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Registering Humanism

Ella Datta

By Prafulla Roy. Translated from the Bengali by John W. Hood
Lotus Collection, an imprint of Roli Books, New Delhi, 2004, Rs. 295.00


Prafulla Roy’s short stories in Bengali about the marginalized, impoverished, landless people of an agrarian society have a distinct texture of their own. The stories, mostly located in the poverty-stricken hamlets of north Bihar as well as in the villages of West Bengal or the Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra are written in a pared down, minimalist language with a staccato rhythm as hard as the arid lives of the protagonists.   The English translation by John W. Hood of a collection of short stories entitled In the Shadow of the Sun does not quite achieve the tensile strength that Roy had forged in his use of Bengali. Nevertheless, the 16 stories track the stark lives of those living on the fringes of society. The longish introduction by the translator attempts to establish the social and economic context for these poignant tales. He also provides a short biographical sketch of Roy.   In the end, the stories speak for themselves. The men and women whose lives are portrayed in these stories have resigned themselves to a harsh struggle for survival. And yet the gritty surfaces of their lives are often lit, even if momentarily by an inner glow of human values. Unlike Mahasweta Devi’s stories featuring the poor tribals where one finds a discernible political strand of protest, Roy’s stories are content to register a profound humanism.   The tone of the book is set in the very first story ‘Human’. Bharosalal ekes out a subsistence by working as a beater for shikaris. After a long walk in search of employment, he gets caught in a heavy shower while crossing a hillock. There he meets a pregnant woman going to the hospital in Bhakilgunge, several miles away. She is travelling alone because her husband is a bonded labourer and cannot leave his service. During the journey, the woman goes into labour and cannot go another step. Bharosalal, seeing her plight, carries her on his shoulders and then makes a detour that he can ill afford to admit her into hospital. He waits to see that she has safely delivered and then goes on his way.   The same humane note is manifest in all the stories in the collection. People who live in abject poverty still reach out to help others. In ‘Across the Fields’ middle-aged Bhirguram’s only possession is his bullock cart and his pair of bullocks Chunnuwa and Munnuwa. On ...

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