The Spirit Whisperer: Harbart (Book Review)

Literary translations are always tricky as it is more of a creative act than just converting one language to another. More than just translation, it is the cultural knowledge that matters. A case in point would be to see "The Mask" with Hindi subtitles. Jim Carrey in one of the scenes says "Smoke Head" and you can't but laugh at what appears in the subtitles..."Dhumrapaan". The translator clearly did not understand the word and it's cultural meaning. And this is where many translators falter and display their weaknesses.

Having said that, it's never easy to translate a book without losing any of its original meaning. Some books can merely be translated but others like Harbart need something more like transliteration. When I started reading Harbart, I didn’t know what to review; the story or the translation (I haven't read the original Bengali version of the book). Maybe, I'll do both.

First about the story. At the heart of Nabarun Bhattacharya's Harbart is Herbert Sarkar or Harbart; an orphan who made a living by pretending to be a spirit whisperer. Little did anyone know that it was the ghosts of his own memories that haunted him.

The story opens with Harbart's death or rather suicide. The description of his death is sprinkled with grotesque details and serves as a diving board for the mystery ahead. The rest of the book gives us the back-story leading up to the suicide and the rather "explosive" climax.

The original book was first published in 1993 and using Harbart's character, Nabarun Bhattacharya throws the readers into an environment where almost everything was wrong with Kolkata at that time. In spite of the stench, decay and general apathy of Kolkata, Harbart rises with subtle aspiration of becoming an entity who is far cry from the city that he was a part of.

It was Harbart's first hand experiences with naxalism, death and humiliation that cajoles him to choose a profession that makes him famous. How the nonchalance of his surroundings finally brings about his downfall is something that I'd rather leave the readers of the book to find out. Nabarun Bhattacharya’s style of writing brought a whiff of freshness. The various nuances of imagery, sarcasm and dark humor makes Harbart a delight to read.

Now a word on the translation. Arunava Sinha does an amazing work in bringing forth the dark humor that Harbart is all about. However, he could have done a little more justice. Arunava, I'm sure culturally understood the story but unfortunately, he didn't belong to Harbart's era. The word to word translations of the poems absolutely did not convey their significance.

It's imperative that a translator should reproduce the original author's style but this is not possible all the time. It wouldn’t and cannot be an absolute translation but the approximate should be aimed for. I am a Bengali who cannot read or write his mother tongue and this embarrassed soul says a Big Thank You to Arunava. I need to hand it to Arunava for making non-Bengali readers get access to an amazingly textured story like Harbart.  Readers should not miss this unusual piece of Bengali Literature.

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