Manisha Granthalaya, a little book haven in Kolkata, which debuted in 1964, keeps the Russian spirit alive in India.
A bookstore in Kolkata that appears empty from the outside preserves time on its shelves. Each corner of the Manisha Granthalaya, which is located near College Street, is nostalgically decorated with the covers of Soviet-era books that are no longer in any particular sequence. Along with fiction, there are books about politics, medicine, and engineering. Although most are translations into Bengali, some are in Russian.
The volumes continue to serve as a memory of a time when West Bengal in eastern India had a reading culture that included Russian literature, especially in translation. Children were raised with stories about witches, mystical forests, and people trudging through the winter. And when they grew older, literary greats like Maxim Gorky, Nikolai Gogol, and Fyodor Dostoevsky influenced them.
Soviet books conquer Bengal
When the Left Front (an alliance of leftist parties) was in power in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011, these books were essential in the homes of activists from various leftist parties. However, according to Joy Banerjee, deputy manager at Manisha, even those with no connection to political activism or affiliation with other parties used to purchase Russian literature.
The debut of the bookstore in 1964 was a magnificent event that was attended by prominent state intellectuals. Satyajit Ray, a filmmaker, created the store’s logo, while Jamini Roy, a painter, donated some of his work. There were 18 locations in West Bengal after a few years, but it was still challenging to meet the enormous demand.
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“Children’s literature and the classics were the most popular,” Banerjee says. “But other books on society and politics were also widely read. Even now we have people asking if such-and-such books are available. Recently, a man in his 70s, settled in the United States, came looking for Bengali translations for his grandchildren to give them a sense of the childhood he had.”
People credit a number of significant causes for its success, including the improved paper quality compared to locally printed books, the beautiful illustrations inside each book, and the affordable costs. It was like getting a book worth ten rupees for just one. According to Banerjee, “That kind of investment for a single book remains unmatched in history.”
However, the accuracy of the translation was essential for reaching readers in both urban and rural areas. Up to the 1990s, translators like Noni Bhowmik, Samar Sen, and Arun Som were well-known.
“The quality of translation was such that we could feel that not much was lost. Moreover, I grew up reading these classics in both English and Bengali (translations) and would tend to return to the Bengali versions more,” says Kuntal Mukhopdhyay, retired professor of Rabindra Bharati University and acclaimed theatre practitioner.
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For the theatrical company Sanglap Kolkata, Mukhopdhyay authored and directed the Bengali adaptation of How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky in 1976. The play’s success solidified the group’s reputation in the community.
Behind the scenes of the literary boom
When the USSR established a publishing society for foreign workers in 1931, the procedure for this beautifully translated work got underway. Its primary objective was to disseminate socialist philosophy, but it was also in charge of translating and disseminating literature. This organization had a Bengali department from the 1950s. The company expanded as Progressive Publishers in 1963. Additionally, around this time, Bengali translators were employed to work in the USSR.
After Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971, this Bengali translation endeavor expanded. Arun Som, 85, who relocated to Moscow in 1974, claims that this is when he first had the opportunity to work as a translator. He did not return to Kolkata until 1995, following the fall of the USSR.
The translators underwent a thorough training program. Once the recruiters were certain about each person’s proficiency, they sent them out into the city to learn more about the culture. They were given an introduction to Russia in the classroom.
“It was a fascinating experience. Though the initiative was for a better understanding of literary nuances, it opened up a fairly guarded society for us,” says Som.
Som had already consumed magazines and documentaries to gather in-depth information about these locations after being influenced by the tales of Communism. The people, the culture, and the flaws in the rigid Soviet system were interesting shocks, though. “While people were not rich, no one slept hungry. They all had a house, a job and healthcare,” he says.
He was very impressed with the reading culture. “How well-read Moscow was was astounding. Most people could discuss literary legends. That was unmistakably an advantage of heavily subsidized schooling, he claims.
However, he could also make out the system’s flaws. He observed lengthy lines for imported products and a general feeling of enviousness toward nations whose residents had access to luxury.
“As translators like us were on a contract, we ended up earning 400 to 500 Roubles, this created a tension as the common Russian was only earning around 150 Roubles. By the ‘90s this kind of discontent over lesser earnings had taken a gigantic shape,” he says.
The new beginning
With his translations of writers like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol, Som rose to fame in his native country. He continued to pick up additional work in Moscow and finally translated significant journals like Soviet Woman.
Sen says that what enthralled the readers back home was the quality of literature they got for basic prices. “Our readers grew up with Russian classics that are a must-read for anyone around the world. Most of the children’s literature and cartoons too had some thought going into it, even if it was simply the idea of sharing and caring. This created dedicated fans of Russian storytelling,” says Som.
Som initially had the inkling that this good run might not continue in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika strategy, which involved “opening up” the USSR, was put into effect.
“With Perestroika they were looking to make a profit from everything so this massive spending on literature was certainly doomed. But I stayed on as I loved doing what I did,” says Som.
He had properly predicted the future. Two years prior to the fall of the USSR in 1989, the last shipment of Russian books arrived in Kolkata on three ships, and the majority of them were quickly sold out. According to Banerjee from Manisha, “Since then, the Russian books we sell are reprints made here.”
However, there was always a need for these books. Chemical engineer Somnath Dasgupta, who lives in Kolkata, became aware of this in 2013 and launched a project to collect and digitize the Bengali translations. These novels were first posted on the team’s blog, Soviet Novels Translated in Bengali.
They circulated open requests for contributions and met numerous people who had copies of these translations as a result of doing so. “Meeting these individuals whose copies have been kept helps us understand the attachment they have to these books. The ones with lovely drawings were frequently treasured gifts; they were books that helped shape worldviews, he claims.
They have already distributed 292 high-quality, print-ready Soviet Bengali books for no cost. Before they can find more volunteers to process these books, they are now also publishing scans.
Som says that though there was a fall in interest in these books after 1991, they will make a comeback in some form or other. “Even in Russia, people embraced American culture for some years after the Soviet collapse. But now I hear there is a renewed interest in the classics. I am hopeful of that kind of a revival here too,” he says.