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The Observant Owl

The Observant Owl
Item Code: NAG613
Author: Kaliprasanna Sinha
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9788178241982
Pages: 226 (7 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book:260 gms

About the Author

Kaliprasanna Sinha [1840-1870] or “Hutam” was one of the most successful writers in the style introduced by Tekchand. In early youth he made several translations from the Sanskrit, and in particular he is the author of a translation of the Mahabharata, which may be regarded as the greatest literary work of his age. But it is not as a translator that he is known to fame, and familiar to almost every Bengali, but as the author of Hutam Pyancha, a collection of sketches of city-life, something after the manner of Dickens’s Sketches by Boz, in which the follies and peculiarities of all classes, and not seldom of men actually living, are described in racy, vigorous language, not seldom disfigured by obscenity.’ Bankimchandra Chatterjee in The Calcutta Review, 1871.


It is difficult to describe the place that Hootum Pyanchar Naksha occupies in the life of the educated Bengali. The book is both prior to and outside the familiar canon of prose fiction, which, according to the standard histories, begins with the novels of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (the first, Durgeshnandini, was published in 1865). Yet, from its publication in 1862, Hootum has always remained in print, often in several editions, and has enjoyed a steady popularity. Most educated Bengalis will know stories from Hootum, or use phrases and names from the sketches, without necessarily being able to attribute them to the correct source. Many will read the Naksha for the sheer pleasure of savouring the wit, earthy and cultivated at the same time, and hearing the joyful cadence of a popular urban spoken language that virtually disappeared from the printed pages of Bengali literature with the establishment of an authoritative sadhu prose in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Naksha enjoys in modern Bengali literary culture a somewhat liminal status as a classic that at the same time carries the marks of the disreputable and the prohibited.

The author of the sketches, Kaliprasanna Sinha, was by all accounts a remarkable man. He was born in 1840 in a wealthy family of Jorasanko in Calcutta and went to Hindu College. While still in his teens, he started a literary society and published several short-lived journals. His major work was the Bengali translation of the Mahabharata for which he employed several pundits; he then distributed the published volumes free of cost. He wrote plays and sponsored their production. He was a major philanthropist of his day, donating generously to literary and educational organizations and projects of social reform. An act for which he is famous is his offer to pay the hefty fine imposed on James Long, an Irish missionary, as punishment for publishing an English translation of the allegedly seditious play Nildarpan by Dinabandhu Mitra. Kaliprasanna soon ended up deep in debt and died-it is said, of excessive drinking-at the age of thirty.

Hootum Pyanchar Naksha is utterly urban in style and spirit. The streets and public spaces of Calcutta are so vivid and palpable in its pages that one almost has the sense of being surrounded by the noises, lights and smells of the city. Not only that, the range of characters one encounters in the sketches encompasses an astonishing variety of urban classes, occupations and ethnic groups-all meticulously identified and described. From the old rich to the new rich, lawyers to clerks, moneylenders to peddlers, devotees to drunkards, fishwives to prostitutes- Kaliprasanna takes such delight in sketching each type that the Naksha has acquired something of the status of an ethnographic source-book on nineteenth-century Calcutta. Hootum’s sketches of peoples and places, of festivals and entertainments, of events and spectacles, are never conventional, because he had no conventions to follow. Life in the new city was so unprecedented that a new literature, expressed in a new prose with a new aesthetic and moral sensibility, had to be invented.

One can see this effort as early as Bhabanicharan Bandyopadhyay’s Kalikata Kamalalay [Calcutta, Abode of the Goddess of Wealth], written in 1823. The book, Bhabanicharan says in his preface, was addressed to visitors to Calcutta from rural areas and small towns who found the ways of the new city utterly incomprehensible. Bhabanicharan wanted to show that there was indeed an ethical way of living in the city, even though it was in many ways different from the traditional practices of the countryside. Wealth and political power, he admitted, had much greater importance in Calcutta, but no one confused the new secular order of social status with the traditionally prescribed ritual order of precedence that was still respected, but kept separate. The novelty of life in Calcutta lay in the unprecedented opportunities of social mobility that it offered. Lowly shopkeepers could become wealthy aristocrats in the course of a single generation. Similarly, respectable people fallen into bad times could afford to take up menial or disreputable occupations because of the anonymity that the city offered.

Hootum’s sketches display the same sensibility. The city, with its new institutions and practices, presented an entirely novel ethical space that had to be negotiated with intelligence and skill. The pitfalls were many and not everyone would succeed. Kaliprasanna clearly shows his preference for some of the traditional virtues of old wealth and is contemptuous of the vulgarity of the new rich. But he has no doubt that change is inevitable. As he says quite often in variations of a memorable sentence: ‘Like clouds in the autumn sky, or the wealth of the upstart gentleman, or the youth of the harlot, time never stops to wait.’ His favourite mode of representing the bewildering contradictions in the emerging forms and manners of urban life is irony. Often flippant but sometimes profound, evoking raucous laughter but at times bittersweet, irony, I think, is the predominant rhetorical style of Hootum’s sketches.

It is tempting to suggest that this was a period, in the first half of the nineteenth century, of early modernity in Calcutta when new urban institutions, practices and arts were beginning .to emerge that were not yet shaped by the forms of colonial modernity. The latter, powerfully produced by the institutions of colonial education and government, would dominate the second half of the nineteenth century.

In Bengali fiction, for instance, and in the novel in particular, the city of Calcutta would almost entirely disappear from view from the 1870s. Certainly, nothing as graphic as the streets and bazaars of Hootum’s sketches would be seen in Bengali novels until the 1930s. And the playful speech and witticisms would survive not in high literature but in satires and farces. Early modernity would be replaced, or perhaps subdued and marginalized, by a full-blown colonial modernity with its new agenda of social reform and nationalism.

This may be the reason why no one, at least to my knowledge, has published a full translation in English of Hootum Pyanchar Naksha. The educated bhadralok, ever in search of bourgeois respectability, has always found the public culture of Calcutta of the early nineteenth century something of an embarrassment. As a result, it has kept the pleasures of Hootum’s sketches firmly to itself, like a family secret that must not be revealed to outsiders.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times changing once more that a young scholar like Swarup Roy has finally attempted a full translation of Hootum’s sketches. One hopes this indicates the coming of a new historical consciousness marked by a greater post-colonial self-confidence that might allow contemporary Indian culture to recognize and recover much that is of value from the neglected remains of the popular cultures of the past.


Nineteenth-century Bengali literature is now well known through translation in English and other Indian languages. But translators have been biased mainly in favour of poetry and the novel; other genres, like prahasan (farce) and naksha (satirical sketch) for example, have remained neglected. Prahasans and nakshas were popular forms of literary expression in nineteenth-century Bengal. Unlike the heroic poetry, drama and fiction of the period, which dealt with classical, mythological and historical subjects in heavily Sanskritized Bengali, nineteenth- century Bengali prahasans and nakshas dealt with the follies and foibles of contemporary Bengali society in the colloquial urban language of the day.

The rule of the English East India Company in Bengal brought about far-reaching changes in the social, economic and cultural life of the Bengalis. Calcutta, the administrative capital of the East India Company, was the focal point of these changes. Nowhere are these changes more brilliantly captured than in nineteenth-century Bengali nakshas. Nakshas were the first literary attempt by Bengalis to speak about themselves and the changed conditions of their society in the satirical mode. The main butt of ridicule in these sketches was the parvenu, and the scene of action was Calcutta, the emerging metropolis. Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Hootum Pyanchar Naksha (1862), a collection of sketches of city life, something after the manner of Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836), is the finest among the nakshas produced during the period.

At a time when the general language of narration in Bengali literature was the heavily Sanskritized sadhubhasa (formal language), a fresh breeze blew into the Bengali literary world with Kaliprasanna’s use of chalitbhasa (colloquial language) as the medium of narration in his Hootum Pyanchar Naksha. The book, however, is remarkable not only for the novelty of its style, but also for the insights that it offers into nineteenth-century Calcutta’s social life. Though his avowed intention was to lampoon social types, there are veiled references to many actual individuals in Kaliprasanna’s work. This makes the book a rich mine of information about contemporary society.

Although Kaliprasanna’s Hootum Pyanchar Naksha became very popular among the Bengali readers of his age, its bawdy quips and scatological humour offended conservative English- educated intellectuals. Bankimchandra Chatterjee, the famous nineteenth-century Bengali novelist, while praising its ‘racy vigorous language’, complained that it was ‘not seldom disfigured by obscenity’ (‘Bengali Literature’, The Calcutta Review, 1871). The official concept of obscenity, it should be remembered, was fashioned by the norms prevailing in contemporary English society, where Thomas Bowdler carried out the task of purging Shakespeare’s plays of obscenities, and where the word ‘legs’ when describing a table could not be uttered in the presence of ladies. Uninhibited references to certain parts of the human body and jokes about certain bodily functions were however a part of the traditional folk culture of Bengal. In a rare moment of dispassionate analysis of the differing concepts of obscenity in the West and India, an English observer of India commented: ‘ ... European analogy and distinction somehow fail. It is sometimes difficult here to draw the distinction between obscenity and warmth’ (Friend of India, 11 September 1873).

The task of translation has not been easy, owing to the many difficulties of adequately rendering into English a book so essentially colloquial and produced during the period idiomatic in style and character. Though I have tried to make my translation literal as far as possible, my primary aim was to achieve equipollence rather than equivalence. I have, therefore, sometimes been a traitor to the ‘letter’ to be faithful to the ‘spirit’. One of the risks of rendering an Indian text into English is that one’s own familiar world gets foreignized in translation. I obtained unusual confirmation of this fact while reading my own translation. Most Bengali readers, I am sure, will get a similar feeling when reading this book.

There are numerous English words and phrases in the original text. All such words and phrases have been put in italics, barring a few (like table and chair, for instance) that do not warrant such signposting. All Indian words, except those included in the tenth edition of the COD, have been explained in the glossary.

Transliteration of Bengali and other Indian words is a major challenge for translators. In this matter, I have chosen the path of convenience rather than consistency. Bengali names and terms have been spelt according to current standard Bengali pronunciation, and Sanskrit names and terms according to traditional Sanskrit pronunciation. To depart from these would confuse readers; at the same time, the Sanskrit forms clash with those of their Bengali versions or derivatives. The text thus has Vishnu but bijoya; Rama but Ram Babu. This is unsatisfactory, but a perfect solution seems impossible.

I am indebted to many people who helped me with this translation. First of all, I would like to thank Sukanta Chaudhuri and Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, without whose support and encouragement I would have never been able to complete it. Tapan Raychaudhuri, Clinton Seely, Swapan Chakraborty, Sibaji Bandyopadhyay and Hans Harder read the early drafts and offered their comments and suggestions. Namita Chakraborty, Manjari Ghosh, Rimi Chatterjee and Anuradha Roy read the penultimate draft and provided invaluable constructive advice. I am immensely grateful to them for being so generous with their time and wisdom. There are numerous editions of Hootum Pyanchar Naksha in Bengali, but the most authoritative one is the one edited by Arun Nag. I owe a great deal to him as well as to his annotated edition. Thanks are also due to the Gurusaday Museum of Folk Art, the Asiatic Society and The Calcutta Museum Society for providing me with photographs of paintings in their collection. Finally, I would like to thank my family who cheerfully endured my seemingly unending preoccupation with Hootum.



List of Illustrations viii
Foreword by Partha Chatterjee ix
Translator’s Preface xiii
A Word by Way of Introduction xviii
Calcutta’s Charak Festival 1
Calcutta’s Community Pujas 24
Gossip and Rumours 73
Charlatanry 107
Babu Padmalochan Dutta, Alias ‘Chance Avatar’ 119
Snanayatra at Mahesh 135
Rathayatra 149
Durga Puja 152
Ramlila 166
The Railways 176
Glossary 192


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