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Gopal Lahiri , Rajat Chaudhuri
In conversation with Rajat Chaudhury, the translator of Calcutta Nights
Gopal Lahiri

Rajat Chaudhuri has published six books in two languages including novels, short story collections, edited anthologies and Calcutta Nights, a work of translation (Niyogi Books) from the Bengali original Raater Kolkata by Hemendra Kumar Roy. Chaudhuri’s speculative novel The Butterfly Effect (Niyogi Books) is listed as one of `Fifty Must-Read Eco-disasters in Fiction’ by Word Riot, US. He has been a Charles Wallace Writing Fellow, UK; a Hawthornden Castle Fellow, Scotland; a Villa Sarkia Resident writer, Finland (invited 2020); a Korean Arts Council-InKo Resident, South Korea; and a Sangam House resident writer. He is also a climate activist and a climate-fiction researcher and commentator. As a columnist and a futurist he writes for The New Indian Express and frequently for Scroll and other publications. Chaudhuri has presented his work at universities and other venues in India, USA, UK, Hong Kong and Korea and he is currently co-editing an Asia-Pacific anthology of solarpunk stories. He can be found online at and at Twitter @rajatchaudhuri.

A man of many parts, Rajat opens his mind with frankness and brevity in this interview with Gopal Lahiri for Muse India.

Gopal Lahiri (Gopal): Hemendra Kumar Roy was known for his contribution to the early progress of the genre of children’s literature in Bengali language and was a popular author of detective fiction and adventure stories. What inspired you to translate his memoir Rater Kolkata into English?

Rajat Chaudhury (Rajat): Let me first thank you and Muse India for this opportunity to talk about Calcutta Nights. One can approach Hemendra Kumar Roy either through his ‘genre’ writing, an acquaintance which usually happens in our childhood or via some of his critical writing, biographies and this memoir, Rater Kolkata or Calcutta Nights which was a sort of secret and forbidden book more so because the author used a double pseudonymn. People are already working on translating some of the so called genre work—the detective, adventure and science fiction. I was attracted to his memoir about Calcutta because this city is also my muse and is often the setting for my stories and novels like Hotel Calcutta, Calculus (in Bengali) or the recent The Butterfly Effect.

I am a bit of a flâneur myself, often preferring the dark and the dangerous, and so Hemendra-babu’s prose had an immediate resonance. Also there is hardly any work about Asian cities from the early part of the 20th century that is comparable to Calcutta Nights as the review in South China Morning Post has pointed out. This had come to my mind while choosing this text. The mystery surrounding authorship and how Hemendra-babu took care to hide himself added to the appeal of his story.

Gopal:  Can a translated work truly do justice to the original?

Rajat:  A translated work stands on its own as an independent text and also in a certain relation to the original. The target language and its audience is like a parallel universe with somewhat different physical laws and here the translated text is a newcomer. The better it has adapted to this new reality, the better are its prospects. However, this adaptation, this transformation or say shape-shifting, has to be anchored to its past in the source language. The heart of the translated text has to tick to the tune that played in the world it came from (original text) but it has to look, behave and communicate in a way that is meaningful and entertaining to the audience in the parallel universe. And yet this new audience should be able to hear and enjoy that same original tune.       

Gopal: Yet Jacques Derrida says, ‘Every text remains in mourning until it is translated.’ Your thoughts?

Rajat:  Derrida is alluding here to translation as a theatre of difference, a cornerstone of his thoughts about language and meaning. To simplify it further, it is through translation that the multi-dimensional possibilities of a text are encountered and communicated which is significant in the sense of a rite of passage, a new life, a new death. To fall back on our example, the passage to the parallel universe with its new laws and customs where meaning is created, conveyed, transformed, lost and re-created is necessary as it re-energises the text. Every creation waits in the gilded cage of the source language for this escape, this rebirth.

Gopal: We know that much may be lost in translation, but much is also gained. And an inquisitiveness about other voices from other contexts is important. What do you think about it in the context of Calcutta Nights?

Rajat: Calcutta Nights is set in the first two decades of the last century. As I have pointed out in the introduction, these were interesting times with the independence movement in full swing, the failed partition and carving out of Bihar and Odisha from the Bengal Presidency. Naturally, there are many cultural and historical references which could easily get diluted in translation if the contexts are not built into the new text. I have tried to do this as often as practicable but beyond that I have provided extensive endnotes. This I believe adds extra value to the book for researchers while illuminating the text with deeper meaning. Here, I must thank Dr Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and my editor Mohua Mitra for their very useful suggestions which enriched the text.

Gopal: The divergences and colours of early twentieth century politically turbulent Calcutta, the capital of the erstwhile British Empire, reached far into our lives. Does that trait in the book fascinate you?

Rajat: Though set in politically turbulent times you would notice these events don’t figure directly in Hemendra-babu’s narrative. There are only allusions and references in the text. The rich-poor divide as also the contrast between the colour and pomp of the white town area in and around Esplanade and the darkness of beggars’ hovels are strikingly presented and that is definitely one of the attractions of this book. 

Gopal: It appears that the author only plunges into hell and fails to trace the human spirit of the city. All the while, he is only interested in revealing the dark subjects pertaining to Calcutta. Is there a problem in this or does it all fall into place for you?

Rajat: Calcutta Nights has a strong connection with earlier works like the ever-popular Hootum Pyanchar Naksha (The Observant Owl: Hootum’s Vignettes of Nineteenth-century Calcutta by Kaliprasanna Sinha) which are satirical ‘sketches’ of city life. I would say, following John Updike, writing needs to be evaluated on the basis of what the author wanted to do, not what he did not attempt. Did he succeed in his project to portray Calcutta in all its wonderful chiaroscuro? Absolutely. Moreover I do not have any issue with the ‘gothic’ in art and literature. It serves an important purpose to balance the rational humanist tendencies with a bit of sturm und drang. The ghettoisation of this kind of writing, especially in fiction by stamping it as ‘genre,’ is an ongoing problem.         

When Hemendra-babu is writing this true account he is also reaching back to the very popular genre of city mysteries which as you know flourished in the middle and late 19th century Europe beginning with Eugene Sue’s masterful Les Mystères de Paris. Why in fact some of the scenes in the tapis-franc of that Paris book where thieves and murderers assembled or say the episode where the police arrives in the gambling-den in George W.M. Reynolds The Mysteries of London could easily be placed alongside certain settings in Calcutta Nights which however happens to be a true account. This solid tradition besides its connection to Hutoom’s ‘sketches’ in Bengali makes this work quite fascinating.

Gopal: The memoir reflects the unevenness, the lower depth and the dismay all around in Calcutta under gas lights and in utter chaos. Do you feel that aspect actually grabs the intense gaze of the readers?

Rajat: Some of that and its opposite – the opulence and the grandeur, the debauchery, the life of the Sonagachhi brothels, the thin air of mystery in the Chinatown chapter and so on. But that would be just skimming the surface. I guess Hemendra-babu’s facility as a fiction writer elevates this book much above the garden-variety memoir.  

Gopal: Calcutta Nights is nothing but a mere reportage of a monstrous city with its filth and squalor, its babu culture, sex, and crime, its burning ghats and the underbelly. Do you agree with this? Either way, why?

Rajat: I would leave it to the reader to decide. Thankfully the reader response has been great and the reviews are very generous. If we examine how scenes are evoked and the way keen observation is married to sociological analysis and research, all framed within an engaging narrative which goes at a clip, we might begin to uncover the reasons why. What I have said in response to your previous two questions is also relevant here.     

Gopal: You have chosen to write in a soft measured tone that has a certain mellifluousness that speaks of the artistic leanings of the translator. Is it a deliberate attempt on your part?

Rajat: Generally, I have tried to be faithful to the original in all its manifestations of style, language and content, as far as practicable, which brings us back to our discussion at the beginning of this conversation. So it’s really Hemendra-babu’s artistry shining through. I recently completed translating an anthology of poetry by ten poets from India and Bangladesh and there the demands from the translator is of a different order altogether. As a poet you can imagine how poetry translation plays out differently and the extent of its demands on literary or artistic skills of the translator.   

Gopal: The hardest part of the translation is the choice of appropriate words. You have mentioned that you have kept Bengali words and archaic expressions to reproduce the language and mood of that time. Is there anything else you rather would have done to be in sync with the original?

Rajat: Not anything that I can think of right away but one works, experiments and learns. We learn new things each day. I am always picking up techniques from other translators especially Arunava Sinha who is a big inspiration. The other day he was talking about translating puns in the context of Sukumar Roy’s Hojoborolo (Habber-Jabber-Law). He said if the text has a lot of punning going around it is a good idea to maintain the frequency of puns per page if not trying to translate the actual puns which is often not so easy.  

Gopal: Do you find yourself as a translator much in the company of the author till the end of the book?

Rajat: Being a mystery writer, Hemendra-babu tries to pull the vanishing trick once in a while but the translator, I hope, was always hard on his heels.


Issue 92 (Jul-Aug 2020)

Book Reviews
  • Arpana Nath: ‘The Sixth River – A Journal from the Partition of India’
  • Gopal Lahiri: ‘Calcutta Nights’ – along with translator interview
  • Hema Ravi: ‘Of Cloudless Climes’
  • Patricia Prime: ‘Unwinding Self’
  • Revathy Sivasubramaniam: ‘Dangling Gandhi and Other Short Stories’
  • Sunaina Jain: ‘Coconut – How the Shy Fruit Shaped Our World’
  • Sutanuka Ghosh Roy: ‘Selected Songs – Rabindranath Tagore’
  • Usha Akella: ‘Poppies in the Post and Other Poems’