Satire often depends on specific moments in time and place. The challenge of writing great satire is in transcending those limits. For instance, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal spoke to a time and place, anchored to a historic period, but rendered irrelevant by Ireland’s economic rise and the period of the Celtic Tiger. Or consider the ongoing series from the Onion: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” If gun-giddy America ever passed meaningful firearms restrictions, the satirical headlines would lose their meaning. Removing satirical writing from the context of its creation can reduce its power.
Nabarun Bhattacharya’s Hawa Hawa and Other Stories, recently translated from the Bengali by Shubha Prasad Sanyal, confronts the same questions of relevance. Does late twentieth-century satire written in India for an Indian reader remain relevant when transported through time and across the world, through translation?
Bhattacharya was a Bengali writer who broadly leaned toward Marxism and embraced magical realism, and his writing reflected his leftist politics. His career spanned the post-war paradigm of Soviet and American superpowers, against the backdrop of the green revolution, and at a time when Western empires allowed their former colonies to struggle with modernization. An obituary in The Hindu from 2014 notes Bhattacharya “relentlessly wrote about those marginalised sections living on the city streets, in slums and dark alleys, using satire, dark humour, and fantasy to telling effect to highlight oppression and exploitation.” Hawa Hawa is no exception.
Death lurks everywhere in this collection, where bodies are frequent and numerous. Murder, accidents, and bad health all play a role. There are moments where the visual images are particularly visceral, like skin that is “pulpy, hairless, and mottled” and characters constantly swallowing their own spittle. In “Spy,” the protagonist, a policeman, seeks out people to murder, and relishes the presence of dead bodies. The story sets the broader tone of the collection—characters who are flippant about death and who have a casual relationship with crime.
The mood and tone are tightly controlled in the narratives with recurring imagery. Overhead mercury lamps are a favorite, with descriptions of the lights appearing across several stories, and each setting the scene: “the mercury lamps and tube lights have turned night into day”; “Bloody mercury lamps are turning the night into a hotel”; “the royal poinciana and so many other trees look stunning under the mercury lamps.” The distinctive blue-green glow of mercury lamps creates a visual of a specific time, and one that—now with the modern illumination through LED lamps—is losing relevance.
However, while some of these superficial elements feel pegged to a specific moment in history, Bhattacharya’s dark cynicism seems ripe for our era. For instance, in “4+1” when a tram has a collision and a person dies, the characters’ first wonder if the death is some kind of advertisement or promotion. The victim of the tram was an actor, afterall. Advertisements barrage us from every angle, a natural extension of consumer-driven capitalism. We endure all sorts of provocations, and the thought of a death today being some kind of stunt to sell a product seems perhaps even less far-fetched.
There are parts of this collection that seem to speak directly to our domestic crisis. In the first story of the collection, “Spy,” a bloodthirsty police officer savors the kill. He is excited to murder and get away with. His fingers get the “itch” as he calls it. It’s a perceptive satire for American readers confronting an endless stream of police killings. George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo—the list is long and seemingly endless. Couldn’t we easily believe the police enjoy killing? Bhattacharya is not writing to these incidents—most of those names are people murdered after his death. But his satire seems less satire and more a predictive account of today’s news. It’s a story that would feel at home alongside contemporary authors like Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, whose recent story collection Friday Black reflects similar problems with police and killing.
The standout story in the collection is “Deathgrant,” where a disgruntled bourgeois businessman befriends the owner of a firm selling suicides. These are elaborately planned incidents, not merely the sort of project a client could undertake alone in their home with a gun or a solid piece of rope. They are staged for grand effect. For instance, one client hired the firm to kill him in an airplane crash—an accident that involved dozens of other passengers. The narrator is concerned that these other airplane passengers were innocent victims. But “that’s why this takes a ridiculously high price: there are a lot of extra victims,” the salesman explains. It’s a damning criticism of capitalism, that the lives of innocents are simply given a price by the wealthy, celebrities, and powerful politicians who use the suicide service. But in an era of oligarchs built on the backs of abused laborers, we can easily believe how the elite purchase curated death at the expense of the innocent. As the salesman explains, he didn’t force these people to board the airplane. And as for whether the poor might take advantage of this service—those “Fuckers don’t even know if they’re alive or not.”
Bhattacharya’s voice speaks to our own time of crisis. As though seeing prophetically to the future, in “Night’s End,” the narrator observes in the concluding line of the story, “and then again, the third world war could start tomorrow.” Hawa Hawa provides both a window looking back to the past as well as illuminating our present. Bhattacharya’s satire navigates the gaps of time and space to speak to our present time with wisdom. While these stories are rooted in the past, they nevertheless successfully critique modernity.
Hawa Hawa and Other Stories
By Nabarun Bhattacharya
Translated by Shubha Prasad Sanyal
Published on December 6, 2022
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.