Bengal’s Sankar reaches out with English translation (With Image)

June 13th, 2009 - 9:44 am ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi, June 13 (IANS) One of Bengal’s most popular writers, Mani Shankar Mukherjee, is waiting to see how English speaking urban India reacts to “The Middleman”, the translated avatar of his most famous Bengali novel “Jana Aranya”.

“I am looking forward to seeing how young and English-speaking India reacts to it,” Sankar, as he is known in millions of Bengali homes across the world, told IANS from Kolkata over telephone.

“There are two kinds of books in vernacular Indian literature - one which can be translated and one which cannot be. But my books are translatable.” “Jana Aranya” was famously made into a movie by the legendary Satyajit Ray in 1976.

“The Middleman”, the second in the series of translations of Sankar’s novels by Arunava Sinha, came out in June. The first, “Chowringhee”, was published in 2008.

Set in the Kolkata of the 1970s, “The Middleman” is the story of young man Somnath Banerjee’s search for a job when thousands of educated young men and women queued up at the employment bureau in search of jobs.

Unable to find one despite his education, Somnath decides to get into the order-supply business as a middleman. His ambition drives him to use an “innocent girl” as bait for a contract that will secure the future of Somnath Enterprises. As Somnath grows from an idealistic young man to a corrupt businessman, the book becomes a macabre portrait of the price the city extracts from its youth.

“Both ‘Chowringhee’ and ‘Jana Aranya’ (’The Middleman’) had a universality about them. They reflected the Indian situation as it was then and as it is now. Time has not been able to bite the reality. Probably, that’s the reason why both the books have been carried to the world,” Sankar said.

The book is autobiographical, culled from Sankar’s own experience as a “waste-paper basket seller” for a firm owned by a young man from Tamil Nadu.

Sankar, 76, who started off as a writer in the 1950s, shot to fame with “Chowringhee” and “The Middleman”. It was followed by a spate of books that spanned over two decades. Sankar is now working on two biographies - one on the seer Aurobindo and another on Swami Vivekananda.

The writer is excited. “My Bengali publishers in Kolkata will launch a commemorative edition of ‘The Middleman’ - a limited edition signed copy - to celebrate its success over the decades. ‘The Middleman’ is the highest selling Bengali novel of all time having crossed the quarter million mark,” he said.

The difference between “Chowringhee”, set in a plush hotel in Kolkata, and “The Middleman” is that the first is a fairy tale and the second is hard reality, says Sankar.

“Somnath, the protagonist, is like a tired bird from the sky who comes crashing down to earth,” says the novelist.

“‘The Middleman’ is the experience of those Bengalis who looked for jobs but couldn’t find any. The shift to becoming self-employed is difficult; full of culture clashes.

“Since independence, everything has changed for the worse - freedom brought the humiliation of partition, decadence, industrial slide and moral dilemmas. The weaker sections lost their ideals and began to look at success with suspicion. How can success be achieved through fair means?” he said, explaining the social relevance of the book.

“But I haven’t lost heart and I am still a great believer in relationships and extended families,” he said.

“The Middleman”, published by Penguin-Books India, will hit the market in the last week of June.

Sankar is glad that “Chowringhee” was received very well at the London Book Fair in April.

“The Independent, The Guardian and the Sunday Times devoted full pages to it. The book was billed as the surprise of the fair,” he said, adding it shows that Indian vernacular literature has come to the global stage.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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