Sunil Gangopadhyay's The Fakir: Lost in translation

Last Updated: Mon, Sep 27, 2010 09:31 hrs

Title: The Fakir (Moner Manush in Bengali)
Author: Sunil Gangopadhyay
Translator: Monabi Mitra
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 186
Price: Rs. 199

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Few writers have documented the cultural history of Bengal in the eighteenth and nineteenth century with the passion and precision Sunil Gangopadhyay has. The thoroughness of his research, the fluency of his writing and the manner in which his imagination fleshes out the characters, without much departure from their biographical lives, is arguably unparallelled.

However, the disadvantage with such writing is that it requires an extremely talented translator to capture the lyricism of the work. Gopa Majumdar has done it successfully in the past; but Monabi Mitra, who has penned the translation of Gangopadhyay's part-historical account of the life of Lalan Fakir, falls short of the mark.

To begin with, the romantically titled Moner Manush (The Inner Being) sounds far more drab when it becomes The Fakir. The mysticism of the thief-turned-bard is lost in the retelling of the story too.

The language used and the propensity of the translator to narrate events rather than present them seem to indicate that the book was meant to be a non-detailed text for schoolchildren.

Here's a sample:

This large house had two ponds at either end. One was edged with a straggling line of huts where lived families of dhobis, barbers and fishermen. Kabirajmoshai had given them the land and they were obliged to serve him. There was also a cowshed with five cows and a stable with one horse.

The story opens with a thief being caught, purportedly for trying to steal a landlord's horse. But his unusual motives for 'borrowing' the horse and his honesty in carrying out the task he is given as punishment draw the landlord to Laulla (or Lalu, as he is called).

It turns out Lalu belongs to a high caste (Kayasth) and was forced into penury by circumstances. Having been largely left to his own devices by his mother, he has spent most of his youth picking up folk songs. But every now and then, he dishes out soulful melodies that are completely unfamiliar to everyone else, and is surprised to discover he has made them up.

The landlord takes him along on a pilgrimage to keep the company entertained, but a tragic turn of events sees Lalu abandoned in a raft on the Ganga, dying of smallpox. Rescued by a Muslim family, he is rejected by his own for the crime of accepting food from a Muslim household.

Disgusted, he leaves to lead a new life - one of starvation and thirst, for long days in the jungle. How the emaciated, convalescing vagabond goes on to become one of the greatest bauls of Bengal, and the reluctant leader of a community of outcasts, whose unwritten music and lyrics would keep his memory alive for posterity, forms the rest of the story.

It is the fascinating tale of an enigmatic man. But the prose fails to convey the poignancy of his poetry and the depth of his philosophy.

One is hard put to figure out why this composition should leave such an impact on an audience of future followers:

A mansion in a house
With many rooms within
Doors and windows plenty
Supported on two sticks
Lanes and markets countless
Where much is bought and sold
A heart that keeps it beating
The splendours of the soul

The argument that the beauty of the vernacular cannot be retained in English has been proven wrong by translators such as Maureen Freely (who translates Orhan Pamuk’s work) and Philip Gabriel (who translates Haruki Murakami’s).

The work of Rabindranath Tagore and his niece Indira Devi Chaudhurani, who translated the bulk of his songs, is testimony to the fact that the English rendition of a Bengali poem can sound nearly as beautiful as the original, and retain the essence and the beat.

In a fictionalised biography that is held together by the bard’s compositions, the rhythm of the language is important, and the translator hasn't realised this.

That Lalan Fakir was a remarkable man is beyond doubt. And his bizarre lifestyle, inexplicable erudition and unpredictable stance on issues concerning religion and nationalism should be far better known than they are.

If you can read Bengali, you'd be better advised to buy the original. If you can’t, you might as well pick up either of the two movies made on the baul's life - Shakti Chatterjee's Lalan Fakir in 1987 and Gautam Ghose's Moner Manush in 2010 - with English subtitles, for the same price as the book. In fact, the latter is based entirely on the most interesting episode in the book - a meeting between the chief of the squatters, Lalan Fakir, and their unpaid landlord - Jyotirindranath Tagore - who would go on to paint the only known likeness of the bard.

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