I first came across the work of Nabarun Bhattacharya (1948–2014) about a decade ago in Calcutta, after a long afternoon of wandering conversation of the kind that Bengalis call adda, a session that no doubt included numerous cups of tea, many cigarettes, much talk about books, films, and politics before peaking, in the evening, with kebabs and cheap Indian rum. These freewheeling hours of aimless mental flaneurie that make no concessions to modernity’s iron cage of productivity and self-improvement have their own usefulness. Somewhere in the course of that day, from the recommendations of my companions, I ended up buying a copy of Harbart.
The book was printed, in the manner characteristic of Bengali publishing, as an emaciated hardboard volume that resembled a pamphlet more than a hardback. Yet appearances can be deceptive, and in this case, in more ways than one. The slimness of Harbart, like the seeming fragility of its eponymous protagonist, was mere camouflage. It wasn’t a book so much as a bomb, assembled with precision and intent. It was as if Bhattacharya had meticulously gathered fragments from a broken, fractured world, wiring the parts together with language and soldering the terminals with humor, compassion, and rage—and then set the story on a timer. You can hear it ticking as you read Harbart, before the book explodes in your hands.
The target of this novel-bomb is not the reader but the complacency of the reader, and everything that has gone into making that complacency possible—the beguiling but brutal fantasies of capitalism, consumerism, and globalization; the mythologies of power that will not look at those left behind or those being reluctantly dragged along; the smug assertion, ever since the collapse of the internationalist left in the nineties, that we are living, give or take a few incidental details, in the best of all possible times.
Harbart demolishes such established pieties right from the start, opening with a summer night in a Calcutta back alley where a group of men vomit out their night’s intake of alcohol and food and a rag-clad madwoman splashes water on herself, legs wide open. This is Bhattacharya’s city, where it is irrelevant that nativist pride has responded to globalization by insisting it be called Kolkata in English, or that an autocratic political leader, having dethroned a leftist government that had ceased to be leftist in almost everything but name, offered to boost that nativist pride further by constructing, in the manner of London, a Kolkata Eye along its shabby, polluted waterfront. The metropolis in Harbart is a far cry from all this. It is a city out of joint, a world turned upside down, a place where swarming cockroaches fly upward like angels and satellite dishes gape at the sky in the hope of swallowing a falling star. It is even a city with a fairy, but a fairy unable to help Harbart as he lies in bed, his life ebbing away at the point where he has severed a vein on his left hand with a razor blade.
But death is not the end, not in Bhattacharya’s fictional universe. Although Harbart kills himself at the very beginning of the novel, there is an afterlife for him. Doubling back from that scene of suicide, the novel gives us a tragicomic life arc that includes Harbart’s being orphaned early in childhood, his dropping out of school, and his dabbling in verse while becoming an autodidact with an interest in the occult.
Although many members of Harbart’s lower-middle-class family are neglectful and abusive toward him, others are drawn to him in affection: his elderly aunt, the underclass of the neighborhood, and most of all, Harbart’s college-going cousin Binu, a member of the ultra-left Naxalite movement that swept through Calcutta and much of India in the seventies before being put down brutally by the state. Binu, too, is killed by the police, shot down while painting graffiti heralding a revolution that will never come; yet it is his appearance in a dream of Harbart’s that convinces the neighborhood that he possesses the power of communicating with the dead.
And on that local reputation Harbart’s small business is founded, and then conducted from his bedroom but with a signboard outside that reads, in the manner of Calcutta neighborhood stores, “Conversations with the Dead. Prop: Harbart Sarkar.” The business is, of course, a sham, Harbart’s mystical pronouncements conjured by a fervent imagination and close attention to three Bengali books: two occult texts, Accounts of the Afterlife and Mysteries of the Afterlife, and the other a pulpy work of genre fiction, The Horribly Haunted Circus.
The business will draw into Harbart’s ambit the bereaved and the lost—parents and siblings, children and lovers, people hoping for communication with the dead that might bring them the comfort and sustenance that life has been unable to provide. It will even attract the menacing businessman Surapati Marik, owner of “property, fish farms, coal mines, mopeds,” a true representative of the new India who offers Harbart a “fifty-fifty” partnership that will globalize the occult business, taking Harbart into the realm of English-speaking elites. Then, inevitably, in a fallout of the publicity sought out by Marik, will come the endgame of Harbart being exposed as a fraud by the West Bengal Rationalist Association.
The skeleton of synopsis and plot, however, can indicate only haltingly the exceptional achievement of Harbart, the kind of artistic and political breakthrough it exemplifies. It is not operating, in spite of its astutely observed details of social milieu, character, and cityscape, within the frame of conventional realism. Slim, novella-length, it moves rapidly in time, compressing entire centuries of violent history (colonialism, the Communist and Naxalite movements, the corruption of the postcolonial state, the counterrevolution of the market) into the brief life of its protagonist while also inserting a kind of magic realism that includes, along with the haunting fairy, the actual, squabbling ghosts of Harbart’s ancestors.
Yet if not realist, neither is the book avant-garde in any fashionably apolitical manner, offering the dreary inventory of a single consciousness as deep, existential meaning. And while it is political, resolutely committed to a leftist challenge to the existing social order, its protagonist is not the revolutionary Binu but the hapless, fake spiritualist Harbart, which requires from the reader a political engagement that is nuanced rather than dogmatic or obvious.
Even the name Bhattacharya chooses for his protagonist, a Bengali rendition of the English “Herbert,” demonstrates the complexity of the book. The name is on the one hand an affectation on the part of his deceased father, an expression of the internal colonialism brought about by British rule and American cinema, and on the other a sharp, insistent reminder that the world depicted here is impure, bastardized, and necessarily so. It is neither nativist-authentic nor globalized-assimilationist, but rather a realm of contending oddities that includes both what is often assumed to be the province of the East (the occult, abjection, revolution) and what is deemed the boundless terrain of the West (capitalism, Hollywood, whiskey), with these opposites often all jumbled together in the person of Harbart.
But even Harbart the character does not encompass the novel as a whole. Bhattacharya’s book is not primarily about the individual, that obsession of the Western liberal novel. It is about relationships: between the individual and the scattered collective, between revolution and the afterlife, between cockroaches and fairies. And it is always about language, its felicities and its inadequacies, its limitations and its pliability. Translated with brio into English by Sunandini Banerjee, Bhattacharya’s voice is wholly original: lyrical, melancholic, comic, and bracingly obscene.
Bhattacharya did not just stumble upon this style and this very particular approach to fiction. Harbart is part of a far larger body of work, a beguiling foot soldier in a lifelong campaign. The Bengali edition of Bhattacharya’s Collected Novels consists of ten works written between 1992 and 2006, including Harbart. There are four volumes of poetry, eight collections of short stories, and a book of essays. In their innards roam the petrol-guzzling sex worker Baby K and that underclass of flying humans, the fyatarus. The backdrop consists of verse, shit, and graffiti, while the narrative voice constantly innovates, rubbing racy street slang up against orotund Bengali gentility.
The author of all this remained an enigma to the end of his life. Bhattacharya’s leftist parents, who separated when he was eleven, were celebrated figures in the realm of Bengali letters. His father, Bijon Bhattacharya, was best known for Nabanna, a play about the Bengal famine of the forties that killed as many as three million people, while his mother was the writer Mahasweta Devi, introduced to Western readers by the translations of Gayatri Spivak, and whose writings grappled fiercely with the inequities of gender, class, and caste.
Yet Bhattacharya’s work made its own way toward readers. It was only near the end of his life that his prodigious, relentless output brought some measure of grudging recognition, from a national award for Harbart to its film adaptation by Suman Mukhopadhyay (who has also directed two other films based on Bhattacharya’s fiction) and Nabarun, a documentary on the writer’s life by a Calcutta filmmaker known as Q. One can even see, on YouTube, Bhattacharya’s work being discussed at a literary festival in Calcutta, under the banner of corporate sponsors and a ridiculous, oleaginous slogan: It’s Got to Be Lit!
Yet Bhattacharya’s remains an unassimilated presence. “I don’t want the honor of this society,” he says in a snippet from Q’s documentary, and for all the late, uneasy fame, the growing of something like a cult around him, he didn’t receive it. When he died, on July 31, 2014, the major English dailies in Calcutta either missed the news of his death or came up with a perfunctory obituary.
The work, however, lives on, its aesthetics and politics showing a new way for fiction in an India drowning under the onslaught of corporations and right-wing politics, weakly oscillating between globalization’s fading sun and fascism’s stormy promise. One can see this in the way Bhattacharya brings Harbart to a conclusion, and in its refusal to accept the premise that the fires of revolution have been extinguished forever and that the only work left for novels is to offer ornamentation for the ruling classes.
When Harbart’s corpse is eventually released by the police, the underclass men of the neighborhood take it to be burned, full of affection and drunken bonhomie. The scene at the crematorium is a bravura performance, full of laughter that will soon turn into something else:
Those who accompany the dead to the crematorium, they often like to make enquiries about how and why the other corpses died. One such man asked Koka, and a mildly intoxicated Koka replied thus:
“What happened, brother?”
“What happened to who?”
“I mean, what happened to your brother?”
Koka thought that the word for death in English was murder. In Bengali, people die. In English, they murder. Once this word was out, a huge crowd swarmed down upon them for a glimpse of the murder-case victim.
One is still laughing as Harbart’s body, along with the bed he slept on, is fed into the electric furnace to be burned. The ghosts of Harbart’s ancestors have gathered to watch the cremation, along with the neighborhood men and a crowd of onlookers. Even the businessman Marik is there, a little forlorn at this unexpected conclusion to his plans of expansion. But then there is an explosion, and then another: “Part of the wall on top of the furnace explodes, launching bricks and sand and chunks of plaster everywhere, and through that hole billow many-hued plumes of smoke, reeking of gunpowder and explosives.”
The bed being burned with Harbart, the bed on which he had slept for twenty years, from where he has conducted his fraudulent occult consultations, had also been a secret storage site—before he was gunned down—of Binu the Naxal. All these years, and yet these sticks of dynamite, pilfered from a warehouse and intended, perhaps, for a political assassination, have been waiting. It is a grand finale for Harbart, the bombs eventually taking the entire furnace out and resulting in a blackout at the crematorium. One can still hear the reverberations and smell the gunpowder as one closes the book—a warning from the dead intended for the living.
The acclaimed novelist Siddhartha Deb won the PEN/Open Book Award for The Beautiful and the Damned.
From the afterword to Harbart, by Nabarun Bhattacharya, translated by Sunandini Banerjee, published by New Directions this week.