Ashapurna Debi’s “Shake the Bottle & Other Stories”, Translated by Arunava Sinha [Review: Anjana Basu]


Shake the Bottle & Other Stories
Ashapurna Debi
Translated by Arunava Sinha.
Foreword by Sharmila Tagore
Om Books
INR 295/

Ashapurna Debi was the first Indian woman novelist and short story writer.  In a sense one might say she was like Jane Austen because she used a canvas that was two inches of ivory. Her stories were about the household activities that she saw around her, the life in the rooms between husband and wife and the interactions between the people in the then joint families. Not to mention the life on the terraces which was where most women could take a breath of fresh air in the evenings and perhaps, if they were so inclined, exchange glances with the handsome young man on the next terrace. Many forbidden romances sprang into life on the terraces of Calcutta that ended in the usual tragedy with one or the other getting married and a broken heart at the end of it. Since life was so confined the politics between the different family members ran high and the woman who were lower down in the hierarchy had the worst of it.

Arunava Sinha has translated Shake the Bottle and Other Stories so as to make Ashapurna Debi’s work available to a wider readership. Sharmila Tagore in her foreword talks about how the stories united family members in evening discussion sessions in the days before soap operas. Ashapurna Debi’s work was in a sense a forerunner of those soaps though imbued with the subtlety of her own observations. Tagore wrote stories that also explored the life in the houses of Bengal but he did not see things from the woman’s perspective.

Two of the stories in Shake the Bottle are a matched pair – the Terrace and The Deceiver and the Deceived. Both narrate the unspoken wish to lose a partner and explore the different ways in which the news can be received by the rest of the extended family. For both, ultimately the death is welcomed as a guilty escape, however, the perception proves false and the old life continues.

What comes through in the translation is the fact that the stories are not simple. Some hold together on a single line, a delicate nuance. If that is missed, the reader is left wondering ‘huh? What happened here?’ That subtlety is part and parcel of Ashapurna Debi’s work – perhaps it has something to do with the Bengali psyche, the bleakness and longing of the women who found themselves imprisoned by a patriarchy and who contemplated how  to shake the bottle of social mores. In that sense the name of the title story is apt – these are stories of shakers. The twenty first century has now added ‘movers’ to that word but Ashapurna Debi’s characters never aspired to move mountains, possibly because they knew that ultimately it was beyond them

Sinha writes that her prose almost translates itself because of its simplicity of style and the flow of thought.  There are chapters in which he lets the Bengali relationship names stand, possibly because translating them would make for a long string of complicated words – boroginni is neat, eldest sister in law may not be.

Anjana Basu, Kolkata

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