I had no illusions: he had consented to receive me only because his close friends had warmly recommended me. Tarun and Dipanwita Roy were celebrated figures on the stage and Tarun was an accomplished playwright too. We had an easy bridge: they loved talking about the stage and I loved talking about plays I had read, from Aristophanes to Zola. We had become friends. They knew of my translation of contemporary writers and suggested I see their friend, the author.
I arrived on time and he opened the door to his sparse apartment. He was a small elderly bespectacled man, quick in his movements and precise in his words. He didn’t smile, though he sounded cordial, and pointed to a weather-beaten but comfortable chair. He left me for a moment to make some tea, and returned with two cups, and sat down with an expectant look.
Now he sat facing me, a cup of tea in hand, looking intently at the folder in my hand, “Tarun Roy told me that you have translated a story and want me to approve its publication.”
I had translated a story about a young couple in a troubled relationship who suddenly experience a severe earthquake in their home that wrecks many things in the house but fosters a new, tender bond between them – alas, only for a few minutes, for, as the quaking stops shortly, their relationship returns to an earlier precarious state.
I said, “I want to show you the translation, of course, but before that I have a confession to make.”
He frowned as I continued, “I have taken a small liberty in my translation in one place.” I mentioned the place in the story and added, “In the printed version that I have used, the sentence is shown as a statement from the husband. I felt the statement was a little invidious and slightly incongruous with the husband’s character. I thought the sentence would be better as an unexpressed thought of the husband. I have translated it accordingly.”
He asked, “What version have you used?”
I showed him the book, a potpourri of modern Bengali short stories.
Suddenly, his stern face dissolved in a broad smile, “Let me tell you something. When I first wrote that story for a magazine many years ago, that sentence was a thought, not a statement. Clearly, the editor of this collection hasn’t taken the pain to reproduce the story correctly.”
He got up. “Let me make you another cup of tea,” he said, “You deserve it.”
Over the second cup of tea came his welcome declaration, “Tarun has told me you write well. If you have read my story carefully enough to spot a mistake like that, I don’t need to check your translation. You can go ahead with it. Or any other translation.”
The tea now tasted better. I told him frankly that his mastery of words made his works not easy to translate, though translated they should be. Both because they were superb and expressed human values that would resonate with readers everywhere. He smiled modestly. I met him a few more times, also about further translations. He was unfailingly warm and helpful. I retain the memory of an incisive author who wore his fame lightly and was gracious to an unfamiliar nobody.
Last month was the anniversary of Premendra Mitra’s death. I have been re-reading his stories, now conveniently collected in two complete volumes and presentably published by Dey’s. It gives me again the extraordinary pleasure of reading some finely honed tales of a superlative master (though one stumbles over copious print errors of spelling and punctuation). He had written his first story, a story of love, when he accidentally encountered an old, soiled postcard from a wife to her migrant husband, and then continued writing when he felt somebody needed to tell the stories of myriad ordinary people. As I burn the midnight oil, I embark with Mitra on a strange odyssey, of men and women, rich and poor, simple and cultivated, city slickers and village housewives, angry young women and gentle older folk, urbane professors and gentle clerks, walking the winding roads of a metropolis or riding a bullock cart in the countryside, laboring, struggling, loving, suffering, and singing the imperishable song of undiminished life.