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The Virgin Fish of Babughat (Babughater Kumari Maachh

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Item Code: NAL417
Author: Meenakshi Mukherjee
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9780195665772
Pages: 166
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch x 5.5 inch
Weight 340 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

The Virgin Fish of Babughat is written in the form of a diary Kept by an inmate of a very unusual prison. Filling up blank sheets of paper is part of his punishment, and his desperate attempt to hold on to a language that is slipping away from him gives these pages a strange intensity and vividness.

The novel is as much a political allegory as parable of a World about to be taken over by consumerist culture. The prison camp tries to turn men and women into mindless carnal creatures, devoid of individual identity and human values. The title of the novel is a reminder of the reduction of female flesh to the level of a commodity; the tastiest fish are those that have not spawned, and so are the women who have never been pregnant. Yet it is not a dystopic novel, because, in a low key manner, it also celebrates the ultimate indestructibility of love and the desire for freedom.

Written three years before the Emergency was declared in India, The Virgin Fish of Babughat anticipates the chilling possibilities of power without accountability, and critiques the complicity of ordinary citizens in creating such a situation.

About the Author

Lokenath Bhattacharya (1927-2001) was a Bangla poet and novelist, who also wrote five plays and two books of literary essays. His doctorate was from Paris, and after spending his working life in India (he retired as Director, National Book Trust), he went back to France to spend the last decade of his life there. Fifteen of his books have been translated into French, and discussed in literary journals in France.

Meenakshi Mukherjee has taught English literature in various institutions, the longest spell being at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi Among her books in English the most recent is The perishable Empire (OUP, 2000), and she has edited an anthology of Indian literature with Nissim Ezekiel. Her Bangla study of the use of the past in fiction Upanysey Ateet has been published by Thema in 2003.


The novel is set in a nameless detention camp, tranquil and green in its natural ambience and almost luxurious in the creature comforts provided to its inmates. The only apparent difference between a holiday resort and this prison is that the captive men and women have to live in the nude while they are watched over by fully clothed armed sentries. The situation is presented without explanation; the reader does not know who the captors are and what the reason is for the incarceration of this motley group of people. But the narrative progresses the entire enterprise emerges as a sinister experiment to turn sentient human beings into mindless animals by catering to their physical needs alone and by insulating them from the complex reality of the world outside. As much an allegory of political oppression as a parable of the triumph of consumerist culture, this disturbing novel works through different kinds of contrasts-between benign nature and malevolent human design, nakedness and excessive clothing, savagery and the trappings of civilization; and above all between the abstract and the concrete, because the surrealistic outline of the narrative is filled out with vividly realistic details.

The leafy woods are soothing to the eye, but the total absence of birds creates a silence that is eerie. A similar contrast operates in the description of the meals in the camp. The victuals served to the inmates are tasty and nutritious, but the manner of serving hints at a chilling calculation. At lunch time food is thrown at them and the prisoners are expected to catch a succulent fried chicken mid-air, or crawl, or crawl, scrambling for bread and vegetables. After some initial resistance, the inmates learn to behave as expected, under threat of flogging by the guards. Their own hunger is also manipulated to force them to fight each other for the tastier morsels. But dinner is served in a civilized manner, evidently to underscore the humiliation of the earlier meal. The other strategy for reducing these people to the lowest common denominator of animate existence is to lock into the same room randomly selected men and women every night. The resistance is even more short-lived in this case. As if to oblige their jailers, the captives soon begin to enjoy this opportunity for unlimited copulation with varied partners.

The narrator, we learn, was a writer in his pre-prison life and his punishment here is to daily fill a stack of blank sheets with words. ‘Forced eloquence is as unbearable as forced silence,’ the author had said to a friend when Emergency was declared in the mid-seventies. The novel is some sense a protest against both. It is through this prisoner’s desperate and compulsive scribbling that the story of the detention camp slowly unfolds. Although meant to be an ordeal, the narrator turns the task into his lifeline. Through the act of writing he tries to capture the World outside which is slowly slipping away, and hold on to his language which he is in danger of forgetting. There are no books here and as the inmates have nothing to say to each other there is hardly any conversation. When the novel begins the narrator is even beginning to doubt whether he can remember his own name correctly.

Divested of name, clothes, relationship, memory and language-or any other signifier of identity, the inmates settle down to a routine where they eat, sleep, defecate and mate mindlessly. Only occasionally are there unexpected flashes of light in this dark laboratory of systematic dehumanization, illuminating the tenacious resolve of the human spirit not to under. For example, on an afternoon of sweltering heat the prisoners gather in a room to talk to each other and to remember-remember family attachments, remember words, remember words, remember unspoken love. But this fragile moment of sharing is shattered by the ucontrolled lust of one of the men, reverting the moment of human interaction to the level of bestiality. Then there is the case of the enigmatic old woman, comic and pathetic at the same time, comic because of her eccentricities and pathetic in her attempt to look young, who enacts an absurd drama of self flagellation which can be seen as an incipient revolt, disturbing at least for the time being the complacency of the camp. But more intriguing is her night-time role-playing as the goddess Kali. It first begins as a game, when she asks her male partner to enact the role of Shiva, but suddenly by a change of tone and register of language she is transformed into Kali in her awesome manifestation as destroyer. In Bengali culture Kali can be seen as a folk goddess, a mother who can be intimately addressed and even rebuked, but also as a dark cosmic force that can devastate. In the original Bangla novel, Lokenath Bhattacharya uses different registers of language to evoke all these images. At some point he deflates the cosmic imagery built up through a Sanskritic diction by the sudden use of unexpected colloquial idioms, but a residual mystery continues to linger around the figure of this old woman.

Beneath the seemingly meandering and breathless narration there is a fairly rigorous structure that holds the novel together. The first section-W-9-is chronologically followed by the last section X-9. Whatever lies in between is a random sampling of pages. The chapter headings are not as arbitrary as they look. We are told initially the entries used to be dated. When the writer lost track of dates he started he started marking them with alphabets. When these too were exhausted, he began with A-1, B-1 and so on, ‘and finally I have now reached W-9. That is, if I had to start another chapter after this I would have to name it X-9, but hurrah, I don’t have to.’ (p.41) we are told that the period of confinement is coming to an end-the sheets are nearly finished and after all the pages are filled up, he would be released in the evening. Till then he is spending his time by reading out to his imagined alter-ego sporadic sections from his many years of writing. But eventually X-9 had to be written because there was no release at the end of the day and a fresh stack of paper arrives. The Sisyphian task begins again but we do not know if it is a defeat or the beginning of a struggle towards victory.

In a personal letter to Saroj Bandopadhyay, a major critic in Bangla and of the earliest reviewers of this novel, Lokenath Bhattacharya wrote in 1973:

For a long time my imagination has been haunted by the spectre of a social system which attempts desperately to turn human beings into comfort-loving carnal creatures. Its aim is to stifle all introspection and resistance, to divest the individuals of their identity and their language, to bring them down to the lowest level of existence through physical as well as spiritual nakedness, to make them forget the larger anguish of life by creating and satisfying their sensual needs. In other words, to imprison them, to banish even the longing for freedom from their space of confinement and through careful and stringent surveillance to reduce their lives to a bestial pattern of behaviour and habit.

What happens at the end of the novel-however feeble is a protest worthy of human beings. It does not achieve freedom-in any case freedom might forever be an elusive goal –but the aspiration for freedom gets articulated.

In the camp described in Lokenath Bhattacharya’s novel, the children born of indiscriminate mating are the most frightening figures. No one really cares whose seed fertilizes which womb to create these monsters. Without love or affection they grow up into healthy animals devoid of human values. When at the end of the novel, Chandrima kills her new-born child with a stolen razor blade, it is at once an unthinkable act of cruelty and a triumphant assertion of human Will. If the prisoners are being used to breed a generation of people who would serve this oppressive regime effectively, Chandrima’s symbolic protest could be the first ember of revolution even if it does not bring them freedom.

The title of the novel which is explained on p. 10 is a constant reminder of the reducation of feminine flesh to the level of a commodity. The tastiest fish are those that have not spawned, and so are women who have not yet been pregnant. The image returns on the last page when a new woman enters the narrator’s room after the hope of liberation has been shattered. Despite Chandrima’s heroic act, the inexorable cycle continues: the womb of this bashful new girl will also be fertilized to create new monsters for the regime.

Is the novel a total fantasy or an abstract allegory about the human condition, or does it reflect any aspect of contemporary reality? When the original novel was written, West Bengal was in the grip of the Naxal movement and the state was using brutally repressive measures to curb the violence generated by them. There may have been an oblique reference to that in the novel when in a rare moment of candour the inmates wonder about the possible transgression for which they were being punished. The narrator knows that he was brought here because his writings were not acceptable to those in power-but many of the other had no political leanings whatever. None of them had ever been involved in violence. But now they wonder if it was precisely this apathy that was the problem. ‘… we are only the cowards of our time-we wanted to save our skin, and perhaps it has been a just punishment.’ This conversation takes place fairly early in their incarceration-when the entries were still dated and when the inmates addressed each other by name. Gradually they sink into a state of stupor in which exchanging ideas becomes as irrelevant as recognizing people as individuals. Kiranmoy Raha, in a most perceptive critique (1975) of the original novel, written a few months before Emergency was declared in India, said:

Babughater Kumari Maachh is a futuristic allegory which projects the culmination of what the author feels to be present tendencies. It is an examination of the human situation in extremis. For an observer of the social scene around, Lokenath Bhattacharya’s novel gives an uncomfortable feeling that future may not be that far away, after all. It may even be already here.


Translator's Note







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