In 1971, schoolchildren in the Indian city of Calcutta were afraid of many things. There was full-blown guerrilla action in the streets, with young men and women from middle-class families taking up bombs and handmade guns in a bid to usher in a violent Leftist revolution. Barely a few hundred miles away, a country named East Pakistan—which was carved out of undivided India in 1947 by the British rulers before leaving—was fighting a war of independence against West Pakistan. With the Indian army joining the war against West Pakistan, there were often air-raid sirens and shouts for blackouts. But none of this made us more afraid than the mysterious disease that seemed to be affecting everyone’s eyes.
We had never heard of conjunctivitis till then, “pink eye,” the infection that inflamed our eyes. Timed as it was with the war of independence, waged by a people with whom we in West Bengal shared a language—Bangla—the disease immediately became a rallying cry across the border. Jai Bangla. Victory to Bangla—which could refer to either the language or the region. (The word is also used for the locally-brewed country liquor, but that’s another matter, and not at all suitable for young adults.)
Ever since then, Jai Bangla and the freedom movement that led to the birth of Bangladesh (literally, the land of Bangla) have been central to the collective memories of the inhabitants of West Bengal and Calcutta. Not least because many of us belonged to families which had once lived in the area that became Bangladesh, who migrated during the Partition of India, when India and Pakistan became independent countries
Along with conjunctivitis, there were other things that brought tears to our eyes. One of these was the thought of what was happening to our counterparts across the border. How were the Bangla-speaking boys and girls of East Pakistan-turned-Bangladesh coping with this war? It was a question that, for me, was to be answered many years later, in my middle age. That was when I first read the novels of Md Zafar Iqbal, the Bangladeshi writer whose works include both young adult literature and science fiction.
As with much Bangladeshi literature, Iqbal’s most memorable novels are often set during the country’s war of independence. Reading his books not only took me back to my own childhood questions, but also made me wonder what course my life would have taken had I lived in, say, Dhaka and not Calcutta.
I had not yet begun translating Bangla literature into English then, although it was more than a half-formed idea in my head. When I eventually tracked down my favorite of Iqbal’s books, My Friend Rashed, which follows the exploits of a boy during the Muktijudhho (War of Independence), I discovered that it had already been translated by Iqbal’s daughter. When I asked the author to suggest another of his books for translation, he came up with Rasha.
Rasha isn’t set in a time of war. This is Bangladesh in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Fifteen-year-old Rasha's parents are divorced and she lives with her mother, who meets a man she wants to marry. This man wants to take Rasha's mother away to Australia, but he doesn't want Rasha to join them. So Rasha's mother decides to leave her daughter with her own mother, who lives in a village.
An unhappy Rasha moves to her grandmother's home, where she discovers a whole new world. Making friends with a set of boys and girls her own age, Rasha learns a new way of life from them. A life that involves no modern amenities, such as mobile phones, computers, the Internet, movies, or even electricity. Rasha embarks on a series of adventures with her new friends that become their own freedom movement—freedom from the tyranny of bad teachers, bad people, bad administrators, and bad politicians.
As soon as I finished reading it, I began translating—not with any particular publishing objective in mind, but more as an act of discharging my nebulous sense of responsibility. As one of the more fortunate Bengali-speaking children, who didn’t have to experience the atrocities of the 1971 war firsthand, I felt I had to do something to bring attention to the stories of the Bangladeshi children who were caught in the crossfire.
And so I began translating Rasha. The journey hasn’t been completed yet, and perhaps I don’t even want it to be. Every time I enter the text, I am carried into a world half-seen, half-imagined. The countryside in which the story is set, where tracts of land and streams and rivers flow into and out of each other, is one that I have seen on my own visits to my ancestral homeland. As I translate the words, seeking the precise touch that will preserve and yet carry Rasha and her friends’ conversations from Bangla into English, I find myself transported.
It isn’t often that a translator can feel a kinship between his younger self and the characters in a book he’s working on. Despite the gulf in both history and geography, Rasha has become, for me, all the children of my age whom I saw living on the streets of Calcutta while I was on my way to school. They were underfed, and underclothed, but their spirit was clearly greater than mine could ever have been. In some strange way, then, Rasha has come back to visit me from my own childhood.