Memorabilia Revisited: A review of Tagore’s ‘Chhelebela’ (My Growing Years)


By Srijita Kar Chowdhury

My Growing Years is my first-hand reader’s experience with the great text, Chhelebela (as it is originally titled in Bengali), which I learned in bits and pieces during my childhood. Translated by Somudranil Sarkar and published by CLASSIX (an imprint of Hawakal), it is a short memoir by Rabindranath Tagore, written at the mature age of almost 80, filtering much of his recollections of the past through the sieve of nostalgia and experience. It is an autobiographical narrative and yet not limited to the individual’s life, as it accounts for the lives and times of others around him.

Being a Prabashi Bangali (non-resident Bengali), it is fair to say that Sarkar’s translation might have saved me from the shame of admitting that I haven’t read the text. As I embarked upon the journey with the translation, I could find myself slowly disappearing and reappearing in the old-world charm of Calcutta, where horses and porters were the kings of the streets. Here, I was taken aback when the aforementioned Gaspar Noe’s technique of ‘Split Screen’ appeared in my mind, and I could see Tagore’s Calcutta synthesizing itself into London of the 1800s as televised in Jeremy Brett’s version of Sherlock Holmes:

In the Coach box, the coachman would sit with the turban tilted to one side of his head, two kinswomen at the back, fly whisk hung on their waists, and shout ‘heiyo’ at the passersby along the way. 

Slowly and stealthily, as the author’s world takes a form and his narrative starts bubbling, one can feel the ride has begun and the sceneries passing through maps the whole journey. Upon easing into the reader’s chair and sinking into the fabric of the cushion, all the elements emerge. The polyphonic aspects of the Bengali syntax find bewildering renditions in the English narrative without any kind of glitch. The language, the description, and the design of the narrative would make one see a kind of Austenian aristocracy in the Indian context. The riches of Tagore and his time are quite evident in the text:

All such traces of those times have vanished into thin air. The facts that have survived from the past are the graves of two sahibs. While the tall palm trees would sway in the breeze, the grandchildren of the peasants of that day would now and again witness the ghost of the Sahibs—wandering in the creepy garden of the house.

Sarkar’s ornamental vocabulary deftly manages to capture Tagore ambience. A translator cannot simply translate the language. That is not where his genius lies. The genius of a translation lies in its charm of evoking a similar essence to that of the original. For me, Sarkar’s translation is a ‘book’ and not simply a translated work if one can decipher the meaning of this. Believing in the original author’s story and designing a plan to pick words that not only suit the assonance of that author’s style but the flow of the author’s timeline is not an easy task. Sarkar has managed to master this, that too with an invincible text like this, which is a milestone. Teleporting into the archaic Calcutta is not an easy task. Being a Prabashi, I have always quenched to learn more and more about the city. This text sufficed my age-long thirst for which even the visitation became a joyride if nothing less.

My Growing Years, a twice-removed title, may occasion a twitch in the eye of those who are more accustomed to Chhelebela. However, it works for me and serves each and every purpose. I hope Somudranil Sarkar further continues his style of translation and works on more such regional texts to bridge the gap between the greats and the likes of me. I managed to read this great book via this translation. It resonates with what Ken Liu wrote once, 

We are different, you and I, and the qualia of our consciousnesses are as divergent as two stars at the ends of the universe. And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me.

Srijita Kar Chowdhury, an independent researcher from Delhi, is currently based in Pondicherry. She has been working as an assistant director for Lubdhak Chatterjee for various documentaries and non-fiction films. Being a former faculty of literature at a university in Jaipur and a theatre enthusiast, she has always believed in the synthesis of theory and practice that enhances the reception of texts and brings one closer to the art. A part-timer at Indianostrum Theatre, she is relocating herself in the theatre space to further work towards the synthesis she believes in, more efficiently.


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