Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Joy of Reading the First Indian Novel in English

I recently read an interesting novel, titled Rajmohan’s Wife by Bankim Chandra Chatterji. While the plot and the main characters of the novel are quite appealing in their own way, what is most fascinating about this novel is its history. This is the first Indian novel written in English in 1864, and the first and the only novel ever written by Bankim in English. This piece of work was considered a ‘false start’ by some commentators and critics of Bankim’s work and has often been ignored by those interested in Indian writing in English. After Rajmohan’s Wife, Bankim never wrote any fiction in English and wrote only in his native language, Bangla. The rest, as they say, is history...of the gigantic literary contribution made by this great son of Mother India!

In the Penguin Classics edition of this novel that I read there is an informative Introduction and an analytical Afterword by Meenakshi Mukherjee. She provides the reader with some highly interesting facts about how some chapters of this novel were lost and then found by a mere stroke of luck (luck as in seemingly ordinary occurrences such as wrong sets of pages getting stapled together....yes, that is the kind of exciting story that led to the final surfacing of the chapters that were once considered lost by the lovers and scholars of literature and Bankim’s writings). She also examines the place of this very special work in the whole corpus of the fictional writings of Bankim, as situated in the time and the literary and social-cultural context in which he lived and wrote, as well as the significance and impact this novel continues to have on the genre of Indian novel in English language that came afterwards, “a genre the contending pulls of colonial education and indigenous traditions of storytelling” (Mukherjee).

As much as I appreciated reading the scholarly analysis and its contextual background, what I found most captivating in the novel was a “deep feeling for the poetry of life and an unfailing sense of beauty” — what Sri Aurobindo remarks as the distinguishing marks of Bankim’s style (Collected Works, Volume 1, p.109). Read this passage below and you will know instantly how accurate this insight is. Read it once again to fully visualize the painting the novelist is painting.
"The recent shower had lent to the morning a delightful and invigorating freshness.  Leaving the mass of floating clouds behind, the sun advanced and careered on the vast blue plain that shone above; and every housetop and every treetop, the cocoa palm and the date palm, the mango and acacia received the flood of splendid light and rejoiced. The still-lingering water drops on the leaves of trees and creepers glittered and shone like a thousand radiant gems as they received the slanting rays of the luminary. Through the openings in the chick-knit brought of the grooves glanced the mild ray on the moistened grass beneath. The newly awakened and joyous birds raised their thousand dissonant voices, while at intervals the papia sent forth its rich thrilling notes into the trembling air. Light fleecy clouds of white wandered in the solitude of the now purified blue of the heavens, which were fanned by a light breeze that had sprung up to shake the pattering drops from the pendant and wooing boughs."
What a delightful picture of a fresh morning after a rainy night! The clear blue sky, the pleasing sounds of the birds, the moistened grass, and still-lingering water drops on all around, loveliness that pleases and delights. And all this comes right after the description of a rather ‘heavy’ sequence in which a gang of dacoits is running around in the rain and feverishly hunting down the wife of one of the gang members who might have been a spy and an informer! All traces of any inkling of suspense, horror or anxiety that the reader might have felt when reading the preceding passage were completely washed clean by this delightful portrayal of after-the-rain-morning that brings with it a new hope and a new adventure in life. This is perhaps an appropriate example of what Sri Aurobindo describes as the novelist’s “keen sense for life, and the artist’s repugnance to gloom and dreariness” (ibid., p. 96).

Image credit: Penguin Books

Another prominent aspect of the novel is Bankim’s portrayal of the characters, particularly of the women in the story. This aspect is sufficiently analyzed by Mukherjee in her Afterword, but primarily using the familiar and ‘scholarly acceptable’ perspectives such as social conformity, morality, virtue and honour in man-woman relationship, narrow confines of domesticity and silencing of women. Informative as these viewpoints may be, perhaps they still fail to do full justice to the beauty of Bankim’s insights into the feminine character. The following passage serves as an example.
        “‘You weep!’ said Madhav. ‘You are unhappy.’
        Matangini replied not, but sobbed. Then, as if under the influence of a maddening agony of soul, she grasped his hands in her own and bending over them her lily face so that Madhav trembled under the thrilling touch of the delicate curls that fringed her spotless brow, she bathed them in a flood of warm and gushing tears.
        ‘Ah, hate me not, despise me not,’ cried she with an intensity of feeling which shook her delicate frame. ‘Spurn me not for this last weakness; this, Madhav, this, may be our last meeting; it must be so, and too, too deeply have I loved you—too deeply do I love you still, to part with you forever without a struggle.’
        Did Madhav chide her? Ah, no! He covered his eyes with his palm and his palm became wet with tears. There was a deep silence for some moments, but their hearts beat loud. Matangini, recovering her presence of mind as speedily as she had lost it, first broke the heart-rending silence.
        The distant and reserved demeanour, the air of dejection and broken-heartedness which had marked her from the first, had disappeared; the impetuosity and fervour of the first burst of a deep and burning love had subsided; and Matangini now stood calm and serene, her usually melancholy features beaming with the light of an unutterable feeling. A sweet and sober pensiveness still mantled her tender features, but it was not the pensiveness of deep-felt enjoyment, for the wild current of passion had hurried her to that region where naught but the present was visible, and in which all knowledge of right and wrong is whirled and merged in the vortex of intense present felicity. Was not Matangini now in Madhav’s presence? And had not her long-pent-up tears fallen on his hands? Had he not wept with her? That was all Matangini remembered, and for a moment the memory of duty, virtue, principle ceased to fling its sombre shadow on the brightness of the impure felicity in which her heart [revelled]. There was a fire in that voluptuous eye, —there was a glow on that moonbeam brow, and as she stood leaning with her well-rounded arm on the damask-covered back of the sofa, her beautiful head resting on the palm of her hand over which, as over the heaving bosom, stayed the luxuriant tresses of raven hue; —as thus she stood, Madhav might well have felt sure earth had not to show a more dazzling vision of female loveliness.”
What a beautiful description – of Matangini’s beauty, yes of course! But what is even more beautiful is the portrayal of her state of mind, her deep inner conflict —between passion and virtue, between love and family duty, between strength and weakness. It was probably such descriptions—in this novel and in Bankim’s later Bangla novels—that perhaps made Sri Aurobindo write a wonderfully phrased comment on the portrayal of women in Bankim’s novels. Taking a humorous jab at the Anglicized social reformers of his time —sadly enough, many such so-called reformers exist till today among the circles of westernized, urban, Indian intelligentsia who can’t find anything beautiful in Hindu ways of life and social organization —Sri Aurobindo wrote in his unique style:
“Insight into the secrets of feminine character, that is another notable concomitant of the best dramatic power, and that too Bankim possesses....The social reformer, gazing, of course, through that admirable pair of spectacles given to him by the Calcutta University, can find nothing excellent in Hindu life, except its cheapness, or in Hindu woman, except her subserviency. Beyond this he sees only its narrowness and her ignorance. But Bankim had the eye of a poet and saw much deeper than this. He saw what was beautiful and sweet and gracious in Hindu life, and what was lovely and noble in Hindu woman, her deep heart of emotion, her steadfastness, tenderness and lovableness, in fact, her woman’s soul; and all this we find burning in his pages and made diviner by the touch of a poet and an artist” (ibid., p.110).
To appreciate the vast contribution made by this noble soul, Bankim Chandra, to the awakening of his motherland and to the renaissance of Indian literature and thought, and to do it through the lens of a literary criticism that is grounded in the eternal essence of all things Indian and is not merely an imitation or regurgitation of whatever theoretical frameworks that may be the "fad of the day" among the Westernized Academic Circles of the Indian literati —this is what makes reading Bankim extra, extra special for me.

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