By Mitali Chakravarty
A versatile woman of arts and letters, acclaimed and celebrated, Aruna Chakravarti’s writing has been acknowledged by awards like Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar. Chakravarti talks of interactions with greats like writer Sunil Gangopadhyay and actress Sharmila Tagore to discuss her books and translations in festivals. Her books are often a protest against social ills which linger beyond the past. Her first novel The Inheritors ( 2004, Penguin) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko ( 2013, Harper Collins) received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Daughters of Jorasanko ( 2016), a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews. Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta (which won her the Sahitya Akademi Award) and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days, First Light and Primal Woman: Stories. Chakravarti was the Principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is an academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books — three novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations.
Chakravarti’s latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, published by Pan Macmillan this year, will be her fifteenth book. The launch scheduled for 25th February, 2020, in Delhi’s India International Centre will have a panel discussion on the book by eminent academics for half-an-hour followed by a multi-media presentation of an excerpt from the book created by the author herself. In this exclusive, Chakravarti talks of why and how she writes and more.
Since when have you been writing? What inspires you to write?
I used to write prolifically as a child. Poems and stories would pour out of me in a joyous, unthinking stream and I loved the feeling it gave me.
Things changed when, after joining the English Honours course in college, I was introduced to the academics of literature, taught the principles of criticism and how to distinguish good writing from mediocre. I became disillusioned with my work. I found it wanting on so many counts. I felt I was useless as a writer. Self- criticism is good but, in my case, it verged to the point of negativity.
I stopped writing altogether.
There was a gap of twenty-five years before I picked up the courage to write again.
To answer the second part of your question my juvenilia reflected whatever I was reading at the time, mostly poems and stories written by English writers, and was hugely imitative. But my adult work is derived directly from living experience. It is from the world around me that I draw inspiration.
You have translated Tagore’s Gitaabitan and a number of novels by eminent Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhyay. What moved you to translate these books? Did these come before your own novels?
Yes. My translations preceded my creative writing. My first publication, Tagore: Songs rendered into English (1987) was commissioned by Vaitalik, a little known publisher from Mumbai. I accepted it with trepidity, unsure of my knowledge of Bengali which is totally self- taught. But the attempt was an eye opener. Not only did I enjoy working on the project immensely …the book was an instant hit, even with Bengali purists. The overwhelming attention and praise it received emboldened me to try more. Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya’s Srikanta (1993) came next followed by Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those Days (1997), First Light (2000) and Primal Woman (2014).
Your first novel, The Inheritors, covers the era of Kulin Brahmins seamlessly. Did your translation work help you towards creating this novel? How did you do your research?
The Inheritors is a semi fictional account of life as it was lived by three generations of women from my father’s family. A certain amount of research was necessary to place the events in the historical and social context of the time. These I could access from readily available sources like books, journals, maps etc. I also found a family tree dating from our first ancestor Srikrishna Tarkapanchanan. But mostly I relied on family stories and anecdotes heard from my parents, uncles and aunts and my general reading. The factual component, however, is very little—barely 20%. The rest is imagined.
Your next novel, about the Tagore family, Jorasanko, almost seems to have the same vein of telling as your translation of Prothom Alo, First Light, by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Did translating that book help you formulate Jorasanko? Did it have an influence on Jorasanko? Or was it your translation of Gitaabitan that helped?
People tell me that my translations read like creative writing and my creative writing like translation. The first, I suppose, is because I believe in rendering the spirit of a work rather that tying myself in knots trying to find exact equivalents of words. In consequence the translation flows smoothly and often takes on my voice. My creative work, though written in English, is shot through with cultural nuance. So much so that it seems as though a Bengali subtext is running parallel. So, yes, there isn’t much difference between the way I write and the way I translate. The process I went through in translating the great masters of Bengal has certainly taught me a great deal and helped to shape my style. But I can’t say that they were instrumental in formulating the Jorasanko series. I had been interested in exploring the lives of the Tagore women from my early youth — long before I embarked on translation
Abarodh is a concept similar to purdah. You have talked of the movement out of abarodh in your novel. Can you explain the concept of abarodh and do you think it has any impact on the modern Indian mindset?
The literal meaning of abarodh is “obstruction”. The word, in 19th century Bengal, was used to denote the zenana or women’s wing of the family home. The meaning is conveyed in the word itself. It is a space where women were kept confined, smothered under ghumtas (veils), cut-off from the family mainstream and denied exposure to the outside world. Jnanadanandini Devi (Tagore’s sister-in-law) was the first Bengali woman to defy the concept of abarodh. She threw off the ghumta, left the abarodh and travelled with her husband wherever he went. Women started following her example. But they were few and far between. Patriarchy, which depends on women’s subservience to men, survived. It still survives in pockets.
You have shown a distinct gap in the educated and uneducated mindsets in Jorasanko. Do you think that this gap between the educated and non-educated mindsets have been bridged over the years? Do you think it still exists?
Education, in its most literal sense, enables people to read and write. But it does not, necessarily, change mind sets. The extent of literacy in our country has certainly grown since Independence and the gap between the “educated” and “uneducated” has been bridged considerably. But true education, that which broadens the vision, sensitises and enlightens the mind, is a rarer phenomenon. Norms pertaining to women have eased somewhat through the efforts of social reformers. But some stereotypical attitudes still persist. Unfortunately, women themselves help to perpetuate them.
Do you need to do a lot of research for your novels as they are mostly historical? Do you find it difficult to unearth sources and how do you recreate the exact ethos of the period with your writing — starting with the mindset to the conversations to the thinking processes?
The writing of my two historical novels Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko involved quite a lot of research mostly done in Kolkata and Shantiniketan. Unfortunately, though there were many books and journal entries on Rabindranath, there was hardly any material on the women of the household. Barring, of course, Chitra Deb’s Thakur bari’r andarmahal (The inner chambers of Tagore’s home) which proved a wonderful source.
The ethos of the Tagore family home was gleaned largely from Rabindranath’s autobiographical writings. Stray comments about his mother, sisters and sisters-in-law opened some interesting windows. Another marvellous book Rabindranath er atmiyan swajan (Rabindranath’s relatives) by Sameer Sengupta proved to be an invaluable source for dates. The Tagores brought out a journal called Bharati in which all members of the family, including the women, were encouraged to contribute. Old issues accessed from Visva Bharati library yielded some fruit. But not much.
Some of the women did write but in a very cautious, reticent way. I had to read between the lines to get glimpses of the truth. I also spoke to some members of the Tagore family who supplied me with stories and anecdotes they had heard from their parents and grandparents.
You are in the process of launching a new novel, Suralakshmi Villa. Do you deal with violence against women here? In Jorasanko, the violence was of a different kind — it was more at an emotional plane. Can you tell us a bit more about the new novel and how it is similar to or different from the earlier ones?
Like all my other novels Suralakshmi Villa focusses on the lives of women. It is about two sets of sisters. The first belongs to a wealthy, modern, enlightened, household of Delhi. The other, a goatherd’s daughters living in a slum in Malda, comes from the dregs of society. But close inspection reveals that there is not much difference in their lives and fates. There is emotional violence in one world…both physical and emotional violence in the other. This novel is different from my other work in this that it has no historical/biographical content. It is pure fiction.
Your new book has had a portion dramatised and they will be performing this at the launch on 25th February 2020. Can you tell us a bit about this? Why did you pick this part of your novel?
For each one of my book launches, instead of reading out excerpts, I prefer to prepare a script culled from the book. Picking up one narrative strand I try to give it the semblance of a complete story. This is then presented by my team The Storytellers in the form of a multi- media programme comprising dramatised readings interspersed with songs and sound effects. Sometimes a slide presentation consisting of paintings, photographs, and various other forms of visual material, accompanies the readings and music. For the launch of Suralakshmi Villa my team will perform a scene from the novel called “The Witch”. I have chosen this portion because it tells a powerful and meaningful story and also has a high dramatic content.
You also write scripts and are involved in theatre. Can you tell us a bit about this?
I have seven productions. It all started with the book launch of The Inheritors. I prepared a script called “The Widow” and it was read by two friends, Averee Chaurey and Minoti Chatterjee, who are eminent theatre people. The reading was a great success with the audience. Requests to do the same reading at several book clubs, schools and colleges poured in. At this stage another friend, a wonderful singer named Jayati Ghosh, agreed to add some songs. The visual component came later with my daughter, Sharmila Bakshi, offering to do it. Today our presentations are well known and have been performed in many parts of India and even abroad in Singapore and Dhaka. We are a team of five women. We call ourselves The Storytellers because essentially …we tell stories.
You have travelled to Jaipur Lit Fest, Kolkata and Trivandrum. Was this to launch your new novel? Where and when was/will it be launched?
Yes. The book was discussed at the literary festivals you mentioned. It will be formally launched in India International Centre, Delhi, on 25th February.
What did you think of the festivals and did you have sessions in each? What were the issues you addressed? I do know you were a speaker at Jaipur Lit Fest – the world’s largest Lit fest. Have you spoken there before?
I had one session each at Jaipur and Kolkata and two in Trivandrum. My new novel Suralakshmi Villa was discussed at all three. Several issues were raised. Family and community as a leitmotiv for fiction was one. Experimenting with structure was another. We also spoke of the pressures that are brought to bear on women writers. How patriarchal values and expectations sometimes act as impediments to free and candid writing by women.
I have spoken at the Jaipur Literary festival before and had some memorable sessions. One of them was a conversation with the eminent novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay in which we exchanged views about my translations of his epic novels Sei Samay and Pratham Alo. I have also had the privilege of discussing my novels Jorasanko and Daughters of Jorasanko at literary festivals in Kolkata, Agra, Delhi and Singapore with Sharmila Tagore herself a daughter of the Tagore family. This was my fourth invitation to the Jaipur Lit fest.
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