Tagore didn't have Aishwarya in mind, says translator

New Delhi, Dec 30 (IANS) Dust was brushed off a literary gem penned a century ago by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore when a film starring Aishwarya Rai hit the screens this year.

"But I don't think Tagore quite had Aishwarya in mind when he wrote 'Chokher Bali'!" says Radha Chakravarty, who took on the mammoth task of translating the Bengali novel into English on the occasion of its centenary year in 2003.

"The film is very different from the book. Even the time period and narrative are different," Chakravarty told IANS.

"I thought the sophisticated Aishwarya did not convey the Bengali ethos."

The 46-year-old English teacher at a Delhi college - who is the wife of Pinak Chakravarty, chief of protocol of the Indian government - speaks with a quiet passion about the book that ruffled quite a few feathers in its time with its story of an educated Bengali widow and her relationships in the late 19th century.

"It addresses gender issues, it dares to debate the position of women in society. It is about a widow who is intelligent and educated," says Chakravarty.

The radical widow is portrayed by Aishwarya, no doubt increasing the film's commercial viability. But not many know the significance that "Chokher Bali" holds in Bengal's literature.

"The book speaks in a modern voice. It is a bold and honest treatment of man-woman relationships and yet refuses to romanticise."

The novel has been translated several times before. "But some of those are archaic!

"Translating 'Chokher Bali' was a challenge. I had to do a modern translation that would interest today's readers and yet retain the quality, the authentic atmosphere of that time."

In fact, Chakravarty even retained the original ending that Tagore had initially struck off but later restored.

"Many other translations of the novel don't have the original ending. I felt that if that was what Tagore finally wanted, we should stick to it."

And it's not just the Nobel laureate's work that Chakravarty has chosen to spin into English.

She is working on major Bengali writers from India as well as Bangladesh, such as Sunil Gangopadhyay, Mahasweta Devi, Syed Shamsul Haq, Showkat Ali and Selina Hossain.

"Crossings", a collection of short stories translated by her from Bangladeshi and Indian works, came out earlier this year.

"Our rich regional literary heritage has to be available in English, otherwise a lot of very valuable writing will be lost."

It was while doing her doctoral thesis on women writers that her journey as a translator began. "I refused to leave out the bulk of Mahasweta Devi's work just because it was available only in Bengali, so I set off translating them myself."

Despite being as busy as the proverbial bee - she is an Indian diplomat's wife, a mother and a teacher - her third book of translations in a year is set to hit the stands, the author this time being Mahasweta Devi.

While working on "Crossings", Chakravarty realised how despite having a common language, content can differ vastly in Indian and Bangladeshi literature.

"A vast body of Bangladeshi literature deals with the liberation war. The landscape, the socio-political context is very different."

Chakravarty laments that today's youngsters prefer British and American authors to Indian and other South Asian writers. She candidly admits that her own college-going son has not read her work on "Chokher Bali" yet.

Perhaps her earnest efforts will ignite that interest some day.