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“The boys taunted me relentlessly each time I contributed an article for our college publication. They laughed at me, calling me a ‘busybody who wanted to have her finger in every pie’, even if that means churning out unwanted literature. Initially it embarrassed me and I thought I would quit writing altogether, but my parents dissuaded me from giving up, telling me that they were resentful of me because I am a girl.” Recalling those days in the 1930s, when she was studying at Borishal College (now in Bangladesh), Sheuli Majumdar, now a 92-year-old former schoolteacher, says that she is glad that she heeded her family’s advice and persevered, because in later years, she went on to earn a name for herself as one of India’s first professional women translators. “It was a time of great struggle for women who didn’t want to limit themselves to the confines of home, marriage and children. There was competition from men at every stage, who didn’t give up a single opportunity to try to humiliate me for trying to make it in the field of literature, making me feel as though I was somehow trespassing and breaching a domain which essentially belonged to them,” she recalls.
Born in the mid-1920s in Mymansingh (now Bangladesh), Majumdar was the second of three children of a ‘liberal-minded’ couple. “My father was a British government employee and he was very keen that my sister and I receive the best education possible—especially as far as the English language was concerned—something which was quite unusual for girls at that time. My grandfather too supported him in this, though many of our other relatives discouraged him, pointing out that it would all go waste once he married us off. But he didn’t pay any attention to them. Actually, he was more concerned about our education than our brother’s, who is our youngest sibling.” While she was studying in Borishal College, however, Partition took place and life turned topsy-turvy.
“It changed everything overnight. We had to move lock, stock and barrel to Calcutta, leaving behind our home and property. The shock proved to be too much for my father and we found that he had almost become a different person. He was suddenly insisting that I get married and had even started looking for a match for me.”
Quite frankly, her father had informed the children that there were no funds to pursue education any further and that the girls would have to do what was required in order to get out of the adverse situation which suddenly engulfed them. But Sheuli, a bright student, had other plans. “I wanted to study and become a teacher and author.” Her mother tried to reason with her father, but he had made up his mind. She sorely missed her grandfather, who no doubt would have taken her side, but he had died before they moved to Calcutta. When she realised that all her pleas were falling on deaf ears, she ran away from home and moved in with a classmate, a woman named Romola. “I was too fearless to cow down to any kind of pressure,” she states.
Determined to translate, Sheuli picked up Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter, a favourite author. It was published, but she didn’t get a paisa.
Indeed, that she was a go-getter soon became amply clear to all her associates and friends when she did what was at that time considered “unthinkable”. One fine day, she barged into the house of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the famous barrister, academic and politician who was to become the Industry and Supply Minister in the cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru. Mukherjee was once vice-chancellor of Calcutta University and hugely influential in academic circles. “I just pushed the door open to find that he was getting a mustard oil massage,” says Sheuli. “Taken aback, he asked me what I wanted. I said, ‘I am enrolled in history at Calcutta University. I cannot afford to pay the tuition fees. It needs to be made free.’ The deed was done.
The way Sheuli bagged her first translation assignment showed a similar kind of grit and daring. By then she had fallen in love with a scholar named Jitendra Roy Chowdhury and wanted to marry him. But her parents, livid with her decision, refused to give consent. “I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to accept him. He was handsome, well-educated and polite. Of course, in those days having a boyfriend was not something ‘good’ girls did. Maybe they didn’t want me to choose my own groom. But that’s what I did and soon we got married. In any case, I was no longer living in my parent’s house. Later, they relented and things slowly became normal.”
It was her husband who encouraged Sheuli to pursue her dream of writing. “I met the famous feminist, author Shanti Shudha Ghosh, and asked her for her advice,” says Sheuli. “She told me that there was a demand for good Bengali translations of English literature and that I should start by doing that.” Since no publisher was willing to take the risk of signing a new author, that too a woman, she decided to first complete a work and then approach a publisher. She picked up a copy of the Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter, one of her favorite authors, and translated the 1930 classic, literally burning the midnight oil. “My husband would be sleeping and I would be sitting by the bed, writing in the light of the lantern.” Eventually, Pearl Publications Private Limited decided to accept the manuscript but, says Majumdar with a hearty laugh, “They paid me absolutely nothing for it”. The price of the book was set at 75 paise, which was not a small amount in those days.
Majumdar’s translation was well received and she started getting offers from other publishers including the National Book Trust, for which she translated Daphne du Maurier’s iconic novel, Rebecca. “This was such a hit that she even received a marriage proposal from a fan who had read the Bengali version,” says Majumdar’s daughter-in-law Bannya Roychowdhury, the wife of Sheuli’s elder son, with whom she now lives. What was her reply? “She wrote back, telling him that she was not only his mother’s age, but was already happily married and had two sons,” Bannya says.
Majumdar went on to translate seven books from English to Bengali, including Herman Hesse’s Good Moon—titled in Bengali as Amrito’r Alotey—in 1965 (priced at Rs 6). Celebrated thespian, the late Utpal Dutta, had adapted her Bengali translation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts for an award-winning stage production.
Today, Majumdar’s translated works is the family’s most precious treasure. “She is a symbol of courage and confidence, who was one of the women who ushered in the feminist era in India,” says her daughter-in-law. Majumdar complains that she is gradually losing her eyesight and cannot read any more. Since the death of her husband a few years earlier, she has further withdrawn from social life and likes to spend most of her time reclining on the couch, as her mind wanders back through her eventful life. “My memory is also dimming and I am forgetting a lot these days,” she says.
“Luckily, I have heard these stories from her so many times that I remember them clearly,” chips in her granddaughter, who is thinking of becoming a translator herself.