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The Bounty of the Goddess
The Bounty of the Goddess
Description
Back of the Book

A translation of the Bengali novel, Kojagar by John W Hood

THE BOUNTY OF THE GODDESS is the English translation of Buddhadev Guha’s novel, Kojagar in Bengali which is a perennial bestseller for the last four decades. The novel depicts the life of the tribal inhabiting the obscure spaces of India. It is the construction of a setting far removed from the urban landscape. But life is not simple or idyllic as it is imagined to be in a rural scenario — situated between the realms of magic and reality, man struggles with man and nature to survive. Again the duality of nature in the two forms of beauty and ruthlessness is simultaneously witnessed. Enter Valumar, a part of forgotten and blurred India, which is refreshing, but real and brutal.

Buddhadev Guha is one of the most popular short story writers and novelists writing in Bengali. He has 130 titles to his credit. He was a big game hunter in his younger years and most of his writings are based in the backdrop of forests, hills and the tribal people of India. Recipient of the Ananda Puraskar and many other literary awards, he is an accomplished singer and painter. A chartered accountant by profession he is settled in Kolkata with his family.

Dr. John W. Hood is an Australian writer who has spent most of his life studying Indian culture. His extensive translation from Bengali to English includes Buddhadev Guha’s Fanfare for a Tiger (also published by Rupa & Co.). He has written three well-researched books on serious Indian cinema. Presently busy writing a book on Satyajit Ray’s films, he divides his time between Kolkata and Melbourne.

Translator’s Note

It is on a full moon night in autumn that the Kojagar festival, in honour of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune, is celebrated. Custom has it that the goddess goes from door to door asking the question, “Kojagar?” or “Who is awake?” so that she may distribute her largesse to the watching faithful. It is evident that, even after the Kojagari full moon, the poor continue to be poor, so it would seem that the goddess has not favoured them; that self-evident truth in no way minimises their hope and faith, however. Hope and faith—blind trust or superstition, maybe—are fundamental to Buddhadev Guha’s novel Kojagar, translated here as The Bounty of the Goddess, in which mere survival is often seen as a remarkable achievement of the humble people who enact its stories.

The novel is set amid the scenic hills and jungles of the Palamau region in eastern India, and contains ample witness to the idyllic beauty of the place. Perhaps this is the basic irony of the novel, for here (where Nature manifests itself in such loveliness there is also misery and hardship, injustice and corruption, hazard and danger.

Of course there are countless parts if India that could be described in this way, but what makes the Palamau region unusual is its special status as an animal sanctuary where all animals, including those most feared by man, are protected. Nature challenges the Indian peasant with much to struggle against, such as the extreme heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter or excessive monsoons that bring devastating floods or truant monsoons whose absence causes drought. There are also the depredations of various forms of wild life —birds and rabbits, for example, which can wipe out a family’s entire crop overnight or marauding elephants which can trample it back into the soil in a matter of minutes. The poor of Palamau also have to struggle against more savage beasts, such as leopards or tigers, which are ever ready to eat them and their children. As it is against the law in any way to endanger the lives or disturb the breeding of these animals, the value of human life is set at a relatively low premium.

In most other respects, however, the Palamau region is typical of rural life anywhere else in India. There is a society riven by the inequalities of caste and of economic status. These do not necessarily go hand in hand, for a tribal boy like Hiru might rise towards the top of his department of government service, yet will never be fully accepted by his high-caste colleagues or, for that matter, subordinates, while the novel contains many persons, Brahman by birth, whose struggle against poverty is constant and demoralising. Inequality is the mother of opportunity for the bully, and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, of the weak by the strong, goes on relentlessly and often with unimaginable cruelty and callousness. In a labour intensive economy, where service is cheap, it is easy to demand the maximum work for the minimum reward. (We read of one maidservant whose payment is the right to pick plums!) The enfeeblement of the poor is further intensified by the prevalence of illiteracy and ignorance, especially among females, on whom education, as popular prejudice would have it, is wasted. The inferior status of women, particularly those of tribal and untouchable communities, make them especially vulnerable to human predators, a fact of life known only too well by the women of the region. Nevertheless, while a woman’s dishonour may be seen and felt as a matter of profound shame, that suffering can easily be ameliorated by the promise of something for the stomach, as the self-respect of the poor is so often compromised by their hunger.

And so throughout the novel runs this underlying irony of life being of such extreme hardship in a setting of such natural beauty.

Of course, the novel’s human context is not entirely blackened by oppression and misery; there are rays of sunshine that brighten the lives even of the very poor. Moreover, there are characters, such as the novel’s narrator Sayan, and his tribal wife, Titli, who are pillars of decency and compassion. Even more impressive is the character of Nankua, a symbol of the force of creative change. Nankua may be described as revolutionary not so much in the party-political sense but more on the basis of his stand against the establishment. The main planks in his platform which he sees as corrupt and self- seeking is the positive virtues of dignity and self-respect which it is his dream to instil into the poor and defenceless.

It is easy to find symbolic counterparts to Nankua in the natural world—the promise of sustenance of the monsoon is a ready one, for example—while it is just as easy to find counterparts for the man-eating leopard in the human world. Just as the leopard may suggest cunning and slyness, callousness and viciousness, those who hold the poor in a constant bind of debt and interest, flogging their children for petty misdemeanours and raping their wives at whim, maintain like the leopard a reign of terror, the law of the jungle of their own making. The corrupt cornerstones of society on the one hand, and the leopard on the other, are not eliminated, and this failure serves to remind us that the strength of evil can never be underestimated, while even the Nankuas—at least, while there are so very few of them—are vulnerable to the machinations of the corrupt as is the most skilled of hunters susceptible to the wiles of a savage beast.

The Bounty of the Goddess is a novel which ultimately poses disquieting questions about the value of human life, about people amongst people, about people in relation to animals and the environment, about people in the context of their own potential. Basic to it all is the question of how people value themselves and one another. But underneath these questions lies the tortuous mesh in all our lives of callousness and loving care, ever waiting to be untangled.

While the fundamental task of translation is to render one language into another, there are certain obstacles that make that task sometimes impossible. The names of trees, flowers, and birds, for example, are best left untranslated as they so often have no English equivalent. The same goes for many food items or concoctions. There are certain items of clothing, such as ‘dhoti’, ‘lungi’ and ‘sari’ that are well known outside of India, while items of indulgence such as ‘paan’—spiced betel nut wrapped in betel leaf—or ‘bidi’-a very cheap cigarette—are known at least by some in non-Indian parts of the world. The Bengali (and Indian in general) custom of attaching suffixes of relationship to names is maintained here. ‘Dada’ or ‘da’ means older brother, but is used amongst friends, as is the female equivalent, ‘didi’. ‘Babu’ as a noun means an educated gentleman, and as a suffix is roughly equivalent to the English ‘Esquire’.

The Bounty of the Goddess

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A Translation of the Bengali Novel Kojagar
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Back of the Book

A translation of the Bengali novel, Kojagar by John W Hood

THE BOUNTY OF THE GODDESS is the English translation of Buddhadev Guha’s novel, Kojagar in Bengali which is a perennial bestseller for the last four decades. The novel depicts the life of the tribal inhabiting the obscure spaces of India. It is the construction of a setting far removed from the urban landscape. But life is not simple or idyllic as it is imagined to be in a rural scenario — situated between the realms of magic and reality, man struggles with man and nature to survive. Again the duality of nature in the two forms of beauty and ruthlessness is simultaneously witnessed. Enter Valumar, a part of forgotten and blurred India, which is refreshing, but real and brutal.

Buddhadev Guha is one of the most popular short story writers and novelists writing in Bengali. He has 130 titles to his credit. He was a big game hunter in his younger years and most of his writings are based in the backdrop of forests, hills and the tribal people of India. Recipient of the Ananda Puraskar and many other literary awards, he is an accomplished singer and painter. A chartered accountant by profession he is settled in Kolkata with his family.

Dr. John W. Hood is an Australian writer who has spent most of his life studying Indian culture. His extensive translation from Bengali to English includes Buddhadev Guha’s Fanfare for a Tiger (also published by Rupa & Co.). He has written three well-researched books on serious Indian cinema. Presently busy writing a book on Satyajit Ray’s films, he divides his time between Kolkata and Melbourne.

Translator’s Note

It is on a full moon night in autumn that the Kojagar festival, in honour of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune, is celebrated. Custom has it that the goddess goes from door to door asking the question, “Kojagar?” or “Who is awake?” so that she may distribute her largesse to the watching faithful. It is evident that, even after the Kojagari full moon, the poor continue to be poor, so it would seem that the goddess has not favoured them; that self-evident truth in no way minimises their hope and faith, however. Hope and faith—blind trust or superstition, maybe—are fundamental to Buddhadev Guha’s novel Kojagar, translated here as The Bounty of the Goddess, in which mere survival is often seen as a remarkable achievement of the humble people who enact its stories.

The novel is set amid the scenic hills and jungles of the Palamau region in eastern India, and contains ample witness to the idyllic beauty of the place. Perhaps this is the basic irony of the novel, for here (where Nature manifests itself in such loveliness there is also misery and hardship, injustice and corruption, hazard and danger.

Of course there are countless parts if India that could be described in this way, but what makes the Palamau region unusual is its special status as an animal sanctuary where all animals, including those most feared by man, are protected. Nature challenges the Indian peasant with much to struggle against, such as the extreme heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter or excessive monsoons that bring devastating floods or truant monsoons whose absence causes drought. There are also the depredations of various forms of wild life —birds and rabbits, for example, which can wipe out a family’s entire crop overnight or marauding elephants which can trample it back into the soil in a matter of minutes. The poor of Palamau also have to struggle against more savage beasts, such as leopards or tigers, which are ever ready to eat them and their children. As it is against the law in any way to endanger the lives or disturb the breeding of these animals, the value of human life is set at a relatively low premium.

In most other respects, however, the Palamau region is typical of rural life anywhere else in India. There is a society riven by the inequalities of caste and of economic status. These do not necessarily go hand in hand, for a tribal boy like Hiru might rise towards the top of his department of government service, yet will never be fully accepted by his high-caste colleagues or, for that matter, subordinates, while the novel contains many persons, Brahman by birth, whose struggle against poverty is constant and demoralising. Inequality is the mother of opportunity for the bully, and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, of the weak by the strong, goes on relentlessly and often with unimaginable cruelty and callousness. In a labour intensive economy, where service is cheap, it is easy to demand the maximum work for the minimum reward. (We read of one maidservant whose payment is the right to pick plums!) The enfeeblement of the poor is further intensified by the prevalence of illiteracy and ignorance, especially among females, on whom education, as popular prejudice would have it, is wasted. The inferior status of women, particularly those of tribal and untouchable communities, make them especially vulnerable to human predators, a fact of life known only too well by the women of the region. Nevertheless, while a woman’s dishonour may be seen and felt as a matter of profound shame, that suffering can easily be ameliorated by the promise of something for the stomach, as the self-respect of the poor is so often compromised by their hunger.

And so throughout the novel runs this underlying irony of life being of such extreme hardship in a setting of such natural beauty.

Of course, the novel’s human context is not entirely blackened by oppression and misery; there are rays of sunshine that brighten the lives even of the very poor. Moreover, there are characters, such as the novel’s narrator Sayan, and his tribal wife, Titli, who are pillars of decency and compassion. Even more impressive is the character of Nankua, a symbol of the force of creative change. Nankua may be described as revolutionary not so much in the party-political sense but more on the basis of his stand against the establishment. The main planks in his platform which he sees as corrupt and self- seeking is the positive virtues of dignity and self-respect which it is his dream to instil into the poor and defenceless.

It is easy to find symbolic counterparts to Nankua in the natural world—the promise of sustenance of the monsoon is a ready one, for example—while it is just as easy to find counterparts for the man-eating leopard in the human world. Just as the leopard may suggest cunning and slyness, callousness and viciousness, those who hold the poor in a constant bind of debt and interest, flogging their children for petty misdemeanours and raping their wives at whim, maintain like the leopard a reign of terror, the law of the jungle of their own making. The corrupt cornerstones of society on the one hand, and the leopard on the other, are not eliminated, and this failure serves to remind us that the strength of evil can never be underestimated, while even the Nankuas—at least, while there are so very few of them—are vulnerable to the machinations of the corrupt as is the most skilled of hunters susceptible to the wiles of a savage beast.

The Bounty of the Goddess is a novel which ultimately poses disquieting questions about the value of human life, about people amongst people, about people in relation to animals and the environment, about people in the context of their own potential. Basic to it all is the question of how people value themselves and one another. But underneath these questions lies the tortuous mesh in all our lives of callousness and loving care, ever waiting to be untangled.

While the fundamental task of translation is to render one language into another, there are certain obstacles that make that task sometimes impossible. The names of trees, flowers, and birds, for example, are best left untranslated as they so often have no English equivalent. The same goes for many food items or concoctions. There are certain items of clothing, such as ‘dhoti’, ‘lungi’ and ‘sari’ that are well known outside of India, while items of indulgence such as ‘paan’—spiced betel nut wrapped in betel leaf—or ‘bidi’-a very cheap cigarette—are known at least by some in non-Indian parts of the world. The Bengali (and Indian in general) custom of attaching suffixes of relationship to names is maintained here. ‘Dada’ or ‘da’ means older brother, but is used amongst friends, as is the female equivalent, ‘didi’. ‘Babu’ as a noun means an educated gentleman, and as a suffix is roughly equivalent to the English ‘Esquire’.

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