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A Readable Translation With a Few Exceptions

The book under review is a translation of Tapaswi O Taraginee, a four-act Bangla play written by Buddhadeva Bose (Buddhadev Basu), one of the pioneers
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The Hermit and Taranginee by Buddhadev Basu. Translated by Tania Chakravertty, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2022. Pp.117, Rs 125.

The book under review is a translation of Tapaswi O Taraginee, a four-act Bangla play written by Buddhadeva Bose (Buddhadev Basu), one of the pioneers of modern Bangla literature. Basu was a versatile figure who has left his mark on Bangla literature as a poet, essayist, playwright, novelist and short story writer. The play was serialised in Desh, the influential Bangla periodical, in April, 1966. It won him the Sahitya Akademi award for 1967. The translation by Tania Chakravertty makes this play accessible to readers who do not have access to Bangla.
The translation is a brave endeavour given how difficult Basu’s writings can be for a translator. One element that makes this play difficult to translate is the sheer poetry that percolates the dialogues. The speeches are spiked with emotion and passion, and the language, too, might appear slightly archaic for the contemporary Bangla speaker. To translate this emotional register of Bangla into a language like English without it appearing cloying is a challenge, indeed. The translator does a commendable job of carrying across the copious metaphors and similes and the hyperbole that permeates the dialogues, without it all seeming cliched.

The translation is a brave endeavour given how difficult Basu's writings can be for a translator
The translation is a brave endeavour given how difficult Basu’s writings can be for a translator

The play is set in the kingdom of Anga. The kingdom is afflicted by a curse. Anga reels under severe drought and famine. The responsibility is finally put on Rishyashringa, the hermit, who has been practicing severe asceticism. Rishyashringa lives in his hermitage with his father, Bibhandak. 

 

He has lived in seclusion in the lap of nature and has never seen a woman before. The prophecy is that a courtesan will tempt him and bring him away from his path, thereby also ending Anga’s curse.

 

The minister sends for Taranginee, the most accomplished courtesan of Champa city, and Lolapangee, her mother. She is given her brief–she is to tempt Rishyashringa when his father is away–what test could be more challenging for Taranginee than to try and wen this hermit from the path of celibacy? Taranginee accepts the challenge and heads for the hermitage.
Over the course of her interactions with Rishyashringa, she manages to win his heart. The conversation between Rishyashringa and Taranginee is among the most poetic portions in the play, and is also most difficult to translate. We note Taranginee’s words, ‘My mantra is passion and lust, my yagna is termed pleasure; the subject of my austerity is the delight of union.’ This episode sees the clash of two worlds–the worlds of innocence and experience, of carnal passion and spiritual seeking. In contrast to Taranginee’s overtures, the writer posits the callow Rishyashringa’s naivette, and how well he captures this naivette–‘Embrace? Just as a creeper embraces a tree?’

Basu, well-versed in world literature, brings in a telling reference to the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, Agamemnon, before the Greeks embark on the Trojan War, to drive home his point
Basu, well-versed in world literature, brings in a telling reference to the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, Agamemnon, before the Greeks embark on the Trojan War, to drive home his point

There are further complications in the plot. The minister has decided that Princess Shanta will marry Rishyashringa once the latter has been shifted from the world of asceticism to the material world. This will strengthen the kingdom. But Shanta loves Angshuman, the minister’s own son. This showcases the conflict between individual desire and free will on the one hand, and the greater common good on the other. Basu, well-versed in world literature, brings in a telling reference to the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father, Agamemnon, before the Greeks embark on the Trojan War, to drive home his point. The minister chooses the community over the individual, and shunts his son, Angshuman, off for the time being. But months after Rishyashringa is wedded to Shanta, Anshuman returns, and this gives rise to a new conflict situation between him and Rishyashringa. The other complication comes in the form of Chandraketu, an ardent admirer of Taranginee, who is unwilling to give up his claim on her. How this situation is salvaged is something that should be left to the reader to find out, of course!
The most poignant complication has to do with Taranginee herself. If the encounter between the tapasyi and Taranginee changes the tapasyi, it changes Taranginee as well. She cannot forget the youth, or even the new persona that he brought out in her. The play is remarkable for this focus on Taranginee, and for the agency it accords her.

Also Read: Freedom Song

The translation itself is a mostly readable one apart from a few sentences that are almost bound to jar in a translated work (‘the non-native Pandit Krishastom’, ‘I have got rid of that ejaculation and error’, ‘Hey, there, Angshuman’ are among the bits that stood out to my ear).
The Hermit and Taranginee also follows a fairly consistent path as far as dealing with culture-specific markers is concerned. There is no attempt to unnecessarily anglicise such references. References to Savitri, Ardhnarishwar, Manmatha and Madhusudan are retained and sometimes annotated. The same is true for cultural markers like karma, swayamvar and prahar, the traditional Indian system of marking time. One may have an issue with some of the words glossed though–one wonders if it is really necessary to annotate words like Brahmin, Shudra, yoga and mantra, or even Lakshmi, Ramchandra or tantrik, given that readership of this book is likely to be mostly Indian.    
But leaving such quibbles aside, one has no hesitation underlining the importance of this excellent translation. It is a valuable addition to the corpus of translated texts steadily entering the curriculum of Literature departments in India today.

All Images: Google

Sayantan Dasgupta is an academic, translator and writer. He is a former journalist, who fancies flirting with his old profession now and then, and stg-thespaceink-tstodaystg.kinsta.coud offers him the perfect opportunity to do so.

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