Amiya Sen was born in undivided India’s Barisal district in 1924. Her first novel, Jey Shaakhey Photey na Phool was first serialized in Desh magazine and later published as a book with the title Surhara Banshi. Amiya Sen’s short stories, poems, and articles have been published in various magazines, including Desh, Nabakallol, Purbabasha, Prabartak, Angana, Jayashree, Compass, Bangalakshmi, Sainik Samachar, Diganta, Loksebak, and Basumati. Amiya Sen has four published books to her credit: Surhara Banshi, New Delhi’r Nepothye, Aranyalipi, and Shonai Shono Roopkatha. She won two gold and eight silver medals for her writing.
Amiya Sen’s short story “Nirmala Boudi and the Bureaucracy” is translated by Bhaswati Ghosh for this issue.
Nirmala Boudi and the Bureaucracy
Nirman Bhavan – the building for which the late Lal Bahadur Shastri, the second Prime Minister of India, laid the foundation – now stands as an imposing structure. As the older Shastri Bhavan became too cramped, many such structures – each associated with a ministry – added to Delhi’s grandeur.
I had some work with the director of Nirman Bhavan. Although I’m not a government employee, occasionally I have to rub shoulders with senior government officers for the sake of my business.
The sight of Nirmala Boudi at the reception counter on the first floor shocked me. Gesticulating vigorously, she was arguing with the reception officer in excellent Hindi.
“Listen now. Whether I make ten visits or twenty, you can’t stop me from coming here. This office is for the public. We’ll come whenever we need to.”
The reception officer tried to reason with her with a resigned expression.
“I’m not stopping you from coming here, Ma’am. All I’m saying is if you call us before coming, it will save you unnecessary trouble.”
“Necessary or unnecessary, that’s for me to decide. Now, will you please issue me a pass?”
As she said those words, Nirmala Boudi almost grabbed the huge register spread open before the reception officer, Mr. Bhandari. Turning the register towards herself, she entered details such as Name: Mrs. Nirmala Roy, Purpose of Visit: allotment of house etc.
Mr. Bhandari had no option but to prepare a gate pass and hand it to the woman standing in front of him.
I needed a gate pass, too, but I had a different destination. I needed to see the director of the state office; Nirmala Boudi wanted to meet the additional director.
I watched the scene quietly, standing right behind Boudi. As she turned around with the gate pass, I said, “What brings you here – haven’t you got your house yet?”
Clutching a huge file close to her chest, a busy look reflecting off her glasses, Nirmala Boudi said, “Come outside – I’ll tell you.”
I didn’t want to get late, but Nirmala Boudi could be hard to ignore. There was a time when we were neighbors in a village in Bangladesh’s Bakharganj district. Nirmala Boudi was the eldest daughter-in-law of the Roy family, and I, the youngest son of Hemanta Gupta of the Gupta family. Our houses were adjacent to each other – a bamboo bridge over a small canal served as a shortcut from our house to theirs. This was a unique feature of Bakharganj or Barisal district, filled as it is with canals and streams. Villages, all surrounded by water, appear like islands complete in themselves.
At the time of her marriage, Nirmala Boudi was fourteen and I, a ten-year-old, studying in class five in the village school. In keeping with village customs, Atin Da, Nirmala Boudi’s husband, was like a brother to me. To fulfil his grandmother’s wish, Atin Da was married off to Nirmala Boudi as soon as he earned his graduate degree at twenty-two.
As next-door neighbours, the two of us didn’t take too long to get acquainted with each other. The Roy family had big fruit orchards on both sides of their house. I would gather whatever was in season – mangoes, Java plums, elephant apples, berries, guavas, custard apples, grapefruit, jujubes, velvet apples, cranberries – and run to the Roy household. Theirs was a big family with many members, so the house was always full of people. The family elders and the servants occupied the ground floor. The upper floor was almost entirely reserved for the family’s young brigade – married or not.
With a whole stash of ripe and unripe fruits, I would stealthily climb up the staircase to the first floor and sneak into the room on the southern end that was given to Atin da when he got married. The moment she saw me, Nirmala Boudi’s eyes would gleam with delight through her veil.
I was friends with the boys of the Roy family who were closer to my age, and this made it easier for me to get introduced to Nirmala Boudi. She happened to be the youngest bride– the same age as us –in the entire neighbourhood. We always kept a share of whatever we collected for her. All this had to be clandestine, though, given how conservative the Roys were. A daughter-in-law was almost like a prisoner in that house, denied any contact with the outside world. Naturally, the young Nirmala Boudi took to our group.
On summer afternoons, when the older folks enjoyed their siesta or were busy doing something else, we would drag Nirmala Boudi to the terrace and reveal our loot. From our pockets, we’d pull out green mangoes, berries, grapefruit, green chillies, a knife, salt and the like. Some of us would even bring freshly cut banana leaves to use as plates. Five or six of us sat circling Nirmala Boudi. She would peel the fruits, make a delicious mix with the available ingredients and heap them on the leaf plates. Our feasting would begin.
Even as we grew older, these sessions continued. The menu had changed by then, though. On torpid afternoons, escaping the elders’ glances, we would have tea parties huddled inside the closed doors of the Roys’ kitchen, which actually lay outside the boundaries of the house. Although some of the adults drank tea, the beverage was strictly prohibited for children. Nirmala Boudi didn’t just make us this forbidden drink; she also cooked for us something that was even more strictly off-limits – omelettes made from hen’s eggs, which she served us on banana leaf plates. She wouldn’t eat it herself, though.
Nirmala Boudi had another talent – she was an accomplished card player. Some of the other boudis played cards, too, but their skills were limited to the game of Twenty Nine. Nirmala Boudi played Bridge with us. She came from a family where sports, art and culture were highly valued.
Now, looking at this fifty-plus bespectacled, file-clutching, sari-draped woman, it’s difficult to think of that young bride of more than forty years ago
As an ordinary government servant, Atin Da quickly descended to the lower middle class after losing all his land, property and wealth in East Pakistan. With his retirement, the family landed where it was expected to – in deep waters. But Nirmala Boudi has always been known to turn the impossible into possible. Back in the village, one hadn’t been able to assess her ability all that well. Once in Delhi, she zipped out of her old shell like a bullet. Sitting beside her children, she opened books and notebooks, and from A, B, C, D, she went up to matriculation, then completed her B.A. Next, she rushed to the job market. Atin Da had retired by then. The feisty Nirmala Boudi didn’t stop before landing herself a job in the Ministry of Rehabilitation. Her age posed a bit of an issue, but she got past that challenge by getting hold of Indira Gandhi or the President. With Atin Da’s retirement, they had to vacate his government accommodation and move to a rented house. He had a few large payments to make – mostly to clear off the debt he’d incurred for his daughter’s marriage a year ago.
Since then, Nirmala Boudi had jumped through every possible hoop to arrange for government housing for her family.
Delhi is a sophisticated city. Since independence, it has been ruled by princes. Present-day businessmen are the new princes of India. Wasn’t this the day, after all, for which they had donated so generously to Gandhi’s non-violent movement? Now, they were living the golden dream. The extent to which they were living this dream would be impossible to tell if one didn’t see Delhi or feel its pulse. Despite the government’s endless concerns and measures for the common man, the strings were ultimately in the hands of these modern-day princes. And so, the poor got trampled upon everywhere.
The barely-a-room, tin-shed accommodation that Nirmala Boudi rented after Atin Da’s retirement had an initial rent of two hundred and fifty rupees, which went up to four hundred rupees. That was what made Nirmala Boudi so desperate for government accommodation.
“Do you understand, Bhanu, all this is the doing of that slimy Lachhman Singh. I applied five years ago, but he sat on my case, never sent my files up the food chain. That’s why I’m going to see the Additional Director now,” Nirmala Boudi told me while moving towards the elevator.
“How many years until you retire?” I asked.
“Oh, that – eight years. Eight years!” Nirmala Boudi said with a wink. “I lowered my age on the application. Who would offer me a job otherwise? And why shouldn’t I? Don’t you see the honest Yudhisthirs of independent India? People have forgotten how to walk on a straight path.”
“I see. But how do you expect to receive a house with just eight years of service remaining? I’ve heard it can take anywhere between ten and twenty years.”
“It all works out, Bhanu. Just wait and watch, I will get a house – no question.”
About a year later, I met Nirmala Boudi in Lajpat Nagar’s Central Market – the biggest and most popular market in South Delhi. I’d gone there with my family to do some shopping. South Extension – where I lived – had no dearth of shops, but thanks to its popularity among foreigners, the prices there were sky high. Despite living in a posh neighbourhood, I wasn’t affluent by any means and didn’t mind a good bargain.
Central Market was controlled by Punjabi and Sindhi refugees. The entire Lajpat Nagar locality was a West Pakistan refugee resettlement colony. Thanks to government funding, it wasn’t just a prosperous neighbourhood but almost a mini city in itself. Despite being a stronghold of traders and businessmen, the area also attracted ordinary people because of the many income opportunities it offered. That’s what kept the prices in check, too.
“What are you shopping for?” Nirmala Boudi asked as she walked towards me.
“So…what happened to your house, Boudi?”
“Oh, the house? Haven’t got it yet, but it will happen. Tomorrow I’m going to the Work and Housing minister’s house. If I can somehow manage a letter from the minister…”
In Delhi, every minister has a day reserved for meeting with members of the public; even the Lieutenant Governor does this. For an hour in the morning that day, people can submit their petitions and applications.
“You look tired,” my wife Anju said to Nirmala Boudi. “It must be the heat. So hot, isn’t it? On top of that there’s work, home, all this running after the house…”
I quietly observed Boudi. How the little bride who couldn’t go anywhere on her own had grown up. Destiny had brought her right under the naked sky. In this burning heat, Nirmala Boudi scurried from Nirman Bhavan to some other office to a minister’s house. Then, she rushed to take care of her home. Shopping, groceries, ration supplies…
“You’re feeling hot despite coming here in a car?” Nirmala Boudi laughed out loud.
“No, not really…but why are you doing all this by yourself, Boudi? What about Atin Da?”
“Forget your Atin Da, Bhanu. He’s from a zamindar family, you see. Despite losing everything, he hasn’t lost the pride of aristocracy. Bengalis like to think of themselves as the descendants of Rabindranath Tagore, Jagadish Bose and so on – even if their coffers are empty. Me – I come from a family of labourers. I am here to slog and will keep toiling until my last breath. Nothing makes me feel inferior. Anyway, I must get going now. Enjoy your shopping.” With that, Nirmala Boudi vanished in the market crowd.
It might be worth noting here that Nirmala Boudi’s father was a well-known physician.
The nature of my work didn’t allow me to settle in any one place. Luckily, at the time Nirmala Boudi was chasing a government accommodation, I stayed in Delhi for five years. The next time I came to the Indian capital was after a gap of nine years, having moved through Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.
The first person I thought of after returning to Delhi was Nirmala Boudi – had she got the coveted government housing in the end?
Anju had developed a sense of respect for Nirmala Boudi after hearing about her background. She even bought a nice sari while we were still in Bombay and brought it to Delhi as a gift for Boudi. At her insistence, we went out in search of Nirmala Boudi one day.
The house where Atin Da’s family lived as tenants in Krishna Nagar had new faces this time around. The elderly landlord informed us that Nirmala Boudi’s family had moved to a rented room in Sadiq Nagar nearly five years ago. He even gave us the address after looking it up in a notebook.
As our car sped towards Sadiq Nagar, Anju said with some concern, “Didn’t Didi have eight years of work left the last time you met her? We’re returning after nine years…”
The thought worried me, too, yet at the same time, I was curious to know how it had turned out for Boudi.
Morning had rolled into afternoon by the time we reached Sadiq Nagar. Smart as ever, Anju had brought along a tiffin carrier packed with food, tea in a thermos flask and a bottle of
water. I occasionally suffered from digestive problems, so Anju didn’t let me eat out. Following her orders, we had to stop midway so I could grab a bite. Anju took the slip of paper with Nirmala Boudi’s address on it and climbed up to the third floor of a building. I remained in the car. After twenty minutes or so, Anju came down.
“Did you find them?”
“We’ll know if we meet them. Let’s go to Dakshin Puri.”
Anju gave me another slip of paper – with an address for the Dakshin Puri slums.
At the time of the Emergency when Delhi was being “cleansed” at a fervent pace, hundreds of thousands of poor, unskilled labourers were given twenty-two or twenty-five square yards of land, leading to the creation of countless slums along the capital’s edges. Dakshin Puri emerged as one of the biggest of those slum clusters. Later, the Delhi Development Authority did create one- and two-room flats for the poor. I hadn’t had a chance to see the place for myself, so was curious about it.
As we made our way to Dakshin Puri, it occurred to me Nirmala Boudi must have bought a house with the money she got at retirement. We made our way towards the DDA flats. But when we didn’t find Boudi’s house even after an hour’s search, I suggested to Anju that we turn back. But Anju wouldn’t give up.
I turned the car back towards the local market. Maybe the shopkeepers could give us some clues. After scanning three or four shops, we stopped at a jewelry store. A young store boy, who I thought looked like a Bengali, came up to us. Before the store owner could turn us away, he said, “Do you have the house number?”
When I handed him the slip of paper, he said, “Not this way. This address is where the twenty-two square yard folks live. If you go along that tree-lined street and turn left, you’ll see a dirt road. Turn there – that’s where the twenty-two yard shanties are.”
Off we went as directed. I felt a bit annoyed with Anju for her stubbornness. But the scene I witnessed upon entering the dirt road made my grudge disappear. Houses with mud-plastered walls and roofs of tin or straw flanked both sides of the street. In between, a few real, properly-constructed houses broke the rhythm. This was a pristine dirt road, untouched by asphalt. Hand pumps stood on street sides at a good distance from each other. A hint of woodlands peeked from behind the colony. With trees surrounding them, the mud houses created an aura of an urban village. I say urban because the electric poles on the streets of Dakshin Puri made it clear the colony was indeed connected to the capital city.
The forest behind the colony seemed to elevate in altitude. A closer look revealed it was actually a spread-out hillock.
Anju interrupted my nature immersion with, “How long will you keep gazing like that? Let’s look for the house now.”
Which was tricky, given that many of the houses didn’t have any numbers. After wasting some fifteen minutes, we came across a matronly woman who came out of one of the kutcha houses. She asked Anju something in pure Chittagong dialect. I didn’t understand a single word of what the lady said; Anju didn’t seem to, either. She showed the address slip to the woman and desperately described Nirmala Boudi’s appearance and height. Finally, a boy walking by came to our rescue.
“If you go to Dr. B. M. Moitra, he’ll be able to help you.”
“So you also have doctors here?”
“Yes sir. A Bangali doctor. He knows everyone.”
We found the doctor’s signboard at a short distance. The clinic had a tin roof and mud-plastered walls. A slice of verandah led to a small room. On the verandah were a couple of benches, probably meant for waiting patients. The room had a wooden cabinet, a couple of wooden chairs, a table and an earthen pot of water in a corner.
A dignified, elderly gentleman sat on one of the chairs and leaned towards the table to write something in a notebook. Before I could enter the room, Anju got in and sat down on the spare chair like an uninvited guest. She looked tired and strained. The doctor looked up in surprise. The clinic had likely not been visited by a woman from Anju’s socio-economic background before and the physician kept looking at her in wonder without saying a word. Anju took the lead and narrated to him the purpose of our visit. The doctor listened quietly, finally breaking his silence to say, “You’re talking about Mrs. Roy. Husband, wife and two sons.”
“Yes, yes, the same people.”
“They don’t live here.”
“But this address…” Anju took out the piece of paper from her bag, but the doctor continued talking without even looking at it.
“For a short while, they lived in a jhuggi they bought here a couple of years ago. But when she cashed her provident fund and gratuity money, she sold off the jhuggi and moved away,” the doctor motioned to the woods behind him, “to settle in their pukka house, there, on that hillock.”
The doctor chuckled. His expression seemed a bit odd, so I asked, “Do people actually live there?”
“Human habitation…well not really, but Mrs. Roy and her family are pretty well settled. Why don’t you go and find out for yourself?” The doctor smiled again.
What followed could be summarised in a few words, yet, in capable hands, the story could fill up the pages of a robust Oxford English dictionary.
We parked the car at the base of the hillock and climbed the zigzag stairs leading up to it. It was almost sundown. The sinking sun cast a tangerine glow over the vast tract of land and the trees laden with fruits and flowers it accommodated. Right in the middle stood a pretty bungalow with the words Bhavani Temple written on it in cement. The room straight off the verandah seemed locked from inside. The two of us stepped up to the verandah and looked around. Nobody in sight. Wiping the sweat gathering on her forehead, Anju said, “This looks like a temple; there’s no other house around! Let’s go around to the back and check.”
The back of the house left us speechless. We could see a gardener tending to a huge flower garden. Nirmala Boudi supervised his work draped in an expensive, red-bordered silk sari. Just like the front, the back of the house had a large porch, at a corner of which Atin Da sat on an easy chair, holding a book in his hands. Both of them seemed to have gone back in time by a decade.
“My, my, Bhanu is here…Anju, too. Shunchho? Come and see who’s here!” Nirmala Boudi rushed over to clasp Anju’s hands and pull her inside the house. Atin da followed them with a smile. Nirmala Boudi got busy showing us around the house — three bedrooms, a drawing room, a reading room, a store, a kitchen and two toilets. Expensive mosaic on the floor. Stylish curtains and drapes on the doors and windows. Not to mention the high-end furniture and other items all over the house.
The scene left not just me, but Anju dumbstruck, too. It occurred to me that at the time of their daughter Nanda’s wedding, Nirmala Boudi and Atin Da had borrowed a thousand rupees from us. They hadn’t been able to pay the money back.
Anju tried to shove the sari she was carrying into the sofa next to her. She probably felt embarrassed to gift a 75-rupee sari to this new Nirmala Boudi. But Boudi seemed delirious with joy at having us there. She took out several varieties of sweets from the fridge and served them to us on big plates at her large dining table. She also cooked some ready-to-fry fish croquettes and served them along with three kinds of soft drinks. Then, she sat down at the table and forced us to stuff ourselves.
As I ate, I kept looking at Nirmala Boudi in amazement. But I didn’t have to ask anything to whet my curiosity. Once we were done eating, Nirmala Boudi brought out a plate of betel nuts and other mouth fresheners and began narrating her story.
“Do you get it, Bhanu – in free India, nothing can be accomplished in a straightforward manner. You saw how I struggled for mere government accommodation. But even after all that running around, the scoundrels didn’t give me a house. Our sons began college. How could we pay a rent of four-hundred rupees? Your Atin Da’s pension barely covered any expenses – it didn’t amount to even two hundred rupees. And we had the debt from Nanda’s wedding.
“One day, our landlord came with his people to throw us out of the house. We begged him to let us stay for a bit longer, then rented a tiny room for two-hundred rupees in Sadiq Nagar. After retiring, I bought a jhuggi in Dakshin Puri for seven-hundred rupees. We were in dire straits by then.
“The suggestion came from the doctor, I mean, Moitra Babu. The poor have no place in Delhi. But a temple? That’s never an issue; no rules need to be followed to build one. Back then, this spot had no temple. I mulled it over, and then one day, I climbed up this hillock with a spade in my hand. As I dug through, a small, broken idol of goddess Jagaddhatri came out…”
“How did you manage that?” Anju asked with a suppressed smile.
“Why, I hid the idol in the same container I had taken for bringing the earth,” Nirmala Boudi said with an innocent smile. “As I showed the idol to the locals, the news became a sensation. You saw for yourself the people who live here – ignorant fools – the real India. They came with whatever little they had and donated. I built the temple – with a red flag to formalize its establishment. The police did come once, but on seeing me immersed in mediation, they thought me to be the goddess incarnate and went away after gesturing a namaste. The residents of Dakshin Puri were all behind me.
“This house wasn’t built in a day, though. It happened over time and was constructed almost entirely with money from the temple.”
“From the temple?” Anju couldn’t hide her surprise.
“Of course!” Nirmala Boudi laughed loudly. “Don’t you know how devoted the capital’s residents are? Now we get visitors from afar. You probably didn’t notice, but I’ve even got a pathway made for cars to come to the top. A lot of affluent folks visit us, too. The goddess is believed to be rather potent; she’s known to fulfill everyone’s wishes.”
“I’m scared of your Boudi now, Bhanu. Who knows if she’s actually a goddess in a human form,” Atin Da said with a wink.
“Nobody, not even the government listens to you unless you take up a sword, Bhanu! And now! See, how I built a whole house for free. I dare anyone to uproot me from here.”
“But will your sons be able to carry this forward?”
“Why not? They will appoint priests with good salaries. Right now I manage everything – a few hours every morning and evening. I have no chores in the house – we have two full-time servants.”
“But I don’t see anyone…”
“They have gone to the market – one to bring things for the home, the other for the temple. They’ll be back soon.”
“Your house is built on a temple, and you consume meat and fish!”
“Sab chalta hai,” Nirmala Boudi said, “anything goes. That’s why the backyard is bigger than the front, didn’t you notice? The only problem is that every evening, a crowd from the slums gathers here to scream in the name of singing devotional songs. That’s part of the temple’s identity. I have no choice but to put up with it. Did I ever dream, Bhanu, that I will send my son to study engineering abroad?”
I reacted with surprise; Anju was even more astonished. The package containing the sari slipped off the sofa. Nirmala Boudi was close enough to spot it. As she picked it up, she said, “Is it a sari?”
“Umm, yes,” Anju said awkwardly. “I had gone to Calcutta, so…”
“Wow, so beautiful! You must have brought it for me?”
Anju smiled. “But it isn’t silk, Didi.”
“Please spare me the silk – I’m tired of wearing that every morning and evening! This will be so relaxing,” Nirmala Boudi said with childlike joy as she walked away clutching the sari.
When she returned a little later, she was wearing Anju’s gift and carrying a bundle of notes.
“Bhanu, here’s the money you lent us.”
“This looks like more, Boudi.”
“If you had kept it in a bank, you would have earned interest on it, so I’m paying you two thousand rupees.”
“No, Boudi, that’s not done.”
As I put down five hundred-rupee notes on the table, Atin Da said with a smile, “Take it, Bhanu. Your Boudi isn’t poor anymore. And this isn’t fraudulently earned money. Topu, our older son has an excellent job as a chartered accountant. He lives in Bombay and sends a good amount to his mother every month. Apu, the younger one, is studying abroad with the goddess’ grace, though.” Atin Da laughed.
Boudi smirked and said, “We lost our desh, land, wealth – everything. India’s independence arrived by sacrificing us. And they wouldn’t even give me a small house, telling me they couldn’t allot it out of turn? Should I have languished on the streets? When the business of religion is flourishing so well in Delhi, why shouldn’t I be in that game?”
Before we left, we touched Nirmala Boudi’s feet to receive her blessings. The brave woman had not just taken on, but turned the Government of India’s bureaucracy on its head.
Interview with translator Bhaswati Ghosh
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Bhaswati Ghosh: I’m not sure if it came as a realization; it was more likely a natural evolution as I grew up around a grandmother, Amiya Sen who was an author (whose story I’ve incidentally translated for this issue) and a mother who dealt with Bengali books at the Arts Library in Delhi University. Bengali is my first language, and I grew up in an environment soaked in it, even as I enjoyed writing in English, thanks to an excellent middle-school teacher. In 2008-09, these two loves came together when I translated Somendranath Bandopadhyay’s book, Shilpi Ramkinkar Alapchaari into English (as My Days with Ramkinkar Baij), a work for which I received the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship in Translation. Writing and translation have since been constants in my life.
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Bhaswati Ghosh: Unless it is fantasy, and even within that genre, fiction is invariably drawn from real life and the world around us. Politics affects every bit of that everyday life — from the pair of shoes we choose to wear to the social causes we participate in. As such, short fiction can’t remain divorced from the prevailing political reality, and the some of the noteworthy practitioners of the genre — be it Rabindranath Tagore, Saadat Hasan Manto, Doris Lessing, Mahasweta Devi, Alejandro Zambra or Hassan Blasim — have not been shy of discussing politics, and its impact (social, economical, and psychological) on the lived reality of their characters.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Bhaswati Ghosh: It’s difficult to choose from a long list of writers, but I want to recommend two writers I’ve enjoyed reading a lot: the first is the Canadian Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro. Whenever I read her, I’m seized with both the thrill and dread of a scientist in a laboratory who discovers the minutiae of organic life under a microscope. Munro turns the spotlight on lives around us with astonishing alacrity.
The second name I want to recommend is the Iraqi writer, Hassan Blasim. In his short story collection, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories, Blasim takes us through the lives of a people whose entire world is war — not only the external conflict raging around them, but a series of battles — against international sanctions that leaves them without electricity for 20 hours a day, avenging the killings of their loved ones, dealing with deep and unresolved trauma — with scathing candour and dark humour.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Bhaswati Ghosh: A strong hook is the biggest element that draws me into a short story. What keeps me engaged is how well the hook is then used to weave in the setting, characters and plot. The best short stories don’t necessarily result in something, but immerse the readers in a present-continuous unfolding. Intelligence, rendered as flashes of insight, is another thing that makes short stories enjoyable for me.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Bhaswati Ghosh: To be curious and patient. I used two virtues instead of one, because I think they are inseparable when it comes to writing or translation.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Bhaswati Ghosh: I’m currently working on a nonfiction book on Delhi, the city of my birth. It deals with the different communities who came to the capital for various reasons and made it their home. I also need to complete the translation of Aranyalipi, my grandmother’s nonfiction book on East Pakistani refugees who were sent to Dandakaranya under a government of India rehabilitation project. The seeds of my next novel are starting to germinate in my mind too, but it will be a while before I can get to that story.