Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Frank O'Connor Short Story prize, Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay's letter to his second wife, and Kafka

I'm pleased to see that Jahnavi Barua's short-story collection Next Door, about which I'd posted a long essay here in February, has been longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

And recently, while reading Sunil Kumar Chattopadhyay's short monograph on Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay (at Rs.15, this must be the cheapest serious book on literature I have ever read), I found the writer quoting a letter from Bibhutibhushan that I thought I'd re-quote here.

Bibhutibhushan was married early, and lost his wife to pneumonia when he was just twenty-four. More than two decades later, when he was forty-six, he married a second time. It was not an arranged marriage; Bibhutibhushan knew the girl, Kalyani, fairly well, and approached her family for their consent. The year is 1940; in a letter to his wife shortly before the wedding, Bibhutibhushan – the author of Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Aranyak, and by now one of the biggest names in Bengali literature – writes, with a beguiling combination of tenderness, yearning, candour, and vulnerability (this is Ashok Dev Choudhuri's translation from the Bengali):
I feel so surprised when I look back on the days of my acquaintance with you. Perhaps I knew you in many past lives – otherwise, why should I feel like it! Kalyani, I knew you for for ages, but this time I meet you rather late. I wish I met you earlier! [...] You want to share your life with me, but I know you could have been married to a much more desirable groom. Since you have chosen me, I must also respect your love for me. I did not really want to be tied down to family life again, but your love is all that is important to me now. I desire that your love and affection should find their full satisfaction. That you'd be happy in your life. You need not respect me like a deity, I want only your love. We humans have so many foibles and weaknesses, we cannot be revered like a god. Of course, love is a different thing. You love someone not in spite of one's defects, but possibly because of them. It is said 'Love is God'. In our hearts there is the altar of God and there is also the sense of friendship, forgiveness, compassion and affection. You may rest assured that I shall always love you. I cannot be hard with you. I have rarely been cruel to anybody. It is my love which will develop your qualities. Kalyani, I knew you are not a Cleopatra or Noor Jahan. But then, how long does physical beauty last? I have seen the beauty of your soul; otherwise, why should I be attracted by you? ... You'd please learn a few songs. In my maternal uncle's place and at other places they'd want to listen to your song. Learn it along with the harmonium. You should know the words of the songs so that you don't depend on others. This is very urgent. Will you remember it?
Which woman would not learn "a few songs" when entreated like this? And I've just finished reading a book that is also a letter, but in its darkness, dread, and pathos its tone is the polar opposite of Bandhopadhyay's: Franz Kafka's letter at the age of thirty-six to his father, Dearest Father. Between them, the letters bring out, I suppose, how family and relationships can stand for both expansion and diminution, freedom and fetters.

And from 2005, "The world of Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay".

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