Of late, a lot of modern Bengali fiction has been getting translated into English. The latest ones to hit the market is Dibyendu Palit’s Illicit, titled Aboidho when it was released in Bengali in 1989, and Sireshendu Mukhopadhyay’s There Was No One At The Bus Stop, originally Bus Stop-e Keu Ni when it was first published in 1974.
Both books have an interesting premise of housewives bored of their husbands and having an affair on the side. The protagonists in both the cases try to walk out on their husbands but ultimately do go back to them. And that’s where the trouble is.
Anyone reading these books today would feel what’s the big deal. People do have feelings for one another even after they are married and do act on it. But the point to remember is the stories were set in the pre-liberalisation India, and the Bengali bhadralok audience wouldn’t have been ready for a ‘bold’ end.
Illicit is the story of Jeena Banerjee, who is bored of her boxwallah husband Ashim and has an affair with her neighbour, Partha Majumdar.
Ashim leaves for Pune on official work, leaving his wife in Calcutta. Taking advantage of his absence, Jeena and Partha go to a resort near Puri for the time Ashim is in Pune. And there Jeena finds sexual fulfillment of a kind she hadn’t found with Ashim, who is 11 years her senior. She is so much into Partha that she even wears a bikini for him on an isolated beach, where he makes love to her.
But as the story evolves, Jeena finds that Partha, whom she is planning to marry, is no different from Ashim, and is only interested in her physical charms. Eventually, she abandons her plans to marry Partha, and takes the train back to Calcutta.
The book borders on the unconventional, but it does end conventionally, with Jeena going back to her husband. Jeena’s character of a bored housewife who’s not sure whether she is actually in love with Partha or is just looking to have a fling is etched well. The other characters are more of cardboard cutouts, and needed more detailing.
Though the story had a lot of potential, the story-telling fails to live up to it. For instance, we don’t get to know the exact nature of Jeena’s problem with Ashim. Also, the end seems mistimed, with the story ending just as the reader is beginning to develop some sympathy for Jeena, the lead character. This is a quick read; better story-telling could have taken it to
There Was No One At The Bus Stop, which was published a decade and a half earlier than Illicit, is clearly the better book. It narrates the story of a bored, lonely and ‘arty’ housewife, Trina, and a former artist-turned-film director-turned-interior decorator, Debashish.
Debashish was once a ladies’ man, but ended up marrying Chandana after she became pregnant with his child. After the marriage, he realised they did not get along and weren’t made for each other at all.
Debashish and Trina, who had been neighbours when they were kids, meet years later, when Debashish is hired by Sachin, Trina’s husband, to redo their ancestral home. Even as the interiors of the house get renovated, Debashish and Trina duly
fall in love.
But Debashish does not pursue Trina as both are married and have children of their own. As Debashish puts it, “It would have been wonderful if we’d met at the right age and at the right time.”
Chandana, in the meantime, commits suicide following a nervous breakdown. The blame for it, of course, falls on Debashish, who, now free of any commitments, pursues Trina vigorously.
The novel is set on a Sunday, when Debashish has asked Trina to meet her at a bus stop in south Calcutta. Trina is all confused about what to do. And so is Debashish. But despite the confusion, they both go to Debashish’s house, and the inevitable happens. Trina wants to walk out on her family and move in with Debashish, and so does Debashish.
And that’s what they do, at least for a while, till Trina starts to feel uncomfortable and decides to go back to her husband.
In both these novels, the lead characters want to break away from their families but are bound by the times they live in. Trina is overcome by guilt, and finds it difficult to differentiate between love and sin. “Love was one thing, sin was another — and although it was difficult to differentiate love from sin, Trina had learnt to identify some of the signs,” writes Mukhopadhyay. Yet at the same time there is a craving for something new.
Mukhopadhyay’s style is simple and laced with sentimentality. The characters are better drawn than in Palit’s Illicit. Both are quick reads and give us a peek into the times gone by.