What Do You Have On The Menu That's Totally Tasteless?
[Excerpt from a project on the impossibility of translating Syed Mujtaba Ali]
The last time I dated a Bengali woman, we reveled in our language alignments. We could gibboth freely about other New Yorkers, in front of them, by switching lingua. It was much better than when I used to talk to my slightly hard-of-hearing friend Zahin in Bengali about an uber-glam passerby. He would ruin the effect by swiveling his head and saying (in English) “Who? Where? Oh, you mean her?” What's the point of having your own language if you have simultaneous dubbing...
Things go better with Coca Cola, and things go better with Bengali. This is a sly way to think of Syed Mujtaba Ali - one of the most widely read Bengali (or Bangali or Bangla) writers of pre- and post-Partition India. Ali's ambivalence on Partition, and his comfort with a Bengali cultural scene that was (seemingly) pan-religion, created a schizophrenic position in divided India. His tart, essay-length response to Jinnah's declaration that Urdu would be the “state language” of Pakistan damaged his older brother Murtaja Ali's early career in the Pakistan civil service. Mujtaba's wide interests, exorbitantly far-flung travels and knowledge of eight languages made him a popular dinner companion, short story master, travel writer, cultural ambassador, and goppobaj in the Bangla tradition.
But his work remains, in some forms, supremely untranslatable. Ali's wit depends on inserting English, French and German phrases, references, jokes, locations and beauties into, rubbing against, jostling and rudely interrupting the flowery path of Bengali language. Rendered into English, there is a curious bland flattening of distinctions. All this is to say that, gentle reader, I wish you would read this in the original Bengali. So I could whisper in your ear, “There goes a real beauty.”
[And so we enter "British-Indian Exchange of Views", written by Mujtaba Ali in Bengali in December 1945, the eve of the nightmare of Partition...and here I have cobbled together a translation -- but the juice, the essence, is somewhat lost. But read on anyway...indulge me]
British: I invited you to Firpo the other night. You made some excuses and left. Later I learn you were seen that night at Amjadia Hotel. Firpo's food is cooked by the tri-universe famous chef de cuisine. And you ignore him to go eat that savage's cooking?
Indian: Before I debate the other qualities of your cooking, I must draw your attention to something very basic. I don't know if you have noticed yet, but your cooking is badly missing three of the six essences: bitter, tart and spice. Sometimes there is a drop of spice, but that too trapped in a bottle. Even after two hundred years of home rule, you still fear and suspect that object. So before accepting your invitation, I can already say that whatever else your "tri" cooking may have, it lacks diversity. How many tunes can you possibly play with salt and sweet? You want to fight the lyre with a two-stringed instrument? Even Amjadia's “savage” can beat your chef any day. Secondly, yes I come to secondly, there is no difference between your kitchen and your dining table. You place a basket full of broken bottles on the table, call it a cruet! In case a guest has difficulty swallowing your bland boiled and flame-charred creation, he has to become his own master chef at your dining table. To add some fat you pour olive oil, to add sting you spread mustard, to make it bitter you sprinkle pepper--the bottle's holes are blocked up, so your arm may actually separate from its socket trying to wrestle the pepper out. The coward chef dare not even add salt--have you noticed that eighty percent of your guests sprinkle salt BEFORE they take a sip. So there you are, pour salt! When you find the object still tasteless, you start showering it with some peculiar liquid called sauce. Bhai, I'm the son of a bhadralok, in my house cooking is always completed in the kitchen.
British: Well, there are differences in taste the world over…
British: But Amjadiyas eat with their hands, they have no cutlery.
British: Filthy habit? What do you mean?
Indian: Absolutely. There are your knife, spoon, fork. There is your napkin. Just give them a good rub, and see how much dirt comes off. And what doesn't come off will slide off with food juices and slide into your stomach. Even if my fingers have dirt, I can go to that toilet and wash with soap. If you walk in that direction with your cutlery, the manager will call the police on you. And here's my last word: I am putting my own fingers in my mouth; your fork has probably traveled through millions of diseased lips and orifices. The Chinese are much cleaner than you, they walk into restaurants with their eating sticks.
British: Well, anyway...
British: Aha! Well why not just stop eating fish then!
Indian: Why don't the English stop eating bacon-eggs, French stop drinking champagne, Germans stop eating sausage? Bengalis can stop eating fish, they can also fast unto death, they can also commit suicide. You, sitting here in Bengal, if you don't get your tinned bacon, you want to set up a commission to investigate “British Tradition in Danger”. And I won't eat fish on the edge of the Ganges? How can you even say that!
British: Be that as it may…(ahem). But now your women do all the cooking. Is that all they do? Why do they accept this cruel segregation?
British: But we never get a chance to meet with them.
British: (worried) Is that quite fair? Are we really that bad?
British: That is only the exterior. What about your culture, your tradition…
artwork by apurba das
© thedailystar.net, 2007. All Rights Reserved