Review: A Bengali Novella on the Complexities of Migration

‘Nahi, UP.’

Kanak was startled; were these people from UP going to take over Kolkata? Returning to his room that night he said, ‘You know, Shubho, ten years from now, Kolkata will not be a city of Bengalis anymore. It will become a part of UP and Bihar!’

In exploring the theme of migration, metropolitan cities have been central to several literary narratives. The migrant worker in search of better work opportunities leaves his home behind and comes to the city in search of a better life. An individual unhappy with the life conditions/factors that one is born into, comes to the city that gives him/ her a sense of anonymity, allowing an individual to think and act beyond the constricting rules that are a part of the homes they come from.

Redundant Bitan Chakraborty, Translated by  Malati Mukherjee Readomania, May 2022

The eyes of the people back at home are left behind and one is free from not just the clutches of a skewered perspective but also from the voices that would otherwise keep one bound to a particular class and vocation. The city turns into a hero for people who seek an escape; but the act of stepping out of one’s home is a double-edged sword. The buffer that one’s home and a familiar environment can create against the world seems to be lacking in the city.

Bitan Chakraborty’s novella Redundant – originally written in the Bengali language and titled Haat Kata – seeks to find answers through the eyes of migrant workers.

As the preface of the 1995 book Writing Across Worlds: Literature and Migration, observes:

“The migrant voice tells us what it is like to feel a stranger and yet at home, to live simultaneously inside and outside one’s im- mediate situation, to be permanently on the run, to think of returning but to re- alize at the same time the impossibility of doing so, since the past is not only another country but also another time, out of the present.”

It is with these internalised dichotomies that Chakraborty’s protagonists, Kanak and Shubho, try to survive in a new world. A shift from what is familiar to an unfamiliar territory brings about a change in how they perceive themselves. There is a shift in the definitions of the self; as the past selves stand in contrast to the newly-created one that has made radical changes to blend in; rather, the new life demands a transition in one’s perception.

Kanak, having completed a fashion designing course, is stuck as a salesperson at a garment shop. Shubho continues to search for a job and keeps changing his CV every week, adding six months to his work experience as well as increasing his salary expectations. The struggle to stay afloat in the city or to leave and go back home remains the underlying theme of this book and Malati Mukherjee’s beautiful translation of this novella brings out these ever-changing dynamics between an individual and the city really well. 

The city keeps getting redefined by the people that occupy a place in it. To make these spaces visible for others, the individual creates their own set of stories, in order to exchange their views on what according to them the is city all about. The spaces are not just created, but also opened up as alternatives from what one had to leave behind; the choices that one made in order to be a part of a new narrative.

If there is a crowd, he immediately becomes suspicious, watching everyone carefully. Strange, before coming to this city, Shubho hadn’t known what suspicion meant.

The city is continuously constructed and deconstructed by how an individual interacts with it. A certain level of melancholia hangs in these new spaces, as tearing away from one’s old selves is not easy. The migration that occurs within demands a price, and that comes up in the form of the invented selves that one carries within as one moves from one place to another.

After all, so many people come to the city – and are lost. Do they all receive a farewell? Do they deserve one? Isn’t obliteration from the city’s memory their just reward? 

In The Wretched of the Earth, Franz Fanon describes a colonial city as portioned in such a way that the two worlds – of the coloniser and the colonised – come up with stark differences in the way they function. One can apply it in the context of the migrant workers who come from villages and small towns to find a space for themselves in the city and amongst the city dwellers.

Also read: Review: Diary Writing as Wound and Therapy – Navigating Solitude Through the First Lockdown

The compartmentalisation that Fanon looks at in his book finds an echo in the present world: “This compartmentalised world, this world divided in two is inhabited by different species.”

In Redundant, it is through the eyes of Kanak and Shubho that the city takes on different façades. The city of Kolkata turns into a repository of secrets. There are silences and gaps, and at times there are voices that stem from its bowels screaming. 

“In this city, other than loneliness, everything else can go missing if left unchained.”

Which brings up the question of what constitutes home? The home that one tries to recreate or bring into existence. The alienation that comes along with it and a sense of social exclusion that one undergoes while trying to find a place for oneself have been brought out powerfully in this book. The struggle is a never-ending one, and leaves one with a question – as Kanak asks towards the end of the novella: 

Can we choose our ending?

The dichotomy stays; one does not give in nor give it up. 

Semeen Ali has four books of poetry to her credit. Her works have featured in several national and international journals as well as anthologies. She has been invited to literary festivals to read from her works. She has co-edited three anthologies of poetry that have been published nationally and internationally. Her new anthology on women’s writings will be published this year. Apart from reviewing books for prestigious journals, she is also the Fiction and the Poetry editor for the literary journal Muse India.

Featured image:  Subhasish Dutta / Unsplash