A recent thread on my Facebook timeline generated much mirth about the irony of the location of the American consulate in Kolkata. As the post mentions, Harrington Street was changed to Ho Chi Minh Sarani. As a result, all official communication from the American Consulate, including the Consul’s personal calling card, carries the name of one of American imperialism’s vanquishers.
Kolkata — where, once upon a time, if you threw a stone in middle-class paaras (neighbourhoods) you were likely to hit a kid named Gogol, or Stalin, or Lenin — has had an enduring affair with Soviet Russia. Traces of Soviet era still linger in the city. Many an adda at roadside chai shacks still centres around the disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose and his possible exile in the erstwhile USSR after World War II. And people still address each other as ‘comrades’. In the old potter area of Kumartuli, you will find artisans crafting statues of Russian leaders, and strewn around the city are plaques in their honour and streets named after them. The best reminder lies beneath its crowded roads — the Soviet-designed Metro line. Kolkata was the first Indian city to get rapid-transit (metro) lines, way back in 1971, for which Soviet specialists (and engineers from the erstwhile East Germany) prepared a master plan
For a flashback to Soviet Russia days, head to Gorky Sadan. In a busy part of south Kolkata, in the pale light of fluorescent tubelights, a group of children are bent intently over chessboards, plotting and analysing complex positions and strategies worthy of Garry Kasparov. Their parents (mostly mothers) wait outside with tiffin boxes of snacks. This is the Alekhine Chess Club, named after the former world champion Alexander Alekhine and established under the then Soviet Consulate General in 1976. The club’s international masters include Sankar Roy, Saptarshi Roy Chowdhury, Arghyadip Das, Nisha Mohta and Samak Palit. “Chess is very popular in Kolkata; it is considered to be a vehicle for mental improvement,” says Gautam Ghosh, programme officer of Gorky Sadan, otherwise known as the Russian Cultural Centre of Kolkata. A statue of Maxim Gorky, adorned with rajnigandha flowers, greets you in the foyer. An exhibition hall displays photographs of Siberian landscapes shot by Russian artists. “Capitalism and other Americanisms may be taking over other cities, but many in Kolkata (and India) are still attracted to the ideologies of Soviet Russia,” says Ghosh, who also runs the Eisenstein Cine Club, a venue favoured by Satyajit Ray for previews of his films.
Word from Moscow
A few kilometres from Gorky Sadan is Manisha Granthalay, tucked away in a narrow bylane off College Street. You have to weave a zigzag trail through the lanes of College Street, around laden carts, stacks of books, scooters, and a multitude of people, to get there. It takes a bit of time if you do not know where exactly it is — for one thing, very few people seem to know about this throwback to the communist era with its wooden signage and dusty wall-shelves heaving with books. It is quite cool inside the high-ceilinged store, even in humid Kolkata. The books — literature, science, children’s lit — are all by Russian writers. They look a bit the worse for wear because they have been here for more than 25 years, the remains of the last batch that arrived from Raduga Publishers in Moscow after Soviet Russia was dismantled in 1991. The bookshop had been launched on May 18, 1964, by the Communist Party of India. “This was when the party was breaking apart,” explains Bhanudeb Dutta, head of Manisha Granthalay’s board of directors. “One part wanted to remain aligned with the Soviet Union, another part was against it. We then had the National Book Agency (NBA) get us the books from Soviet Russia. After the Soviet Union’s breakup, a faction of the CPI wanted to stay in touch with communist news from all over the world. NBA did not have that. So we started this store.” Prominent Bengali poet, writer, academic and art critic Bishnu Dey gave the store its name. The logo was designed by Satyajit Ray. And Jamini Roy gifted a painting, which still hangs on a wall.
There are magazines and books on science, agriculture, industrial production, sports, and literature. The children’s section is somewhat depleted now, but still makes for a very interesting collection. At an asking price of mostly ₹20-30, the books are a steal.
Russian books can also be found in the pavement stalls of Golpark that sell used books. Here, booksellers who may not be able to read what they are selling have names such as Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorky, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov tripping off their tongues. Just say the name and they will whip it out from the towering stacks. I come across an old copy of Nikolai Gogol’s cutting 1842 satire Dead Souls, which had invigorated Russia. I pick up a book by well-known Soviet agriculturist and plant breeder Ivan V Michurin for ₹300, and a copy of Russian 19th Century Gothic Tales, published by Raduga, at ₹200. Most sellers have a stash of such treasures. Which is why you are likely to bump into aficionados of Russian literature here. As I stand and choose a set of books to buy from Manik Sarkar’s stall, a balding gentleman in black spectacles asks me if I have read the Bengali translations of the books. Not yet, I reply sheepishly, and try to explain that my life has been spent mostly outside Kolkata. His name is Probin Chandra Ghosh, I find out, and he is here to add to his collection of Bengali translations of Russian books. “These are now available only here, at some stalls at the Kolkata Book Fair and at CPI(M) stalls during Durga Puja,” he rues. Ghosh grew up on Soviet-era children’s storybooks. As, surprisingly enough, did his son. We reminisce about the mobile bookshops of yore that toured cities, the book fairs and our childhood subscriptions to Soviet magazines.
He mentions how literature shaped the political culture of Russia. Under the tsars, explicitly political texts were difficult to publish. In the case of Pushkin, the rulers insisted on reading his verses before they went into print. Some were delayed or never printed. Ghosh recommends the translations by Noni Bhowmik and Arun Som, the latter having worked in Moscow as a translator from 1974 to 1991 — “particularly his translation of Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokov and Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev”.
Lost and found translations
I manage to track down Som, who has worked with Progress Publishers and Raduga. “Russian books had such beautiful illustrations, and they were so cheap — most people could afford them,” says Som, now nearly 80 years old. “They were much in demand in my time, especially children’s literature. Now it is only the old people who remember them.” He laughs when I tell him I am a fan and not old yet. The classics are still in demand, he agrees. “I have translated Crime and Punishment — three editions have been printed already. Also War And Peace. These are with the Sahitya Akademi. Three translations are in the pipeline, Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, and Gogol’s Dead Souls.”
He’s also done a four-volume translation of War and Peace. “I used to be able to translate faster. I take about a year to do a book now.” His original works include Russ Sahityer Itihaas for the West Bengal Bangla Academy. He has written about references in Rabindranath Tagore’s works in Rabindra Charchaye Russia — “I have gathered the material after a lot of hard work,” he says. This literary admiration between Soviet Russia and India was mutual, he says, as the Soviets too translated Indian literature, including writers like Tagore and Sarat Chandra. “Poems in Bengali were translated too.”
Som directs me to a blog — sovietbooksinbengali.blogspot.com — that clearly suggests that Soviet-era books in Bengali are a thing. “The blog’s creator, Somnath Dasgupta, has scanned and uploaded many of my books.” Dasgupta and his wife decided to archive this treasure trove when they discovered that her childhood collection of Bengali Soviet-era books was mostly lost, and they had almost nothing left to share with the next generation. They realised this was true for innumerable other Bengali book lovers. They decided to digitally archive Bengali Soviet books (and Bengali Chinese books, too) not only to preserve the beautifully illustrated images that three generations had grown up with, but also to keep alive a gradually vanishing chapter in the history of Bengali translation for future research and literary interest.
Says Dasgupta, “Though it started as a personal project, ‘Chhotobela Phire Asuk’ (Let Childhood Come Back), it soon took the shape of a volunteer organisation for archiving. We collected books from people eager to contribute and who still possessed books that were in good condition. An elderly friend, Prosenjit Bandyopadhyay, contributed much of his time to collect books, scan them and return them to the owners. We worked from morning till late-evening on weekends (we would travel on his motorcycle) for almost a year. I used to start from the north suburbs early morning, meet him somewhere in south Kolkata and continue book surfing until I returned home at dinner time. Prosenjit, Nirjon Sen, Farid Aktar Porag, Souradip Sinha and a few other friends also helped in editing and scanning to prepare the ready-to-print e-books of our blog.”
They concentrate on Bengali books alone as there are other websites like mirtitles.org and blogs such as sovietbooks.wordpress.com that are already archiving English versions of Soviet books.
Dasgupta has also formed a small library with books donated by well-wishers. So far they have uploaded 276 books. The blog has been a big hit, going by the overwhelming response from all parts of the world. The comments on the blog show that Soviet-era books still have a wide following: “I have a hardcover edition of this book in a box in my house in Kolkata. It has some very beautiful images.” “This is a very favourite childhood book of mine. I would like my son to read it. Can I download it somehow?” “Thank you so much for this venture. I rediscovered my childhood through your initiative.”
Russian on my tongue
The freshest link to Russia is in the form of a new entrant to the burgeoning café scene in Kolkata — Milee Droog (‘dear friend’ in Russian). The green sofas, dark, chilled and quiet interiors serve as a refuge from the heat and noise outside. The walls have posters of Kremlin, and bookcases full of Russian literature. The menu offers interesting choices in Russian food like blinis, syrniki, pirozhkis, pelmenis, borscht and khachapuris. And some great coffee. “It is the first café in all of eastern India to serve Russian food,” says Satyaki Manna, a partner at Milee Droog. The café has been decorated with handicrafts from Russia picked by Manna’s Russian wife, Irina Sergeyevna. Beautiful wooden lacquer plates with motifs in red, gold and black jostle with blue-and-white tins. Sergeyevna tells me these are khokhloma plates, a well-known style of Russian folk art. The motifs of golden leaves and flowers symbolise a happy life and are believed to bring light and wealth. Khokhloma is a popular tourist souvenir. As are the matryoshka dolls, a few of which are lined behind the coffee counter.
Sergeyevna says it is galling when people mistakenly call these Babushka dolls. “Babushka is a grandmother! Matryoshka comes from the concept of the mother... babies nestled inside a mama. Russia places emphasis on the matriarch, therefore the popularity of these dolls.” On another shelf are several tins bearing distinctive blue-and-white work, known as Ghzel pottery, alongside flags of Russia and India. Manna says they have added some spiciness to the Russian dishes as the Kolkatan palate may find it a tad bland otherwise. “That’s what a dear friend does.”
Anuradha Senguptais a Kolkata-based freelance journalist and founder-editor of Jalebi Ink, a media collective for children and youth