The gleaming wet road, the rusty tin roof of a motorcar repair garage, behind it an old paint-peeling stunned-still old house and a chimney precariously propped up with haphazard wires—the sky can see all this. And, not as clearly, the burnt-black tin-backed shops and buses and the in-between blocks of darkness that were Matador sheds and not the half-rotten bellies of fish but the shells of banged-up taxis. There were crumbling and dead accident cars too, their mouths full of dirt. The sky view mists over every now and then, for it has been raining continuously.
This is the setting of “Last Night,” one of the pieces in Hawa Hawa and Other Stories, the recently released collection of inventive short stories by Bengali writer Nabarun Bhattacharya. As the angry rain beats down on the trash-filled water logged street, two young men are fighting. They are unevenly matched, a condition mediated by sheer intoxication, but they are each intent on doing damage to the other. And in a very unexpected way they are also best friends.
Bhattacharya (1948-2014), the son of writer and activist Mahasweta Devi and actor and playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, worked as a journalist from 1971 to 1993, before turning his attention to writing fulltime. His magic realist tales tend to feature eccentric characters drawn from the shadows—dirty cops, nostalgic former revolutionaries, unsavoury figures and an assortment of anxious souls. His Calcutta is gritty, pungent, dark and unforgiving. The scenes that unfold, on these streets and beyond, range from sharp political and social satire to strange meditations on violence, madness and love. Set primarily in the 1970s and 80s, but reaching back as far as the 1940s, there are stories that play out against the early Communist-led peasant movements in West Bengal, the Naxalite uprising and the 1975 Emergency, as well as more intimate dramas set in family homes, trains and, of course, on the street.
Bhattacharya excels at creating memorable characters, and rapid, witty sequences of dialogue peppered with English words (indicated in the translation with the use of italics) and references to popular Indian films and songs. A number of his stories rely heavily on a steady back and forth between two people who happen to meet up and share some kind of common past or current circumstance. Others unfurl under surreal conditions, influenced by alcohol, madness or some impending fear. There is an immersive quality to these dark tales.
Take, for example, “Mole,” the story of a seemingly unrepentant cop with a patch of skin on his neck that begins to itch and become inflamed just before he murders someone—“murder” being an accepted language for the state-sanctioned killing his investigative role entails. The itch causes his restless right hand to fumble in his pants pocket where his pistol awaits. The sweat, the smells and the agitation grow. We follow him on a mission to a nightclub. Once the job is done he kicks at the corpse bouncing on the floor of the police van and emotionally decompresses as he returns to the station. A bleak and grim premise perhaps but for the banter in the office (with its water tank filled with bombs to be deactivated), the pointed parenthetical commentary on authorized violence, and the insatiable demons that haunt the protagonist:
Back home, he usually takes a bath, uses soap—puts some ointment on the itch—the sweat from his body and the dirty soap-lather swirl into the drain and disappear. He rubs scented oil on his hair. He is very sleepy, but sleep never comes without dreams. Dreams have eyes, they ask questions, they laugh, they beat on drums. Their limbs are ripped and shredded, bits and pieces bloody. His family has told him he sometimes talks in his sleep, groans, slurs out orders. Sometimes he scratches his back so furiously that he wakes up in the morning to find it bleeding.
There is a deeply embedded hallucinatory fear that follows him down the darkened Calcutta streets and adds a spark of troubled humanity to his situation.
Fear and superstition mark several of the tales, most tragically perhaps in “A Piece of Nylon Rope” in which two men meet outside a hospital on a rainy night. The narrator is there to look in on a colleague who had a stroke at the office, while the other is waiting for news of his son who suffered a serious football injury. The latter, Jagadish-babu, has a uncertain confidence despite the poor prognosis. He feels his fate has turned. He explains that he was already inclined to seeking fortune tellers and good luck charms when he learned that what he really needed was to get a piece of a hanging rope:
‘Yes. Suppose someone hangs themselves to death. If you can get a piece of that rope and keep it with you, then boom!—whatever you want is yours. All the evil eyes on you, the vexing, the hexing—the whole fucking lot will vanish. Khoka’s injured so badly. But do you see any fear in me?’
Jagadish shows the narrator the length of nylon rope he has acquired and carries with him everywhere, but admits that the good fortune it promises comes with a steep price. He cannot be alone, for fear the suicide victim will return and demand the rope back. For a man with a trusted talisman, he is a nervous wreck.
Several of the stories in Hawa Hawa, including the title tale and “Mole,” highlight the brutality of the West Bengal police, while another demonstrates the inability of a newly elected politician to protect an old friend and revolutionary comrade. Elsewhere we meet a child with a cruel streak, the brother of an accused murderer who holds to his belief in his innocence, a businessman offering the perfect suicide—for a price—and a gangster who prophetically spends the evening with a headless prostitute. Inequality, injustice and the abuse of power are common themes driving the world that Battacharya wanted to bring to the surface through his darkly humorous, weirdly engaging fiction. And if his comfortable contemporary Bengali audience was disturbed by what they found in his work, he was hitting his mark.
Notably, this translation is the work of a young translator, Subha Prasad Sanyal, and his ability to bring Battacharya’s subversive and playful writing to life is impressive. He pays careful attention to rhythm and tone. As mentioned, the English words transliterated in the original Bengali text are italicized, yet many Bangla terms are left intact where context is sufficient to imply meaning, a choice that helps maintain a distinctive narrative feel. Meanwhile, any cultural, political and place references that enhance understanding are explained in the Translator’s Note.
Hawa Hawa by Nabarun Bhattacharya is translated by Subha Prasad Sanyal and published by Seagull Books.