Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sketches by Hootum the Owl: A Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta

A translation of the original text, Hootum Pyanchar Naksha by Kaliprasanna Sinha, translated and edited by Chitralekha Basu, with an insightful foreword by Amit Chaudhuri, and illustrations by Sumitro Basak, ostensibly documents Calcutta of the 1860s’.

While offering a witty critique of its social mores, it is also the story of a city in the making and the inevitable conflicts between the traditional and the modern, the bigoted and the liberal. Although the tone is that of self-deprecation and general contempt for all that seems to be falling apart in the city, Sketches by Hootum is the writer’s tribute to its unending spill of life that exasperates even as it overwhelms. 

Kaliprasanna Sinha was playwright, publisher, and philanthropist. Hootum Pyanchar Naksha was written when he was twenty-one. Before his early death, aged thirty, he had been active in the Indigo Revolt, supporting the social reforms of his time. He published an eighteen-volume Bengali translation of the Mahabharata from original Sanskrit.

Chitralekha Basu is a literary critic and writer who has recently completed a three-year assignment with China Daily, in Beijing. Her writings appear in Memory’s Gold: Writings on Calcutta (Penguin/Viking) and First Proof: Penguin Book of New Writing from India.

Amit Chaudhuri is an acclaimed novelist, a literary critic and an exponent of Hindustani classical as well as experimental music. His most recent book On Tagore: Reading the Poet Today (Penguin-Viking, 2011) has won the Rabindra Puraskar.

Sumitro Basak is a well-known painter who has exhibited in India and abroad.

8.5 x 5.5” hb,  288pp ISBN 81-85604-86-2
Price Rs 800
Samya 16 Southern Ave, Calcutta 700026 email
tel: +91 33 2466 0812


‘Kaliprasanna Sinha…brought out at enormous cost to himself the Bengali translation of the Mahabharata for which he is still remembered. Hutom Pyanchar Naksha, which Chitralekha Basu has translated, was a collection of short, satirical pieces that Sinha also wrote. Everything we need to know about the man, his milieu and the context of his work is in Amit Chaudhuri’s brilliant foreword to this book, in the three chapters—Kaliprasanna Sinha the Trailblazer, The Translator in Wonderland and Introduction—with which Chitralekha Basu eases readers into her translation, and in the detailed footnotes with which she ends each sketch.
…almost every sketch is on the celebration of a festival, which reminds us how few the opportunities for entertainment were in 19th century India, even for the rich. Their lives seem to have revolved around these religious festivals, with enormous time and money spent on the preparation of shows and tableaus, which would attract the common man as well, who usually appears in the sketches as part of a crowd thronging the rich man’s compound to gape.
The problem for a translator is that a translation that captured the idiom and tone of the original, the newness that made it valuable, would also have to be in English that was as new, a voice of an emerging sub-culture. That would have confused the most readers, so Basu has chosen the sensible option, using the English of a bilingual Indian of the 21st century, but that removes the rationale for translating these sketches. We should take this simply as a labour of love.’

Satyabrata Pal: The Book Review/ February-March 2013

'In her introduction, Basu further adds the names of the freethinking contemporary Bengali author Nabarun Bhattacharya and the acerbic newspaper columnist and Chandrabindoo band member Chandril Bhattacharya to the list of those who have reintroduced Hootum—or its literary constructs—in the reader’s domain.It is almost like Hootum, the smart-assed voyeur of an owl in Hootum Pyanchar Naksha who depicted Calcutta life from the 1850s by casting a caustic eye and creating ribald eyewitness sketches, is slowly finding its perch back in the Kolkata of the 21st century.'
                                                               Shamik Bag: Livemint, 26 October 2012

'Undertaking the translation of any work that has attained iconic status is always a daunting task, and Basu deserves kudos for this courageous and largely successful attempt. Swarup Roy attempted the first-ever translation in English of this book in 2007. The complexity of the text however calls for more than one rendition, and Basu’s, with illustrations by Sumitro Basak, is a welcome addition.'
Sucheta Bhattacharya: TimeOut, 9 November 2012

Hootum Pyanchar Naksha is a 'difficult — if not an impossible — text to translate into English. Chitralekha Basu is to be commended for taking on this daunting task.No translation of the text can be thoroughly satisfactory, especially to those who love the original but, nonetheless, it is important to make a translation. It is too important a work and what it presents is too important a source of information for 19th-century Bengal to be left for the edification and enjoyment of only readers of Bengali.'

Rudrangshu Mukherjee The Telegraph 14 December 2012

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