Wednesday 28 December 2011

Harbart by Nabarun Bhattacharya (translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha)

This weekend, I read Harbart, the English translation of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s first novel which won him the Narsimha Das Award, Bankim Puraskar and Sahitya Akademi Award. He went on to write several other major novels and novellas, short stories, poetry and collections of prose. Herbert (the original Bengali novel) was also made into a movie of the same name by Suman Mukhopadhyay which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Bengali.

Harbart is the English translation of the Bengali novel- translated by Arunava Sinha, who has also translated several works of classic and contemporary Bengali fiction such as The Chieftain’s Daughter by Bankimchandra Chattipadhyay and Three Women by Rabindranath Tagore.

The story begins with the discovery of Harbart Sarkar’s body. Harbart has killed himself after one hazy, drunken night which I couldn’t quite make sense of. But why did he kill himself? We are taken back in time to his childhood, formative years and finally the cause of his death. Harbart is an orphan and is brought up by his aunt after his mother’s death. There are several instances in his life when he is ignored and abused. From the beginning, he seemed in need of love.

Various incidents such as his failed attempts at poetry and the arrival of Binu, a Marxist-Leninist activist shape his life and the path he takes. Harbart soon becomes the proprietor of a business that delivers messages from the dead to their loved ones. He embraces this role as he is no longer an object of ridicule. He is revered by all as a sort of ‘godman’. Plans are made for this “guppy in a tank” to rise in prominence when a rationalist association threatens to put an end to it all. Harbart’s untimely demise follows but he, as the blurb at the back of the book says, remains a mystery even in death.

Harbart surprised me with its prose that was so rich in detail yet evasive at the same time. It seemed impossible to take in the dark humour, the well-carved plot and the lucid prose in one go. I’m certain that many details, I’m hoping not very significant, may have escaped me in the first reading. But the tone of the story conveyed by the words that are so artfully strung together hits you every time. It is impossible not to be swayed by the story.

We also get a vividly painted picture of the streets of Kolkata (then-Calcutta). Everything, from the lizard to the nymph in the Park Street antique shop, the ghosts, delusions and the cockroaches disappearing into the drain stays in your head longer than it should. Although I haven’t read many translated works to compare… It is apparent that Harbart is fantastically translated. Reading it didn’t feel like reading a translation. The 150 page novella is packed with punch; unique and memorable in terms of style and pacing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!


  1. Heard about he Bengali original. Great that it has got an English translation. I would love to read it. Thanks for sharing

  2. It is definitely worth a read! Thanks for stopping by (:

  3. good, i just hear about it !
    thanks for sharing :)

  4. Thanks for stopping by (: Hope you check it out!

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