Set in the contemporary City of Joy, Kolkata, Bitan Chakraborty’s Haat Kata is a tale of two souls searching for urban life. The novella foregrounds questions relating to identity, belonging, and family. Freshly served in a new translation by Malati Mukherjee, and titled Redundant, Chakraborty’s novella proceeds with a poignant polyphony. Its narrator, Kanak, cannot shun the responsibilities of his family; no matter how hard he tries, he fails to evade his fate.
In the auteur Wong Kar Wai’s film Chungking Express (1994), the character 223 harbors melancholia in the deep-but-vulnerable chambers of his heart: “If memories could be canned,” he reflects, “would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.” This idea is embedded, too, in Chakraborty’s novella. As the author says this himself in the epilogue of the book: “... farewells are meant for the winners, a smiling sigh is enough for a loser. After all, so many people come to the city—and are lost. Do they all receive a farewell? Do they deserve one? Isn’t obliteration from the city’s memory their just reward?” (p. 87). This is an assertion by the guilt-stricken Kanak who is not willing to his face his roommate Shubho and wants to forget the latter’s existence. However, something holds him back.
“You know, Kanak, in a few years, no one in this country will have a right hand. Don’t you remember we studied in Biological Sciences, that the unused organ stops functioning and becomes redundant? It will be the same for all of us.” (p .86)
These are the penultimate words spoken to Kanak by his roommate in this novella. He is referring to the vein of progressivism that goes in and around the city; the societal animosity which brushes off the subaltern and encourages the already uplifted. Here, we see that this culture is carefully nurtured and honed. The novella’s speculative thought inundates this make-believe identity that we should be donning every second to adjust ourselves to societal standards. From a realist standpoint vis-à-vis our world, the novella moves towards presenting an idea of a society in the near future that would be characteristic of a volatile state. However, having said that, I think Redundant is the state in which we angrily strive every single day when we open our door in the morning and step forth into the rat race.
The novella thus suggests not an imminent arrival of dystopia, but highlights something that is embedded within us. To fear the imminent danger of something invisible to us is absurd and is like avoiding the present danger that is engulfing us. Chakraborty’s approach most reminds of Franz Kafka’s “The Great Wall of China” (1930), in which he writes people who are indifferent toward their problems, and are busy building a wall in order to protect themselves from a faraway enemy that might intrude some time, somewhere—in the near future. But that is the problem: the attack is happening not in the near future, but right now. Like a cog in the machine, we’re trapped in the capitalist mechanism that nurtures our redundant civilization.
From an idyllic Bengali childhood to a transformative experience relating to inhuman phenomena oozing out of a chain of garment shops that operate across the country, Kanak is subjected to the inglorious situation of cold-harsh, blatant reality. After attending a two-year fashion design course, he wanted to win a job at the likes of some company as a fashion designer. However, fate had planned something else for him. Kanak becomes a salesperson at a garments store, which pays him a salary of INR 18,000 per month. This is not a large amount in a city with a crashing economy caused by the political uproar that thrives deep within it. Through this set-up, Chakraborty evocatively drives into the situational discomfort that might be felt by a person who had always wanted to follow their dreams once those dreams have receded from view.
Meanwhile, Shubho, who shares a room with Kanak in the Mahajati area of the city, earns his living by doing various odd jobs to make ends meet. He strives hard to get a decent job but fails to acquire one due to his own impecunious fate—that leaves him with the choice of selling products or trying his luck with selling lottery tickets, neither of which helps. Yet, Shubho still buckles up in the hope of eventually gaining better—the everlasting buoyancy of virtue.
At one point, Shubho silently squats on his haunches as his eyes follow the jittery skyscrapers that soar above the swarming warrens of lower-middle-class buildings where he lives. Redundant presents the cultural collisions of a city set apart from the rural Bengal, towards which Indians and Bengalis share a deep sentiment. When Shubho’s parents back in the village wanted him to stay, Shubho chose instead the cultural excitement of the urban cityscape—even though it offered him no chance of earning a successful living.
The lodge where these two souls are perched in the gentrifying yet excitingly tawdry inner city is interesting yet horrifying in its liminality: “Shubho had heard in school that there’s just a bridge of time between good and bad times. He has no doubts about the truth of the statement”(p 57). (“ভালো আর মন্দের মাঝে কেবল একটা সময়ের ব্রিজ থাকে, স্কুলে শুনেছিল শুভ। কথাটা যে খাঁটি তাতে সন্দেহ নেই” ('হাতকাটা,' [p 52].)
Time is an effervescent character in the story that leaves a mark just to wipe it off instead of the fading mortality. Redundant is the tale of an insider’s sense of someplace and produces an adroit feeling akin to the city’s sunset and monsoon rains—which in turn mimic Kolkata’s bipolar, cynic moodiness. It does not operate with anything less than heart and sentimentality amidst a respectable working-class where legends proliferate, yet it closes with a fascinating uncertainty.
The translation of the novella is unusually clear for readers to follow. The Bengali idiosyncrasies like behavioural patterns have been weaved beautifully, which should not drive English readers out of place. The translation has not been crafted in a didactic manner, nor does it fall into the binaries or lingos or jargons. Instead, the translation is pursued with clarity of thought. The vernacular in a Bengali household is evocatively translated into English, and Malati Mukherjee has been careful with her selection of words—they never hinder the original narrative. As a reader of both the original Bengali novella and the English edition, I think Redundant becomes pan-Indian by using the closest English words for the Bengali colloquial—“ওসব চুদুরবুদুর ছাড়ো, তোমরা শালা ঢ্যামনা”—reads as “Don’t give me that crap! You are all cheating bastards” (p. 30).
Chakraborty captures memories that are strongly private and indistinguishable from personal experience. Episodes and perceptions reverberate across the chapters. Scant and evocative writing, acquired from the apothegm and tale, battles to give structure to individual and political despondency. The sayings spread like ripples in the lives of Kanak and Shubho only to dissolve. Chakraborty never yields on the connections and convictions that shape day-to-day existence. His portrayal offers a look at the minority life, offering a humanistic look at the characters—and, at last, a profoundly private record of authentic lost melancholy.
There is enlightenment with every turn we take. Chakraborty argues that, while people with resources tend to forget their successes quickly, the memory of someone or something becoming nothing stays in the mind for years, if not decades. Triumphs hold no lessons for us, but fiascos extend our understanding, giving insight into the conditions of disharmony inherent in the conventions and practices that build up in any particular sector, helping novices assess the traps in the industry of their choice. Shubho doesn’t feel at ease; he gets disparaged by society in everything he does. He embarks on a path that might depart from the identity that he was born with, and is led to an identity that will be shaped by the society. Behind such a furnished veil, Shubho oscillates between a promised future of a career and the bleak, precarious edge of his doomed fate. What’s more, Chakraborty argues that failures have a therapeutic effect—they can cure or alleviate the volatile situation of their livelihood.
Empathy is one of the key traits that people often tend to avoid when dealing with people who are devoid of any kind of resources. When every person shuts the door on Shubho’s face, only one hope keeps him going: that Kanak might be able to arrange something for him at the garment store. Banking on this thought, he keeps handing his bio-data to Kanak, but the latter is not in a position to do so. In this way, a despondent man such as Shubho is constantly astounded by the startling depredations of a world that appears as a surprise to him. Chakraborty marvels at this stage in life, differentiating the profoundly private feelings of fondness and despair while yearning for a more forgiving world, ringing like a song by Pink Floyd (“On The Turning Away,” 1987):
It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud
Over all we have known
Darkness engulfs our conscience, and helplessness binds and stops us from overthrowing the person in power. Shubho feels the same as well, becoming more and more feeble, only to rip apart traumatic societal standards that deem one fit—or not—to have a successful career in the cacophony of a better livelihood that goes in and around the city.
Understanding responsibility forms the fulcrum of every relationship in the novella, and is presented with panache. Kanak, with his deep-rooted cynicism, makes simple statements and considers the immigrants settling in Kolkata to earn a living to be part of an unjust affair—because he has a typical 10-5 job that he does not want to lose. He searches for the meanings of the aspirations he has maintained for years. The chain of responsibility is closely explored through Kanak’s action around the CV that Shubho has offered to the latter, hoping that Kanak will find a job for him at his office, only to be disappointed later. Redundant captures the characters’ profound sense of despairing despondency in all its compelling squalor. It is not a lyrical journey but a cold, harsh, and unforgettable one into a sprawling world of ordinariness with a cast of characters that employ esoteric musings.
Interestingly, Haat Kata (the Bengali original) ends on a dark note that swings out of the blue and into the mind of the readers, who may feel shocked as their rage is suddenly ignited. In the English rendering, however, there is one additional chapter that is unique to the translation. The Bengali book concluded with a tone that was jarring to the senses but is relatable for the Bengalis as it strikes a chord with their sentiments. Malati Mukherjee’s translation discards the so-called pessimistic note and Chakraborty comes to the ending afresh, with the positive denouement of a struggle that keeps us alive. Chapter 12 in the Bengali original might be unrelatable for English-speaking readers as they would not necessarily be able to follow the topsy-turvy politics that goes on in West Bengal; here, the epilogue expands and explains all this in such a way as not only to make the implied message more vivid—but also to give a global perspective of the stripping open of the vulnerable and the garnering of sadistic pleasure and exhibition of power by ruling elites. These experiences are the same everywhere, and something to which everyone globally can relate.
Anglophone readers, then, will not in any way find the addition of the epilogue unnecessary. Instead, it has been picked up from a place in the original novella where it took the form of an unspoken monologue suggested for the readers’ imagination. Since readers want to read between the lines, Chakraborty’s original offered them plenty of room for interpretation. Nevertheless, making it explicit does not disrupt the English narrative in any way. On the contrary, it takes the description to a different realm, where friendship and its eventual betrayal collide. The novella’s title shows how the residue of everything that has been left unsaid, undone, and buried deep within needs to be expunged; the characters can then move forward in revolt, which happens to be the only option that their lives—always otherwise at the bequest of fate—can offer. As the Publisher’s Note argues:
Bitan Chakraborty’s original Bangla book, Haat Kata (2019), has a different ending than the translation, Redundant. At Readomania, we believe, hope is the dream of a waking man, it is the pillar that holds up the world. And no matter what, there is always a reason to live, because hope is the last thing we lose. In Redundant, the ending was suitably modified to reiterate this message.
In Redundant, then, Bitan Chakraborty transforms, through the melody and garrulity of his storytelling, apathy into revolt, hopelessness into exuberance. And in this careful translation, Malati Mukherjee does the same.