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from the August 2019 issue

Nabarun Bhattacharya Conjures Ghosts of Revolutionary Dreams in His Masterful Novel “Harbart”

Reviewed by Arka Chattopadhyay

Conversations with the dead bring up explosive memories of Communist insurgency in this cult classic of Indian literature.

It is 2019 and Nabarun Bhattacharya’s  Harbart reappears in a fresh English translation by Sunandini Banerjee. Since its initial publication, the novel has repeatedly returned in English like the future that is imagined by the book’s own ending. The afterlife of this spectral and political novel maintains its uncanniness. This is the third translation of the book into English (after Jyoti Panjwani’s in Sahitya Akademi’s 2004 edition and Arunava Sinha’s in Tranquebar’s 2011 edition), but the first one to open it to a wider audience outside India. The two previous translations, published by local Indian presses, were meant for national readership (considering India’s multilingualism, an English translation, unlike others, can be read across the nation) and did not reach foreign audiences. This new translation just published by New Directions should help the novel’s international reach. 

Harbart was first published in Bengali in 1993, and it’s important to bear in mind that in more ways than one it is a product of 1990s India. The neoliberal reforms of the early 90s and the decline of the degenerate Communist government in the state of West Bengal, where the novel is set, informed its political discourse. With the fall of the Communist empire, not just in Bengal or India but around the world, and the current peaking of globalized capitalism, it is time for Harbart to reappear indeed. It is time for another tracing of the enigmatic and unpredictable event of revolution, mythologized in this book. 

After reading Harbart, in 1997, the great Bengali novelist Sandipan Chattopadhyay (1933–2005) wrote in his diary: “In a completely different language, with the edge of radical revolutionary violence and explosives of an armed uprising, Bhattacharya writes this wonderful book. Just like Harbart, it will explode in the head.” The novel, like its eponymous protagonist, offers a parable of revolution—not the revolution of a true-blue political activist but that of a curiously marginal common man who practices necromancy. The ghosts in this book are as political as politics itself could be seen to be ghostly in the wake of the 1970s Maoist Naxalite movements of peasant revolution and the long sonata of the dead it produced. These movements consisted of a series of peasant protests in the tea gardens of Naxalbari in Darjeeling that swept across India in the 1970s, demanding social justice against capitalist exploitation. At the time of their appearance, these protests seemed to open up the possibility of a radical transformation in Indian society, as its adherents called for a war against the neocolonial state machinery. These promises were left unfulfilled, however, as the initial uprising failed to find sustained political life beyond the passion for change. The movement, which generated its fair share of violence, faced violent repression from the state. Bhattacharya’s novel can be read as an attempt to come to terms with this failed revolutionary past. Rooted in the 90s, the book goes back to the politically turbulent decade of the 70s in search of sparks of change in the present that might alter the future. Harbart—the novel as well as Harbart Sarkar, its hero—aims to resuscitate the political ghosts from a dead past to make a radical future of explosive change.

Bhattacharya (1948–2014), the son of renowned Bengali writers Mahasweta Devi (1926–2016) and Bijon Bhattacharya (1915–78), was already a well-known poet by the time Harbart was originally published. An author with radical left-wing sympathies, he debuted in 1973 with a famous collection of poems, E Mrityu Upatyaka Amar Desh Na (This Valley of Death is Not My Country). He was also active as an intellectual in debates over political justice, urban poverty, and the like. But his reputation would acquire a new stature after Harbart, his first novel,came out in 1993. Promptly recognized as a cult classic (and honored with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award), the novel has since come to be regarded as a contemporary masterpiece of Indian literature, due to its political sagacity, an inventive variety of carnivalesque supernaturalism, and the fresh language of the underclasses, among other things. 

The book is mostly set in the city of Kolkata, in West Bengal, in the early 1990s, although there are constant references and flashbacks to the political turmoil of the 1970s. Harbart is a necromancer who resists the European traditions of séance and sticks to his own cultural idiom, derived from ancient Indian practices. He is the son of a typical Bengali babu who served as an educated intermediary between the British colonizers and the colonized populace. Lalitkumar, his father, is a failed movie director in the recently independent India of 1940s. He and his wife, Shobharani, die while Harbart is still a boy, leaving him to be raised by his uncle and aunt. Lalitkumar and Shobharani appear throughout the novel as ghosts, however, keeping a watch on their son as the book unfolds. The couple cast a seriocomical, cinematic gaze upon the events in novel, and contribute to the fantastical realism of the text.

When we see him in the beginning of the book, Harbart is already over forty. The narrative goes back and forth to show his growing up and activities from two decades prior. Harbart grows up as a socially awkward, if not freakish, orphan whose friends and neighbors tease him with the nickname “Titbird.” His psychological universe revolves around the house—its “top-terrace,” bird nets, kites, and the rooftop water tank—until one day when he discovers skulls and bones in an old trunk belonging to his family. Though he sends them floating down the Ganges, Harbart starts studying Indian occultism and stashes his belongings in the same trunk. This is the trigger for his practice as necromancer. Harbart is fascinated by his dead friends, like Khororobi, who killed himself long ago. It is with the aim of talking to these friendly specters that Harbart begins conversing with the dead. To communicate with them is to call back the political past of the 70s. 

The novel begins with a carnivalesque moment in which we follow the protagonist and his friends in the midst of some late-night drunken carousing. We are introduced to a native Indian occult discourse with excerpts from books on afterlife by Mrinalkanti Ghosh and Kalibar Bedantabagish. The atmosphere bespeaks proletarian festivity, and Bhattacharya’s subaltern language is well acknowledged by Sunandini’s translation with a flurry of cusswords [or “swear words”], floating on F’s (“fucked”) and swimming through S’s (“screwed”).

Besides rejecting the European occultist traditions of conversing with the dead in favor of ancient Indian practices, Harbart detests the English language too. Members of The Indian Rationalist Society who come to challenge him, in an attempt at public humiliation and unmasking, speak in the colonial language and Harbart abuses them in his Bengali cockney. The challenge of translation in a novel like Harbartlies in rendering faithfully this realistic but deliberately uncouth lingo, full of colloquial neologisms. Bhattacharya’s great achievement lies in crafting this linguistic register, so rarely found in the colonially constructed Bengali language with its underlying upper-class and upper-caste structures. 

To give one brief example of how translation does and does not capture the politics of this proletarian tongue, the word memfurti, which means “enjoying a foreign girl,” is simply dropped by Jyoti Panjwani in her translation. The term is acknowledged by Arunava Sinha, who comes up with the word “slutfun,” a neologism that does justice to the lumpen frivolity embedded in the original word. Sunandini Banerjee takes things up a notch, however, by retaining the sound as well as the sense with creative fervor. She uses the expression “mem-merry, femme-frothy,” which alliteratively evokes both the “m” and the “f” sounds present in the Bengali original. 

Such details are of utmost importance in Bhattacharya’s book. Language is imbued with political significance in the novel, beginning with the name of its protagonist. “Harbart” suggests a vigorous Indian phonetic mutation of the British “Herbert” (a nuance missing in the first translation, titled Herbert, but added in the second, Harbart). The colonialist complicity inscribed in his name, we might think, contrasts with his nativist practice of necromancy. Harbart’s surname also has its own ironic implications: “Sarkar” means government in Bengali, but he will become an antigovernment revolutionary agent. Harbart is also nicknamed “Haru,” in an increasing cultural domestication of the original British name.

As the novel progresses, we have a peek into Harbart’s mental universe but not through psychological narration. Haru’s world is depicted through his solitary activities of reading and observation, all from his favorite top-terrace with the hint of a lonely kite in the sky. Be it the infatuation with the neighbor’s girl, Buki, or the ants that bring back memories of locust plagues in Kolkata, or better still, his shelter in the water tank, Harbart’s world is projected on this meticulously detailed external scene.

 Harbart uses intertextuality and citations from books on the Indian occult and popular Bengali ghost stories (such as “The Horribly Haunted Circus”) that inscribe numerous voices in the narrative, giving it a polyphonic quality in the way it evokes a distant cultural and political past. The antiquarian practice of calling forth the dead by way of the occult finds a further literary complement throughout the novel in Bhattacharya’s chapter epigraphs. These are quotations collected from obscure poems of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Bengal. They haunt the novel like textual ghosts, representing a cultural past of the language. 

Melancholia for a leftist utopia and the bygone is at the heart of the novel: “On that top-terrace, now sits only a Star TV satellite dish: Harbart gone. Soviet Union gone. Hippodrome Circus gone. The famous Dinu Hotel beside the Gosain house on Simla Street, gone.” At the center of this lost time sits Harbart, our spectral protagonist, bringing back his nephew Binu’s spirit through his spectro-political practice. Binu had died from a police bullet as a Naxalite revolutionary in 1971. He is not a ghost that Harbart literally invokes but becomes an extension of Binu’s revolutionary dream instead. 

The friendship between the two men is highlighted in Haru’s memories as well as in moments of flashback in the mid-part of the book. Unlike most of his family members, who consider him abnormal, Binu treated Harbart like a sane person. This leads to great camaraderie between the two when Binu comes to Kolkata for higher studies. Binu reads Mao’s Little Red Book out loud to his uncle. Harbart can make a connection between communist literature and his own interest in Indian discourses of spectral afterlife. As the Naxalite movement spreads its fiery wings across Kolkata, Binu becomes an active participant, and Harbart’s top-terrace a veritable refuge for the revolutionaries. 

Following Binu, Harbart too participates in the movement in micro ways, acting as a messenger. The warmth he receives from Binu and the fellow revolutionaries makes him own up the movement from an affective point of view. Harbart’s political activities are inseparable from his passionate and emotional attachment to his nephew.            

Just before dying, Binu directs Harbart to his diary, hidden away behind the picture of the goddess Kali (an important figure for the Indian occult). After that, Harbart’s dreams get more and more occultist, with gods of the netherworld appearing in them and Kali becoming the recurrent reference point. Harbart sees Binu’s ghost in a dream, full of glass, ravens, and caverns. He reminds Harbart of the diary. This diary works as a talismanic object that instigates Harbart to the practice of communicating with the dead. 

The theme of necromancy not only builds the novel’s magic realist ethos but it also works itself into the childlike character of Harbart and his playful experiments, soaked in innocent wonder and merriment. He knows that he is lying to the clients who come to him in order to know more about their dear departed family members. Like a child feeling sorry for his naughtiness, his heart aches for everyone. And yet, he believes in ghosts. These are political ghosts of another era that has left its traces in the present, like specters. Harbart’s childlike quality explains his passionate involvement in politics. It also shows up in tandem with the magical moments when Harbart puts on his civilized attire, including a trench coat, and roams the streets of the old city, only to be transfixed by the fairy statues in antique shops.

Bhattacharya’s text expresses a strange nostalgia for colonial Calcutta and its culturally hybrid Westernized babus. Notwithstanding his political leanings, on winter afternoons Harbart feels like a Brit as he strolls around the city. His nonsensical articulations (“cat, bat, water, dog, fish”), all in English in the original, touch upon his child’s identity, his madness, and the dormant colonial fervor. Bhattacharya’s tale allegorizes all these three dimensions. It shows the sociopolitical and cultural alienation of the child, of the mad person (he is called “spastic” at one point), and of the out-of-place babu culture that survives as a relic of India’s colonial past, especially in places like Kolkata that were hubs of the Raj.

To all this is added the historical specter of radical-left politics, already a thing of the past in the 90s and more ironically so, because the Bengal state government (unlike the central government) at the time is nothing but a Communist government. Harbarttraces this internal fight within left politics, between a CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led governance model, pushing early tenets of globalization, and a radical brand of Naxalite-Maoist politics of going against state-machinery through armed uprising. Harbart’s practice is a form of resistance against the hyperrationalist culture of globalization where belief itself has taken a back seat to what?. 

Harbart’s necromancy risks becoming a commodity in the global market. The character of Surapati Marik acts like a self-appointed agent, promising big things to Haru. The timing of his suicide is, therefore, perfect. Bhattacharya makes sure Harbart’s resistance does not become  commodified in the market-logic of globalization. He turns him into a dead human bomb instead. The novel does not explain away the mystery of Harbart’s suicide. It remains an enigmatic protest against the hyperrationalism of modernity that conspires to make life miserable for a man like Harbart who cannot be swallowed by its capitalist dragon mouth. Perhaps Harbart kills himself to communicate with himself as a ghost. Binu and his revolutionary friends had hidden some dynamite under his bed. During cremation, a great explosion happens, making Harbart a postmortemagent of radical politics. The explosion bamboozles the cops as they cannot find any straightforward political connection or conspiracy here. This is Bhattacharya’s final comment on the radical contingency of revolution as a political event. The famous lines from the novel, ably translated by Sunandini Banerjee, read:  

The deplorable series of events that unfolded around the cremation of Harbart’s bloodless body inescapably sig­nal that when and how an explosion will occur, and who will cause that explosion—of all such knowledge the state machinery remains woefully ignorant still. 

This is the ultimate political lesson in Bhattacharya’s novel. It offers a spectral faith in the everlastingness of resistant politics. Politics meets spectrality as the explosion happens during the cremation of a necromancer. It leads to a great deal of rumor about a supposed supernatural connection. These dynamites are Harbart’s last conjurings. They come back after two decades of hibernation, like magical traces of a past, seemingly dead, but not powerless to be reborn. The last chapter, crucially written in a faithful future tense, describes how Haru’s scattered belongings in some hypothetical future might initiate yet another political sequence. Harbart remains in his remains, as the name of an energy, a belief, a conviction. It’s all about believing in ghosts.

Siddhartha Deb’s afterword to this new translation is carefully lyrical as well as informative. It helps the readers identify the political and cultural milieu of the novel and gives them a flavor of Bhattacharya’s literary background as well as a small taste of his larger corpus. The detailed translator’s notes at the end make for some rich exegetical and contextual material that make the local cultural references less opaque for a global reader. Though this review has charted the story in somewhat granular details, Harbart, as Siddhartha Deb rightly observes, is so much more than its plot. It is the explosive form of the novel, bringing forth a pulsating life-world that the reader must feel. The new translation maintains the original’s local colors without compromising readability—always a difficult alchemy. I hope this translation will lead to further translations of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s other great works. With German and Italian translations already published, the scene is pregnant with promise. Nabarun deserves to be translated for a global audience because his books truly speak to a world beyond local colors. Let the Harbarts of the world continue to return with one explosive translation after another. 

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