UP CLOSE - Indrani Raimedhi, [email protected]

JIBAN GOSWAMI has come up with an English translation of Saurav Kumar Chaliha’s short stories.

Saurav Kumar Chaliha is the nom de plume of Surendra Nath Medhi, a reclusive genius and one of the most brilliant short-story writers of Assam. Completing his postgraduation in Physics in London in 1957, he taught in England and Germany. Returning to India in 1960, he joined the Assam Engineering College as a lecturer in Physics, retiring in 1988 after being Head of the Physics department.

He had published more than a 100 stories and many articles on socio-economic issues. He was the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award (1974) and the Assam Valley Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1995. He breathed his last on June 25, 2011, in Guwahati.

Fans of Saurav Kumar Chaliha have reasons to celebrate. Jiban Goswami, retired bank official, took up translation as a hobby in 2011. The first novel he translated from English to Assam was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which earned him the biennial Amulya Kumar Chakraborty Award for 2015. He has also translated Camus and Somerset Maugham. Besides Saurav Kumar Chaliha, he has widely translated from Assamese to English authors such as Mahim Bora, Mamoni Raisom Goswami, Debabrata Das and others.

His latest endeavour is Barcarolle and other stories by Saurav Kumar Chaliha, published by Purbanchal Prakash. With a Foreword by Arup Kumar Dutta, the book comprises of 19 stories.

Excerpts from an interview with :

What is the appeal of Saurav Kumar Chaliha’s fiction?

Saurav Chaliha’s stories deal with issues involving common men and women from all sections of the society and most of his stories have an urban orientation. While he was not a popular writer, those who loved his stories idolised him. His fans too are widespread and also include those who shared the writer’s love for music, good movies and a scientific curiosity. But his fans are by no means exclusive and it would not be correct to say that his fans were only from sophisticated sections with refined or cultivated tastes.

How difficult was it to translate him?

Apart from the hurdles posed by cultural differences that a translator faces in any translation, in case of Saurav Kumar Chaliha, his unique narrative style and his choice of words create an atmosphere that is almost impossible to replicate. In fact, many of his fans consider his stories ‘untranslatable’. His stories often have layers of emotions and while reading his stories, one often has a feeling as if a number of beautiful records are playing simultaneously, in total consonance, without any jarring note. To replicate the effect is not easy, to say the least.

That Saurav Kumar Chaliha is a storyteller of exceptional calibre has already been accepted in Assam’s literary circles and many eminent Assamese scholars, littérateurs and critics have analysed and commented on the various facets of his writing, All these are in the public domain I am not qualified to add anything to those. Possibly because his stories have not been translated much may be one reason why the rest of India or the world has not fully discovered his literary genius yet.

Have you discovered the man behind the writer?

The persona behind the name Saurav Kumar Chaliha as brought out in his writing is a highly cerebral, humane and sensitive man with a pronounced social conscience, having wide ranging interests in many fields of human endeavour, that includes science in general and physics in particular as also music, cinema and other forms of art. His love for western and Indian classical music comes out in many of his writings and we find mention of various ragas in his stories while narrating particular scenes. He had written a story on Beethoven and in one story he portrays a scene from outer space at a future time where the narrator, a Doctor, is shown as waiting for a ‘spool’ of Bach to be sent up from earth so that he can send this as a symbol of all that is sublime with a critically ill patient being transported for better treatment to another planet.

Saurav Kumar Chaliha’s scientific outlook (we can’t help remembering that he was the physicist Surendra Nath Medhi in real life) comes out through many of his stories, some of which read like science fiction with a human angle. No wonder, therefore, that he was a fan of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. His love for good movies also comes out in many of his stories. In his story Photo, he builds on the theme of Antonioni’s film Blow-Up to poignantly bring out the sorrow hiding behind a façade of forced gaiety.

How would you describe his writing?

Chaliha’s writings often remind one of an impressionist painting, as opposed to a classical painting. He keeps on putting in details in his stories and once the story is complete the reader suddenly realises how those apparently unconnected details merge to form a beautiful whole. He has said somewhere in one of his interviews that he usually knows where to begin and where to end a story but the flesh of the story comes from his personal experiences and his observation of men in varied situations and circumstances.

From some of his stories we can gather that he had the habit of jotting down his impressions from a particular conversation or scene on his notebook and used those later in his stories. His stories have a great capacity to portray scenes with the vividness of a photograph and his great auditory imagination imparts to his narrative a life-like character that is so real, that whatever he wants to convey later on to the reader has an immediate acceptability. Just as an impressionist painter did not have the classical painters’ obsession with a depiction of beauty in a highly stylised and often unreal form, Chaliha also was not unduly obsessed with purity of language. His language changed to suit his characters and the locale of his stories and ranged from the lyrical to the prosaic, often even colloquial. The subdued and almost lyrical tone one finds in his Xihateo Pahaar Bogalay (I have translated that as ‘They too climbed the Hill’) is in sharp contrast to the language he uses in stories like Lakhotiat or in Doorbin.