About The Middleman

The Middleman
by Sankar
Published in Bengali in 1973
Published in English translation by Penguin India, 2009

From the jacket
1970s Calcutta. The city is teeming with thousands of young men in search of work. Somnath Banerjee spends his days queuing up at the employment exchange. Unable to find a job despite his qualifications, Somnath decides to go into the order–supply business as a middleman. His ambition drives him to prostitute an innocent girl for a contract that will secure the future of Somnath Enterprises. As Somnath grows from an idealistic young man into a corrupt businessman, the novel becomes a terrifying portrait of the price the city extracts from its youth.

Sankar’s The Middleman is the moving story of a man torn between who he is and what he wants to be. Stark and disquieting, the novel deftly exposes the decaying values and rampant corruption of a metropolis that is built on broken dreams and morbid reality. The evocative prose and vivid imagery in this first-ever translation successfully capture the textures of the Bengali original.

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Chapter 1: The Middleman

It was the sixteenth of June, the first day of the month of Asadh. Somnath stood by a decrepit, discoloured lamp post at the crossing of Chitpur Road and CIT Road in Calcutta. His full name: Somnath Banerjee.

The traffic was an alarming snarl of rickshaws, handcarts, buses, trucks, taxis and private cars. The ageing driver of the ancient tram caught in the middle rang the bell loudly in his desperation to get from Lalbazar to Bagbazar. To Somnath, it looked like an enormous yet frail dinosaur from a prehistoric era, banished from its safe haven to the human jungle of Calcutta, emitting howls of helplessness.

Somnath felt sorry for the beast and wondered what quirk of fate had brought it to Calcutta’s Rabindra Sarani of all places. A few years ago, he might have been inspired by these circumstances and, jotting down his thoughts in a notebook, he would have turned it into a poem—‘A prehistoric dinosaur in the human jungle of Calcutta’. To be read out to Tapati the very next day. Somnath shook his head; there was no point thinking about all that now. Poetry had left him forever. With what intent was Somnath Banerjee loitering near Tiretti Bazar? Where was he headed? If someone were to ask him these questions, Somnath would be at a loss for words. Had it been any other day, he would have lied with elan. But how could he overlook the fact that it was the sixteenth of June? Some poet long ago had immortalized the date by expressing an exiled demon’s grief of banishment. The seventeenth, the eighteenth, the twentieth, the twenty-fifth, the thirtieth—Kalidas could have chosen any of those dates in June to give voice to the pain of separation, leaving the sixteenth for Somnath alone.

The sixteenth of June was Somnath’s birthday. He had been born twenty-four years ago at the Silver Jubilee Maternity Home. Faithful Indian subjects of George V had built the hospital to commemorate twenty-five years of the king’s reign. And now the baby born in Silver Jubilee Maternity Home was about to observe his own silver jubilee. Somnath thought of his mother as he gazed at the streaming human traffic on Chitpur Road. Be good on your birthday, she used to say, don’t be jealous, don’t harm anyone and don’t lie. Therefore, on that complex June afternoon on Rabindra Sarani, Somnath would not lie and, if someone were to ask him, he would admit that he was looking for a whore. Strange and sordid though it may sound, it is nevertheless true. That civilized, cultured, well-educated young man—Somnath Banerjee—was looking for a whore, known by some in Calcutta as prostitutes, and as call girls by others.

A newspaper had run a story about Somnath’s father some years ago. Somnath had clipped it out of the newspaper himself, and Kamala—his eldest brother’s wife—had pasted it in the family album. Dwaipayan Banerjee had earned the government’s praise for his selfless service to the nation, whereas Somnath, the youngest son of that superannuated gazetted government officer, was about to begin his search for a whore. He gazed upon Rabindra Sarani, decaying under decades of neglect, and wondered who had come up with the awful idea of linking the dirty Chitpur Road with the name of the poet of eternal beauty. What kind of creatures were Calcutta’s citizens—not a murmur of protest? What sense of satisfaction were they enjoying, having consigned Mahatma Gandhi to the garbage of Borobazar and Tagore to the smelly black hole of Chitpur?
An agitated Somnath felt his ears go red as he waited impatiently for Natabar Mitra to arrive. Mitra was familiar with the whores in Calcutta. But where was he? What was taking him so long?

Troubled, Somnath looked up at the clear blue sky. If only it were overcast, if only one could say, here comes the rain, Somnath would drown his past in a torrential downpour. But far from forgetting it, he was reminded of a great many things as the past and the present commingled into a gigantic rainbearing cloud in his mind’s sky.

Let us leave him waiting right there while we travel into his past, and acquaint ourselves with his family.

By Sankar (Translated from the Bengali)