Wild Animals Prohibited

by Subimal Misra, translated by V. Ramaswamy

reviewed by Neel Dhanesha

Wild Animals Prohibited, the second collection of short stories by the Bengali writer Subimal Misra to be translated into English, begins with a series of warnings. “Reading Subimal Misra is a process, in which one has to first learn to read his writing,” V. Ramaswamy writes in his translator’s note. “Misra is not a writer whom any and every reader will like to or even want to read.” Misra himself, in remarks made to Ramaswamy in prefatory pages titled “In Lieu of a Preface,” says he wants “to write so as to disturb the reader.” He is not sure whether the stories in this collection will “make the reader throw away the book in disgust and rage.”

In this regard, Misra succeeds: many of the stories in this collection are both disturbing and difficult to follow. Part of the story “Radioactive Waste” involves a boy who may have previously been the still-functioning head of an accidentally beheaded man (or perhaps the man became a boy before he was beheaded?), who turns into a goat named Balzac, who eats a dropped flag, which fills the goat’s mouth with blood, which drips out and becomes a two-mile-long river. The unnamed narrator of “Only God’s Alive Now,” after calling upon droves of people to help clear a taro forest (later replaced by piles of human excrement), meets a frog on the path. “Frog-baba,” writes Misra, “went cock-a-doodle-doo.”

Misra’s writing often seems nonsensical. But the nonsense has a curious effect: the reader slips into a kind of fugue state, experiencing the stories as a collection of absurdist images. At the end of a story, much to our surprise, we may find we understand Misra’s message, even if not the form in which it was delivered. This may be by design. Ramaswamy, in his translator’s note, writes that Misra uses the Bengali word for film, “chhobi,” to describe his stories, and Misra has spoken about the influence of the experimental filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard on his work. “The story begins in this way. After that the attack on the story begins”—an authorial voice breaks in midway through “Calcutta Dateline”—“It is challenged, it is broken into smithereens, its storyness lies in pieces. Questions are asked about the way we read.”

If the stories in this collection have a central theme, it is violence, specifically humanity’s ability to enact violence on each other and the world around us. Caste, class, and power—in India these are often the same thing—are recurring motifs. The downtrodden are trodden upon; those who gain even a petty modicum of power quickly turn around and abuse it. At first, the violence is precise and shocking, laying bare the hypocrisy of the upper-caste Hindu, as in the titular story when a group of middle-class men and women seeking to have an orgy lock a servant in a storeroom and throw boiling water at a beggar girl.

Over the course of the collection, however, the violence begins to feel gratuitous. More beggars are beaten, eyes are gouged out and tongues chopped off, women are stabbed or hit by trains, and men are shot, for little good reason. If the senselessness is the point, the lesson is lost in the repetition. Misra’s objective may be to attack the story, but oftentimes it feels as if the reader gets caught in the crossfire. It is rare to find a book which is so hostile to a reader, and even rarer to find that the hostility is intentional.

Yet Misra has been elevated to a sort of cult status among readers in Bengal, which makes one wonder whether Wild Animals Prohibited is a particularly truculent selection of his work. Perhaps the book suffers from the removal of multiple contexts; all of these stories were written in the 1970s and 1980s by a person writing in Bengali for a Bengali audience, and any deeper meaning to be found in the stories—particularly those that seem to reference tumultuous events in Bengali history, like “The Road to Mill Jetty” or “From the Morgue on Bhawani Dutta Lane”—may be lost on someone discovering Misra’s writing in English decades later.

The author and translator both seem to feel that missing context themselves. Ramaswamy, who clearly loves Misra’s work deeply, writes in multiple places about the challenges of translating what he describes as playful, form-breaking Bengali into English. Misra, meanwhile, seems to take issue with the very act of translation. “Unless one reads the writing in the original Bengali, one cannot reach the various dimensions,” Misra told Gaurav Jain—in Bengali—in a 2010 interview for the magazine Tehelka. Ramaswamy provides this interview (rendered to English) at the back of the book, with yet another caveat on the difficulty of translating Misra.

In Karnataka, the Indian state where I spent most of my childhood, one often hears the phrase “swalpa adjust maadi,” which loosely translates from the Kannada to “do a bit of adjusting.” It opens negotiations, from discussions about space on public transit (please adjust ever so slightly in that direction so I may squeeze myself next to you) to the price of vegetables. When uttered by the drivers of lorries—trucks, though with their bright colors, polyphonic horns, and cargo flowing over their open tops, they bear little resemblance to American semis—it becomes both a request and a threat: do a bit of adjusting to the path of your body in relation to that of this lumbering, garishly painted, diesel-smoke-belching machine, or your path will be adjusted for you.

So it is with Subimal Misra’s writing. Perhaps a collection of his more recent stories would require less adjusting; perhaps the lorry would demurely signal, waiting its turn to slide into a gap in the traffic. But I have my doubts. The adjusting, it would seem, is the point. It is up to the reader to decide whether they will acquiesce or simply turn onto a quiet side street, away from the lorry and its ear-splitting horn.

Published on July 19, 2022