Monday, Jun 27, 2022

Book Review: The City And Its Redundant People

Malati Mukherjee’s translation of Bitan Chakraborty’s 'Redundant' is a lesson in empathy for outsiders trying to find a foothold in the city of their dreams.

Book Review: The City And Its Redundant People
Reveries of a city

Bitan Chakraborty’s first novella, Redundant, is written with the hope of an egalitarian society. His protagonists are regular people we may meet as pedestrians on sidewalks or co-passengers in a crowded local train. Redundant is a lesson in empathy. It offers a reflective pause to check our privilege. The novella is a telling commentary on the ever-evolving socio-cultural space of a metropolis. The city looms large on characters who battle to earn a decent living. Malati Mukherjee’s English rendition is lucid and jargon-free. It keeps the flavour of the original by retaining a few Bangla words. And yet, not a word juts out, and not one phrase disrupts the meaning or flow of the narrative. Mukherjee chose to translate Redundant because this story, told in any language, would not change the emotions it evokes or the universality of issues it touches upon. Despite cultural alienation, it is relatable because it represents the common man who is aware of the pitfalls of a failed career.

Redundant etches a dwindling friendship between Kanak and Subho. After enrolling in a fashion designing course, Kanak becomes a salesperson at a garment shop. Subho sells lottery tickets and toiletries to stay afloat. Both came to Kolkata from the suburbs and are sharing a room in a hostel. They are occupied throughout the day, wondering and planning how to meet daily sales targets. Despite being enraged about something else at home, Subho gets a glimpse of Kanak’s mind space, stress, and frustration about work: And why shouldn’t he be angry! Madhumita has again been awarded Employee of the Month! Although her sales were definitely not the highest! Why? Because apparently, even if she is slightly short on sales, she is foremost in her customer dealings, product knowledge, visibility, etc. So on average she still turns out the best. This was never the case earlier…now, apparently, the Product Manager at the Head Office has announced this new rule across West Bengal. It appears that product visibility here is abysmal, and customer feedback is not as good as expected. So, Kanak couldn’t make it this month either. And yet, he’s the only one who gives her a run for her money—daily.

In a capitalist-competitive world order where one struggles for a square meal, one loses either companionship or their sense of moral judgement. Sometimes, both. Chakraborty, within the limited scope of a novella, explores both, alongside other issues. In his representation of a single person’s failure to withstand the city’s demands, he makes a case for ordinary Indians’ right to equality and better quality of life.

Kanak’s shift in career and Subho’s unending job search while managing two businesses are an exposition of India’s increased rate of unemployment and underemployment. Their realities remind us of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2018 rhetoric when he claimed selling pakodas is employment enough, followed by Amit Shah’s debut parliamentary speech where he reinforced the same. Back in 2015, Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee, remarked that roadside telebhaja (oil fried snacks) or sweet shops are promising ventures to beat unemployment. Such rhetoric does not restore dignity to all forms of labour, but rather baffles the youth about self-employment. Moreover, it reflects the reality of unemployment India faced even before the pandemic. Underemployment is no hopeful turn. It does not significantly improve one’s quality of life, but often results in emotional distress, mental trauma, and frustration. In a country where manual labour is often used as an expletive, one finds no dignity in unskilled labour.

Calcutta streets
A street in Calcutta || Credit: Shutterstock

Midway into the narrative, Subho loses lottery tickets worth Rs 400. He follows Lalu, who he suspects stole them, but becomes overwhelmed with guilt and grief on learning that Lalu is under heavy debt. The lottery tickets are symbolic of hope—when everything else fails, one hopes winning a lottery will return their lost agency. Consequently, stealing lottery tickets signifies extreme financial distress and despair. Subho feels “pity” for Lalu, and in his “compassion” lies the possibility of a hopeful and empathetic future. Subho senses Lalu’s alienation and describes him as a person “who has lost everything; perhaps he has no one to call his own. When someone drowns, all that remains is a story around him. No one thinks it necessary to check the veracity of that story.” And, not far from here in the narrative, Subho feels similar hopelessness and dejection. Unable to compensate for the lost tickets and his monthly rent, Subho begins to skip meals and is soon evicted from the hostel.

Simultaneously, Kanak’s failure to secure a job for Subho in his showroom strains their relationship to the extent that they stop speaking during their nights together. Subho’s eviction, his isolation, and deteriorating quality of life drive him to attempt suicide. Kanak finds him in a pool of blood and panics, but Subho calmly says, “I am not trying to kill myself. Just cutting off my right hand,” and explains that in a few years, no one in this country will have a right hand. "Don’t you remember we studied in Biological Sciences that the unused organ stops functioning and becomes redundant? It will be the same for all of us. And I am the first representative of that new, hand-less species," he says.

It is from this act that the original gets its title, and the translation, its cover image—haat kata (handless, or severed hand). Cutting off one’s right hand or making their limb redundant is symbolic of rendering the self-purposeless. Subho, in utter depression, believes he is of no use to his family and society. While achieving a Sisyphean feat of meeting “ridiculous sales targets” daily, he performs useless chores and is involved in work that offers no delight or creative fulfilment.

Though Subho is rushed to the hospital in time and brought back to fight the city another day, we must acknowledge that homelessness is a threat to dignity and safety. That Subho finds himself irrelevant, conflicts with his willingness to constantly prove otherwise. He feels relegated and socially othered due to his financially disadvantaged position. Subho is anxious that the city will reject him if he under-performs. He is discouraged when his fear turns into reality, and his personal sufferings belittled amidst the city’s vastness. His eviction becomes inevitable despite his innumerable attempts to make a mark in the city. This inability to belong, to find a place to call home, breaks his heart. For Subho, being evicted amidst a job search means returning home defeated and empty-handed. While writing a story on grief and human suffering, one often runs the risk of generalising. But the story of Subho’s resilience to survive the city is noted and translated with care and sensitivity.

Needless to say, the city of Kolkata is a character in the novella. In fact, the book is a tribute to the city. The narrative draws from Kolkata’s regular evening office crowds and hubbub of Durga Puja festivity. And yet lurking in corners are characters and emotions that offer varied shades and a competitive environment—all true to mega-cities. I personally visualise Kolkata as a warm old grandmother who opens her arms to outsiders. But the local population, in the name of preserving the city's sanctity and cultural space, curse the outsiders. Kanak speaks disdainfully of his Marwari customers and Yadav-da, a roadside tea-stall owner originally from UP—“were these people from UP going to take over Kolkata?…10 years from now, Kolkata will not be a city of Bengalis anymore. It will become a part of UP and Bihar!” On the other hand, Yadav-da has picked up Bangla to mingle better with local customers. Within the compact space of a novella, Chakraborty beautifully presents this existing conflict between Bengalis and non-Bengalis.

Moreover, Bengal’s long-term political language features in Chakraborty’s preoccupation with class identity politics. Most characters lack surnames, but in their mononymous depiction is an erasure of caste identity, true to communist Bengal’s political consciousness. Or as Professor Sekhar Bandopadhyay puts it in his essay, Partition and the Ruptures in Dalit Identity Politics in Bengal, that though upper-caste Hindus dominated every aspect of Bengali public life, caste remained a discreet marker of inequality and social hierarchy and was readily nullified as an identity marker in electoral politics and political narratives. While Redundant is a keen representation of Kolkata and its common way of life, it is also a sincere portrayal of mental health issues stemming from traumatic life events.

(Shamayita Sen is a Delhi-based poet, PhD research scholar,  author of For the Hope of Spring—hybrid poems, and editor of Collegiality and Other Ballads—feminist poems by male and non-binary allies. She can be reached at Views expressed in this article are personal.)