Anandamath is an extraordinary political novel. The plot with its epic dimensions is based on the sanyasi rebellion in the late eighteenth century. Against all odds the sanyasis fought the British whom they regarded as an arch enemy of the country and responsible for the terrible famine of 1772.
In this novel Bankim also wrote — Bande Mataram Hail Motherland — and gave India its first national song which later became a rallying call of the national freedom movement.
This novel is a legend of the struggle for freedom, and the passion behind it seems to reflect Bankim’s vision of free India.’
Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1838-94) is widely acknowledged as perhaps the most creative genius of Bengali literature. Beginning his literary career as a writer of verse, he soon realised that poetry was not his metier and turned to fiction. Bengali fiction owes much of its present form to the trend that Bankim Chandra set with Durgesh Nandini (1865), Kapal Kundala (1866), Krishnakanter Will (1878), Rajani and other books. He broke the dry monotony of Bengali prose, pruned its verbosity and gave it a twist of informality and intimacy.
Ananadmath (1882) established Bankim Chandra’s skill as a novelist and was a piece of historical fiction imbued with the spirit of nationalism and selfless patriotism. It gave tremendous impetus to the various religious, patriotic and national activities beginning with Hindu missionary activity and culminating in the militant movement in Bengal in the first decade of the twentieth century.
‘Bengali literature was able so quickly to attain such a wholesome maturity in so short a time because Chatterji alone took charge both of ideal creative writing and perfect constructive criticism.’
Nirad C. Chaudhuri, known for his caustic criticism and his refusal to flatter anyone for the sake of mere convention, wrote: ‘Bankim Chandra Chatterji... besides being a genius in imaginative literature, was certainly the most powerful intellect produced by India in the nineteenth century and one of the greatest of Hindu minds, perhaps equalled in the whole of the Hindu past only by the great Sankara.’ What higher esteem could Chaudhuri have expressed for an original thinker who made great contributions to India’s culture?
The context in which this statement was written was a discussion of the colonialist British failure to understand the Hindu mind. The Englishman’s knowledge of India, Chatterji had explained, was a situation like that of an owner of a large, abundant orchard being incapable of either eating its fruits or enjoying them. Yet there are complicating factors in Chatterji’s assessment of the British. Take for example an incident in his Bengali novel Ananadamath, first translated into English as Abbey B1iss. The story, set in eighteenth century India, concerns sanyasi revolt against the Muslim rule. In the last chapter, a mysterious physician speaks of the English presence as a necessary phase of reform, a helpful prelude to ‘a revival of the True Faith’ of Hindu culture, It would seem that even if Chatterji did see the British intellect as narrow and unable to do justice to the realities of India, he nevertheless saw a positive potential for India under the British rule. The following translation of Anandamath, by Basanta Koomar Roy was first published in 1941 during a critical period in India’s history when the independence movement had to take a decisive stance rejecting foreign rule. Hence, the mysterious physician’s suggestion was deleted. We can only conjecture that if Chatterji had been alive would lie have approved of this omission.
Chatterji, whose full name was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, lived from 1838 to 1894. He was a prophet of modern India who stepped back to a grounding in the past in order to take great strides toward the future, as did his contemporary Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Chatterji’s influence on his countrymen was deep, inspiring the pacifist, philosophical and artistic minds like Rabindranath Tagore’s, as well as politically- inclined Bengalis who resorted to terrorist activities to express their nationalist fervour. His works fed the variegated imagination of an awakening India.
Chatterji wrote his first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife, in English, though his subsequent ones were written in his mother tongue, Bengali. Using the works of Sir Walter Scott and Bulwar Lytton as models for dramatic plotting, Chatterji’s own works became models for other writers in India, where novels were indeed a ‘novel’ genre.
Chatterji’s novels, and his song Bande Mataram, ‘Hail to the Mother,’ which became India’s national song express his vision of Mother India as a Goddess and of woman as holy and venerable. His vision sparked the imagination of his compatriots in Bengal and other parts of India. In his novel Krishnakanta’s Will, Chatterji wrote: “Woman is full of forgiveness, of compassion, of love; woman is the crowning excellence of God’s creation... Woman is light, man is shadow.’ lb his stories he wrote of women with great feeling and power, giving men much on which to reflect.
This is a skilful translation of a novel which, though over a century old now, continues to speak to people today. It stimulated an ideal of nationalism in the past, and continues to be thought-provoking in the present, as India struggles to ‘westernise’ without losing her soul, to go high-tech and yet keep intact the unique gifts which she can bring to an emerging planetary culture.
Preserving a people’s identity and integrity is a continual process, a challenge of renewal in which many voices struggle to speak for the spirit of a society. It is to Chatterji’s credit that his voice is still worth listening to, still resonant and alive.
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