Some variety: : Translation of a few short stories of Subimal Misra
By Subimal Misra
Translated by V. Ramaswamy
A family. Comprising mother and son. One day the son said to his mother: I want to go to foreign lands. His mother said: That’s wonderful, my son’s going to foreign lands. Mother was very happy. She called her son and said to him, I bless you. May you be well. May you be successful, but son, let me tell you something. You should not travel to foreign lands all alone. That’s why I’ve brought this crab. Take it along with you. The son was taken aback hearing his mother’s words. He asked his mother: What’s the use of taking the crab along? Besides, where would I keep it? His mother said, do something, son. There’s a camphor box in your bundle. Keep this crab companion in that. The son did as his mother said. The next day, as soon as the sun rose, he touched his mother’s feet in pranam and left for foreign lands. He walked a great distance. By noon, the sun became fierce. Walking along the road in the sun, the boy became very tired. There were rows of trees beside the road. He sat down under the shade of one of the large trees. He rested. A cool breeze wafted in the shade of the tree. His body felt cool. Gradually he fell asleep. But there was danger lurking. While the boy was fast asleep, unknown to him, a big snake emerged from somewhere. Expanding its hood, the snake made its way towards the boy. As it neared the bundle, it got the scent of camphor. Snakes love the smell of camphor. It was attracted to the smell. The snake then removed the camphor box from the boy’s bundle. It began to strike the box on the ground. It wanted to open the box and eat the camphor. After repeated striking, the box came open. And a crab emerged from inside the box. The same crab that the boy’s mother had given. The crab emerged and squeezed the snake’s neck with its big, fat claws. How would the snake escape now! The snake could no longer move. The poor snake slowly passed out and then died. The boy slept through it all. He was fast asleep. He woke up after some time. It was evening by then. He got up briskly to resume his journey. As he went to lift the bundle, he saw the camphor box lying open. And beside it was the crab and the dead snake. He then understood what had happened. He thanked the crab inwardly. And he thought to himself: If Mother hadn’t given me the crab, I would have perished right here today.
I’ve travelled in India, not that much, but I’ve travelled quite a bit in West Bengal. Towards the end of the nineties, I once again began setting out for trips on a whim, carrying only a shoulder bag. I visited the Diamond Harbour-Kakdwip-Namkhana region almost every weekend, sometimes going to the district and subdivision towns as well. In Siliguri, Burdwan, Malda, Krishnanagar and also Tarakeshwar, right till the Champadali crossing in North 24-Parganas – everywhere I learnt about the honey-trade operating in broad daylight. Recently I travelled around Tamluk and its adjoining areas. The whole country seems to have become a red light area. In the various important places in Tamluk subdivision, on the roadside, in the bus-stand, in some hotels near the rail station, the flesh trade thrives now. A section of school and college-going students have, willingly or unwillingly, become associated with this, they are falling into its net. The trade begins from Mecheda rail station. As one goes along Nandakumar High Road, on National Highway 41, on one side, on the road to Digha, and on the other side, all the way to Haldia – that’s the spread of the racket. Different kinds of and different classes of educated, semi-educated and illiterate groups of women from various parts of the state regularly cast their net, standing in various places beside the road and soliciting customers. From a girl of fifteen to middle-aged women – every kind of woman can be found here. They can always be seen in the Mecheda rail station, the bus-stand and some nearby shops. Their pimps bargain openly with customers. Some helpers and workers on private buses are also linked to them. Cinema crossing, in Durgachak, and Kapastraria are where the trade flourishes the most. Lured by the prospect of quick money, quite a few girls from the adjoining region are getting enmeshed in this trade. Even girls from ordinary farming families. Not just that, some girls from various schools and colleges have also fallen into the net. Simultaneously, sex-workers from Kolkata and its environs are coming to this locality, drawn by the livelihood imperative. Some take up permanent residence in a hotel or lodge. Most of the school and college girls who bunk classes come purely out of curiosity or to have fun, with a friend or fellow-student, and they go to various hotels or lodges. Some of them visit these hotels and lodges frequently and become familiar with the manager and staff, through whom they then start catching unknown customers. The agents associated with the hotels and lodges draw them into this trade, luring them with the prospect of earning quick money, in the thousands. Sometimes they threaten them. They compel them to join the honey-trade. Gradually the girl becomes associated with this trade. They don’t do it regularly, they only do business when they find wealthy customers. Perhaps the folks at home don’t know anything, or they believe she works in a nursing home or something like that. The business is presently booming in a hotel on Nandakumar High Road, at the Manicktala crossing in Tamluk, and in quite a few hotels and lodges in the vicinity of Kapastraria and Mecheda station. Just as the people of the locality know about the places where the trade takes place, similarly, the police too know who the high-priests of the trade are. One can also find rooms here to rent for temporary stay. Girls who come from outside rent these rooms, or book rooms in hotels for a week or so. They ply their trade for a week there. They go home for two or three days. And then they return to the seven-day routine. Among them are full-time sex workers from Bongaon, Baguiati, Kalyani and even Park Street in Kolkata. Someone is known as Minu, and someone is called Chitra. Some have up-to-date names. Needless to say, all the names are fake. Many of them are educated. There are also a few who have completed their higher education. In Kapastraria, there are twenty or twenty-five girls at all times, every day. The owners or managers of some of the hotels here are the high priests of the trade. Their pimps are spread out everywhere. It is they who function as spokes of the operation. In Nandakumar, somewhat wealthy customers can be found. In Kapastraria and Mecheda, the trade caters to the pockets of all classes. So the latter two places are more crowded. Looking at the Meena-Minu-Nishas, one would never think that they are linked to this trade. They behave just like a well-educated and respectable woman or daughter-in-law. Their gait. Among the customers too, one does not observe any distinction between high and low. Students and youth, government employees, officers and engineers are all on the list of regular customers. Of course, there are people from the underworld. Everywhere one sees the quick-money trade.
All of us went together this Holi to a forest bungalow near Hesadi. The full moon could be seen through the clearing between the trees in the saal forest. The forested hill seemed to be floating in the moonlight. Suddenly drumbeats erupted from across the hills, fires lit up near and far. I heard that the Holi festival had begun in the villages of the Mundas. The watchman encouraged us: You must go, go and visit the Munda hamlet. You’ll get A-class mahua. After that he said something smilingly, and when I asked him the meaning – You may get girls too over there. Their flavour’s altogether different, not bland at all. Big babus from the city come here for some variety. Without further delay, I ate the chicken curry and rice and set out quickly. The forest had been cleared. There were a few saal and mahua trees here and there. There aren’t any wild animals here anymore, but they used to be there earlier. Through the middle of the forest was a road for shiny cars. I didn’t have to go very far, after walking for fifteen minutes, the village emerged in the clearing between the trees. The Munda girls, as one, sang as they danced, a few men accompanied them. Mahua flowed freely, and seeing us a dark-skinned, curly-haired youth came forward. He wore a pair of jeans with eight pockets and a colorful Hawaii shirt. A cigarette dangled from his fingers. Taking me towards the darkness, he straightaway asked whether we wanted women. Young ones, haven’t had children yet, they’re still girls, you’ll have great pleasure, he said all that. There were five of us, all of us became enthusiastic, after some bargaining it was settled at three hundred rupees. Only Vivek began to quibble, about whether they had venereal diseases, and so on. We didn’t pay him any heed. We had had quite a bit to drink, we were in no condition to listen to him. They were all standing here and there in the darkness, some of them had lamps in their hands so that one could see the girl’s face and get an idea about the curves of her body. Black shiny bodies, each one wore a blouse and it was also clear that some had brassieres on. I was a bit surprised, but as there wasn’t much time I quickly selected two tender ones. The pimp convinced us that two were sufficient for skinny, callow youths like us, the two of them could handle five men. They were practiced in all that. And you’ll see that none of them has hair smelling of castor-oil, all that’s gone, they use soap and shampoo now, they use perfumed hair oils, they regularly apply Fair & Lovely on their faces in order to become fair-complexioned. After that, he said, you are all city-babus, let me know if you want to use condoms, I have foreign stuff, but it’s a bit expensive. Once again, we were surprised. Here and there, I spotted some trouser-and-shirt-clad bhadralok, possibly customers too. The boy was happy to get the money after concluding the matter quickly, he offered us cigarettes, he began to explain that all these babus came frequently, people also came by car nowadays, they came in groups and had fun. They leave the young girls in such a state that they’re unable to stand up for the next two or three days. We didn’t like hearing all that. Ordering a few bottles of mahua and holding the two girls in my arms, I entered the room. One of the girls said laughingly, in fluent Bangla: We’ll make you happy, Bengali babus, but you must give a baksheesh. Singing and dancing would go on all night outside, the hunting festival would begin at dawn.
This text-collage is composed of excerpts from the original Bengali anti-story, “The Treasured Art of Vocal Harmony”, by Subimal Misra. Translated by V. Ramaswamy. The translator gratefully acknowledges Robert Karjel for enabling the translation.
Subimal Misra (b. 1943) has been called the only anti-establishment writer in Bengali. Influenced by the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard, Misra experimented with the use of film language in Bengali writing even as he made William Burroughs’s cut method his own. With his very first collection of stories, Haran Majhi’s Widow’s Corpse or the Golden Gandhi Statue (1971), he signalled his departure from conventional narrative fiction. He has written exclusively for little magazines. Misra’s stories, novelettes, novellas, novels, a play, essays and interviews comprise over thirty volumes. Cupid’s Corpse Does Not Drown in Water, an experimental prose-work, was published in 2010.
Ramaswamy lives in Kolkata, India. He is currently concluding a long-term project of translating the short fiction of Subimal Misra, the anti-establishment Bengali writer. His Misra translations include Golden Gandhi Statue from America, Wild Animals Prohibited and Two Anti-Novels.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.