A tête-à-tête With Sanjukta Dasgupta: Author, Critic & Translator

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Sanjukta Dasgupta interview

Poet, critic and translator Sanjukta Dasgupta is a familiar name in the Kolkata literary circuit. The Professor and former Head of the Department of English of Calcutta University also enjoys immense popularity among her students who look up to her as mentor and guide. Known and hailed as a feminist scholar and poet, Dasgupta has lectured, taught and read her poems and short stories in India and abroad. She is Convenor of the English Language Board and a member of the General Council at the Sahitya Akademi since 2018.

As a scholar and author, Sanjukta Dasgupta has worked extensively on Rabindranath Tagore. Some of her published works include Tagore: At Home in the World (co-editor, SAGE 2013), Radical Rabindranath: Nation, Swades Tagore’s Patriotic Songs (translation, Visva Bharati Publication Division, 2013), Family and Gender in Tagore’s Fiction and Films (co-author, Orient Blackswan, 2013), Towards Tagore A collection of Essays (Edited with introduction- Visva Bharati Publications, 2014), and several others. 

Her latest book titled It Begins at Home and Other Short Stories is a collection of sixteen short stories. Published by Virasat Art Publication, the book deals with violence against girls and women in its varied manifestations. The stories in this collection depict how violence and abuse are often rooted at home and feed on the emotional and financial insecurities of the victims. She opens up on her dual lives as an author and a teacher in a conversation with Shoma A. Chatterji.

 

Also read: Fiction, Faith and Fatwa

 

Chatterji: You have been an academic all your life. What made you venture into creative writing halfway into your teaching career?

Dasgupta: I agree that my teaching career perhaps precedes my identity as a creative writer and translator. As a member of the middle class, it is axiomatic that in order to make a living I had to pursue a profession. As a student of literature, I felt a teaching job at a university would provide me with the opportunity of not just reading literature, but critically interpreting it, theorising its multi-layered representations, and getting paid for my efforts too. My doctorate in literature and my postdoctoral critical writing have boosted my ability to create and critique. A full-time college job, the responsibilities of a wife and mother led to creative writing being thrust to the back burner till my son reached high school. Thereafter I resumed writing poetry and while reading them I felt the poems could be published and shared with readers. My first volume of poems, Snapshots, was published by Writers Workshop in 1997. 

Chatterji: You are a writer of fiction, you are an established translator, a noted poet and have also authored and edited scholarly books of nonfiction. What is the trigger?

Dasgupta: I feel each genre has its own demands and creates its own motivation. My critical writing or academic writing has been my expression of intellect trying to usher in fresh perspectives in reading both Indian and global writing. My critical writing therefore, spans British, American and Australian literature along with Indian English literature and translated literature. Also, in such writing as a literary critic, reaching out to a wide cross-section of students, faculty members and research scholars has been the primary purpose. The translations I have published so far have also been of some interest to scholars and general readers. My own interest as a reader and translator also plays a role when I take up a project. 

Chatterji: You have travelled widely on academic work. Have your travels across the world enriched/inspired your writing? If yes, in what way?

Dasgupta: Yes, travel is always a rich learning experience. Travelling opens up the mind in many ways, essentialisms are deconstructed and fresh orientations about location, people, languages, culture, etc. enrich the mind and also liberate it from shibboleths. My short-term stays in the academic campuses in the USA, UK, Australia and Europe have benefitted me immensely. 

Chatterji: Let us hear about your latest book – It Begins at Home and Other Stories. How did it happen?

Dasgupta: My first book of fiction titled Abuse and Other short Stories was published in 2013. However, I had been publishing short stories in journals and newspapers regularly for a long time. I was not sure whether 16 short stories were good enough to make a book. However, the managing partner of Virasat Publishers, Partha Roy, called me one morning and told me that he was interested in publishing my short stories. That’s how the book happened. 

Sita's Sisters Sanjukta Dasgupta
Her sixth book of poems.

Chatterji: All stories in this book talk about violence against women and little girls. Are these drawn from real life situations? 

Dasgupta: I have been teaching Gender and Literature in the postgraduate classes and also in the Women’s Studies Research Centre of Calcutta University. So, the oppression of women and sexual violence have always disturbed me. Some of the stories in this new volume such as Loser, Charred Dreams and Good Friday 1930, among others are not about sexual violence. But yes, I agree that most of the stories have tried to interrogate the patriarchal paradigms that have led to such violence being carried out on the bodies and minds of young girls and women. Some of the stories came about as I heard friends narrating their experiences, or recalling what they had heard or read, but some may have a more direct source such as newspaper reports. For example, the story Hair-Raising was a fictionalization of a brief newspaper report. 

 

Chatterji: Which of these stories are your personal favourites?  

Dasgupta: It Begins at Home was a tough story to write. Child abuse is still not represented widely in literary writing. The rape of a minor daughter by the father, is not uncommon in real life, but literary writing In India has not yet addressed this criminal offence as it should have. Similarly, gender violence in Just Another Suicide was another tough story to write, but it had to be written. 

 

Chatterji: Had you heard about the Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome before you wrote this story?

Dasgupta: No, I had never heard of this before or after I wrote this story. A friend pointed this out to me. In a recent televised crime serial, a little girl who was being persistently abused sexually by her step-father, had no complaints. When finally, she was discovered suffering from an infectious ailment, the facts stunned the doctors who were treating her, the paramedical staff, the police and lastly, her own mother. Surprisingly, other than the physical pain and injuries she was suffering from, the little girl of nine had no complaints. She seemed to be quite content being close to her step-father. She said the father explained to her that this was their secret of expressing love for each other that was not to be shared with anyone else! In other words, she had no idea that she was being subjected to severe sexual abuse since the age of five! This is known as the Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome. I was shocked. 

Chatterji: Looking back on your own writing, which do you consider your favourite and why?

Dasgupta: I think my second book of short stories which you referred to can be the first in order of preference. Sharing the position with my seventh book of poems titled Unbound published in 2021.

Chatterji: What discipline do you follow as a writer?

Dasgupta: Creative writing is not chained to discipline. The impulse to create is the trigger, thereafter the creation itself disciplines the writer to attend to it, similar to a new-born disciplining its mother to nurture it according to its ever-changing needs.

Chatterji: Among your creative writing of fiction and translation and poetry, which genre gives you the most creative satisfaction? 

Dasgupta: Satisfaction is variable, depending on the mood and circumstances of a specific time period. Fiction and poetry are both about catharsis and creation so I have an equal preference for both these genres. Translation is different. It requires both fidelity and infidelity to the original version. This fine balance demands a different level of concentration and skill. Though I enjoy translating from Bengali to English, my own published translated work has been comparatively few and far between.

Creative writing is not chained to discipline. The impulse to create is the trigger, thereafter the creation itself disciplines the writer to attend to it, similar to a new-born disciplining its mother to nurture it according to its ever-changing needs.

Chatterji: Among literary icons, who do you consider your ideals, former, and contemporary?

Dasgupta: Like all members of educated and cultured Bengali families the first my foremost icon is Rabindranath Tagore. He worked brilliantly in multiple genres and was my first mentor. Thereafter, western feminist theorists and writers such as Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Helen Cixous, Mahasweta Devi, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Marilyn French, Miles Franklin, Jean Devanny, C.S Lakshmi, Mallika Sengupta, Taslima Nasreen have all contributed to my journey as path-finders. This list is a long one, I have mentioned just a few. 

Chatterji: What are you working on at present? 

Dasgupta: I have three folders. A book of poems, an ambitious translation project which I am not sure I will be able to complete soon and another book of short stories. If the creative elixir keeps flowing, the book of poems will be published this year, if I can find an empathetic publisher. 

It Begins at Home and Other Short Stories is available for sale on leading e-commerce portals. 

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