The Mark by Bitan Chakraborty: Where art is woven with the dissolution of the frame separating fiction from reality


Book Review by Amit Shankar Saha

 

The Mark Front Cover

 

Title: The Mark

Author: Bitan Chakraborty (translated from Bengali by Utpal Chakraborty)

Publisher:  Shambhabi The Third Eye Imprint, 2020

Bitan Chakraborty is a writer, translator, editor of the Bengali print journal, Atibhuj, and the founder of Hawakal Publishers. He has authored six collections of prose and poetry. The Mark is Bitan Chakraborty’s second collection of short stories to be translated from Bengali to English. The first translated collection, published in 2016, was called Bougainvillea and Other Stories.

Utpal Chakraborty, a teacher of English literature, a bilingual poet and author has translated the seven stories in The Mark. Even though translation of a work of fiction is not as taxing as the translation of poetry, yet to convey in a language that is not native to the culture depicted in the stories is in itself a daunting challenge. Utpal Chakraborty has  overcome the challenge and given the readers of English fiction a book that can speak for itself.

There is something inherently contradictory in trying to capture the sense of reality through fiction. It is like trying to paint an orange blue. And yet it is the blue colour that will attract the viewer if the painter is able to convince the viewer that it is indeed an orange despite being blue. At some point Bitan Chakraborty does exactly that. As a painter of blue oranges, Chakraborty creates within the framework of literature an illusion of reality which is seamlessly congruent with the reality itself. This dissolution of the frame that divides the fictional and the real is what art is all about.

Interestingly, both the translated volumes of Chakraborty’s short stories have forewords by the noted American poet and editor of the journal Harbinger’s Asylum, Dustin Pickering. The titles of the forewords of the two books are self-explanatory: “The Magic of Magical Realism” and “Stranger than Fiction” respectively. There is little of magical realism in this volume and yet the fiction that Chakraborty creates has a strangeness, for it is only reality that can be stranger than fiction. It is a strangeness akin to the absurdity in the dramas of Samuel Beckett.

Drama is the keyword because the world creates dramas around the simple and natural struggle to survive. In the opening story “Lost”, a poverty-stricken homeless couple, Lali and Fatik, whose house has been burnt down, gather whatever they could and board a packed local train. The wife is pregnant. Intermittently the child speaks from the womb at being crushed by the crowd. It is the closest the Chakraborty gets to magic realism in this volume but reality strikes back in a drama of separation and tragedy. The story does not seem like a story at the end but a visualisation of struggle in the abstract into the concreteness of words. If this story is precipitated by tragic action a couple of others take a Chekhovian turn and skirt tragedy.

“You and I” paints a scenario where there is no work in the office. An idle worker observes from the office window a man and a woman arguing. But he cannot hear anything. It is this play of absurd drama where one parameter of perception is absent that tragedy is obliquely perceived through “the kohl-hued tears” of the woman. But there is no access to the story, the tragic action, the peripity. This lack is juxtaposed with the office goer returning home and encountering an octogenarian who distributes lozenges to the passengers in the bus thereby brightening their depressed faces.

In “Glare”, an ambulance on an emergency ferrying a very critical patient is trying to get past a crowd assembled to watch a performance organised in the locality during Christmas. The local goons refuse to let it pass. The imminent tragedy is set against the small talk of Pradip and his little son Mainak who are also in the crowd trying to catch a glimpse of the singing star. It ends with Mainak returning home with a packet of spicy puffed rice as compensation and gobbling up his father’s words in amazement.

Amazement is another keyword to the collection of these stories and that is perhaps why the collection has been named after this particular story, “The Mark”. An amazing thing happens. The footprints of a dead man are found on the cemented floor of a room after his death. Na kaka (uncle) had been inhabiting the room for fifteen years.

The glorious achievements of human civilisation have always centred around the Shah Jehans and the Pratiks ( one of the characters in the story) of the world but now we are fast approaching the era of Post Humanism. Two such post humans meet in the story “Incompleteness”. Bikash with a short leg and Swapna with a single breast glide down from one void to another because that is the only truth at the moment. Perhaps not too distant in the future, Lali, Fatik, Chhanda, Subhas, Bikash, Swapna, and others will form an alliance post human and claim back the metaphorical Taj Mahal, which they have built.

But till such a day has arrived, one has to make do with “Broken Moon”, the last story of the collection. It is remniscent of the opening story of Bitan’s earlier volume of stories due to its symbolic imagery of the garden. It is the story of a school teacher Arpan, his daughter Pritha and his student Kamal, who likes Pritha. After the death of his wife, Arpan becomes quite senile spending all his time in the garden lighting lamps until one day Pritha enters the garden with a hatch dashing the filaments into pieces. The tragedy here is not acute but chronic. Arpan has failed to instill in his students what Pritha stands for as a human being. So, when “a sort of mysterious darkness descends” in the garden and the full moon light diffuses like a chiaroscuro of nature, it creates a strangeness of shadows of post humans.

Long ago, when Europe was in a quagmire amidst the French Revolution, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote his autobiographical poem The Prelude. In the poem, he reflected on an episode from his childhood where he took  a boat in ‘stealth’ and, later in retrospective, because his conscience bothers him, he is ‘troubled’ or haunted by the menace of ‘huge and mighty forms, that do not live’ that moved and closed in on him. Something of that aspect surfaces in the story “Three Coins”. Although there is no depiction of nature, the focus is the misery of the boy, borne of his self-chastisement for stealthily taking three coins from the Goddess Lakshmi’s pot. That is only resolved by his putting back the coins in the pot.

It is this return to innocence, an awakening of daylight after darkness, a regeneration after the apocalypse that gives a little hope in Chakraborty’s stories. No doubt there is darkness around and people are forced to be silent, they still breathe. There is hope in every breath. One can hope for magic realism, one can hope for post humanism, one can hope for a blue orange. Bitan Chakraborty has given us just that.

 

 

Dr. Amit Shankar Saha is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Seacom Skills University. He is also a widely published award-winning short story writer and poet. He has won the Poiesis Award for Excellence in Literature, Wordweavers Prize, Nissim International Runner-up Prize for Poetry, amongst other awards. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the co-founder of Rhythm Divine Poets and the Assistant Secretary of Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library. He is also on the Editorial Boards of many publications like Ethos Literary Journal, Journal of Bengali Studies, Poetry at the Heart of the Nation (IPPL Journal) and Virasat Art Publication. He has been a delegate poet at Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, Ethos Literary Festival and Sahitya Akademi. He has co-edited a collection of short stories titled Dynami Zois. His debut collection of poems is titled Balconies of Time and his second volume of poetry is titled Fugitive Words.

 

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