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A Text of its Time

Radha Chakravarty

By Swarnakumari Debi Ghoshal. Edited by C. Vijaysree
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 104, Rs. 395.00


In her preface to The Fatal Garland (1915), the English translation of Phulermala, Swarnakumari Debi Ghoshal declares: ‘it is of the greatest importance that Europe—and more especially England—should understand India. And this understanding can, I think only be brought about by a study of our literature’. This is the impetus behind An Unfinished Song (1913), Swarnakumari’s English translation of her own Bengali novel Kahake (1898).   Swarnakumari Debi Ghoshal (1856–1932), elder sister of Rabindranath Tagore, is a literary figure best remembered for her role as editor of the progressive journal Bharati. She composed what was probably the first opera in Bengali, and was the author of twenty-five books, including novels, farces, plays, short stories and poems. Her works were translated into foreign languages during her lifetime. She was also actively involved in social reform and nationalist politics. Yet fame eluded her until the late twentieth century, when feminist scholars drew attention to her contribution to the Bengali literary tradition.   Originally published in London by Clifford’s Inn, T. Werner Laurie, the text of The Unfinished Song in the present edition adheres closely to the earlier version, down to the italicized Indian words and hyphenated words such as ‘to-day’ and ‘to-morrow’. This is the second English translation of the novel: in 1910, it had been translated as To Whom? An Indian Love Story by Sovona Debi, and published in London by S.D. Laheri. Swarnakumari’s translation of her own work into English draws attention to her desire to reach out to a broader, international audience. Awareness of this audience leads the author to add explanatory material to the translation, not derived from the source text. The politics of translation situate the text at the intersection between local and global, a move that C. Vijaysree, in her competent Introduction, describes as an attempt to counter the Englishman’s ignorance of the culture he sought to ‘civilize’, rather than an assumption of the role of native informant.   The plot of The Unfinished Song contains the typical ingredients of a romance: love, mistaken identities, coincidences, mystery, separation, reunion and a happy ending. The protagonist, Moni, loves her childhood companion Chhotu, and when they are separated, remembers him by a song he used to hum. Years later, she accepts the proposal of a young, eligible suitor, but rejects him when she discovers that he had earlier abandoned an Englishwoman after an affair. She then finds herself drawn ...

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