Harbart Sarkar, sole proprietor of a business that brings messages from the dead to their near and dear ones left behind on earth, is found dead in his room after a night of drinking with local young men. He has killed himself. Why? Was it a threat to his business which brought him money, respect, a standing in the family, more clients and fame? Or was it a different ghost from his shadow life, where he was constantly haunted by his own unfulfilled dreams and delusions? And as the explosive events following his suicide reveal, as in his life, Harbart remains a mystery in death.
Based on Nabarun Bhattacharya’s eponymous Sahitya Academy award-winning novel Herbert (1997), this translation by Arunava Sinha is a challenge to the rational mind. Herbert, who grows up on the charity of his relatives, is made out to be a good-for-nothing dimwit, thereby denied a normal life. He is an orphaned member of a crumbling household, who eventually becomes a metaphor of the collapsing city. He finds himself as someone who talks to the dead, is accused as charlatan by the Rationalists’ Society, and the harmless do-gooder commits suicide. The multiplicity and the polyphony of the narrative is the most difficult matter to grapple with as it constantly moves from the comfort of a known world to the realm of the unknown. Despite a large sense of skepticism at work, when Herbert is dubbed an impostor, it is heartbreaking.
Literary translations are always difficult to do with as you not only have to recreate the milieu, but keep the basic essence of characters and the story intact. It is important to understand the story within the cultural context and make sure those regional touches are not lost in the translation. All this majorly remains in place, with elements of dark humour, sarcasm and wit present throughout the narrative. However, there are clunky transitions in the book where poems appear and at many places, where there are conversations between the characters. All this leaves you a bit unsatisfied with the final product.
I am going with 3/5 for Arunava Sinha’s translation of Harbart. It is a difficult read in a few places, but in the end keeps you glued for a major portion. Read it because it is different, set in a unique time period/milieu and makes you hooked up with the intriguing central character. In the end, it is an almost rewarding read.
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