I first read about Sankar’s The Middleman on Chandrahas Choudhury’s excellent literary blog, The Middle Stage. Much had been said and read before I lay my hands on this book. Many a flattering review and several extolling that ‘the social commentary in this one cuts deep.’ Satyajit Ray even made a film of this – in his words, his only bleak film ever. This was bound to be a good read.
It wasn’t. Sankar’s original novel, Jana Aranya, is in Bangla and is translated by none other than Arunava Sinha (who seems to translate every Bengali novel in the subcontinent worth reading). Translations are always tricky to deal with, and I understand they need be read with a modicum of empathy for the author and subject. I did just that and came away deeply underwhelmed. The novel seemed to me like an elaborate short story, or at best what could’ve been a good novella.
The plot is simple enough, but the book labours the point too much. The prose become dreary in some parts and melodramatic in others. It didn’t help that it was largely set in the staid domesticity of a middle-class Bengali house. There seemed to me an effort to prolong the novel. The resolution at the end could be seen a mile away, and that didn’t appeal to my need to be held in rapt attention through till the end. For some time after I finished the book I wondered whether I’d missed the point. I revisited a few pages, but the book just didn’t work for me. As a comment on society, it might have some merit, but as a work of literature in translation, its charms failed me.
English Spoken Here is an article by Chandrahas on how globalisation has changed the Indian novel. It appeared in Foreign Policy in 2009: ‘India is so multilingual and multicultural that it’s best to think of every Indian novelist as a kind of translator.’ Dare I hazard the cliché, some works are lost in translation.