I’ve just finished reading My Kind of Girl, a novel by Buddhadeva Bose, an important 20th century Bengali writer. In addition to the books he wrote in his native language–he was a fiction writer, a poet, a playwright, and an essayist–Bose also translated into Bengali the works of Baudelaire, Holderlin and Rilke. My Kind of Girl was brought into English by Arunava Sinha, whose name I did not know until I picked this book up, but whose website appears to be an organic anthology of South Asian literature in translation, and I’m excited to have discovered it. Sinha’s translation of My Kind of Girl was originally published in 2009 by Random House India, but the edition I read was put out by Archipelago Books, a press that you should know about if you don’t, and that I hope you will consider supporting. Archipelago only publishes literature in translation, from languages as far flung as Icelandic and Arabic, with plenty more in between, performing a crucial function in our culture, where, on average, only 3% of the books published in a given year are in translation (and the website that link takes you too is worth knowing about as well).
Translation in general, but literary translation in particular, is often the only way that people from one culture are able to gain sympathetic and empathetic insight into the people of another. It doesn’t always work that way, of course. One of the Persian poets I have translated, for example, Saadi of Shiraz, was first brought into French in the 1600s by a man named Andre du Ryer, who thought it was important for his compatriots to be aware of a Muslim writer whose progressive-for-their-time values (and in some ways progressive for ours as well) mirrored their own. Then, in the 1800s, when the British became interested in classical Persian literature because Persian was the language of the Moghul courts of India, Saadi’s works were among those Iranian works translated into English, as John D. Yohannan wrote in The Poet Sa’di: A Persian Humanist, to help make “British rule in India more efficient…. In other words, the Sa’di of the Enlightenment had given way to the Sa’di of the colonial age” (6).
If you take a moment to think about it, some of the most influential books in western culture, starting with the Bible, both the Jewish and the Christian versions, are actually works in translation. Here are a few others: Dante’s Inferno, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, the poetry of Sappho, and more. We so take for granted the values these literary works have brought into our culture–from our ideas about good and evil, heaven and hell, to how we understand love and adultery–that we forget we learned them from some place else. Even a book like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, along with its companion volumes, demonstrates how valuable literary translation is as a medium of cultural exchange and cultural change. My Kind of Girl is a much smaller, more quiet, and modest book than any of the ones I’ve just mentioned, but it nonetheless provides the same kinds of insights, exploring love through the stories told by four middle-aged Indian men, strangers to each other, when a December snowstorm prevents their train from getting through and forces them to spend the night together in the station waiting room. A young couple looking for some privacy inspires the men to start reminiscing about what it was like to be young and in love, and they decide that each one should tell a love story. My Kind of Girl, in other words, is a kind of Canterbury Tales writ small, without the comic bawdiness and cynicism that marks many of Chaucer’s tales.
The first man to tell a story, the only one that is not autobiographical, is the contractor, who narrates the tale of Makhanlal and his love for Malati, the “not exactly what you would call beautiful” daughter of the “semi-impoverished college professor” who lives next door. Makhanlal’s mother, Hiranmayee, who values education, sets about trying to arrange a match between Malati and her son, but Malati’s family is not interested. They don’t want their daughter marrying into the family of a “mere” shopkeeper. Hiranmayeee is insulted, deeply so, and when, several years later, circumstances make it possible for her to gloat over her neighbor’s misfortune, she does so with glee. Makhanlal, however, who has (or so he thought) quite innocently carried his love for Malati all this time–he is not the most self-aware of men–wants to help. When he does so, he learns a painful lesson in how class and gender and the contractual machinations and hidden agendas that often accompany marriages in cultures where they are arranged interfere with love, contaminate it, so that even when you think your love is innocent and without guile, it very likely is not.
Of the four stories, only one, the doctor’s, ends happily, and it is telling that his is the only tale in which he meets the woman he loves as an adult, already a professional–she requires medical attention–and under circumstances where falling in love is the last thing on his mind. Nonetheless, each tale is quintessentially the story of a man living in a culture where men and women exist in separate spheres. None of the women these men love is realized in this novel as anything resembling a three dimensional character. Indeed, except for the doctor’s Bina, the women in these stories are not much more than empty ciphers onto which the men project their own desires and beliefs about love, women, the future and more. Makhanlal loves Malati, for example, without having spoken even a word to her; and the same is true for Gagan Baran Chatterjee, the government official, who falls in love with Pakhi through a “conversation of the eyes.”
Yet each story also reveals how the man whose love it relates is either forced, or struggles, to meet the woman he loves as a real person, with all the potential for further love, disappointment, bitterness and sweetness that moment contains. This is how the writer puts it after hearing the tale of Makhanlal:
The girl of our dreams, who lives in our heart, Makhanlal wanted to see her for one time as a real person–that is all that is real, all that matters, nothing else does. Surely Makhanlal would have married a girl of his mother’s choice after they moved to their new house–by now he must have a full family of his own children, he must be earning a lot too–but none of these subsequent events cancel out the earlier one. Whatever Makhanlal had to get from his Malati, he has gotten already, he will never lost that don’t you think?
My Kind of Girl explores this idea in a poignant and moving way. It’s a book worth reading.