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Ghostly heirloom

  • An English translation of a well-loved Bengali novel by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay
  • The Bengali book was adapted to a popular movie 'Goynar Baksho' by Aparna Sen in 2013

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die: By Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha, Bee Books, 156 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>320.
The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die: By Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha, Bee Books, 156 pages, 320.

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, one of Bengali’s most celebrated writers, is a master of nuance. Since his debut Ghunpoka (literally, wood worm), an existential masterpiece published in the 1960s, he has dabbled in tragedy, comedy and every other mode in between. Goynar Baksho, translated for the first time into English as The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die by Arunava Sinha, was made into an acclaimed movie by Aparna Sen in 2013. In July, it will be published in the UK by John Murray, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.

Translations from the Indian languages are increasingly travelling far and wide. Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan) and Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar (translated by Srinath Perur) are two other recent titles that crossed over into the international market. Compared to the socially charged plot of Murugan’s novel, or the sparse realism of Shanbhag’s, Mukhopadhyay’s story treads with a far lighter touch. But in just over 100 pages, he draws characters who assume striking depth and definition.

Pishima, the matriarch of a joint family in North Bengal, dies bequeathing her precious box of jewels to her niece-in-law, Somlata, in secret. With the family fallen on hard times, the temptation to sell off the heirloom is acute, but Pishima’s ghost refuses to let up. Widowed at 12, her ire against the unfairness of her ordeal outlives her time on earth. Eventually, it is Somlata’s daughter Boshon who plays a decisive role in placating Pishima’s anguished soul.

With his mastery over repartee, Mukhopadhyay keeps the reader entertained throughout. The English, too, captures some of his signature humour with expertise, though the bawdiness of colloquial Bengali remains untranslatable. The box of jewels at the heart of the plot is much more than a material object. Valuable not only for what it holds, it is also a metonymy for the power and agency that women like Pishima are able to exercise over the family, especially the men who kept her away from every pleasure since her premature widowhood. At once so rich and bereft of the richness of love, Pishima embodies the injustice women of her time had to suffer. In the free-spirited Boshon, who inherits some of her great grand-aunt’s spirit, this subtle tale of feminist victory reaches a heart-warming conclusion.

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