The names alone can present a stumbling block. A few pages into Nabarun Bhattacharya’s lean and sumptuous “Harbart” sits a family tree hung with names like “Girishkumar,” polysyllabic knots many Americans can’t undo. One look begins to explain why the novel has gone 25 years without a translation from the Bengali, despite prizes in India for both the book and movie adaptation.
Based in Kolkata all his life, the late Bhattacharya was born in 1948, just after his country became independent. “Harbart” may be his best-known accomplishment, but he wrote much more, including journalism, poetry and magical realist narratives adapted to theater and pop songs. All of it is committed to making the dominant culture look “googly.” The term derives from cricket; originally a nasty screwball pitch, it has come to signify an insult, a warning — bad news.
Such social critique energizes everything Bhattacharya did. In this 1994 novel, the very title is subversive, a Bengali corruption of the English “Herbert,” and protagonist Harbart Sarkar runs a con game: “Conversations With the Dead.” His office is in the home, in the “cowmen’s slums,” far from the comfortable districts of the “shahebi,” the English. Nonetheless, the venture achieves success. Harbart attracts a skid-row crew who call him “Boss,” and together they enjoy the occasional “lion-league night” of drinking.
Crucially, though, Harbart doesn’t see his vocation as a fraud. He’s such a true believer that, when doubts assail him in the novel’s first pages, they trigger “a heart-rending wail.” The Boss even speaks of a “last supper,” then treats his homies to their greatest “booze bash” yet. The next morning, they find him cold in his bed, his “vein slashed.” So bumptious an opening, at once comic and tragic, raucous and dreary, overcomes the challenges of long names, unknown moonshine and “skin-rotten street dogs whimpering in their dreams.” After that, the narrative doubles back to Harbart’s upbringing, sketching how he came to this.
To call the man’s childhood “traumatic” would be putting it mildly. Orphaned young, relegated to an uncle’s attic, Harbart suffers the kind of treatment that, as this berserk biography suggests, may have damaged his “still-solidifying brain.” What affection he enjoys, from his teenage nephew Binoy, is cut short after the boy dies at the hands of the police. Miraculously, Binoy shows further kindness; he visits Harbart as a ghost, giving the protagonist his first “conversation with the dead.” Indeed, nearly all Harbart’s inklings of a better life take mystical form. After he finds his vocation, he stumbles around Calcutta’s battleground of the haves and have-nots and glimpses a fairy “holding aloft a lamp.”
Thus the grim milieu is graced with something gentler, more playful. The fairy even hovers over Harbart’s suicide, and a similar lighter touch informs the prose, enlivened by assonance and alliteration. Case in point, the neighbor girl with whom Harbart is infatuated: “Buki, beautiful, dust-skinned, soft, slightly saucy-breasted Buki.” On top of that, Bhattacharya tosses in rhyme. When a father scolds his boys, calling them “Sons of bitches,” they mutter in reply: “Your loins’ riches.” There are even echoes of T.S. Eliot. Such effects attest to the care and sensitivity of the translation by Sunandini Banerjee.
The book’s final chapters mostly concern the spiritualist enterprise, its improbable rise and inevitable fall. Still, just as Harbart became a star to his fellow down-and-outers, his self-destruction blossoms into an unlikely triumph. The text’s celebratory afterword, by acclaimed author Siddhartha Deb celebrates both the author’s “prodigious, relentless output,” and his trailblazing aesthetics — finding a “new way for fiction” while his country was “drowning under the onslaught” of the West. This first U.S. publication brings off a remarkable resurrection, one that erupts full-blooded, alive with laughter, stink and rage.
John Domini’s fourth novel, “The Color Inside a Melon,” was published by Dzanc Books this summer.
By Nabarun Bhattacharya; translated by Sunandini Banerjee
New Directions. 122 pp. $13.95