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Category Archives: Sarat-Tagore-Bankim

Chaturanga: a novella by Tagore Part Two

Continued from Part One

As said earlier, the Book is the interplay among the four main characters – Jagmohan, Sribilash, Damini and Sachish. Let’s talk of these four and some issues they throw up

Uncle

12.1. The first part of the Book belongs to Uncle (Jyathamosai) Jagmohan. It is the only part displaying social concerns. It also opens a window in to the world of college students in Calcutta. A wave of atheism was sweeping across the youth of Bengal leading to fierce controversy between the traditionalists and the rationalists. Jagmohan, a teacher by profession, is an amalgam of western intellect and Indian sensibility. Jagmohan is a well informed ‘English-educated’ thinking person. To some, he is the Macaulay of Bengal; and to some others he is Bengal’s Dr. Johnson. He is influenced by Hebert Spencer and John Stuart Mill’s agnosticism, Bentham’s ideology of ‘greatest good of the greatest number’, and by Comte’s creed of vivre pour autrue – to live for ones neighbour. Jagmohan was much exercised by Thomas Robert Malthus’s premonitions of the dangers that would befall India due to rapid explosion its population. He refused to get married after losing his wife at a young age, as he was unwilling to contribute to India’s worsening population crisis

12.2. Jagmohan was a rational-idealist. He vehemently believed in ‘no God’. Jagmohan is described in the Book as `a celebrated atheist of those times’ (takhankar kaler namjada nastik).He must have been a well known person in the society. As he explains to his brother, “Brahmos accept a formless deity who cannot be seen. You (Hindus) accept deities who cannot be heard. We (Atheists) accept the living who can be seen and heard. It is impossible not to believe them.” Jagmohan took special pride in being a staunch Atheist; and his mission was to blast every notion of god. With that, he combined the motto of ‘doing good to others’ irrespective of their caste, creed or position in society. He advised his nephew Sachish: ‘we are atheists. And, therefore the very pride of it should keep us absolutely stainless. Because we have no respect for any being higher than ourselves, we must respect ourselves.’

12.3. Jagmohan treated the young Sachish as a friend and an equal. He rejected every social / religious norm and practice that tends to dwarf human dignity.  He considered reverence for age an empty convention that chained human mind to slavery. He was also intolerant of submissive behaviour. For instance, his reply to Noren, a young man who had married into the family, is highly amusing, dripping in ridicule. All that the poor Noren did was to address Jagmohan in the traditional style: ‘To Your Auspicious Feet (Sreecharaneshu).’ Jagmohan found it very irritating and shot back:

My dear Noren: Neither you nor I know what special significance it gives to the feet to call them ‘gracious.’ Therefore the epithet is worse than useless, and had better be dropped. And then it is apt to give one a nervous shock when you address your letter only to the feet, completely ignoring their owner. But you should understand that so long as my feet are attached to my body, you should never dissociate them from their context.

Further, they are neither hand nor ear; to make an appeal to them is sheer madness. Lastly, your use of the plural inflection to the word ‘feet,’ instead of the dual, may denote special reverence on your part (because there are animals with four feet which have your particular veneration) but I consider it my duty to disabuse your mind of all errors concerning my own zoological identity.–Yours, Jagmohan.

13.1. Jagmohan’s character is accentuated by depicting his younger brother Harimohan as a weak, self-seeking escapist who is soaked in fake-orthodoxy. Harimohan’s character serves no other purpose. Jagmohan comes in to conflict with his brother and the neighbours, and also loses his share of income from the family property – a religious trust – because he insists on helping the low-caste leather workers and the poor Muslim labourers. His relations with his relatives soon worsen. Because,   he is determined to provide shelter, despite protests and threats from his brother’s family, to Nanibala a young widow seduced and made pregnant by a lecherous fellow, who later turns out to be Purandhar, Sachish’s brother. Jagmohan sells his cherished collection of books to take care of the beleaguered girl. He was immensely pleased with Sachish when he offers to marry the destitute young widow. Tears streamed from Jagmohan’s eyes. He had never shed such tears at any time in his adult life.

The only occasions when Jagmohan was distraught and heartbroken were when Nanibala committed suicide; and when Sachish manipulated by Harimohan is forced to leave Jagmohan’s house. Jagmohan shut the door of his room, and flung himself on the floor.

13.2. The humanism of Jagmohan comes through in his tender and compassionate treatment of the luckless Nanibala in whom he sees motherhood; and also in his sympathy for the fellow beings in distress. Soon after   the city was struck by plague, Jagmohan converted his house in to a hospital for treatment of Chamars and Muslims afflicted by plague. But, Jagmohan dies while serving the plague victims. His last words to his nephew Sachish were: ‘ The creed I have lived by all my life has given me its parting gift. I have no regrets.’

The narrator remarks: Sachish, who had never made obeisance to Uncle when he was alive, bent down and for the first and last time reverently touched his feet.

14.1. Jagmohan is really the most attractive and most morally admirable character in the Book. His atheism is tinged not only with intolerance of hypocrisy and social cruelty, but also with compassion for fellow beings. His belief that people can live without religion; and, that people can lead a sensible life using their intelligence and reason without depending on a god or religion is truly splendid. Jagmohan was a humanist in its true sense.

14.2. Many have attempted to locate the ‘real-life’ model or inspiration for Jagmohan’s character. Shri Prasanta Kumar Paul, a biographer of Tagore, surmises that Jagmohan could have been modelled after the college teacher and writer Krishnakamal Bhattacharya. Shri Paul bases his argument on Shri Bipinbihari Gupta’s delightful memoirs, Puratan prasanga, an indispensible source-book on 19th century Bengal , which describes sequences where Shri Bhattacharya , an Atheist, is eloquently discussing at park Beadon or Heuda :  Comte, Mill, Isvarchandra Vidyasagar and other atheist heroes. His robust and witty way of talking was said to be similar to Jagmohan’s. But, Shri Bhattacharya seemed to be given to self-criticism and introspection.

[Krishnakamal Bhattacharya (1843-1932) was a teacher at Vidyotsahini Sabha (of Kaliprasanna Singha) and at Surendranath College (of Surendranath Bannerjee) and later at Presidency College Calcutta. He then became a lawyer and a Law Professor at Calcutta University; and Principal of Rippon Collage (1891-1903). He had remarkable literary talent and wrote books on Law. He was known for his lucid and charming style.]

14.3. Shri Ashok Mitra however suggests that Isvarachandra Vidyasagar himself could have been the original of Jagmohan’s character, tinted with shades of David Hare (1775–1842) a Scottish watchmaker and educationalist who established the School Society. He enjoyed a great affinity with the student community.

There were of course many well known personalities during those times dedicated to social progress, the right of the widows to remarry and to order her own destiny.

14.4. I reckon, Tagore had a sort of fascination for creating Jagmohan-like characters. I can quickly recall Amito in Sesher Kobita, overtly practical and ready to criticize the traditional and orthodox society. But, Amito, unlike Jagmohan, is prone to criticize anything and everything that is traditional, sometimes without reason.

Tagore also liked to draw characters of social reformers with liberal attitudes who try to synthesize and reconcile the opposing streams, and thus reform the old society and its values. Tagore infused something of his own person into such characters. Take for instance Paresh Babu in Gora who is much like Tagore: a Brahmo sage, serene and unruffled even amidst very annoying domestic crisis. He is always dignified, exuding warmth and affection; and respected and accepted as Guru, even by such an ardent Hindu fighter like Gora. Similarly, Ananda Moyi is Mother India herself.

Sribilash

15.1. Sribilash is a friend, admirer and follower of his collage-mate Sachish. He  is well read, has an excellent command over English language and is a very effective speaker. He was drawn to Sachish the moment he set his eyes on him; and stays loyal to him ever thereafter. It is his ability to recognize Sachish’s special qualities that sets him apart from the other students. His selfless love, affection and regard for his friend are remarkable. Though Sribilash was in every way as capable as Sachish he never tried to push ahead, compete with or take advantage of Sachish. He always had in his heart the best interests of Sachish. Sribilash was the quintessential average man; a gentleman. The best friend one can have.

15.2. Sribilash is the one who narrates the events in the novel. It is his words that fill the Book. Tagore perhaps chose Sribilash to be the narrator because he, of all the characters, is the one who is well balanced, without prejudices or intolerance. The very name Sribilash evokes a certain warmth, comfort and relaxation. It is his moral courage and social consciousness tempered with relaxed tolerance that standout amidst conflicts of ideas, prejudices and passions. Though Sribilash might seem ‘less deep’ than Sachish he is never fanatical; is free from self-pity and bitterness; and, has always space for the opposing view. He tries to go by reason and to act as Sachish’s conscience keeper; a sort of soundboard.

15.3. Sribilash, seemingly ordinary, is intelligent, sensitive and unbiased. And above all he is of great integrity. He understands the binary philosophies and thus is able to comment on all the characters dispassionately without rancour. At the commencement of the Book , he looks somewhat a minor clog. But, as the story progresses his character too unfolds; and, one comes to realizes how central he is to the events in the story , and how well  he holds together the lives of his friends.

16.1. Sribilash was not merely an admirer of Sachish but was also his reflection and alter ego. To begin with, Sribilash was a ‘believer’. He could hardly trust the rumours going around that Sachish was an Atheist. But when Sachish himself candidly confirmed that harsh reality Sribilash was aghast, heartbroken and deeply disappointed. And yet, he reconciles to the inevitable; and embraces Atheism for the mere reason that his dearest friend was an Atheist and staunchly believed in it. He is amazed that: ‘my fanatical zeal in the creed of atheism would surpass even that of my instructor’. He began to practice Atheism under the influence of Sachish’s uncle Jagmohan the celebrated Atheist of those days.

16.2. Later in the story, the shell-shocked Sachish drifts away from his home and his friends in a state of utter confusion following the sudden death of his uncle, guardian and mentor. Two years thereafter the news reaches Sribilash that Sachish had now become an inmate of an Ashram. Sribilash could scarcely believe that his friend and instructor in Atheism was now ‘was making the heavens resound with his cymbals in some out-of-the-way village, singing frenzied kirtans and rousing whole neighborhoods into a state of excitement’. He could not comprehend how someone like Sachish could have become an Atheist, and then again suddenly how he could turn into a devotee dancing to the tunes of a religious Guru.

Yet, out of sheer concern and love for his friend, Sribilash travels all the way from Calcutta to a remote area near Chittagong. He then realized now how much he loved Sachish.

17.1. There at the Ashram, Sribilash is shocked to see his old friend in a sort of spiritual intoxication (nesa); such was the nature of the cult he was caught up in. Sachish greets Sribilash warmly. And yet, “I realized that the world into which Sachish had been transported had no place for me, his particular friend. The person, whom Sachish has so effusively embraced, was not Sribilash, but a representative of all humanity,–just an idea. Such ideas are like wine. When they get into the head any one can be embraced and wept over. I,  only as much as anybody else”.

17.2. He was pained that Sachish had lost his individuality and had become a servant of his Guru. He argues with Sachish that none of what he is doing at the Ashram made sense and begs him to regain his sanity and freedom : ‘Uncle could have nothing to do with this kind of pipe-filling, leg-massaging business. Surely this is no picture of freedom’. But, when he realized that further arguments and pleas were clearly useless he decided to stick with Sachish and his current-faith.

“I could not desert Sachish. So, as his satellite, I also danced from village to village, carried along the current of kirtan – singing…The intoxication of it gradually took hold of me. I also embraced all and sundry, wept without provocation, and tended the feet of the Master.”

18.1. Just as Sachish, Sribilash too is drawn to the lightning-like beauty of the young and vivacious Damini. Although Sribilash confesses that he lacks ‘experience of the secrets of a woman’s heart’, she strikes him as ‘the lightning in the heart of Sravana rain clouds, having youthfulness to outward view, but flickering with restless fires within.’

18.2. But the moment he realizes that something very serious was going on between the two – Sachish and Damini- he stays neutral but observant. He even lets himself be toyed by Damini in her charade of indifference and anger towards her true love Sachish.

Incidentally, Sribilash develops a sort of hypothesis on how women are more likely to fall for the weird sorts or those with their heads in the clouds. He laments women tend to shun average, normal and dependable men:

“We (the normal) know them (women) as they really are; that’s why even if they like us they won’t fall in love with us. We are their true refuge, they can count on our loyalty; but our self-sacrifice comes so readily they forget that it has any value. The only baksheesh we receive from them is that whenever they need us they use us, and perhaps even respect us a little, but. …”.

19.1. For a while, Sribilash is drawn in to the cult and follows Sachish just as he followed him earlier during the Atheism-days. But he is too level-headed to be sucked in to it, and be absorbed in a state of drunkenness or ecstasy. When Sachish is hopelessly confused about the three points of the triangle that have enclosed him: Atheism, religious fervour and natural attraction for women (Prakrti); and rambles along, saying `We must sever all connections with Nature’, Sribilash retorts: “What you call Nature is a reality. You may shun it, but you can’t leave it out of the human world. If you practice your austerities pretending it isn’t there you will only delude yourself; and when the deceit is exposed there will be no escape-route”.

19.2. And when again , when Sachish expresses his fears  :

“It is obvious that woman is Nature’s (Prakrti’s ) spy, forever trying to deceive us with her artful ways” , Sribilash tries to infuse some common-sense; and reasons   “Woman is a natural phenomenon who will have her place in the world, however much we try to get rid of her. If your spiritual welfare depends on ignoring her existence, then its pursuit will be like the chasing of a phantom, and will shame you so, when the illusion is dissipated, that you will not know where to hide yourself… Our problem should not be to stop the current; our problem is to keep the boat from sinking and in motion.”

It is his tolerance, sound commonsense, loyalty to his friend and his persistent questioning of the validity of the cult that awakens Sachish. Finally, Sachish’s spell is broken and the three walk away from the cult.

20.1. Sribilash steps in and proposes to Damini only after it becomes very clear that Sachish has his own priorities in life and marriage is certainly not one among them ; and only after Damini in her nobility has released Sachish from her love. His wooing Damini is playful laced with wit and modesty. It also displays his loyalty to Sachish and the courage to defy social opinion. Damini marries him; and they return to Calcutta to lead a married life.

The Women

From the day when man, refusing to recognize the efflorescence of life and establishing ideals to his own convenience instead, and following those ideals tried to create the woman, seeds of rebellion were sown in the heart of woman since then….Since that day when she is denied the true potential of womanhood she has also been denying man his complete manhood, as a form of revenge.” —Rabindranath Tagore (About Chaturanga)

21.1. Among   the favourite subjects of the Bengali social novels of the late 19th century the prominent   were the women’s’ questions in general and the problems of the child-widows in particular. The image of a ‘new-woman’ who stands up to question the current social morality and seeks justice for women was developed as the ideological face of women’s re-emergence. The New Woman is never static and is not a mere artefact to be admired and put away. Nancy Paxton who reviewed female characters in literature between 1830 and 1947, observed: ‘Although the New Woman is able to have equal rights as men, she is never able to break the social bounds with her sexuality’.

21.2. As regards Tagore’s novels, from Chokher Bali (1903) onwards, they are set in Tagore’s own times or in the just recent previous years. Except in Gora the dominant character in each of his novels is a woman who is projected as a symbol of Indian psyche, emerging from shadows and taking her place in the family and in the society; and responding to the challenges mounting on women. She might not always succeed entirely, but her effort speaks for her innate nobility and courage; and of sacrificial heroism. While depicting the femininity, tenderness and devotion of traditional Indian women, Tagore also brings to fore their sufferings, pains and sense of betrayal; the discrimination they face and the humiliation they put up with and the abuse they endure.

21.3. Through these novels he intended to delineate the contemporary social norms and hold up its ills. Each character, in that context, is a tragic metaphor of the time they lived in, unwitting victims of a social structure they had no role in shaping into what it had become. In the novels of this genre – where the society treats widows as ’unclaimed bodies –physically alive and socially dead’ – spirited young widows rebellious in their own ways and raising voice against the system  invariably take the centre stage.

21.4. But somehow, his female characters pushing for reforms keep returning in one guise or the other. For instance, Suchitra’s aunt in Gora is Annapurna’s prototype; and Binodini of Choker Bali   has much in common with Damini of Chaturanga. Yet, they do not lose their individuality and freshness. Another feature is that, for some reason, many of his young female protagonists are child-less; and that those caught in throes of passion usually die young. And, many of his widowed heroines (including Binodini) do not actually get married. Damini the young widow in Chaturanga appears to be a rare exception. But she too dies  young and child-less. Some say these features are the shadows cast across by Tagore’s life-experiences.

Woman as the mother and Motherhood is rarely discussed and analyzed by the characters in most of his novels, including Chaturanga.

22.1. The two women of Chaturanga – Nanibala and Damini – are both young widows. While Damini is the heroine of the novel, Nanibala has just a marginal presence. But, the two are totally different in their circumstances, nature and attitude.

22.2. Nanibala‘s is a sad story of a typical young widow uncared, unprotected and much abused. True to her name (cream – puppet- like girl) is frail, weak and passive; and her plight is decided by her uncles and cousins. She is totally defenceless; and is seduced by cowardly rouge, Purandar who happened to be Sachish’s brother. But, what is worse is that she came to love the one who ruined her life; and she recoils from the idea of accepting anyone else as her saviour. Therefore, in her case re-marriage is ruled out. When Nanibala is pregnant and in dire straits with nowhere to go Jagmohan and Sachish rescue her and do their best to provide for her. Jagmohan accepts Nanibala with warm affection and regards her as a symbol of motherhood. His efforts to re-habilitate the luckless girl go in vain. After she gave birth to a dead child, Sachish offers to marry her with a view to protect her from ignominy. But, Nanibala is totally against that idea. She is unable to fight back or rebel – like Binodini or Damini .But she ensures that her silent –protest is heard through her suicide note in which she declares her love for her seducer:

“Baba, forgive me. I cannot do what you wanted. I have tried my best, for your sake, but I could never forget him. My thousand salutations to your gracious feet. Nanibala,   the sinner”.

Nanibala takes on herself the whole burden of sin; and gives up her life for the sinner’s sake.

23.1. Damini is portrayed in an entirely different mould. She is widow, yet her attitudes and behaviour differed from traditional norms of widowhood. Tagore has depicted Damini as a worldly, outgoing, bold, vivacious young woman who attracts everyone with her charm, grace and glitters, as her name (lightening) suggests. She is so real that no reader can forget her. Except Damini all the other characters in Chaturanga are meant to compliment Sachish’s life experiences either as an atheist or as a cymbal banging Ashram inmate or as a confused young man. In a way of speaking, those characters are fragments of Sachish’s personality. They have their relevance only in the context of their relation to Sachish. Damini, on the other hand, stands by herself. She alone defines her role.

23.2. The character of Damini is a fascinating one. There are many hues and shades to her character. Damini can be docile, then vociferous, and even downright hostile at times. She is volatile, but committed. She is submissive, yet has her own voice. She exudes sexuality of a woman in her prime and fills the hearts of those around with desire. She can be manipulative with ploys of mock anger or indifference just to stroke the fire of envy and desire in men.   She can argue logically with vehemence and knock down seemingly intellectual positions. She is not afraid to pose disturbing questions.  In one sweeping stroke she demanded justice after she questioned the rationale for treating her as a piece of property. She raises her voice in defence of a woman who commits suicide after coming to know the illicit affair between her husband and her unmarried sister. Damini is enraged about the vulnerability of a woman who can be hurt easily, and shrieks against the social injustice that makes a mockery of a woman’s love and life. She is not much educated, yet she has a certain sensibility. And, at all times she is intriguing; never lets anyone take her for granted. A critic has described Damini as ‘a deadly mixture of enigma and voluptuousness’.

23.3. Damini in an outburst of rage takes the Swami to task – through Sachish- and hurls at him the irrelevance of his cult and its beliefs: `what use to the world are the things that engross you so day in and day out? Who have you succeeded in saving? ‘Damini went on: `Day and night you go on about ecstasy, you talk of nothing else. Today you have seen what ecstasy is, haven’t you? It has no regard for morals or a code of conduct, for brother or wife or family pride. It has no mercy, no shame, no sense of propriety. What have you devised to save man from the hell of this cruel, shameless, fatal ecstasy?

It is not surprising that the Swami is scared of Damini and that Sachish is perplexed.

24.1. Damini stands out as the only character who is sure of her likes and dislikes. Damini is steadfastly stubborn, defining her sexual freedom and her spiritual one as well. Like Binodini of Choker Bali, Damini refuses to be tied down to a state of ineffectual nothingness, a role that the society ascribes to the widows robbed of ‘free will’. She registers her protest in no uncertain terms, when she says to Sachish “…Haven’t you people put chains round my feet and flung this woman without faith into the prison of devotion? …Some of you will decide this for me, some that, to suit your convenience – am I a mere pawn in your game?”

24.2. Like Binodini, Damini too is denied sexual pleasure in her early life; but for very different reasons. Her husband Sivatosh, while alive, abstains from sex as part of his discipline, and to keep away from earthly delights; unwilling to be corrupted by  kamini or kanchan .  Sivatosh dies entrusting his entire property, his Calcutta house and even the guardianship of his young wife who still had a zest for life, to his religious guru Leelananda Swami. Damini demands of the Swami to explain to her the rights of her dead husband to will away her house, her jewellery and even herself while none of that was acquired by him. She questions Swami’s right to accept her custody without ascertaining her willingness to be taken care by him.

25.1. Sachish and Sribilash are intrigued by her presence even before they set eyes on her. Damini distracts them even without being seen: the clink of keys, the call of voice to a maid servant, is enough to divert the attention of the disciples gathered around the Swami. The moment Sachish sets eyes on her the ground under his feet caves away. He sees in Damini the reflection of the latent desires concealed within him. He wants her desperately and is also fatally afraid of her sexuality. Though he acknowledges her as ‘the artist of the art of life’ he is uncertain and shy, not knowing how to deal with her voluptuousness.

25.2. Sribilash too desires her. The relation between Damini and Sribilash at the Ashram is an interesting one. She is more relaxed, informal and friendly with Sribilash, perhaps because she neither hates him (as she hates the Swami) nor loves him (as she intensely loves Sachish). Sribilash gets to know Damini, as a person. She pours out to him all her past grief and memories. He however is not much elated, but laments:

“ I happened to be the only person about whom she was not bothered for either love or resentment, which explains why she would pour out to me whenever she could an endless chatter about her past and present, what was going on among her neighbors and all kind of trivial talk. She would sit on the covered terrace in front of our rooms on the upper floor and talk on and on…   That evening Damini laid her heart bare. She said things which are difficult to touch on even if one wants to and everything she said flowed from her mouth with an easy grace and beauty. As she continued I felt as though she was engaged in exploring many hitherto unsuspected dark chambers of her mind, as though by chance she had had an opportunity of meeting herself face to face”.

His understanding of Damini provides him conviction to counsel and reason with Sachish in order to wean him away from the mistaken notions about Prakrti, woman and spirituality.

26.1. It is however the complex relation between Sachish and Damini that forms the central theme of the novella. It attempts delineating the intricate and sensitive conflicts of the spiritual and the sensuous. Sachish believes the human love is a trap; and wriggles to avoid her; but cannot help being away from her and worse being ignored by her.

26.2. Damini, on her part, is not afraid to express her physical desire for Sachish who hesitantly reciprocates, but is afraid to express it fully. She employs many strategies to win over her lover. She beguiles him ; lures his attention by some pretext or other; plays tricks on him with mock anger and indifference using Sribilash as a dummy; She begs him ; implore him; prostrates bore him; and in the darkness of the cave she clasps his feet trying arouse his desire for her.

26.3. Sachish pleads with Damini to vacate the Ashram since she is not a ‘believer’ and he no longer has the strength of mind to resist her. She refuses to go away and rightly argues her case. Sometime later, Sachish begs her to forgive him for asking her to go away; and requests her to join the Kirtan singing.

Finally, he begs her forgiveness and to set him free from the bonds of her love. ‘My need for Him whom I seek is immense, is so absolute, that I have no need for anything else at all. Damini, have pity on me and leave me to Him ’.

26.4. That marks a turning point in Damini’s attitude and behaviour. Damini with her woman’s instinct understands Sachish who views human love as an impediment or a distraction on the way to his goal. She recognizes it is his relentless, obsessive search for truth that is important for him. She also understands that he needs to pursue his quest alone.  She realizes the rigor of the test she subjected Sachish. She resolves the situation renounces her love for him; sets him free; and accepts him as her Guru. She touches his feet in obeisance and promises ‘I shall never transgress’

27.1. Damini never sought to  harm Sachish, nor did she try to prevent him from his spiritual pursuits. Seen in this light, Damini emerges as a powerful mother-figure. From being a seductress, trying to fulfill her desires, she eventually lets Sachish walk the path towards his salvation.  Her feminine instincts do not allow her to see Sachish suffer while she was alive.

[Bijaya Ghosh in her comments, remarks that there is certain nobility ingrained in Damini’s character. She would like to have won, but not at the cost of wrecking the very object of her love; because such a hollow win would have robbed her life of all sense and dignity. She is prompted by a deep sense of justice and fairness. It is the woman in her that  protects, nurtures and loves which  releases Sachish and lets him grow to reach out to his aspirations – whatever that might be , even if it didn’t  make sense to her.]

27.2. It is only because she sets him free that Sachish is able to work towards his liberation. Some have tried to see shades of Samkhya in the relation between the two. As per Samkhya, Prakrti functions solely for the sake of Purusha (purushartha).And Purusha can find his true identity only when separated from Prakrti. Unless Prakrti sets him free there is no release for Purusha. Thus, Prakrti is the liberator of Purusha by taking onto herself and seeing through (jnana, vijnana) Purusha’s blinkered view of himself.

28.1. Thereafter, when Sribilash proposed to her, she accepts him. She marries Sribilash not out of a desire for sensuous pleasures but to clear the way for Sachish in his quest for Truth. Damini asks Sribilash to take her back to Calcutta where they get married later. They move in to the house that Jagmohan had bequeathed to Sachish and resume his (Jagmohan) work of serving the needy Chamars and Muslims. Sachish visits Calcutta briefly to give away Damini in marriage to Sribilash .But, he refuses to stay there “No, I am afraid, my work lies elsewhere”.

28.2. She married Sribilash; though she might not have loved him. After about a year of married life Damini dies due to an unknown pain in her chest, the one she sustained in the cave. Damini is a remarkable character. She has the rare capacity and the strength of mind to renounce without rancour.

Her dying words to Sribilash, at the end of the Book, were:” My longings are still with me. I go with the prayer that I may find you again in my next life”

[Kaiser Haq said , he found it hard to render the words in original to English: sadh mitila Na, janmantare abar yena tomake pai. According to him, the import of those words was that her marriage with Sribilash had not totally fulfilled her aspiration (sadh). She hopes that it may happen in some future life – presumably that can happen if Sribilash moves forward, attain spiritual growth.

I however tend to think Haq’s interpretation is rather contrived. Damini might simply have wished to live a fuller life with Sribilash in her next existence.]

Sachish

29.1. In the words of Srbilash :” Sachish appeared to me like a constellation of stars, his eyes shining, his long slender  fingers like tongues of  flame, his face glowing with a youthful radiance. As soon as I set eyes on him I seemed to glimpse his inner self; and from that moment I loved him”. To say the least, Sachish was very handsome. He was also a bright, I intelligent and sensitive person.

[Bijaya Ghosh, in her comments,  has summed up her impressions of Sachish crisply: After Naibala episode his behaviour becomes inexplicable…he is aimless like a Ghuri (kite) separated from Latai (string). He loves freedom of skies but does not take responsibility. His depth is great; but his attention span is short.]

29.2. As said earlier, the Sachish story is mainly about his reactions to the varied influences that exerted on him – Uncle Jagmohan, Swami Leelananda and the irrepressible Damini; his strife to break free from each of those influences in succession; and finally his determined effort to be rid of all influences , attachments and bonds in search of his quest for freedom. As he said, his journey is from bondage to freedom and from form to form-less. We have already recounted, elsewhere, his life-event. Here we shall briefly talk about certain that keep coming up, despite the years since the book was published.

29.3. The questions that often asked are: why did Sachish a clone of Jagmohan a staunch Atheist suddenly catapulted in to the lap of a Swami heading a religious cult? And, again why was he disillusioned with the Swami and threw over board his cult beliefs’ and practices? What really happened at the cave; and why he felt so overpowered? Why was he so desperate to get away from Damini? And, what was the Truth he said he discovered?

30.1. Sachish was devastated by twin disasters that struck in quick succession – the suicide of a wronged woman whom he was about to marry, and the sudden death of his uncle (almost a foster parent) on whom he totally depended for ideologies and approach to life. Sachish was totally disoriented and became rudderless. The ground under his feet was totally swept away. He aimlessly wandered from place to place, and eventually drifted in to a religious cult following devotional practices. The cult stood for everything that his Uncle hated; and which, following his Uncle, he too had condemned.

30.2. Tagore, however, does not explain this swing from one extreme to another. Many have taken Sachis’s inexplicable behaviour as a sign of basic weakness in his character. Kaiser Haq, the translator, tries to explain it as symptom of an ‘underdeveloped ego’ by referring to psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar‘s speculation; and says, however incredible it might appear, it is both psychologically and historically plausible. Shri Kakkar in his book The Inner World (1978) had pointed out to the peculiar Indian tendency of withdrawing into mysticism when confronted with sudden and grievous loss of family relations, caste and clan (biradari) support or irreplaceable loss of dear one. When these supports suddenly fall away one is threatened, totally lost, and is likely to accept irrational solutions to life’s problems (including political extremism). Such a one is an easy prey for anyone offering a shoulder to weep on. He mentions that historically, the Indian humanists underwent a crisis at the turn of the nineteenth century, when they found human problems to be not particularly amenable to a positivist approach. Many of them  (like Sachish )  religion, spiritualism or extreeme irrational positions, not knowing how to fill the void in their lives.

30.3. Some say that Sachish led a sheltered existence; and his Uncle-mentor had not prepared him to face and absorb the shocks of life. When Sachish went off the rails his dead uncle is partly to be blamed for that. I am not sure how credible is that view.

31.1. The cave episode in Chaturanga is truly bizarre. Sribilash narrates the incident as an extract from Sachish’s diary.

`The cave had many chambers. I spread my blanket in one and lay down. The darkness of the cave was like a black beast – its moist breath seemed to touch my skin. It seemed to me like the first animal to appear in the very first cycle of creation; it had no eyes, no ears, it had only a huge appetite. It had been trapped for eternity in that cave. It didn’t have a mind; it knew nothing but felt it sobbing noiselessly.’

He is unable to sleep at first, but eventually `After I don’t know how long, a thin sheet of numbness spread over my consciousness. At some point in that semi-conscious state I felt the touch of a deep breath close to my feet.

That primordial beast!

`Then something clasped my feet. At first I thought it a was a wild animal. But a wild animal is hairy, this creature wasn’t. My entire body shrank at the touch. It seemed to be an unknown snake-like creature. I knew nothing of its anatomy-, what its head looked like, or its trunk, or its tail-nor could I imagine how it devoured its victims. It was repulsive because of its very softness, its ravenous mass.’

The beast with ‘mass of hair’   tugging at his feet turns out be Damini in her desperate effort to be one with her lover Sachish. But Sachish is more desperate than Damini and wants her to get off his way and set him free. The episode is symbolizes Sachish’s internal turmoil and his mortal fear of Damini’s sexuality and his frantic effort to escape from the sensuous female.

The imagery of the ‘primordial beast’ was perhaps meant to   project the nature of unfulfilled desires, which when reaches the brink, overflows violently in a beastly manner.

31.2. The cave-episode per se without its undertones, some say, was prompted by an incident narrated by Sister Nivedita in her book ‘The notes of wanderings with Swami Vivekananda – pages 148-150 ’ (1913). The incident relates to the experience that almost overpowered Swami Vivekananda when he entered the cave of Amarnath   in Kashmir on 2nd August 1889.  Sister Nivedita writes:

“the place was vast, huge enough to hold a Cathedral and the great ice-Shiva was in a niche of the deepest shadow, sacred as if throned on its base.  …to him, the heavens had opened .He had touched the feet of Shiva. He had to hold himself tight, he said later, lest he should swoon away and fall. But so great was his physical exhaustion that a doctor said afterwards that his heart ought to have stopped beating, and had undergone permanent enlargement instead”.” Afterwards he would often tell of the overwhelming vision that had seemed to draw him almost into its vertex.”

31.3. Some have wondered whether Tagore was not influenced by Freudian theories of sex and psychoanalysis while writing the cave – episode. Santanu Biswas in his paper ‘Rabindranath Tagore and Freudian thought’ had gone into this question. According to Shri Biswas, at the time Chaturanga came to be written (1915) one cannot be sure whether Tagore was familiar with Freud‘s theories. It is most likely, Freudian thoughts could not have influenced the composition of the cave scene in Chaturanga. He also mentions ‘in the several letters that Tagore wrote to different persons about these novels during or shortly after their composition, there is no mention of the term ‘manobikalanmulak ’, nor any statement warranting that description’. Further, even after Tagore got to know Freud’s psychoanalytical work and met Freud at Vienna on 25 October 1926, he was not much impressed with Freud’s theories; and in fact seemed to disliked it.

31.4. Santanu Biswas in his paper also mentions of the communications   that took place between Kalidas Nag and Tagore on the subject perhaps sometime later than 1927. In this context he reproduces Tagore’s explanation with regard to Chaturanga:

To the authors of yesteryears life meant desire and frustration, union and separation, birth and death, and certain other similarly imprecise events. Therefore, the play called life had to end either in a cherished and revered union, or with a scene devoted to death’s vast graveyard. Since a few days now, our impression of our life has been changing—it seems we were so long loitering about the entrance—after a long time we seem to have discovered the way to the inner chambers for the first time. We are awake at the outer side of our consciousness—there we are consciously fighting battles, striking others and are being struck by others. But within these strikes and counter strikes, these ups and downs, something is being created in our ignorance of it. The arena for that gigantic game of creation is our submerged consciousness [magnachaitanyalok]. It is a new world, as if gradually coming into existence before us “

32.1. Why Sachish was disillusioned with the Swami and threw over board his cult beliefs’ and practices is another interesting question. His release from the Swami may have come about because of Sribilash persistently chipping away his faith in the Swami, and also because of Sachish’s own introspection.

32.2. Sachish by then had realized that he had to work out his own salvation not by depending on someone else’s guidance or grace. He mentions to Srbilash: ‘Today I have clearly grasped the significance of the saying, “Better die for one’s own faith than do such a terrible thing as accept another’s.” Everything else can be taken from others, but if one’s faith isn’t ones own it brings damnation instead of salvation. My god can’t be doled out to me by someone; if I find him, well and good, otherwise it’s better to die.’…  ‘The god within me will tread my road and none other; the guru’s road only leads to his own courtyard.’

`One who is poet finds poetry in his soul,’ Sribilash said, `and one who isn’t borrows it from others.’ `I am a poet,’ replied Sachish brazenly. That perhaps was Tagore himself speaking.

At the end

33.1. Sachish sets forth his vision of Truth:

 `He loves form, so He is continuously revealing Himself through form. We can’t survive with form alone, so we must pursue the formless. He is free, so he delights in bondage; we are fettered, so our joy is in liberty. Our misery arises because we don’t realize this truth.’

‘The singer progresses from the experience of joy to the musical expression of the raga; the listener moves from the raga towards joy. One moves from freedom to bondage, the other from bondage to freedom. He sings,  we listen. He plays by binding emotion to the raga and as we listen we unravel the emotion from the raga.’

The path that Sachish chose was one leading from bondage to freedom, from form to formless. Tagore too aspired for the Upanishad ideal of formless entity.   I am not sure if Sachish was echoing Tagore’s philosophy. But what is more important here is the process, his integrity and intense search for what he considers as The Truth.

33.2. No character in Chaturanga achieves the human ideal in full. But taken together – Jagmohan’s humanism, Damini’s passion, Sribilash’s loyalty to selfless friendship and Sachish’s quest for truth- all express facets of human aspirations in each sphere of life. That is the unity of the Book.

Jagmohan, Sachish, Damini and Swami and even Sribilash pursue their traits along a single direction; and keep running away from the centre of life. Each one of those characters is not complete in himself/herself. It is only when the attitudes peculiar to each are amicably blended into living experience they gain some sense. That is what I mentioned as the unity of the Book.

At another level, extremes of Atheism and irrational religious frenzy or extreme asceticism are set aside. It is the sense of balance in life that Tagore seems to be aiming at.  At the end, Sachish too returns to social work, to life among men and women of the world ;  but, with greater understanding and compassion.

Let me explain:

Rational thoughts, emotions, Love, self-introspection and selfless friendship and loyalty are all admirable virtues that enrich human life. But, each of those – harsh Atheism, religious frenzy, overpowering passion, total reclusion or even the self-erasing over attachment- is just an aspect ,  part or anga of life; they need not or should not account for all of life. Tagore named the Book as Chaturanga – four aspects of life – perhaps for that reason. But, Four is just a number to make up a catchy title; such distinct aspects of life are surely many more.

If a single trait overstates itself and becomes so dominant that it overpowers , engulfs and stifles every other aspect of life, then human life becomes one-dimensional; and loses its sense of balance and versatility. Tagore, I presume, was looking at the totality of human life – balanced and wholesome. And, he, therefore, rejected the overextended projections of each of those traits (uncle’s strict Atheism; Swami’s irrational cult-faith; Damini’s passion; and Sachish’s reclusive escapism), one after another. Even Sribilash’s life , which erases itself at each stage , is incomplete; and, at the end, he is rewarded but  with n o  sense of achievement. A judicious and harmonious blend of varied aspects  alone sum up an ideal life; but, such a life is rarely ever lived.

blue lotus

Sources and References

1. Broken Ties and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (1925)

http://www.terebess.hu/english/tagore18.html

2. Chaturanga –Quartet- Translation   by Kaiser Haq

Heinemann, 1993

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300791.txt

3. Chaturanga –Translation by Ashok Mitra

Sahitya Akademi, 1963

4. Humanism and Nationalism in Tagore’s novels

KN Kunjo Singh, Atlantic, 2002

5. Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: Rabindranath Tagore’s `Chaturanga’

By   William Radice

http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/1816/1/AtheistsGurusAndFanatics.pdf

6. Rabindranath and Freud by Santanu Biswas

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books, Sarat-Tagore-Bankim

 

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Chaturanga : a novella by Tagore Part One

Chaturanga: a novella by Tagore Part One

FOR  Smt. BIJAYA GHOSH

Of  Tagore’s eight novels and four novellas, Chaturanga is perhaps among the least acknowledged and least translated. Chaturanga is virtually unknown outside of Bengal and the English-language readership, although it appeared in the immediate years following his most celebrated Geetanjali and his Nobel Prize. Tagore’s other novel Ghare Baire – Home and Abroad – (1916) – published soon after Chaturanga, in contrast, gained immense popularity.

Let’s talk about his Chaturanga.

The making of Chaturanga

RBT cropped

(Tagore 1905-6)

1.1. Rabindranath Tagore received the Nobel Prize – Diploma and Medal – from Lord Carmichael, the Governor of Bengal, on 9 January 1914, in presence of distinguished guests gathered at Governor’s  House, Calcutta.  In the months thereafter, Tagore was rather pensive with apprehensions about the worsening political instability in Europe. Sadly, Tagore’s premonition of a major disaster came true with the declaration of war in Europe, triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914. The Great War, which later was named the World War I, eventually struck the globe on 28 July 1914 and spread.

[The term ‘First World War’ was coined in September 1914 by the German biologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, as the European war spread to Asia and Africa.]

1.2. Tagore in a restless frame of mind then travelled to the regions of Allahabad and Buddha-Gaya. His poems of this period are dark and foreboding, both in form and content. While wandering about in quest of peace and understanding he started crafting, with well pointed arguments and poetical expressions, a cycle of four stories of philosophical nature, exploring the inner world of man striving to realize Truth as it actually is. It is at once a philosophical investigation and a poignant love story caught between opposing worlds of ideas.

Its story is set against the background of conflicts between: reason and emotion; liberalism and orthodoxy; atheism and mysticism; spiritual aspiration and earthy passion.  The stories   also bring to question the paradoxes and ironies of life; the things perceived to be good but are not; unpopular rational views and irrational faiths that common people somehow love to cling on; self-seeking social superstitions and   annoyingly ridiculous customs.

But above all, they celebrate the nobility of woman’s Love and her emotional purity; and the soaring aspirations of an earnest man seeking freedom,  striving to progress from form to formless, and to be rid of all attachments that bind human spirit. They also project, in a mellow glow, the purity of selfless love and true friendship. These four esoteric stories of high technical merit were tied together, in to a quartet, under the title Chaturanga.

2.1. Chaturanga was initially serialized in four consecutive issues of Sabuj- Patra (November 1914 – February 1915) , a monthly literary magazine edited by Shri Pamathanath  (Pramatha)  Chaudhuri, doyen of the Bengali – literary journalism. Sabuj Patra (meaning the Green Leaves ; and, it  started on May 8, 1914 – the day after Tagore’s birthday) was the first voice of protest that spoke out against conventional beliefs and irrational thinking. Rabindranath Tagore had a high regard for Shri Chaudhuri and acknowledged Sabuj Patra’s role in paving way for his literary activities to branch out in new directions. Sabuj Patra enabled Tagore, through his essays, stories and poems,   to express his reformist views on the state of the society and on the current political situations.

2.2. Chaturanga came to be  published in a book form during the year 1916 by the Indian Press of Allahabad, which also brought out collected works of Tagore , in Bengali , in ten volumes. Tagore seemed to have special affinity towards Chaturanga ; for he himself , together with W W Pearson , translated it into English and gave it the title Broken Ties. The translated work was serialized as A Story in Four Chapters in the prestigious literary magazine the Modern Review during February-May, 1922.

The Broken Ties along with six other storiesIn the Night (Nishithey); The Fugitive Gold (Swamamriga); The Editor (Sampadak); Giribala (Manbhanjan); The Lost Jewels (Manihara) – together with a poem “Emancipation” (Parishodh), was published by Macmillan in London in the year 1925 under the collection of stories titled Broken Ties and other stories.

The Broken Ties was again reprinted without any change in 1964 by Visva-Bharati under the title Boundless Sky.

There are two other English translations of the Chaturanga quartet, as I know: one by Ashok Mitra (1963); and the other by Dr. Kaiser Haq (1993).

The Book

3.1. Chaturanga is rather short in length; running into just about 90 pages. The Book has been categorized as a novel, novella and as a long-short story, as well. Some say, it does not have a gradual building of a plot, development, unfolding and expansion that a traditional novel should have.

3.2. It is written in a style that is completely different from that of his earlier five novels; the last of which being Gora written about five years earlier (1910). His novels earlier to Chaturanga were elaborate, spanning many characters, attempting to explore their mutual relations, social interactions; analyzing their motivations, the impact they have on those around them as also on the society; and , picturing the myriad ways that the society reacts.

3.3. Chaturanga, in contrast, is terse, light and dramatic. Here, Tagore relied more on intimate conversations, half-spoken monologues and compelling situations, than on flow of events. The author’s preoccupation was with the intensity and turmoil of the personal world, than with the plot or its structure. He raises more questions than he answers.

4.1. The critics point out; Tagore’s technique underwent changes after the publication of his Gora (1910) followed by his tour to the United Kingdom and the United States during 1912-13. According to Prof Humayun Kabir, the French influence was clearly noticeable ‘as he moved from dominance of theme over plot; and simultaneously of mind over the heart’.

4.2. Chaturanga represents Tagore’s interesting experiment in crafting a novel by placing accent on the patterns of thoughts and feelings; on structuring of ideas and emotions; and, on highly stylized musical sounding literary language(Sadhu-bhasha). It is its innovative treatment of the subject; and its lyrical prose, elegantly phrased and constructed that provides the Book its rich texture, its varied tones and its ethereal quality. Here, Tagore achieves the fusion of poet and novelist. Tagore’s biographer, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, remarks that taken together, the four chapters are like a lyric – kabya-upanyas (poem-novel).  Ashok Mitra says its lyrical quality ‘gives the strangely agitated stormy world of Chaturanga a still point’.

Why was it not popular?

5.1. The Book – Chaturanga – could not achieve great popularity though the critics hailed it as ‘one of the greatest novellas in world literature, an exquisite work of art ’ (Niharranjan Ray); ‘ a great work of art having something ethereal about its theme and something elfin about its character’ (Dr. SC Sengupta). Some believe that Chaturanga ‘is undoubtedly one of the most complex novels of Tagore’ ( Amitava Nag); ‘ is artistically more satisfying than Tagore’s longer and more celebrated novels; it more than makes up in intensity for what it lacks in detail, and is unique in the author’s oeuvre for its range of technical experiments’ (Dr. Kaiser Haq).

6.1. But, many say that Chaturanga makes a rather difficult reading; and, its characters are so ethereal and are far removed from the day-to-day life experiences of common people that its readers, normally, cannot not identify with or relate to its main characters. That is to say; the book did not echo the common concerns, unlike most of the successful Bengali novels of that period did.

6.2. As regards the language of the novel,  Tagore employed the formal Sadhu Bhasha with its rich ornamentation, lengthier verb endings and pronouns. Though the narration was compact and tight knit, it sounded more like poetry. Kaiser Haq, one of its translators, remarked that at times   he found it difficult to appropriately render into English the import of certain culture-specific terms and stylized phrases.

6.3. Some critics have pointed out that, in a way of speaking, its narrative style was ahead of its times; and the readers were not yet equipped to appreciate its daring originality. They cite the instances of its rather abrupt transitions in plot; unexplained character-reversals, sudden flashes of compressed imagery and epigram. Kaiser Haq remarked that his task was particularly challenging because of the Book’s experimental qualities.

7.1. Though Tagore has made the human feelings the main material of the book, Chaturanga is clearly not a novel of social realism. Similarly, though the ideas in the book stem from a social context it does not address itself to the then current problems of the society. The book mainly serves as a vehicle for conveying philosophical ideas than social mimesis (‘imitation’ or ‘re-presentation’ ).

7.2. The time-less quality of its theme is both its strength and its weakness. The story is apparently set in the late 19th century at a time when Calcutta suffered a serious outbreak of plague; and, while it was about to turn in to a widespread epidemic (1898-1899).  Though the novel spans almost half a century of life and thought in Bengal, Chaturanga does not refer to the contemporary political situation. Obviously, Tagore was trying to address deeper concerns about human ethos and codes of existence relevant at all times. Here, he chose not to be restricted by the barriers that divide men and obscure their uniqueness.  His preoccupation was with the questions that haunt thinking persons in every  generation. This classic element in Chaturanga lends itself to re-interpretations and reviews even long after it was written.

The Title

8.1. The relevance of the Book’s title – Chaturanga – is much discussed; and varied meanings have been read in to the term. Tagore , however, named his translation of it in to English as ‘Broken Ties’ perhaps suggesting that the theme of the Book was essentially seeking freedom from limitations of forms , attachments and their lingering  ties.

8.2. Chaturanga , in the old-Indian context, refers to the four arms of the traditional Indian army : the infantry, cavalry, charioteers and elephant-mounted troops. And, by extension, it can mean anything divided into four parts. Chaturanga is also the name of the complex mind-game (chess) where a player attempts to out-think, manoeuvre and ambush the opponent. As the scholar William Radice remarks:

Chaturanga evokes both the intellectualism and intense passion….Like a chess game played by grand-masters, Chaturanga is not initially easy to follow, but with careful reading and re-reading its deliberateness, the thought that has gone into every move, emerges clearly’.

8.3. The title has also been taken to imply the ‘four limbs’, ‘four parts’ or ‘quartet’ that make up the Book, as also the interplay between the four characters that the chapters are named after. There is also an observation which points out that though the story is centred on two friends and their involvement with two young women , there is no neat pairing of the couples. The novel actually revolves around two ‘triangles’.

Charur-ranga could also mean four colors of life

8.4. Another explanation is based in the theme-content of the book. It is said; rational thoughts, emotions, Love, self-introspection and selfless friendship and loyalty are all admirable virtues that enrich human life. But, each of those when it takes  the form of –  strict Atheism, religious frenzy, overpowering passion, total reclusion or even the self-erasing over attachment-  is just a part or anga of life; they need not or should not account for all of life. Tagore named the Book as Chaturanga – four aspects of life – perhaps for that reason. But, Four is just a number to make up a catchy title; such distinct aspects of life are surely many more.  If a single trait overstates itself and becomes so dominant that it overpowers and stifles every other aspect of life, then human life becomes one-dimensional; and loses its sense of balance and versatility.

8.5. Ashok Mitra offers an interesting explanation. He suggests that Tagore had always had a fascination for structuring his songs, stories and novellas in ‘four-part’ components in terms of their ‘exposition, development, variation and recapitulation’. Ashok Mitra explains that Tagore ‘was deeply attached to this form, its varying rhythms and speeds; and used it repeatedly not only in his early stories but  also in the most powerful novella of his early fifties, Chaturanga. He returned to it with renewed power in his seventies in Malancha, Dui Bon and Char Adhyaya’.

The Plot

9.1. Chaturanga is set in Colonial Bengal during the twilight of the 19th century and the early years of   the 20th century. It was the time when western education and western ideas was taking grip over the young minds. Many were trying to accept west without rejecting the east or without condemning everything that was Indian. In the process the old customs, beliefs, ideas, practices, notions and institutions came in to scrutiny and question. The initial chapter of Chaturanga portrays, in a more matured form, the conflict between the reformist liberal attitudes and orthodoxy; and between modernity and the old world of traditions of the Bengali society.

9.2. Chaturanga is mainly the story of Sachish an English-educated bright and a very handsome young man; his reactions to the varied influences exerted on him; his strife to break free of all influences and attachments, and to move towards absolute freedom. His story is narrated by his friend, ardent admirer and follower Sribilash, another English-educated young person. The intellectual and the emotional dilemmas of Sachish are presented against the cross currents of religious and reformative movements that rocked the Hindu society in Bengal during the second half of the 19th century. The story unfolds the conflicts between western atheistic humanism and orthodoxy; between rationalism and devotional cults; between mysticism and harsh realities of life.

10.1. The story starts with the acquaintance of the narrator Sribilash with Sachish; and moves on to descriptions of Sachish’s uncle Jagmohan and Sachish’s father Harimohan. Jagmohan, is a well educated staunch atheist, humanist and Utilitarian. He is a typical rationalist, the likes of whom enlivened Calcutta in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. Jagamohan rejects every social and religious norm and practice that lowers human dignity. He is willing to sacrifice his family ties and inheritance to be able to pursue his ideals of service to the underprivileged and the outcaste.

10.2. Sachish was brought up by Jagmohan as his virtual-son. Sachish imbibes the ideas and idealisms of his Uncle and follows him in every manner. Sachish’s friend Sribilash was a ‘believer’; and, initially was pained to know that Sachish was an atheist. And yet, in deference to his affection for Sachish he adopts his friend’s attitude.   Following that, Sribilash too comes under the influence of Jagmohan and turns agnostic.

10.3. Sachish scandalizes the family by offering to marry a young widow seduced and made pregnant by his cavalier brother. The young mother unable to face the shame and also the separation from her betrayer – lover commits suicide. This heart breaking incident is soon followed by a major tragedy. Sachish’s uncle Jagamohan – his friend, philosopher, guide and guardian- succumbs to plague while serving its poor victims.

11.1. Devastated by the twin disasters – a helpless woman’s suicide and the beloved uncle’s sudden death – Sachish is totally disoriented and becomes rudderless. The ground under his feet is totally swept away. He aimlessly wanders and eventually drifts in to a religious cult following devotional practices. The cult represented everything that his Uncle hated; and which, following his Uncle, he too had condemned. Now, Sachish had crossed over to a faith that was diametrically opposite to the views he professed while he was under his Uncle’s tutelage. Sachish turns in to an ardent and a fanatical devotee of religious Guru Swami Leelananda.  Following him, his friend Sribilash too joins the cult and becomes the Swami’s disciple.

11.2. While at the Ashram the two friends are attracted by a beautiful and vivacious young widow Damini who true to her name (lightening) is sparkling. Damini had been given away by her dying husband, along with all her property, to his guru Swami Leelananda. She is worldly, outgoing and bold. She has definite likes and dislikes. She is not afraid to hurl disturbing questions even at   Swami Leelananda that he cannot answer. He, for some reason, seems to be afraid of her. Damini questions Swami’s right to accept her custody without asking whether she agreed to be taken care of.

11.3. Damini falls passionately in love with Sachish, and is not afraid to express her physical desire; moans: ‘Oh, you stone, you stone, have mercy on me, have mercy and kill me outright!’ Sachish too falls intensely in love with the young widow – whom he calls ‘the artist of the art of Life’-   but is afraid either to face it fully or to acknowledge his love. He is at a loss how to respond or to react to her love.He wants her to keep away, but he wants her to be near too.

11.4. Sachish is thrown in to an abyss of doubt, confusion and indecision. He is much agitated and is unable to reciprocate Damini’s love. He comes to view Damini and her sexuality as a distraction enticing him away from his path of attaining True Freedom. Finally, he begs her forgiveness and to set him free from the bonds of her love. ‘My need for Him whom I seek is immense, is so absolute, that I have no need for anything else at all. Damini, have pity on me and leave me to Him’.  Damini in the nobility of her heart resolves the situation; releases him from her love, and accepts him as her Guru.

Sachish disillusioned with the Swami and his faith becomes a recluse, takes up to contemplation and meditation in solitary places and furrows his own path.

11. 5. Damini agrees to Sribilash’s proposal and marries him. Sribilash returns to working-life; and the couple continue social service activities on the lines of Uncle Jagmohan’s ideals. After a few years of happy-married life Damini dies of an unknown pain in her chest, which she sustained in a cave while she desperately hankered for Sachish. Her last words to Sribilash were ‘May you be mine again in our next birth- (sadhmitila na, janmantare abar yena tomake pai) ’.

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    Let’s discuss the four main characters

(Jagmohan, Sribilash, Damini and Sachish)

As also few other issues emanating from Chaturanga

in the next part

 Please click here for Part Two

Sources and References

1. Broken Ties and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (1925)

http://www.terebess.hu/english/tagore18.html

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0300791.txt

2. Chaturanga –Quartet- Translation   by Kaiser Haq Heinemann, 1993

3. Chaturanga –Translation by Ashok Mitra Sahitya Akademi, 1963

4. Humanism and Nationalism in Tagore’s novels KN Kunjo Singh, Atlantic, 2002

5. Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: Rabindranath Tagore’s `Chaturanga’ By   William Radice

http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/1816/1/AtheistsGurusAndFanatics.pdf

6. Rabindranath and Freud by Santanu  Biswas

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books, Sarat-Tagore-Bankim

 

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Tagore and Sarat Chandra

[The following may be treated as companion to my earlier post: Of poverty- literature – Sarat Chandra Chatterjee]

1. The renaissance period in the nineteenth century Bengal that followed the Indian Rebellion of 1857 witnessed a uniquely refined blend of dazzling intellectual brilliance fuelled by western rationalism on one hand, and, on the other, of the outburst of art creations brought to life by simple beauty and graceful expressions inspired by the traditional styles of ancient Indian murals.

The Bengali literary horizon, it was playfully said, was guarded by three celestial sentinels: Bankim Chandra (bent moon), Rabindra (regal sun) and Sarat Chandra (autumn moon). It was Bankim Chandra the creator of classics in chaste Bankimi-Shadhu-bhasha that ignited the fervour of nationalism in the hearts of his countrymen. The later writers of the period taking his lead brought into mainstream Bengali literature the fiery national issues and uncomfortable social practices, in Cholito bhasha the everyday – conversational language. 

A. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

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2. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) – (1838-1894), the eldest of the trio, is regarded the pioneer of literary renaissance of Bengal. He gave a new impetus to Bangla fiction by refining its prose, coining sparkling- fresh phrases and aesthetic expressions of great beauty. His was the sweetest voice that ever spoke prose. He revealed to the world a literary beauty never known before. He was the forerunner of Bangla literature that flowered in the next century. Bankim Chandra was also the first to popularize historical romances, as Walter Scott had earlier done in Scotland.  Both tried to bring to life the remarkable heroism and patriotism of the inhabitants and their struggles against the oppressor. Scott created his historical novels at a time when the traumatic events of the French Revolution had scattered his generation and brought forth a forced merger of Scots with the English.  Walter Scott made his mission to refresh Scots’ awareness of their nation’s past.

Bankim Chandra was a young man of nineteen, in the flush of youth, at the conclusion of the first war of Indian Independence in 1858. As the rest of the nation, he too was shocked at the failure of the revolution; and found it hard to live with the ignominy of defeat and humiliation. He set himself the task of understanding the problems of India’s political life; and to come face-to-face with the causes for its predicament.  He, thus, began writing at a time when India was colonized by the British; when the wounds and horrors of the failed War of Independence of 1857 were still raw; and, when the ruthless British reprisal was terrorizing Indian people into abject submission. Those were the days of strangling imperialism tightened by the Queen’s Declaration, adding salt to the sore. There was also utter lawlessness, robbery, looting and plunder. The shame of helplessness had burnt deep into Indian soul. That naturally gave rise to a searing desire for nationalism and consolidation.

[Incidentally, it is said, when once Bankim Chandra called on Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the latter punning on Bankim’s name teased him on the meaning of Bankim (Bent a Little). The sage playfully asked what it was that had bent him. Chatterjee laughed and replied that it was the kick from the Englishman’s shoe.]

3. Bankim Chandra was a superb story-teller, and a master of romance. No other writer in India, in all its regions,   has enjoyed such spontaneous and universal acceptance as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Romantic idealism; its stunning beauty and intense passion; its heroic and enthralling vigour are the lifeblood of Bankim Chandra’s historical novels. Bankim Chandra delighted in reconstructing the earlier days of his country, as his imagination pictured them. Through his works he yearned to arouse Indian people to rebel against their oppressor; to drag the sedate common people out of hopelessness and uncertainty; and, to instil in their hearts a new zeal.

3.1. He raised Nationalism to the level of religion by identifying the Motherland with the Mother-Goddess. The tremendous impact and thrilling upsurge that Anandamath and Vandemataram had on the Indian National Movement is indeed legendary. Bankim Chandra’s immortal song Bande Mataram (Hail to the Mother) set to music by the young Rabindra Nath became India’s national song , and  the voice of the Indian people fighting against colonial rule.

Bande Mataram expresses Bankim Chandra’s vision of the Mother India as goddess and of a woman as holy and venerable. His vision ignited the imagination of the whole of Bengal and rest of India.

Bankim Chandra’s Sanyasins in Anandamath are fabulous characters rather like the heroes of Mahabharata. They did practice selfless militancy as a Dharma, echoing the ideal of Bhagavad-Gita. . Dharma, here, meant Maitri brotherly bond with fellow-beings, togetherness and not separateness Dharma or Jeevana Dharma, he said, is essentially the quality of life. It is the way to honing perfection in human relations, by gently stepping aside ones egoistic tendencies, by bonding with ones fellow beings and by discovering the fundamental unity of us all. It is the principle that holds us together and leads to the best welfare of all. Dharma is ‘the synthesis, the harmonized disposition’ of all faculties, vrittis.  In that sense, Dharma is the best form of civilization. 

Anandamath created, in its wake, a class of patriots who willingly vowed to sacrifice their life for the cause of Motherland. The women accepted the idea of their men renouncing their life and turning Sadhus in service of Motherland. In the Bangla literature that followed , the patriotic  mother  at home came to be projected as Mother Goddess  arousing her sons, cultivating in them principles of morality and disciple;  and , preparing her sons (santan – band of warriors)  for the battle for liberation of Mother land. A widowed mother came to be looked upon as a symbol of purity, patience and selfless sacrifice. A household mother need not have to be militant; but , she had to be the  mother of heroes. 

Aurobindo Ghosh and other revolutionaries acknowledged Bankim Chandra as their political Guru. They, following his ideal , regarded him as: the inspirer, a new spirit leading the nation towards resurgence and independence.

Anandamath continues to stimulate the ideal of nationalism, as India struggles to ‘westernize’ without losing its soul, to go hi-tech yet retain its unique gifts which she can bring to the troubled world. Bankim Chandra’s voice is still  resonant and alive.

3.2. Bankim staunchly opposed British rule and imposition of Western culture over Indian culture. Yet; he regarded the cultures of the West and East as mutually complimentary. He did encourage imbibing the healthy aspects of western heritage; and asserted that the ideals of East and West can be harmonized for the welfare of all humankind. He is believed to have said: ‘the day when the European science and mechanical skills healthily unite their forces with the philosophical idealism of India, then truly the man will become god’; ’Preserving peoples identities, choices and integrity is a continual process; a challenge in which many voices struggle to speak for the spirit of the society’.

4. in the later part of his life, Bankim Chandra preached national regeneration through religious revival. He came to believe that there was “No serious hope of progress in India except in Hinduism-reformed, regenerated and purified”. With that in view, Bankim Chandra tried to reinterpret ancient Indian ideals by cleansing them of the accumulated floss of myths and legends.

In the process he produced: ‘Krishna Charitra’, ’Dharmatattva’ (Philosophy of Dharma), ‘Devatattva’ (Principle of Divinity) and a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita. Not many in world literature have excelled in both philosophy and art as Bankim Chandra has done.

4.1. Of his books of that genre, I have special regard for ‘Krishna Charitra’ a classic par excellence. It is a pioneering work where Krishna is subjected to pragmatic enquiry. Bankim Chandra strives to understand Krishna as a historic person, and as a rational human being; not as a fabrication of myths and legends.

5.  1.  Young Robindra  was an avid follower of Bankim’s novels which were then serialized  in Bangadarshan :  “It was bad enough to have to wait till the next monthly number was out, but to be kept waiting further till my elders had done with it was simply intolerable.”

Tagore grew up as  Bankim Chandra’s literary disciple, owing much to the Master. When Tagore, in his initial years, came under severe attack by the critics for voluptuousness in his lyrics, it was Bankim that supported the young poet.

Towards his last days Bankim Chandra named Rabindranath, just out of his teens, as his successor. The young protégé accepted that with grateful appreciation.

The poet- scholar Romesh Chandra Dutt recalled a very touching incident. He mentions that Bankim was the honoured guest at a party hosted in connection with his (Romesh Chandra’s) daughter’s wedding. Young Tagore who also attended the party introduced himself to Bankim and sat at his feet. Romesh, Chandra Dutt honouring Bankim Chandra offered him a flower garland. To the surprise of everyone present there, Bankim Chandra took off the garland and placed it around the neck of  young Tagore, saying: ‘this garland truly belongs to him. I am the setting sun; and, he is the sun now rising. Romesh, have you read his Sandhya Sangit?’ Tagore, it is said, was overwhelmed by this act of kindness and the affection showered on him by the Master.

5.2. Bankim Chandra through his magazine Bangadarshan encouraged and provided opportunity for several young unknown writers to publish their writings. Tagore, who later came to edit Bangadarshan, wrote of Bankim Chandra:

Bankim Chandra had equal strength in both his hands (sabysachi). In one , he created literary works of excellence; and in the other he guided the young and aspiring authors .With one hand the ignited the light of literary enlightenment ; and with the other he blew away the smoke and ash of ignorance and ill conceived notions. Bankim Chandra alone took charge of creative writing and wholesome constructive literary criticism.

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B. Rabindranath Tagore

RBT cropped

6.1. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) in contrast to his predecessor belonged to the Brahmo Samaj and to the most cultured and eclectic family in that circle. He perhaps was not quite familiar with ordinary Hindu life. Bankim Chandra and Tagore held slightly different attitudes towards Hindu Society and religion.

6.2. Rabindranath Tagore was a multifaceted splendour.  He combined in himself a poet, prose writer, composer, painter, essayist, philosopher, educationist, and a social reformer. But, it was as the poet that he gained universal recognition. He brought lyricism into Bengali poetry. His poems breathed freshness, an elegance and beauty which were hitherto unknown in Bengali literature. Tagore was admittedly a greater poet than a novelist; though as a writer of short stories he had hardly an equal.

7.1. Rabindranath was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in the year 1913. That was also the year in which Sarat Chandra, at the insistence of friends, started contributing regularly stories to Bengali magazines in Calcutta. That is to say, while Tagore was at the zenith of his literary career, Sarat Chandra was gingerly stepping into the small world of magazines ; and that too by proxy. By then Sarat Chandra was already about 37 years old, a rather late age for a debutant.

My connection with literature was severed soon after (I moved to Burma). I clean forgot having ever composed a single line in my life. I had a long stay abroad. I was quite in the dark about how modern Bengali literature had made great strides meanwhile with the poet (Rabindranath Tagore) as the key figure. I was never fortunate enough to come in close touch with the poet; nor was I privileged to come under his literary tutelage. I remained totally isolated.

When, unexpectedly, I was one day called upon to serve the cause of literature, I had already met the demands of youth and reached middle age. Fatigue had set in and enthusiasm had dwindled—I was well past the learning stage. I lived abroad, unknown and cut off from all. Nevertheless, I responded to the call; fear did not creep in at all in my mind.

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C. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay

sarat-chandra-chaterjee0021

8.1. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) had more in common with Bankim Chandra. They both came from orthodox middle-class background; and, had similar attitudes towards Hindu religion and society. They both were fired by the zeal to cleanse and reform Hindu society. And, both were fiery patriots.

8.2. Sarat Chandra’s earliest writings show influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. They display his displeasure with the core of Hindu orthodoxy and the prevailing social system. Sarat Chandra’s impatience and anger against social discrimination, superstitions; and bigotry in the name of religion simmer through in his writings. Yet, his criticism of the establishment is never vitriolic; he never flouts the accepted moral basis of the Hindu society.

And, both shared a deep rooted respect for women. Bankim Chandra depicted women with great feeling and power, giving men much on which to reflect.  In his novel Krishnakanta’s will, Bankim wrote: “Woman is full of forgiveness, of compassion, of love; Woman is the crowning excellence of God’s creation …Woman is the light; and Man is shadow”

The poet –scholar Sri Chinmoy remarked :

‘We shall not be far from the truth if we hold that Bankim Chandra is the creator of an epoch and Sarat Chandra is the announcer of an epoch in Bengali literature. With his inquisitive mind, Sarat Chandra went deep into the heart of Bengal to discover both her tremendous sorrow and her stupendous joy’.

The themes in his early novels 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.  The most marked departure from the Bankimchandra tradition was his concern for the inner-life of his characters. Most of his novels are explorations of personal relationships; uncomfortable relations between judgment and compassion; torturing conflict between instinct and ideals; and problems of finding space between social consciousness and half-awakened personal instincts.

8.3. Later in his life, he fondly recalled how as a village lad with almost no schooling he was enthralled and captivated by Bankim Chandra’s classics. He wrote:

Now came the time for me to know about the works of Bankimchandra. I could not even imagine then that there could be anything greater beyond this in fiction. . I never even suspected that there could be any literature outside Bankimchandra. I read all his novels over and over again until I almost memorized them. Perhaps this was a drawback with me. Not that I have never followed the path of blind imitation. All such attempts have proved fruitless as literary compositions ; but as literary exercises they   provided  a  profitable  occupation  for  me  as I  can   feel  even  today.

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D. Tagore and Sarat Chandra

9.1. Sarat Chandra and Rabindra present a splendid study in contrast in many respects — in birth and pedigree; in taste and outlook;  in conviction and philosophy. Rabindra was born into an illustrious family of considerable wealth, fame and cultural refinement; grew up in the heart of Calcutta when the Brahmo Samaj was enveloping its Bhadrolok elites; and when the literary renaissance ignited by Bankim Babu was just beginning to glow. Rabindranath was an ethereal being in an unending pursuit of unalloyed love and blemish -less beauty.

9.2. While Rabindra watched life and its common folks from a distance, Sarat Chandra was born into the very fire of poverty. He said:

“…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… I was brought up in a family where poetry or fiction was considered a euphemism for immorality and music was dubbed untouchable. My first introduction to Literature was through a veil of tears.”

Sarat Chandra all his life remained a restless wanderer, tormented soul.

9.3. Saratchandra later said:

“It is true that my irregular life has caused me much pain and loss. But this was more than compensated for by the people I met. They taught me that man was not simply a bundle of faults, sin and wickedness. They gave me a glimpse of the real man behind all this wickedness and sin. Let not my writings insult this real man!”

9.4. While Rabindra was a superb poet, a creator of sublime poetry and a sage like mystic, Sarat Chandra could never be a poet. He was a diehard skeptic and social rebel. Their views on fight for freedom differed significantly. But, both shared boundless love for the Motherland and a great humanism. And above all, they shared admirable mutual respect and regard.

10.1. Sarat Chandra was also much influenced by Rabindra who was senior to him by about 16 years. Rabindra had been writing poetry since he was eight years of age; and had published his collection of verses while he was barely sixteen. In contrast, Sarat’s formal entry into the field of Literarature was rather late after he had’ already met the demands of youth and reached middle age’.

“My contact with the journal ‘Banga-Darshan’ inaugurated a new era for me. Rabindranath’s Chokher Bali began to be serialized in this journal (in 1902 when Sarat was about 26). The language and style were of a new order, and I felt very happy. I never even dreamt that an author could delineate reality so picturesquely. After such a long time, I had the taste of realistic literature. The saying ‘the more you read, the wiser you become’ is not true. I have not the language to express my gratitude to that great master who gave me an invaluable treasure in those few pages.”

10.2.   As regards his life away in Burma, he wrote:

 “In that foreign land I had with me some of the poet’s books —in prose and verse. And in my heart I had profound regard and faith. In those days I read and re-read those very books. I never pondered over such high subjects as what were their rhythm and diction, and what Art was, how it was to be defined, and whether there had been any flaws anywhere according to the standard. All this I considered redundant. What I cherished was just the deep-rooted conviction that a more comprehensive creation was unthinkable.

During that period I was not even aware of the Bengali literature’s progress wrought by the achievements of the ‘Biswakabi’. I had not had the good fortune of acquaintance with him, nor had I the fortune of having lessons in literature from him. This is the truth. But I have been an ‘Ekalabya’ (A disciple in absentia). I even carried his stories, poems and other publications abroad. I read those books several times, but I could not pick up his mastery in the majesty of his language and expressions. I had the deep conviction in mind that there could not be any creation more complete than this. I strongly feel that his works became my literary stock-in-trade”.

11.1 Even later in his life , after he was established as a writer of great merit in Bengali Literature, Sarat Chandra did try to adopt Rabindra’s Gora ( which, he said , read more than twenty times) into his biggest novel Grihadaha (Home Burnt-1919).That somehow turned rather wearisome and was not received with the usual acclaim.

11.2. Sarat Chandra had earlier tried the Gora – theme – or rather the mirror image of it – in his   ‘Bamuner Meye’ (Brahmin’s daughter) – (1916) in which the female protagonist Sandhya believed she was born to a Brahmin and could therefore dominate the relationship with the foreign-returned Arun ( now technically a mlechcha) . Eventually, she discovers to her horror that she was in fact a Barber’s daughter.

11.3. Again, it was Tagore in his Chokher Bali who first portrayed the plight of the child widow (Binodini) and sympathized with her yearning for a married life.  Sarat Chandra picked up the theme of ‘forbidden love’ and developed it with subtle and skilful artistry capturing the heart of Bengal and the world. Tagore spoke of Sarat Chandra’s efforts with much admiration:

“Saratchandra focused his attention into the depths of human heart—of happiness and sorrow, at meetings and partings; he presented us an unexpected picture of artistry and nuance. The proof of this is the never ending pleasure of the Bengalis in his writings. With no other writer have they felt such deep inner satisfaction as with Saratchandra. Others have won more fame by their meritorious works, but few have attained such mastery over the hearts of his readers.”.. “He has imparted a new power to our language…and achieved the best reward of a novelist: he has completely won the hearts of Bengali readers.” (March 1935)

11.4. I think, Sarat Chandra was at his best when he drew upon his own life-experiences, as in Srikanta (1917-18), Palli Samaj (1916), Biraj Bahu (1914) and Charitrahhin (1917). All those works were written just as he burst upon on the Bengali Literary field and was gaining reputation as the a powerful writer with a heart .Yet, in the later years he kept returning , again and again, to the disturbing theme of caste and to the stringent criticism of its evils. He was driven by the anxiety and desperation to cleanse the Indian social system of that evil.

12.1. Sarat Chandra often remarked that he walked into the mainstream Bengali Literature by ‘accident’. He had no serious intensions of becoming a professional writer of fictions. Several years before he began writing, Sarat Chandra had left Bengal and was employed in the Rangoon Secretariat. He had outwardly no touch with Bengali literature; and none in Bengal or elsewhere was aware of his existence.

He wrote in his articleMy Life’:

I wrote short stories when I was barely seventeen. 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. 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 suddenly 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 had 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 Yamuna. This became at once extremely 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.

12.2. It all started when his story ‘The Child of Bindu’ appeared in the monthly magazine Jamuna. He contributed the story under the name Anila Devi (his elder sister). The story captured the imagination of the Bengali readers. And, as the instalments continued the public interest also grew with it. ‘The Child of Bindu’ was followed by ‘Charitraheen,’ half of which was published in Jamuna but not completed*. That was replaced by Baradidi (The Eldest Sister) which was very well received. The readers were captivated by the powerful characters, lucid depiction, clarity in thought and humanism at its heart. His readers were attracted by the manner he created the climax of each instalment. In another serial ‘Pandit Moshae’ the climax was so well concealed that the readers fell into a debate among themselves whether  or not  Kusum was a widow, while some others argued that she was not even married.

12.3. Many of his early novels were serialized in monthly magazines. He was one of the few authors of those times that earned his living by his pen. He  never was  rich; and yet he did not go after money. Sri Chinmoy recounts of an event when Deshabandhu Chitta Ranjan Das asked him to contribute a story to his journal Narayan. Sarat Chandra complied; and sent for publication his story ‘Swami’. Chitta Ranjan Das was immensely pleased by the story. He sent Sarat Chandra a blank cheque with a covering letter saying that he was not in a position to put a price on such a wonderful story and Sarat Chandra could fill in his own figure. Sarat Chandra did eventually drew only a hundred rupees.

[*The magazine editor was forced to take off Charitraheen as some subscribers threatened to withdraw if the immoral tale was not stopped forthwith. They were shocked by its love-theme whish seemed to disregard and insult the conventions and morals of a civil society. The author had chosen to depict a love-episode between an educated young man from a middle-class family and a maid servant in a boarding house where the young man was lodged. No respectable Bengali writer, they said, would dare portray the character of a ‘low-class’ woman in such favourable light.]

12.4. The stories took everyone by storm. Almost everyone assumed the author of the stories must be none other than Rabindranath writing under a pen name. Who else could wield his pen with such great felicity, they all wondered. Rabindranath, however, kept denying he had anything to do with it. He was getting rather tired of persistent queries, and was frankly bewildered wondering who in Bengal could be such a powerful writer.

Once the real author emerged out of the shadows he became an instant celebrity and a household name in Bengal and in all of India.

Years later, perhaps after passing away of Sarat Chandra, Rabindranath wrote in the special supplement of the ‘Bharatbarsha’:

“The emergence of Saratchandra in the arena of Bengali literature was a sudden occurrence. He was not long in passing from obscurity to fame. At that time, because of pressure of work and difference in age, I remained aloof. Left Calcutta…and in the meanwhile Sarat had reached the acme of his career.  I never got the opportunity to meet   Sarat at close quarters which I count as a personal loss. Not that we did not meet or talk. But real fervour could not develop. If, instead of being confined to formal meetings and exchanges, our fellowship had ripened into genuine understanding, it would have been much better.”

13.1. At a time when Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore held sway over all aspects of Bengali literature with his many – splendored genius, the sudden emergence of a new dazzling talent was something for the literary world to behold. Sarat Chandra had touched the nerve centre of the Bengali middle class families. He put in front of them the examples from their own social and family milieu, but in his own way of thinking and in his unique style of analysis couched in sparkling-fresh spoken Bengali prose. Even the rural Bengal clasped him to its chest since he brought to life as no one else did the vivid pictures of life in the villages, with its petty jealousies and ignorance, superstitions and absurdities (as in Pallisamaj ). Sarat Chandra belonged to both the facets of the society but dealt with their maladjustments with sympathy and humanism in a manner that was never done before.

13.2. Sarat Chandra succeeded in projecting the ethos, the aches and pains of the world around him from a progressive point of view. He did that while being a part of the mainstream without cutting himself off from its social and cultural heritage. Saratchandra did not, of course , provide solutions to the problems raised by him; did not solve the riddle of  Sesh Prasna the unanswered questions . Saratchandra said with candour: “In my works I have given no solutions, but posed only the problems ….. I hope new writers will treat these problems with greater poignancy and clarity and give them real direction and solutions,”

13.3. Shri Dilip Kumar Roy the noted poet, singer and philosopher recounts Sarat Chandra saying:  

‘There are, in each of us, two ever-warring elements — judgment and compassion. They represent two opposing viewpoints; hence, they cannot but clash…. Man drifts away in diverse directions in the cross-currents of life — how and why, nobody knows for certain…I have witnessed even among fallen women strange nobility or unthinkable generosity. On the other hand, I have come across instances of abominable meanness and incredible small mindedness among members of polished circles. I have often shuddered, but, believe me; I have not succeeded till now in describing the real nature of man.’

14.1. Some say that apart from Sarat Chandra’s genius and his flame like imagination the other key to his spontaneous acceptance and popularity could perhaps be the timing of his advent on the literary and social scene of then Bengal. The early years of the twentieth century were a period of transition through which the whole of Indian society was passing through. The new middle class was just emerging out of the sprawling shadows of joint families that were about to disintegrate. The newly (western) educated middle class was leaving age-old hereditary professions and was adopting new ones in different spheres of life. They were heading towards ‘freedom’ which meant escape from joint family-responsibilities. The accepted social and religious values were brought into close scrutiny. The well settled- educated- middle class found in the Brahmo Samaj fresh interpretations that accorded respect to an individual’s thinking. That, at times, brought into debate the traditional Hindu beliefs and the rationale of the emerging Brahmo Samaj.

14. 2.  Sarat Chandra captured with great imagination and understanding the unrest and anxieties that a transition always brings in its wake. He refrained from value judgment. His appraisal on social norm was only a suggestive message and never an agenda. His sketches on the social canvas had just that subtle reformist touches. He wrote with great restraint and understanding about the inadequacies and contradictions of the old and new ways of living. His women characters, in particular, placed in the very cauldron of life were the obvious victims of such conflicts; and they endured the pain, suffering and humiliation it brought upon with a sense of dignity and honesty.

[ All the three authors showed remarkable sensitivity in the creation of their leading women characters. And, yet, there is a marked difference in the social, cultural and economic status of the women characters depicted by each of them.

For instance; even in the social novels of Bamkim Chandra, the leading ladies, generally, come from wealthy or upper-middle class; are well educated; intelligent ; and, are very beautiful. In fact, Bamkim Chandra, in his Rajmohan’s Wife, devotes a whole lyrical passage to describe the beauty of Matangini. Many of his heroines are modeled after the leading characters in classical Sanskrit drama (say, Malathi-madhava and Shakuntalam) or Shakespearian plays.

The women in Sarat Chandra’s novel generally come from middle-class or economically weaker class, living in precarious conditions trying to make a living; and, some are deeply hurt too. Many of his leading ladies are ‘fallen women’; but,    blessed with tranquil poise,   having an aura of saintliness and a bleeding- heart ever willing to endure pain for the sake of that elusive love. Almost all of his novels are set in the times when the whole of Bengal society was passing through transition: from feudalism to urbanization; rural to industrialization; and form colonialism to nationalism .That was also the time when the rationale of religion and its practices were questioned; when Brahmo Samaj was attempting to synthesize a rational approach to religion; and, the questions about equal rights for women and widow re-marriage were passionately debated. Generally, it was the vibrant and restless period of confrontation between the old and the new; between the decadent and the liberal; the dogmatic and the  rational.

And, as regards Tagore’s characterization of women, it falls somewhere in between the two. His women characters generally come from upper middle-class; and, are intelligent and educated. Their problems are not so much related to survival in a harsh society , as to loneliness and sense of neglect and dejection in love. They also endure pain from complications arising out of the extended family-situations. At the social and cultural level, his women are active, rebelling against unjust attitude towards women in the male dominated conservative society. The questions of nationalism and participation of women in the freedom struggles also figure prominently.

All the three authors show enormous regard for women; are sympathetic to their struggles, and especially towards the plight of the young widows. The approach of the three towards widow remarriage is also graded.

In Bamkim Chandra’s novels, some women take a defiant stand against social injustice and inequality ; and, even try to defy the society. But, somehow, they all end their lives in unhappiness (Kundanandini in Bishabriksha; Shaibalini in Chandrasekhar and Rohini in Krishnakanter Uil). Even in his Debi Chaudhrani which glorifies the heroism and the independent spirit of a courageous woman, Prafulla the rebellious, at the end, returns to her husband’s family and his other wives.

On the question of widow-re-marriage, Bamkim says:  the right to remarry was given to the widows only to be “taken away in the name of chastity and morality”. The widows in his novels do not , of course, marry again.

In Tagore’s novels, the leading women die rather young and childless. The motherly aspect of women is not much depicted. And, many of his widowed heroines (including Binodini of Chokher Bali) do not actually get married, though they could have. Damini the young widow in Chaturanga appears to be a rare exception. But she too dies young and child-less.

In the novels of Sarat Chandra, the young widows and their problems are much discussed. The question of widows marrying again is also debated in several ways. But, I am not sure if any of those  young widows  married again. Sarat Chandra did not also offer a solution. The question of widow-re-marriage was left hanging.

Sarat Chandra is said to have remarked that he did not  intend to be a social reformer; and, as a novelist he depicted human problems as they existed in the context of the  then social situations .That echoed the oft-quoted words of the French novelist who wrote under the pen-name Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle-1783 –1842) belonging to the Realist School: the novel is a mirror walking down the street; and, if it reflects the mud and the puddles, it is not the fault of the mirror’. From Stendhal onwards the French writers became  increasingly concerned with making the novel as realistic slice of life as possible, both in form and content.

A similar phenomenon occurred in Indian literature, during the post Sarat Chandra period.  ]

14.3. Sarat Chandra said ‘the subject-matter and theme of my literary creation are not wide and extensive, but narrow and limited. Nevertheless, it remains my claim that I have not divested them of truth by giving them colourful touches of unreality’.

14.4. His experiences reinforced his liberal outlook on life. He believed that ‘the physical chastity of woman is not a social convention; it is her own training and discipline. If this discipline were to exist even in the unmarried, the security of society will not be affected… Love is greater than the body and the individual nobler than society… I do not grieve for the death of man; I grieve only for the death of humanism in man.’

Sri Chinmoy says: ‘Sarat Chandra’s works tell us that he had the profoundest respect not for the men of vast learning or wealth, but for the men of virtue. He was terribly hurt by the fact that the present society is under the subjugation of the so-called men of learning, and tortured by the men wallowing in the pleasures of riches. His heart was ready to tolerate everything save and except hypocrisy. His life was an illustration of his teaching’

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E. Interactions

15.1. Sarat Chandra the newcomer, it was said, stayed at a safe-distance from the burning sun of the Tagore-genius. The autumn moon they said was not dimmed by the regal sun. All of that was merely to say that Sarat Chandra was not overshadowed by Tagore. He was a more popular story-teller than either Bankim Chandra or Tagore.

15.2. It must be said to the credit of the Great Sage Tagore that he acknowledged Sarat Chandra’s merit, appreciated and accepted him with open heart. Sri Chinmoy recalls how the great poet in humour and cheer remarked “In story-writing many people place Sarat above me, but that does not affect me. For even the greatest censor cannot deny my superiority over him in poetry.” Sarat Chandra too in all earnestness revered Tagore as Kabisamrat – the sovereign poet. In another context Sarat Chandra regretted that he longed to be poet; but his restlessness does not let him be a poet.

15. 3. Rabindranath had much affection for Saratchandra. In 1932, writing Punascha at Santiniketan he wrote a poem Sadharan Meye. It is now a famous poem. Some lines of it are:

I am a girl of a common household,
You wouldn’t recognize me,
Sarat Babu, I’ve read your latest — 
‘Garland of wilted flowers’.

Your heroine, Elokesi,
At the age of thirty five
Competed with one of twenty five.
Indeed you are great;
you made the former win.

 I beseech you, Sarat Babu, write a story
Of an ordinary homely girl,
A hapless one who has to contend from afar
With six or seven most extraordinary ones — 
Like seven charioteers.

I know it well, misfortune is my lot ;
I have lost the fight.
But, of whom you write,
Let her win, for my sake,
Reading which one’s heart will swell.
May your pen be twice blessed.

16.1. There was genuine love and regard between the two greats. That does not mean they had no differences at all. Yes; they did have their differences. But that was on basic attitudes towards certain issues; and never on personal matters or prejudices. For instance, Sarat Chandra in the later part of his career drifted away from his natural moorings and strayed into barren intellectual debates (Sesha Prashna) and violence, preaching sedation (Pather Daabhi). Tagore did not approve of Sarat Chandra advocating violence. In fact, the British Government proscribed Pather Daabhi under 99 (A) of IPC and was about to book Sarat Chandra for sedition under Section 124 (a) of IPC. In that context Tagore advised Sarat Chandra that the anger against the foreigner was a distraction drawing attention away from the more useful programs benefitting the people we love. He added that by focusing all their attention on the enemy the nationalists were inadvertently or covertly assisting the British. That would amount to offering the British our admiration. (Feb 10, 1927- Tagore, Selected Letters – 347).

Rabindranath and Saratchandra

16.2. On the eve of the 57th birthday celebration of Sarat Chandra on 15th Sept 1933 (2nd Ashwin, 1339 BY) organized at the Calcutta Town Hall, Tagore greeted him with  a beautifully well written letter full of love and admiration for his achievements.

He advised his junior that a writer must continually keep reinventing himself, else like a faded photograph would in time blur and become indistinct…When men render homage to a writer who has passed the middle years of his life they not only gratefully acknowledge what they have received in the past but also express hopes for what is yet to come. Joyfully they say this man has more to yield…This is the significance of our felicitations of Saratchandra today.

16.3. The last three paragraphs of the letter are truly remarkable for the benediction, love and regard that Tagore showered on Sarat Chandra.  Surely, Sarat Chandra could not have asked for more. It was his greatest Blessing and the fulfilment of his life.

“I would have specially prided myself in today’s felicitations had I been able to say that he was entirely my discovery; but he needed no formal letter of introduction. Today every Bengali home spontaneously greets him with praise. Not alone in the field of letters—on the stage, on the screen—the Bengali’s eagerness to come close in contact with his genius ever increases.   He has evoked,   through   his words,   the   agony   of the   Bengali   heart.

In the world of literary activity the creator ranks much higher than the critic, for it is the all-encompassing vision of the imagination, not the analytical sharpness of the intellect that reveals always the true greatness of literature. As a poet I now come forward to garland this creator,   this man of vision,   this Saratchandra.

May he live a hundred years to enrich Bengali literature, may he impart to his readers the wisdom that brings with it real knowledge of man, may he reveal human nature clearly with its faults and its virtues, with its good and its bad, may he enshrine through the clear limpid melody of his words—not isolated incidents that surprise or instruct—but the eternal experience   of the   human   mind “.

16.4. Sri Aurobindo said: “As for Bengal, we have had Bankim and still have Tagore and Saratchandra. That is an achievement enough for a single century.”

16.5. In his last days when he was asked to write his autobiography he said with characteristic straightforwardness, “I cannot write my autobiography. I am neither that truthful nor that courageous.” And on one occasion when Rabindranath Tagore also made a similar suggestion, Sarat laughed aloud and replied: “Gurudev! Had I known I would become such a great man, I would have lived a different sort of life.

17.1. Sarat Chandra died of cancer on 16th January 1938 at Park Nursing Home in Calcutta, just as the whole of Bengal was preparing to celebrate the birth centenary  of the great Bankim Chandra Chatterji the pioneer of the re-awakened Bengal and one who helped us realize  and sing  with enormous pride the glory of  Mother India in  Love  and reverence . What a wonderful hundred-years it had been for Bengal and India..!!!

Sarat Chandra’s untimely death was a great loss for thousands of his countrymen. They felt it as a personal loss. And Tagore, too, was one of those. But the way he consoled his bereaved countrymen was sincere and very touching.

He who has his place carved
In the heart of love,
Death’s law can give us no sense of his loss.
He who has been taken away
From the bosom of the earth
Has been held in the heart of his country.

*

17.2. In the seer-words of Sri Aurobindo: Sarat Chandra was blessed with large intelligence, an acute sense of observation of men and things, and a heart full of sympathy for the sorrowful and the suffering .Sarat Chandra with the fineness of his mind was too sensitive to be quite at ease with the world. He was perhaps also too clear-sighted.

18.1. This was how Sarat Chandra wished to be remembered:

…I do not aspire after immortality, for like many other things in life the human mind is subject to change. So what looks important today may appear insignificant some other day, and small wonder. Even if, in the long run, the major portion of my literary attainment is submerged under the neglect of unborn generations, I shall have no regrets. It remains my only hope that if there is an element of truth anywhere in it that much will survive as my contribution defying the ravages of time. It matters little if it is not abundantly rich; it is in order to pay my homage to the Muse with that humble offering that I have sacrificed my life-long labour. This heartening reflection will illumine my hour of departure at the end of the day and fill me with the assurance  that  I  am a blessed  being  who  has  not lived  in  vain.

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References and sources:

1. Sarat Chandra by Sri Chinmoy

http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/books/3004/1/16

2. Preface to Srikanta by E.J. Thompson

3. Letter to Saratchandra from Rabindranath Tagore http://forum.banglalibrary.org/viewtopic.php?id=603

4.My Life by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay

http://forum.banglalibrary.org/topic606.html

5.Sarat Chandra : an evaluation by GV Subbaya

http://forum.banglalibrary.org/topic887.html

6.Sarat Chandra Chatterjee by Abani Nath Roy

http://yabaluri.org/TRIVENI/CDWEB/SaratChandraChatterjeesept34.htm

 

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Of poverty – literature – Sarat Chandra Chatterjee

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 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 poverty, prison, or illness. Rainer Rilke said, one cannot be a good poet unless one loves poverty, indifference and wretchedness. 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.

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.

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Dickens’s was a study in abuse of power. Dickens’ novels criticize the injustices of his time; but are 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 changes in social conditions and criminal laws of England; and above all in the attitudes towards the poor.

*

This article is mainly about Sarat Babu that is Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee). He is one of my favourite 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 claimed 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 storylines for his life-like characters placed in rural family settings. He moulded 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 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 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 Nyarha) was born in Devanandapore – a village in Hooghly district of West Bengal, on 15th September 1876 (31 Bhadra 1283 BY). For a time, his father was employed in Bihar – the rest of the family lived in Bhagalpur with his maternal grandfather. Because of the semi-nomadic nature of his father’s life and his ever stringent financial situation, Sarat had to change schools frequently. 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.

Sarat Chandra lost his mother in 1895. He had to give up studies for ever, because he could no longer afford formal education; and had to return to the native village Devanandapore. But he did not stay there long as Sarat’s father was forced to sell his home for a mere Rs.225 to repay a debt. The family moved to Bhagalpur, again.

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 Banali 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 around graveyards at dead of night. Later, for a while, he joined a group of Naga Sadhus and drifted to Mujaffarpur (1902). On his father’s death he returned to Bhagalpur and on completion of his father’s last rites he left for Calcutta in search of a job. He 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 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 just in time before a severe plague broke out there. But, sadly his uncle died of pneumonia soon after Sarat reached Rangoon. 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- where he served until his return to Calcutta in 1916.

*****

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 while he was studying in Entrance class (similar to PUC of the present-day) at Tejnarayan Jubilee College, Bhagalpur.

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 Girindrandra nath sent a short story Mandir for the Kuntaleen literary competition. He submitted the story under name of Surendranath Ganguli, 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 Jaldhar Sen the veteran editor of the Vasumati magazine 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.

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. 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. This period witnessed changes in his personal life too. His first wife Shanti Devi whom he married in 1906 died of plague in 1908 along with his 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. Sarat Chandra married the second time in 1910; and his bride was Mokshada an adolescent widow. He renamed her Hiranmoyee.

sarat-chandra-chaterjee0010

Sarat Chandra wrote, in all, more than 30 full-length novels, dozens of short stories , plays and essays. 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;  pure and profane.

Sarat Chandra’s earliest writings 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.

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 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. It is basically a love-story written in the early stages of his literary career (1901), It is said, Sarat Chandra did not like what he had written; and did not want it to be published. He didn’t approve the negative and the escapist streak in Devdas. When he eventually agreed to publish the story, reluctantly, in 1917 (sixteen years after it was written) he begged the readers to have pity and forgive Devdas.]

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. His last complete novel Sesh Prasna (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; and also of women rooted in their sense of values and 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 Srkanto 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 form 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.

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Sarat Chandra Chatterjee died of cancer of the liver on 16th January 1938 at Park Nursing Home in Calcutta just as the whole of Bengal was preparing to celebrate the birth centenary  of the great Bankim Chandra Chatterji  . Bengal and India lost one of its most gifted sons, a tortured soul and one that loved his country and its people from the core of his being.

Sarat Chandra did not write his autobiography because he said he “lacked the courage and the truthfulness to tell his true story”.

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.

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Poverty is a smouldering 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 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 Kolkata at the instance of Shri Manindranath Roy.

He added that Sarat Chandra habitually wore long unkempt hair; and Smt Nirmala Debi (wife of Shri Manindranath 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 Manindranath 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 Manindranath 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 Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya and Manindranath Roy.

There is another letter ( in 1919 ) addressed  to Manindranath 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 :

http://independentindian.com/category/rabindranath-tagore/

http://independentindian.com/category/sarat-chandra-chattopadhyaya/

Please also read Tagore and Sarat Chandra

 

Other references and sources

http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/fr/2003/04/18/stories/2003041801030500.htm

http://bengalonline.sitemarvel.com/saratchandra.html

http://www.tribuneindia.com/2000/20000312/spectrum/main2.htm

http://independentindian.com/category/bengal/

http://independentindian.com/category/sarat-chandra-chattopadhyaya/

 

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