Book Review: Are these really “The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told”?

May 13, 2016
Translator: Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Aleph Books
Year: 2016
ISBN: 9789382277743
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told contains 21 short stories spanning more than a century of Bengali fiction. Whether these are the ‘greatest Bengali stories ever’, however, is not easy to decide. Buy The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told at the best price here.

What gems lie within?

The usual suspects are all there: Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Buddhadeva Bose. I came across several authors I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading before: Ramapada Chowdhury, Sanjib Chattopadhyay, Amar Mitra. I would consider myself the average Mumbai-born-and-bred book lover, so others in this category would probably have the same experience that I did, getting introduced to at least one or two authors previously unknown to them.

What’s the good stuff?

My favourite story was ‘Mahesh’. It’s about a poor Muslim man who lives in a predominantly Hindu village and owns a bull named Mahesh, which he is unable to feed, due to his poverty. The story, even if you’ve read other stories with a similar theme (for example, Pundalik Naik’s `When An Ass Mounts a Cow’, to be found in Ferry Crossing is even more horrific, as is the gut-wrenching first chapter in Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others) yet has a simple, stark dignity of its own. Translator Arunava Sinha gives us an interesting insight into the effect of the story when he writes that as a child, he actually felt more for the bull than the human.

Other stories make an impact too – the light-hearted ‘Einstein and Indubala’, the dark ‘Urvashi and Johnny, the intriguing ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’, the quintessentially Bengali ‘Ten Days of the Strike’.

What wasn’t so good?

My biggest complaint is that the average reader would have benefited from a brief explanation of the times and circumstances around each of the stories. This is most obvious in the story ‘Post-mortem’, by Sunil Gangopadhyay, which was based on a real-life incident of a man shamed for entering a ladies’ special tram. Only after I read about it in this review did the story make sense to me. ‘The Music Room’, ‘The Offering’, these too would be richer for a bit of cultural background.

Also, I had, perhaps unreasonably, hoped that the ‘Ever Told’ of the title indicated that oral stories – fables, folklore, stories of the Bauls, the Santhals – would be included too. Well, it isn’t.

On a personal level, I wasn’t too happy with the ‘Kabuliwallah’ translation, perhaps because I’d first read the story in a more simplistic translation which stayed with me. And though I liked ‘Urvashi and Johnny’ (I’m a big fan of all of Mahasweta Devi’s stories anyway) I wish ‘Draupadi’ had been chosen for this anthology instead, if only so that more and more readers could be introduced to this story.

What’s the verdict?

Mixed. I can’t help feeling this anthology missed a lot of opportunities. Of course, any one person’s selection of the ‘greatest Bengali stories’ is bound to be subjective – let’s leave it at that then. Buy The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told at the best price here.

Mugdha Wagle

Mugdha Wagle

Content Editor at IndiaBookStore
Kitabi Keeda of the most obsessive sort. When she's reading something, interrupt her only if you have life insurance! Discovering a fantastic new author can move her to tears. Loves trekking, adores animals and venerates good food (eating it, not cooking it :))!
Mugdha Wagle


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