanced narratives—both novels and short stories—from Indian-language authors.
In January, indie publisher Hawakal took this a step further through a clever curatorial premise with Ghosts Of Tagore: Tales Of The Uncanny. This nudged me to pick it up over the efforts of mainstream publishers with literary heavyweights like ThiJa and Vaasanthi from Tamil, K.R. Meera and Shihabuddin Poithumkadavu from Malayalam, or Manoranjan Byapari from Bengali. After all, Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories featuring the supernatural aren’t too widely known.
Translated by academic Barnali Saha, the collection has six stories, including Kankal and Manihara, which were part of EPIC Channel’s 26-episode series, Stories By Rabindranath Tagore, released in 2015 (also available on Netflix).
This book could have been a worthy introduction to the iconic poet’s social and psychological commentary through the device of the supernatural. But since the premise of the stories is simple, they can seem almost banal if not translated well. This is exactly what happens with Saha’s book.
At their core, these stories explore the way human failings like greed and excessive curiosity are both expressed and repressed, and how seemingly conflicting feelings and emotions can haunt our minds and drive us to desperation as well as destruction. Tagore dives into the heady confusion of falling in love; he writes of what remarrying can mean to all those involved.
Through these stories, Tagore also builds a commentary on gender issues. His male characters have the privilege of breaking from stereotypes of maleness and expressing longing, while living women are conditioned and limited by norms of propriety. He lets a socially repressed entity—generally a woman —speak and act out from the afterlife, expressing herself in ways she would not have been able to when inhabiting a certain societal rubric in life. The “humans” in these stories, mostly men, glimpse a different perspective when “haunted”.
In attempting to superimpose an intellectual heft to her approach, Saha loses the reader. In the very first sentence of her introduction, she crams in Jacques Derrida, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In a convoluted, unconvincing effort, she says the use of “spectre” in The Communist Manifesto is indicative of our enduring fascination with the supernatural.
Translators have a rather tricky job. To capture the essence of meaning from one language and distil that into another with different syntax and idiomatic structures can be as delicate as, say, adapting a text to screen. In this case, if we presume that the desire to translate Tagore’s ghost stories stems from recognising their merit and universal appeal, Saha had to only make them readable.
Ghosts Of Tagore fails on that front. The sentences are clunky and riddled with redundancies; antiquated expressions are littered throughout, jumping out at the reader and disrupting the flow of a story. Does a translation in the 21st century, even if of a late 19th or early 20th century text, need to fixate on “the premises of his bed chamber” as opposed to, say, the simple confines of a bedroom? It’s a great disservice to the inherent simplicity and accessibility of writing that made the Indian short story a popular genre across languages.
Tagore’s ghosts, and anyone hoping to discover them, deserved far better.