Translation Tuesday: Subimal Misra’s Anti-Fiction

It’s because of the trustworthiness of the writer’s effort that a piece of text is simultaneously story, history, proclamation, and personal diary.

Subimal Misra began writing exclusively for little magazines in the late sixties. His stories soon came to be known as ‘anti-stories,’ although he calls them ‘films.’ Misra credits Jean-Luc Godard with teaching him language, i.e., cinematic language, where the film is like an argument. By the end of the seventies, Misra was the uncrowned prince of Bengali parallel literature. But he had not written a novel because it would have been too long to get published. However, he had already started thinking of a longer format and the anti-novel, Actually This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale, a meta-fiction, appeared in 1982. This was followed by When Colour is a Warning Sign (1984), in which Misra carried the form he adopted in Ramayan Chamareven further—a kind of kaleidoscopic look at the society, world and times around him, focussing pointed beams of light on slivers of lived reality. With The Feathered Neck (1990), Misra completed his anti-novel trilogy. In 1988, Misra also wrote an essay explaining his ‘anti-novel.’

In this excerpt from When Colour is a Warning Sign, Misra shares an account of giving his manuscript to an editor to read, becoming dejected after the latter’s comment, and finally emerging with greater clarity and vision.

—Translator V. Ramaswamy


In the course of writing, I gave the manuscript to Nirmal-da of College Street to read and he later sent me his valuable opinion by letter. Nirmal Gupta was in his fifties, his sideburns were entirely grey, he ran a serious little magazine called Eikhon, it sold about a thousand copies. After reading his letter, as I was wondering whether I could write afresh, in a simpler way—as I was grappling with the subject—I saw to my surprise that Nirmal-da too was becoming entangled in the text, he was becoming another incident and clearly the complexity was continuously growing, multifarious, and more, what I have never thought also emerges clearly, page after page.

Nirmal-da’s letter

I am never elated about your writing, and it is quite difficult to suddenly come to any conclusion regarding you. Again, the question of outright rejection does not arise because some aspect or another haunts me, and it occurs to me that perhaps there could also be this kind of writing. In your writing, there are no such things as sequential events, it appears outwardly to be only floating images and to my eyes quite disconnected. Employing selected clippings from newspapers, an amalgam of politics and sex—something that mixes everything together. I won’t say that I was fully able to accept the writing. That’s because there are so many of your angles here which are of an attacking nature—as well as ignoring these same questions—demolishing popular beliefs, arriving at an unpredictable conclusion, which apparently is not even a conclusion. It’s not certain where the writer wants to go, or at least it’s unclear—I became confused reading it, and I have no hesitation in saying that most of the time I am confused by your writing. You have a tendency to debate everything, in some parts mixing a bit of French humour—there’s no certainty anywhere, no care to reach a conclusion—this apparent cynicism compels me to be confused. In the middle of discipline-less-ness, sometimes a discipline peeps in, although discovering it is arduous. And this has to be searched for amid the wrecking of form, use of elegiac language and ongoing experimentation. Throughout the writing there is a predilection towards investigation at work, a continuous search, which is at the same time sensational too. While it attracts me a bit, it’s good to admit that it’s not so much.


Much later, for another kind of politics

Reading Nirmal Gupta’s letter, the writer becomes very dejected. He sets out on the street despite the afternoon sun. A Sunday afternoon in July, not many people on the street. He would just not feel at peace until he could give a suitable reply, conveying exactly what he thinks. He keeps walking along Park Street, towards the old cemetery, he buys bidis at a shop below the Asiatic Society. Long bidis, with red string, his favourite. As evening turned to night, he buys and eats telebhaja, the famous telebhaja of Hanif, at the kerb on Circular Road. True to form, he has an attack of acidity soon after that. He searches frantically for the Gelusil. As he searches, he feels terribly sick. In the drawer, in the box, under the bed—nowhere does he find the antacid tablet. That’s how he loses all his things, doesn’t he? Hadn’t he lost, just like this, all the news-clippings pertaining to the ninth Asiad—which would have gone very well with this text? Suddenly he finds a whole haritaki fruit. Is the haritaki a symbol, in this text? Putting it into his mouth, he sits down to write a reply; as is his habit, he makes a first draft in his diary. It was twelve at night then. He didn’t vomit that night. Needless to say, the very next day he overcomes his sadness and sits down again to write, with new zeal. That piece of his is exactly reproduced here.


Reply to Nirmal-da’s critique, which wasn’t sent

The needs of the reader who makes an effort to become one with the times are not met merely by the popular stream of stories and novels. For him the story has to convey many-more-things beside the story. And it is through these many-more-things that the real character of the writer can be discerned. Consider all the information and statistics pertaining to a country or a society, that are easily available in books and are published in newspapers. Some truths are contained ever more clearly in the many-more-things of a story, the effort is made to do just that. It’s because of the trustworthiness of the writer’s effort that a piece of text is simultaneously story, history, proclamation, and personal diary. The carrying capacity of the text can be stretched as far as man’s thinking and imagination can reach and ascend. In the normal course of things, in the eyes of the unpracticed reader, it may well appear complex and entirely doomed. A story or a novel is not merely a form of art, it is also a medium of expression of a personality. On the other hand, the writer is not merely a social theorist or sophisticated political thinker. The conscience of the independent writer submits only to truth and truth alone. And in that sense, it is the task of a writer to raise all kinds of questions, on all sides . . . and to always evaluate the possibility of alternative realities. Let us be able to recognize our own likes outside of the likes imposed on us.

Translated from the Bengali by V. Ramaswamy

Subimal Misra (b. 1943) is a Bengali writer. He has written exclusively in little magazines since 1967 and is regarded as the leading anti-establishment voice and persona in contemporary Bengali literature. He is acknowledged as the one who introduced cinematic language in Bengali writing. His stories and novels are called ‘anti-stories’ and ‘anti-novels.’ His stories, novels, essays, interviews, and a play comprise over thirty volumes. He lives in Kolkata.

V. Ramaswamy lives in Kolkata. He has been engaged in a multi-volume project to translate the short fiction of Subimal Misra. The first two collections, The Golden Gandhi Statue from America and Wild Animals Prohibited were published in 2010 and 2015 respectively. He was a recipient of Literature Across Frontiers’s Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship in creative writing and translation at Aberystwyth University in 2016.


Read more translations from the Asymptote blog: