Pratap Chandra Roy was born in the village of Shanko in the Burdwan district of Bengal on March 15, 1842. His father was Ramjai Roy; his mother Drabanai Devi dies when he was two and a half. He was brought up by a widow who worked for a Brahmin in Khulna district. As a boy he would pick up coconuts thrown as offerings in Ganga or left by the waterside, sell them, and with the money beg his foster mother to buy him books. Impressed, the Brahmin employer put him in a school.
When he grew up, he became a bookseller in Calcutta. By 1869 he had put by enough money to buy a small printing press and start a publishing concern. By the end of 1876 he had brought out a complete Bengali translation of the Mahabharata. Then a new idea fired him: the complete Mahabharata in English. His purpose was to unfold the richness of the Indian Heritage to the British rulers and to foreigners in general; as his widow innocently explained in her epilogue, attached to the last book in 1896, " If a knowledge of the mind of the people is of value to the administration of the country, who will deny the utility of an English translation of the Mahabharata to the British Goverment of India?"
He knew his own English was not good enough; and press work kept him too busy anyway. Luck brought him Babu Kisari Mohan Ganguli, a man with a brilliant academic record in English: Ganguli was entrusted with the work of translating the epic, while Roy went around collecting funds from "peasents and princes, Anglo-Indian officials and English and American sympathisers to warrant him in going forward" - for his ambition (in which he succeeded) was to distribute the translated volumes free. His first wife died; he married again in 1886; in 1889 he was made by Queen Victoria, a Companion of the Order of the British Empire; he died of an undiagnosed illness on January 10, 1895. His will directed that his property be sold and the money employed for three purposes - the completion of the English Mahabharata, the erection of a temple to Siva in his village, and the excavation of a tank there for the use of villagers.
Babu Kisari Mohan Ganguli, "who like a literary Atlas bore the heavy burden of the tramslation", gets mentioned only in the last volume of the English translation. Though he had no hand at all in the translation, Roy put his own name on the title page of the first nine volumes. The ambiguity that transformed a publisher into a translator and left K.M. Ganguli's glory unsung has, to my knowlwdge, been spotted only by Ronald Inden and Maureen Patterson, compilers of the University of Chicago's Bibliography to South Asian Studies; by K.M. Knott in the Janus Press Edition of the first two books of the Mahabharata; and by A.C. Macdonnell in his History of Sanskrit Literature, where the transltion has been listed in the bibliography as having published at "the expense of P.C. Roy" (it was surely at K.M. Ganguly's expense!).
The "utility" was quickly noticed. Lord Dufferin sanctioned a grant of Rs. 11,000 (whose purchasing power today would be arount $20,000), and Lord Ripon gave " a handsome contribution". Sir Rivers Thompson "was pleased to santion a grant of Rs. 5,000; Sir Auckland Colvin gave Rs. 2,000 when he was appointed as Lieutenant-General of North West Provinces; Sir Alfred Croft granted Rs. 5,000." The official list is augmented with American scolars and benefactors - Professor Lanman, Professor Maurice Bloomfield of Hopkins University, and others.
But K.M. Ganguli's was entirely a labour of love. "My husband scarcely exaggerated the truth, " wrote P.C. Roy's widow. "when he used to say that ... he was only the hand that did the work while Babu Kisari Mohan was the head that directed it. While lying on his death bed, he earnestly appealed to Babu Kisari Mohan to complete the undertaking. With tears in his eyes, Babu Kisari Mohan readily gave the assurance that was solicited, saying that he would not, on any account give up that work."
It is, even by twientieth century standards, a splendid piece of dedicated work. The translation reads smoothly, and the translator's notes indicate the meticulous care he took to compare differernt recensions and to consult the various commentaries (he greatly favours Nilakantha's). The supreme irony is that the K.M. Ganguli translation, now reissued from Calcutta's Oriental Press in 11 volumes, nowhere mentions his name, but openly credits P.C. Roy as "translator and Publisher" on the title page of each volume.
In his "Translator's Postscript", at the end of volume XI (1896), Ganguli explains that "Roy was against anonymity. I was for it." He was afraid no one person could finish "the whole of the gigantic work". "It was, accordingly, resolved to withhold the name of the translator". But hardly a fourth of the work had been accomplished when " an influential Indian journal came down upon poor Pratap Chandra Roy and accused him openly of being a party to a great literary imposture" - that of posing as "the translator of Vyasa's work, when, in fact, he was only the publisher." Ganguli continues: "Now that the translation has been completed, there can be no longer any reason for withholding the name of the translator. The entire translation is practically the work of one hand." Cahru Chandra Mookherjee helped with portions of the Adi Parva nd Sabha Parvas'; "About four forms of the Sabha parva were done by Professor Krishna Kamal Bhattacharya".