One of my friends wrote lucidly about poverty displayed in arts and cinema. He said, “I find nothing wrong in the approach”. He also referred to the colossus of Indian cinema , Satyajit Ray ; and , his Apu trilogy.
There appears to be a stubborn bond between art, artists and poverty. In some cases , the artist might seek it, because poverty is the great reality; but, in most other cases poverty is the only reality that artist is familiar with. Who can forget Van Gogh who was driven to insanity by punishing poverty, cruel neglect and suffocating loneliness? Somehow, a view has gained ground that the artist is given to sense more keenly than others only while placed in the cauldron of poverty, prison, or illness. Rainer Rilke said; one cannot be a good poet unless one loves poverty, indifference and wretchedness. Accordingly, his world-view became uniquely skewed. And, in Rilke’s view the city of Paris was not the belle époque, capital steeped in luxury and eroticism; but, it was indeed a city of abysmal, dehumanizing misery, of the faceless and the dispossessed, and of the aged, sick, and dying. It was the capital of fear, poverty, and death.
According to Rilke , the passion in human nature chooses “the one precious thing” ; and, urges him to pay for it through poverty, conflict, deprivation, and endurance of anger from rejected divinities. As if to prove him right, Dostoevsky, Kafka and others of the tribe lived their miserable life in ignominy and penury while producing masterpieces. Strangely, an artist who gains success and affluence would be seen as one who has lost his authenticity; and, he would live the rest of his life on borrowed glory.
And, W.H. Auden, in his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, with special reference to Pieter Breughel’s famous landscape painting Icarus, writes about the relation between the miseries of life and the European painters, the Masters: “About suffering they were never wrong; the Old Masters: How well they understood Its human position; how it takes place… They never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course..”
Whenever a debate about poverty and literature comes up, I cannot help thinking about Charles Dickens and our own Sarat Chandra Chatterjee.
Dickens portrayed the urban poverty, deprivation and the wretchedness it brought, especially, upon the slum – children of the Victorian society. No other author of that era presented a more realistic and “humanized” face of poverty. He created some of English literature’s most memorable characters. Some People might mock Dickens’s style; but no one, I feel, has been able to capture such variety of human nature. His characters are all amazing, so vivid that by the time he reaches the end of the novel, the reader comes to know them on a personal level.
Dickens’s was a study in abuse of power. Dickens’ novels criticize the injustices of his time; but, are indeed dedicated to the suffering poor everywhere. He pictures , poignantly, their starving, rumbling stomachs, bare feet, cold lives, empty staring eyes and the fear lurking behind them. He says, it is all because the mighty ones snatch away their rights; and, refuse to help them. His novels, at a later time, succeed in bringing about some reforms in social conditions and criminal laws of England; and above all , some change in the attitudes towards the poor.
This article is mainly about Sarat Babu ; that is Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) – (15 September 1876 – 16 January 1938) . He is one of my favorite writers, in any language. His portrayal of poverty was lot more understanding and sensitive. His characters carried around them their poverty with a great sense of dignity. They never were ashamed of their poverty; instead, they seemed to feed on the misery mounting on them; and, eventually succeeded in climbing out of the heap , with composure and dignity.
Sarat Chandra Chatterjee knew Poverty very intimately.
He did not have to obtain his material from research. It was his encounters with life as a country lad and youth that provided him the inspiration, ingredients and story-lines for his life-like characters placed in rural family settings. All his stories are about the depictions of the various shades of the characters; the characters with their flaws ; the characters that had their imperfections celebrated by the author, rather than brushed under the carpet. Sarat Chandra molded them in his own inimitable style. The distinctive features and the essence of purpose that he added rendered them larger than life. That is the reason his stories have gained such universal appeal.
His real heroes are not those under the limelight; but, are those in the corners, the shadows of life. They are the ordinary men and women placed within their limited confines battling extraordinary situations with courage and conviction; but, finally emerge out of the ordeal with composure and dignity though a bit bruised and looking tired. He seemed to believe: One’s true test is in one’s daily life; and, in one’s reliability and integrity as a human being.
Most of his stories relate to rural life and society. Sarat Chatterjee is at his best when he draws from his experience ; and, writes about women from poverty stricken rural Bengal who hold on to their values even while placed in the very caldron of life. He had a deep affection and respect for Bengali women. Some of his women characters stand out; they are the dominant personalities , without in any way losing their femininity.
Sarat Chandra had a great admiration for the fortitude of the poor and respect for their undemonstrative courage. In his acceptance speech delivered on 2nd Ashwin, 1339 BY (15th Sep 1933) at a gathering organized at the Calcutta Town Hall to celebrate his 57th birthday, Sarat Babu acknowledged his debt to the poor and the depraved:
My literary debt is not limited to my predecessors only. I’m forever indebted to the deprived, ordinary people who give this world everything they have and yet receive nothing in return, to the weak and oppressed people whose tears nobody bothers to notice and to the endlessly hassled, distressed (weighed down by life) and helpless people who don’t even have a moment to think that: despite having everything, they have right to nothing.
They made me start to speak. They inspired me to take up their case and plead for them. I have witnessed endless injustice to these people, unfair intolerable indiscriminate justice. It’s true that springs do come to this world for some – full of beauty and wealth – with its sweet smelling breeze perfumed with newly bloomed flowers and spiced with cuckoo’s song, but such good things remained well outside the sphere where my sight remained imprisoned. This poverty abounds in my writings.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) (nickname Nyadha) was born in Devanandapore – a village in Hooghly district of West Bengal, on 15th September 1876 (31 Bhadra 1283 Bengali Samvat). He came from a poor family. He was the second of the seven children of Matilal Chatterjee and Bhubanmohini Devi. Sarat had an elder sister (Anila Devi) ; four younger brothers (two of whom died in their infancy); and, one younger sister (Sushila Devi). His two younger brothers, who survived were : Prabhas Chandra and Prakash Chandra .
Sarat Candra – birth place-Debanandapore
His father was a restless dreamer; and, for all purposes epitomized failure in one’s life. He had passed matriculation examination; and, by the standards then prevailing, he was considered as a fairly well educated person. But, he had no steady job or income. Since Matilal was unable to make two ends meet, the family was forced to shift to Bhagalpur, in Bihar, to be taken care by Bhubanmohini’s parent (Kedarnath Gangopadhyay), much to her discomfort. Therefore, while the rest of the family lived in Bhagalpur with Bhubanmohini’s parents, Matilal, for a time, was employed elsewhere in Bihar.
Bhubanmohini, a person endowed with a great sense of self-respect, and sacrifice for the well-being of her children, had a great impact on the mind and the outlook of young Sarat. In most of his stories and Novels, it is the female characters that dominate the scene. And, almost all his leading ladies, particularly the mothers, are invariably, self-sacrificing, in one way or the other; but, without rancor.
Because of the semi-nomadic nature of his father’s life ; and, his ever stringent financial situation, Sarat had to change schools frequently. And, his education was also incomplete.
When Sarat was five years of age, Matilal admitted the boy to a Parish Scholar’s School in Devanandpur, where he studied for two or three years. Later, while he was in Bhagalpur, Sarat’s uncle enrolled him at the local Durga Charan Boys School.
In 1887, Sarat Chandra was admitted to Bhagalpur District School. And, in 1889, when Matilal again lost his job, he returned to Devanandpur with his family; and, Sarat was forced to leave the District School at Bhagalpur.
Sarat was later admitted to the Hooghly Branch Government School near Devanandpur. But, due to the stringent condition of Matilal, Sarat could not pay the school fees; and, had to again discontinue his education. The family had to return to Bhagalpur in 1893.
After Matilal returned to Bhagalpur, Sarat secured admission to the Tejarnarayan Jubilee Collegiate School. In 1894, Sarat, at the age of eighteen , passed the Entrance Examination (equivalent to the present SSC examination) in the Second Division. He also completed his FA (present intermediate/PUC ) course.
During this period, Sarat managed to earn some money as tuition fee, by teaching his grandfather’s two sons Surendranath and Girindranath.
Despite this, Sarat could not appear for the University examination; for he was unable to raise twenty rupees required to be paid as the examination fees.
In his own words:
My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, as I believe, his restless spirit and his keen interest in literature. The first made me a tramp and sent me out tramping the whole of India quite early, and the second made me a dreamer all my life.
Father was a great scholar, and he had tried his hand at stories and novels, dramas and poems, in short every branch of literature, but never could finish anything. I have not his work now – somehow it got lost; but I remember poring over that incompleteness. Over again in my childhood, and many a night I kept awake regretting their incompleteness, and thinking what might have been their conclusion if finished. Probably this led to my writing short stories when I was barely seventeen.
Just a year after he passed his entrance examination (1894), his mother Bhubanmohini Devi died in 1895, when Sarat was nineteen years of age. With the passing away of his mother and discontinuance of his studies, Sarat became rather rudderless and a sort of drifter. For a short time he worked at Banaili Estate in Bhagalpur. But he did not stay in Bhagalpur for long, as Sarat’s father deemed it un reasonable to stay at the in-laws’s place even after the death of his wife. He could not also go back to his own house in his native village Debanandapur; because , he had already sold it for a mere Rs.225 to repay a debt. The family had to stay at a rented house in the low-cost area of Kanjarpalli in Debanandapur.
Young Sarat was very sensitive and fragile. He left home following a disagreement with his father. Forced to earn his livelihood, Sarat started working early in his life. In 1900 Sarat found work in Banaili Estate in Bihar; and , later in Santhal district settlement as an assistant to the Settlement Officer. He disliked both the jobs; and, gave them up. Alone, unhappy and indifferent, Sarat lost sense of direction. Dejected and aimless he wandered aimlessly around graveyards at dead of night. Later, for a while, he joined a group of Naga Sadhus and drifted to Muzaffarpur (1902). He returned home on learning of his father’s demise. His father, Matilal died in 1902, by which time Sarat was about twenty-six years of age.
On completing his father’s last rites he left Bhagalpur. Before that, he left his two younger brothers in charge of the relatives; and, his sister under the care of the landlady in whose house Matilal’s family had been a tenant. He then left for Calcutta in search of a job and a future. While in Calcutta, for a short time, Sarat worked at a few temporary jobs and later secured a job as a translator for a Hindi paper book on a monthly salary of Rs.30. He then worked as a translator at the Calcutta High Court.
After he lost both his parents, Sarat Chandra left Bengal, in 1903, to live with his uncle Aghornath Chattopadyaya in Rangoon; and, to find a job there. He often referred to Burma as the karma-sthan of the middle class Bengalis (Bengal being the janma-sthan).
Sarat left Calcutta for Rangoon, Burma, in January 1903, just in time before a severe plague broke out there. But, sadly , Aghornath died of pneumonia soon after, that is in January 1905. His family traveled back to Calcutta to get Aghornath’s daughter married there. And, Sarat, rendered destitute and insecure, was on the streets again.
After he served a number of temporary jobs, he secured a permanent job in the Accounts Department of Burma Railway. Thereafter, from April 1906 to April 1916, until his return to Calcutta from Burma, Sarat worked in the Public Accounts Office of the Government.
As regards his literary activities, his earliest creations were two short stories Kakbasha and Kashinath (later expanded into a novel) published during 1894 in the handwritten magazine (Chaya, meaning shadow) while he was studying in Entrance class at Tejnarayan Jubilee College, Bhagalpur. But, it was only in September 1917, when Sarat was forty-one years of age; the revised and enlarged version of Kashinath came to be formally published in book-form.
It is said; following the death of his mother (1895) Sarat moved to Khanjanpur (a suburb in Bhagalpur), where he came in close contact with a number of people. And, one of the close associates of Sarat since his Bhagalpur days was Anupama (who later changed her name to Nirupama Devi – author of the Annapurnaar Mandir) . She was the widowed younger sister of Bibhutibhushan Bhatta; and, she used to contribute poems to their magazine Chaya.
Nirupama Devi is said to have tacitly influenced Sarat as a writer and as a person, even during the later stages of his life. But, in the last years of her life, Nirupama Devi stayed at Brindaban , ‘ as did many women of the middle-class families in the yesteryears of Bengal.’
Another friend of Sarat , of those days , was Rajendranath Majumdar (Raju) . The lovable character Indranath (of the story Mahesh) is said to have been patterned after Rajendranath Majumdar (Raju). Sarat Chandra mentions elsewhere that in a way he liked his character Indranath.
Referring to writings of his early years, he later said:
But I soon gave up the habit as useless, and almost forgot in the long years that followed that I could even write a sentence in my boyhood.
In 1903, on the eve of his departure to Rangoon in search of a job, he at the instance of his uncle Girindrandranath , sent a short story Mandir for the Kuntaleen literary competition. He submitted the story under name of Surendranath Ganguly, another uncle. From among about one hundred fifty short stories that entered the competition, Mandir was adjudged the best for the year in 1904. The fact that Sri Jaladhar Sen , the veteran editor of the বসুমতী (Basumati) magazine, (elected twice as the Vice President of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad), was the adjudicator , enhanced the prestige of the award.
Mandir published in the name of Surendranath was the first ever printed story by Sarat Chandra. For some reason, Sarat Chandra continued to send his stories in someone else’s name. He contributed stories regularly to the Jamuna magazine in three different names – in his own name and in the name of Anila Devi (his elder sister) and Anupama (his childhood friend).
[Later in his life Sarat Chandra recalled with gratitude, the help and patronage he received from Jaladhar Sen. In 1932, Sarat presided over a function to facilitate Jaladhar Sen , held in Rammohan Library.]
The magazine Jamuna played an important role in setting his literary career on course. According to Sarat Chandra, Jamuna was the catalyst in reviving his literary career whilst he was in Burma. He said:
A mere accident made me start again, after the lapse of about eighteen years. Some of my old acquaintances started a little magazine, but no one of note would condescend to contribute to it, as it was so small and insignificant. When almost hopeless, some of them remembered me, and after much persuasion they succeeded in extracting from me a promise to write for it. This was in the year 1913. I promised most unwillingly – perhaps only to put them off till I returned to Rangoon and could forget all about it. But sheer volume and force of their letters and telegrams compelled me at last to think seriously about writing again. I sent them a short story for their magazine Jamuna. This became at once popular, and made me famous in one day. Since then I have been writing regularly. In Bengal, perhaps, I am the only fortunate writer who has not had to struggle.
The years he spent in Burma (1903-1916) turned out to be a significant phase in Sarat Chandra’s life. It not merely spurred his literary activity but also established him as a leading creative writer. This period also witnessed changes in his personal life too.
His first wife Shanti Devi Chakravarthy , whom he married in 1906 , died of plague in 1908 along with their one year old son. To fill the void in his life, he turned to books; read voraciously on sociology, history, philosophy and psychology etc. He also dabbled in Homeopathy; opened a primary school; and , formed a singing group. In 1909 , he suffered a major health problem ; and, had to cut down his studies . He then took to painting.
After a couple of years, while he was in Rangoon, he is said to have married the second time in 1910; and, his bride was Mokshada Adhikari , an adolescent widow. He renamed her Hiranmoyee. This marriage lasted for more than twenty-five years, until the death of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee in 1938. They had no children.
It is said; Sarat Chandra and Hiranmayee Debi were devoted to each other; and she had a sobering influence on his life. She diligently and lovingly steadied and regulated his ways of living and thinking; inspiring and enabling him to pursue his literary career. The Biographers of Sarat Chandra have observed that it was only after his marriage with Hiranmayee Devi, Sarat could find his bearing as a writer; and , all his major literary works followed thereafter. Sarat Chandra, it is said, held Hiranmayee Debi in high esteem all his life. It is believed; a few female characters in his Novels are modeled after her.
By the time he returned to Calcutta (1916), his stories and novels were being serialized in most leading Bengali magazines; and, his popularity was soaring.
It was only after his return to Calcutta from Rangoon in April 1916 , Sarat Chandra was able to produce his major works : Srikanta ; Charitraheen; Datta; Grihadaha; Denapauna; Pather Dabhi ; Sesh Prashna; Bipradas; and a volume of essays under the title Swadesh-O-Sahitya , apart from several other stories etc.
By about 1916, when Sarat was about forty years of age, he gained some sort of recognition as a writer of merit, who could earn One hundred rupees a month from his writings.
He started contributing to the monthly Bharati; and, thereafter to Jamuna, edited by Phanindranath Pal. It was from here that Sarat Chandra’s literary career began to flourish. The story Badadidi published in Bharati during 1907 created a stir in Bengali literary world. This was followed by other popular writings, such as: the stories Ramer-Sumati and Bojha; and, the essay Narir Lekha published in Jamuna.
The Badadidi was later published by Phanindranath Pal , in book-form, during 1913. The other famous works of Sarat Chandra – Chandrakantha; Charitraheen; and the essay Narir Maulya – were also published by Phanindranath Pal.
Later, Sarat was contracted to a well-known publishing House M/S. Gurudas Chatterjee and Sons, (with which Sarat’s childhood friend Pramathanath Bhattacharya was associated), which had just started bringing out a Bengali monthly periodical Bharatbarsha.
The Bharatbarsha indeed played a very important role in establishing Sarat Chandra as the most popular writer of Bengal.
Sarat Chandra Chatterjee was perhaps one among the rarest who, in those days, made a living through his writings.
Sarat Chandra’s literary career was comparatively not very long. When his first book was published in 1913, Sarat Chandra was past thirty-seven years of age; rather late for commencing a literary career. And, he died in 1935, before he completed the sixty-second year of his life. During that period of 22 years, spanning from 1913 to 1935, Sarat Chandra wrote about 36 books; and, most of which were not longer than 200 pages.
He wrote about the evils of society; social superstitions and oppression. And in his later works , he wrote about the patriotic and rebellious spirit of his times. Many of his early novels were serialized in monthly magazines –just as in the case of Charles Dickens. Both were prompted by the sheer need to earn a living , by pen. But, while Dickens specialized in creating a great number of wonderful and fascinating characters, Sarat Chandra focused on crafting intriguing situations, depicting conflicts between conservatism and social change; superstitions and rebellion; and, between the pure and the profane.
It was neither the volume of his writing; nor the length of his literary career that distinguished Sarat Chandra; and earned him great fame and ever enduring popularity.
What then was the secret of Sarat Chandra’s success? This was decoded by none other than the most eminent Rabindranath Tagore, who himself, at that time, was at the peak of his literary career. While explaining the enigma of Sarat Chandra, Rabindranath Tagore, during October 1936 by which time Sarat Chandra was also established as the premier literary figure of Bengal, said in a felicitation address:
Sarat Chandra’s vision has delved deep into the mysteries of the heart of the Bengalis. He has portrayed so vividly the variegated creation made up of happiness and grief; union and separation; as to enable Bengalis to see themselves. The proof of this, we see in the inexhaustible pleasure imparted by that creation.
The Bengalis have never been so sincerely happy with the writing of anyone else as they have been with Sarat Chandra’s writing.
He portrayed the middle class Bengali life with all its virtues and blemishes. He laid bare its blind prejudices, superstitions, selfishness and even cruelty; along with its ingrained strength and resilience to accept suffering; and, to live in poverty with a sense of dignity. He pointed out the universal element that binds all human beings together; and, the need to act; and to step beyond the narrow prejudices that divide the society.
No doubt, other writers have received praise; but, none could gain that universal hospitality in the heart of the common men and women as he has done. This surely is not a startled admiration; but, is a pure guileless love.. His words touch the tenderest spots in the life of the Bengalis.
The two towering personalities of Bengali literature – Bankimchandra Chattopadyaya and Rabindranath Tagore – had a lasting and pervasive influence on the literary career of Sarat Chandra. In fact, for a considerable period of time he was under their influence; and, followed their themes and their presentations in his early writings. For instance, it is said; the early part of Sarat Chandra’s Devdas resembles much to Bankimchandra’s Chandrasekhar; and, his essay Kshudrer Gaurab was patterned after Bankimchandra’s Kamalakanter Daftar.
Similarly, Sarat Chandra’s novels Chandrakantha and Charitraheen are said to run parallel to Rabindranath Tagore’s story Tyag and his Novel Chokher Bali.
But , in particular, Sarat seemed to be more attached to Bankimchandra. Sarat Chandra’s earliest writings clearly show influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. They display his displeasure with the core of Hindu orthodoxy and the prevailing social system. His impatience and anger against social discrimination, superstitions; and, bigotry in the name of religion simmer through in his writings.
His criticism of the establishment is never vitriolic; he never flouts the accepted moral basis of the Hindu society. His novels such as Devdas (written in 1901, published 1917), Parinita (1914), Biraj Bau (1914) and Palli Samaj (1916) belong to this phase. The themes and their treatment are not much different from Bankim’s; but, their presentation, their locales are updated; the language, particularly of the conversations, is easier and matter-of-fact.
In his stories, the women , in particular, step out of the system with agony, passion and intensity to cleanse the guilt ridden system. There is a burning desire to blow away the old cobwebs; and, to usher in a new order, a new dispensation. Their restraint; and the clarity of thought and speech are remarkable. That is the reason his stories retain their freshness, even nearly a century after they were written. Many read over and over , weeping and laughing with his characters.
[His Devdas appears to be an exception.
After the death of his wife in 1895, Sarat’s father moved to Khanjanpur (a suburb in Bhagalpore). There, Sarat came in close contact with a number of people who would play a significant role in his literary career. Notable were Anupama (later changed her name to Nirupama Devi – author of the Annapurnaar Mandir) and her brother Bibhutibhushan Bhatta and Rajendranath Majumdar (Raju). Incidentally, Raju is said to be the model for Indranath character in his masterpiece Srikanto.
During this period, Sarat was influenced by the then popular romantic English novels by Ellen Wood (better known as Mrs. Henry Wood) and Marie Corelli. His short stories or novels like Abhimaan, Bojha, Anupamar-Prem, Sukumarer Balyakatha, Bardidi, Chandranath, Debdas, Pashan and Abhimaan were written during this period. The last mentioned, Abhiman, was said to be based on East Lynne by Ellen Wood. And, Pashan followed the theme of the then spectacularly popular English novel Mighty Atom by Marie Corelli. His Debdas belonged to this romantic era.
It is believed that Sarat Chandra completed writing his long-story or novel, Debdas somewhere around 1901, when he was about 25 years young or a little earlier. And, it does not seem to have been written when Sarat was a teenager of 17 or so. In any case, Debdas was his early work — written some time before he left for Rangoon in his mid-twenties, in search of a livelihood.
His Debdas, basically a love-story, differs from his later works both in the story-line and the depiction of its characters.
It is said; Sarat Chandra did not like what he had written; and, he did not want it to be published. He didn’t approve the negative and the escapist streak in Debdas.
But, while Sarat Chandra was in Rangoon, his friend Pramathanath Bhattacharya persuaded Sarat to allow him to publish Debdas. Vishnu Prabhakar, a biographer of Sarat Chandra (Awaara Maseeha,1973), mentions of a letter that Sarat wrote to his friend Pramathanath during 1913: “Don’t give Devdas to them. Don’t even think of it. It was written in a drunken state. I am ashamed of the book now. It is immoral… “.
Nevertheless the book got published four years after his letter to Pramathanath. And, it was initially serialised in the Bharatbarsha. Following which, it was published by GCS as a book on 30th June, 1917 (Asharh of [B] 1324).
When he had eventually agreed to publish the story, reluctantly, in 1917 (sixteen years after it was written), Sarat Chandra begged the readers to have pity and forgive Debdas.
And yet, Debdas enjoyed unprecedented popularity first in Bengali, later in a number of other Indian languages as well.
The literary critics point out that – ‘Devdas – a romanticised despair of youth sunk in inaction and defeatism – is marked by an unevenness that may be attributed to the fact that it was an apprentice work. Terseness alternates with verbiage, objectivity with sentiment. The racy childhood chapters are delightful; but after that the novel begins to get bogged down by maudlin attempts to evoke sympathy for a weak-willed and self-obsessed hero.’
Debdas was translated to Gujarati in 1925 by Brajlal Thakkar. And Naresh Mitra made a silent film of it in 1928. Pramathesh Chandra Barua’s Bengali film Debdas was released on 3rd March 1935, with himself as Debdas and Jamuna Barua as Parvathi. And, on 21st September 1936, Devadas was made in Hindi with the legendary KL Saigal as Devdas and Jamuna Barua as Parvathi. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
On the question : why have Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s works been a favorite with Indian filmmakers, please read an analysis made by Ms. Shoma A Chatterji.
For more please check
1st row from left : Himangsu Roy , Gour Hari Mitra ;2nd row from left : Friend of Sarat Chandra, Bijoy Krishna Khan, Sarat Chandra, Khitish Chandra Dutta, Manmatha Nath Das ; 3rd row from left : Tinkori Sen, Binoy Dasgupta, Chandra Sekhar Dutta, Sudhamoy Bandopadhay, Hemchandra Kanungo, Bibhuti Bhusan Das, Sibomoy Bandopadhay, Shantimoy Bandhopadhay
Towards the latter half of his life , Sarat Chandra wrote Pather Dabi (1926) spun around a revolutionary movement, inspired by Bengal, operating in Burma and in Far East. The Novel Pather Dabhi was banned by the British Government, on the grounds that it questioned the continuance of British rule in India; and tried to incite rebellion by resorting to violence.
His last complete novel Shesh Prashna (1931) was crafted around a slender theme , inflated by ethereal talks on problems of love and marriage; and , of the individual and of the society. These were almost ‘intellectual’ monologues.
But, Sarat Chandra was at his best when he wrote, with understanding, of women, their sufferings, their often unspoken loves, their need for affection and their desperation for emancipation. His portrayal, particularly, of strong-willed women of rural Bengal defying the convention; also of women rooted in their sense of values ; and , those who set a benchmark for other characters , to be judged by the reader, stand out as authentic. His women are admirable for their courage, tolerance and devotion in their love for their husbands, lovers or children. These stories also picture husbands who do not know or do not care to express love for their beloved ones. Somehow, the women in his stories never attain happiness in their personal lives.
Just to cite an example; his Srikanto quartet (1917, 1918, 1927, 1933), encompassing lives of many women, is a remarkable study in the conflicts between the individual and the social perception of purity and profanity; and , between rebellion and timid submission to orthodoxy. For instance; take a hurried glimpse at the thumbnail sketch of a few characters in Srikanto.
Rajlakshmi, Srikanta’s lover, in order to erase her past (of fallen woman) ; and, to reform her present (her relationship outside the marital state with Srikanta) goes through a series of purity rituals. She is a sort of benchmark to other characters.
In the first book of the Quartet, Annadadidi, a very properly brought up middle class woman, revolts against propriety; and , runs away with a Muslim snake charmer. She suffers not because of her socially unacceptable love; but because, the husband she chose was unworthy of such love.
In the second part, Abhoya, deserted by her husband, breaks out of her social environment, to live in sin with a man she accepted.
In the third, Sunanda, a scholar, rebels against the poverty imposed upon the peasant by the land tenure system.
In the last book, Kamal Lata has walked out on her people and joined a Vaishnava sect based on surrender and devotion.
Sarat Chandra refuses to be judgmental. His critique on social norm was only a message and never an agenda. He lets his characters to speak for themselves; and, lets the reader to form her/his own opinion of the purity concept in the Hindu Society. He tried to heighten the social awareness; and , to ignite revolt against the oppressive social cults, which debased and degraded humanity.
Sarat Chandra, while talking about his method of crafting a Novel , once said :
My approach to writing is somewhat different from that of the other authors. I start with identifying the main characters; listing them numerically; and, outlining each ones specific nature , outlook, ways of behavior and speech. I have no special difficulty in commencing the narration of a story or in delineating the characteristics of the principal women and men in the story-line. I try to delineate the compulsions behind the behaviour of every character. Such compulsions take different forms at different times. Later, I go over again and again, polishing the narration and diction.
Sarat Chandra regarded Mahakavi Veda-Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata, as the greatest writer of India. And, he reckoned Rabindranath Tagore as the next best, the second greatest. He called him as his Guru and the Literary-guide. In his listing, Valmiki and Kalidasa followed thereafter.
Among the Novels of Sarat Chandra, Srikanta is generally lauded as the most popular. But, Sarat Chandra regarded Grihadaha as his best Novel. Dr. Subodh Chandra Sen Gupta, in his work Sarat Chandra: Man and Artist (Sahitya Academy, 1975) , attempts to rationalize why it was so . According to Dr. Sen Gupta:
Grihadaha is Sarat Chandra’s most perfect achievement in fiction. It is flawless in its construction; its style is a unique combination of simplicity and richness; and, in its heroine Achala, there is an attempt to un-fathom the mysterious depths of the human heart; at revealing the contradictions and intricacies of love. Sarat Chandra can analyze and portray stirring emotional conflicts minutely; and with sympathy and understanding he gradually unfolds the agonizing drama that takes place within a woman’s heart. He tried to discover the essential integrity which sustains a person through the entire vicissitudes one’s life. Here, Sarat Chandra surpasses all his other endeavors and achievements. Thus, Grihadaha is indeed, one of the greatest Novels of the world.
After returning from Burma, Sarat Chandra stayed for 11 years in Baje Shibpur, Howrah.
Thereafter, in 1923, he made a house in the village of Panitras or Samtaber village (Deulti, Howrah) on the bank of the river Rupnaraya.
It was here at Samta, Sarat spent the later twelve years of his life with his wife Hiranmoyee Devi ; as a novelist; and, as a busy politician. His Burmese-style house is known as Sarat Chandra Kuthi or Sharat Smriti Mandir . It is said; his younger brother , Prabhas Chandra, who had entered Belur Math with the name Swami Vedananda, also lived here for some time , till his sudden death in October 1926 (Kartik 10,1333).
Commencing with 1921, and for the next fifteen years till 1936, which is almost until his last days, Sarat was associated with politics. He participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement launched under the leadership of Gandhi in 1921. He also unsuccessfully contested an election for a seat in State legislature.
[Later, Sarat Chandra, somehow, lost faith in Gandhi’s Charkha Movement; and, apologized to Rabindranath Tagore (in his letter of 9 May, 1922) for having disagreed with him earlier.
And , at the same time, both Tagore and Sarat Chandra did not support Gandhi’s idea of boycotting educational institutions, recalling the inadequacies of national education in the Swadeshi period.
Tagore wrote disapprovingly in 1921
To one and all he simply says: Spin and weave; spin and weave. Is this the call: “Let all seekers after truth come from all sides?” Is this the call of the New Age to new creation?
When nature called to the bee to take refuge in the narrow life of the hive, millions of bees responded to it for the sake of efficiency, and accepted the loss of sex in consequence. But this sacrifice by way of self-atrophy led to the opposite of freedom.
Any country, the people of which, can agree to become neuters for the sake of some temptation, or command, carries within itself its own prison-house.]
Sarat Chandra was engaged with other activities as well. For instance; he was the president of the Howrah branch of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; he was the paper-setter in Bengali literature for B.A. examination conducted by the Calcutta University .
He also enjoyed a fair share of success in the academic field ; and, was rewarded with the Jagattarini Gold medal in 1923 by the Calcutta University , in recognition of his achievements in the field of Bengali literature.
And, later during 1936 the Dacca University conferred on Sarat Chandra Chatterjee the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature.
After living in the house in the village of Panitras for nearly twelve years ( 1923-1935) , Sarat Chandra built another house in Calcutta; and, sometime in early 1935, Sarat Chandra moved into his new home with his family , which included his wife; his younger brother Prakash Chandra along with his wife and two children ; and, the retinue of domestic staff.
His health had started deteriorating even while he was in Rangoon, caused mainly due to his reckless way of living. But it became worse after he moved to Calcutta.
His Calcutta years, from 1935 to 1938, the last three years of his life , were not happy. His writing had slowed down almost to a halt; there were numerous distractions that unsettled his composure; and, most of all, his health had broken down due to multiple complications such as the chronic hemorrhoid, failure of kidney, lever ; and related ailments.
During 1937, Sarat Chandra was often ill. On the advice of the doctor, he returned to Calcutta after spending three to four months in Deoghar to recover his health. At this time, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, which had spread to his stomach.
Sarat Chandra was first admitted to a European Nursing Home on the Suburban Hospital Road in South Calcutta; and, later to the Park Nursing Home located at Victoria Terrace No. 4. He underwent surgery on 12 January 1938.
Four days later, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay breathed his last in Calcutta at 10 .10 AM on 16 January 1938 (2 Magh 1344). He was then 61 years and 4 months old.
His end came just as the whole of Bengal was beginning to celebrate the birth centenary of the great Bankim Chandra Chatterjee . With that, Bengal and India lost one of its most gifted sons, a tortured soul and one who loved his country and its people from the core of his being.
About ten days later, Guru Rabindranath Tagore paid heartfelt tribute to one of the remarkable sons of India.
Yahar amar sthan premer asane / ksati tar kasti nai mrtyur sasane / Deser matir theke nila yare hari / Deser hrday tare rakhiyache bari //
Death cannot harm one whose place is secured forever by Love.He may be lost to the land. But, he has it’s reassuring affection.
Sarat Chandra did not write his autobiography because he said he “lacked the courage and the truthfulness to tell his true story”.
Yet; I reckon, Sarat projected himself , to an extent, as Srikanta. “As I sit down to tell my story in this fading afternoon of my wandering life, I am flooded with memories.”
Thus begins Sarat Chandra’s lyrical novel Srikanto. Its protagonist Srikanta – just as Sarat Chandra – was an aimless drifter, a socially conscious passive spectator, who reminisces on the years gone by; subjecting himself to analysis. Srikanta too , as a young man, had traveled to Burma seeking new experiences; came in close contact with a couple of rebellious women; wandered on; and, finally resigned himself to life, breaking free of the social values he grew up with.
I gratefully acknowledge the material from the Sarat Sahitya Samagra (Complete Works of Sarat Chandra), Ananda Publishers Private Limited, Calcutta, 1993. And, from the introduction to Srikanto Part I published by Oxford University Press, London 1922.
Poverty is a smoldering fire in the belly and in the heart. It drives one to reach out, to explore and at times to explode. But when the heat is too much to bear, it could reduce one to ashes which any can trample upon with impunity. It takes great courage to be poor and to live with dignity.
[A brief Note on the photographs posted on this page:
On reading this blog, Dr. Subroto Roy of Kolkata had sent me a Note that the picture of Sarat Chandra (please click for an enlarged view) , which I posted at the bottom of the article was a part of a photograph taken in 1927 when Sarat Chandra visited Dr. Sobrato Roy’s great-grand father Surendranath Roy. The sofa on which the two sit, he says, is still in use at his home; and indeed if you are in Kolkata some day, you are welcome to view and even sit on the sofa.
Dr. Roy also mentioned that the iconic picture of Sarat Chandra, posted at the top of this article, is from a photograph taken at Bourne & Shepherd Photographers of Calcutta , at the instance of Shri Manindra Nath Roy.
He added that Sarat Chandra habitually wore long unkempt hair; and, Smt Nirmala Debi (wife of Shri Manindra Nath Roy) combed his hair neatly before the photograph was taken.
According to Dr. Roy, Sarat Chandra/s Pather Dabi is perhaps dedicated to Smt Nirmala Debi.
Dr. Roy also asked me to view and to reproduce on my page, a hand-written note sent by Sarat Chandra (1931) to Manindra Nath Roy (Dr. Subroto Roy’s grand-father). I am told, the Note is about transport of a table (or writing-desk?) by rail. There is also Note (1925 diary entry in English) by Manindra Nath that mentions of his travel to Shibpur and Sarat’s visit for breakfast. And, they then visit “Ram Mohan Library” . These Notes , thus , provide a glimpse of the relationship that existed between Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Manindra Nath Roy.
There is another letter (in 1919) addressed to Manindra Nath by Sudhindranath Tagore (son of Rabindranath’s elder brother), which refers to the literary journal Bichitra ; enquires about Sarat.
Please click on the pictures for a larger view.
For details : Please visit Dr. Roy’s pages :
Other references and sources:
Subhash Chandra Sarker “Sarat Chandra Chatterjee: The Great Humanist.” Indian Literature, vol. 20, no. 1, 1977, pp. 49–77. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/24157548.
Illustrations are from Internet