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The Personal and the Political

Radha Chakravarty

By Sunil Gangopadhyay
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 293, Rs. 300.00


The name of Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-2012) has become iconic in contemporary Bengali literature, and his passing marks the end of an era. A prolific writer, he will be remembered for his poetry, novels, stories and essays, but most of all for his ability to bridge the gap between elite and popular culture. Soiled Clothes, Sujal Bhattacharya’s translation of the Bengali novel Dhulibasan (1990), reminds us that the bulk of Gangopadhyay’s work still remains untranslated, and that his reputation among readers in the non-Bengali world rests on a few translations alone. The narrative focuses on the experiences of Mandira, a woman from Kolkata married for 26 years to a British member of parliament and settled in the UK, who suddenly leaves her husband and returns to India. She chooses to retire to Sukhchar, a small village near the Sunderbans, and leads a secluded life, isolated from friends and family. Drawn at first to the simplicity and austerity of her rural existence, Mandira begins gradually to get involved in local politics. Sukhchar is a backward place riven by prejudices based on caste, class, religion and gender. Most of its inhabitants live in abject poverty and ignorance. In this area, in collaboration with a powerful construction company, plans are afoot to build a giant fertilizer plant, a move that will displace a large segment of the village population, and probably pollute the environment and upset the ecological balance of the region. Thrust into the role of a social activist and local leader, Mandira soon discovers that the situation on the ground is far from simple. Her personal past also catches up with her, in the shape of Biman, her ex-lover, who now represents the construction company that is eyeing Sukhchar as a potential hunting ground. As Mandira wrestles with public pressures and personal demons, her encounter with sexual violence changes her life. In the novel’s unexpected denouement, she finds the courage to shed the trappings of convention in order to seek out her selfhood as a woman and as a human being.   Gangopadhyay’s text combines the personal with the political, to suggest that the two, ultimately, cannot be separated. The narrative presents a cogent commentary on various forms of social prejudice, based on perceptions of difference. The narrative of Mandira’s break with her British husband and her journey away from England provides occasion for an impressionistic portrayal of cultural difference. ...

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