Inspired by the historical romance of Sir Walter Scott, Bankim Chandra’s first Bengali novel is a story of love set amidst the war between the Pathans and the Mughal emperor Akbar in the sixteen century. Dashing young Jagat is sent by his father, Mughal general Mansingh, to quell the Pathan uprising in Bengal. There he falls in love with Tilottama, the alluring daughter of chieftain Birendra Singh only to discover-too late-of the bitter rivalry between their two families.
Stirring and colourful, Durgeshnandini(1865) created a sensation among Bengali readers with its vigorous storytelling and its bold portrayal of romantic love. It is regarded as the first novel in Indian literature.
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94) was the pre-eminent Bengali novelist of his day and is considered the father of the modern Indian novel. He was one of the first graduates of Calcutta University and had an extremely successful career as a district magistrate in the Indian Civil Service. He also wrote the country’s national song. ‘Bande Mataram’.
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) was one of the outstanding figure of that social and intellectual ferment often referred to as the Bengal Renaissance. His myriad-minded genius articulated itself with equal aplomb in fiction, satire, and essays on social, ethical, and religious problems. When he began editing the journal, Bangadarshan in 1872, it was hailed as an unprecedented cultural event. Its intellectual range, quality, and variety have never really been surpassed. Although he wrote his first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife in English, he was obviously not satisfied and turned to writing fiction in Bengali. Between 1865 and 1869, he published his first three novels-Durgeshnandini, Kapalkundala, and Mrinalini- which occupied the margins of history and romance, realism and fantasy. With his fourth novel, Bishabriksha, he turned away from the remote to familiar social experience and its dilemmas.
However, despite its obvious affinity to romance, Durgeshnandini (1865) merits enjoyment and critical scrutiny as one of the earliest novels in India. No doubt, Peary Chand Mitra’s Alaler Gharer Dulal was published earlier but it is more of a satirical sketch than a full-fledged novel. Apart from the fact that romance as a genre has not received the critical attention that has been given to the realistic novel, from the very beginning Durgeshnandini has not been considered as pure romance but as a blend of history and romance. As the historian Jadunath Sarkar has put it in the Bangiya Sahitya Parishat edition of Bankim’s novels, many of the events and male characters are historically accurate while the women and products of the imagination; some events are historically incorrect because Bankim’s source, one Alexander Dow, has been proved to be totally unreliable.
The historical background is the Mughal-Pathan conflict is eastern India at the time of Akbar. There is a reference to the same conflict in Bankim’s second novel, Kapalkundala (1866) as well. In Durgeshnandini, Jagatsingh, son of Akbar’s general Mansingh, is initially successful in containing Pathan insurgency in Bengal. When Fort Mandaran falls to the guile of the Pathans, its master, Virendrasingh, is executed and Jagatsingh is seriously wounded and imprisoned. Bimala, Virendrasingh’s second wife, takes revenge by murdering Katlu Khan, the Pathan leader. On his deathbed, Khan offers truce and a treaty resolves the conflict. It is during these campaigns that Jagatsingh and Tilottama, Virnendra’s daughter, fall dramatically love and Ayesha, Khan’s daughter, is irresistibly drawn to the prisoner, Jagatsingh, while she nurses him back to health.
Durgeshnandini introduces Bankim’s life-long pre-occupation with the role of overpowering passions in human life, often disruptive of settled and sober domesticity. Such emotional intensity can hardly be traced back to the English novel of that time, although comparisons have always been made with Walter Scott. A subtler but more pervasive Western influence on Bankim’s fiction is perhaps that of Shakespeare. Bankim himself had argued in his essay on Bhavabhuti that there was not much room in Sanskrit aesthetics for accommodating the passions in their sudden and ungovernable fury, gripping us like passive victims in their clutches. In another essay, ‘Shakuntala, Miranda and Desdemona’, he compares the world of Kalidasa to the paradisial garden, but for Shakespeare the analogue he finds is that of the tempestuous sea.
Headlong, impetuous love is generated, and indeed heightened, against a backdrop of enmity and political upheaval. We may see prefigured here the link Tagore will explore between political turbulence and the release of erotic passion in Ghare Baire of Char Adhyay. Durgeshnandini contains the germ of the Romeo-Juliet story, in so far as the lovers are initially trapped in a long-standing family feud. Somewhat in the manner of Shakespeare, the uncertainty of the political conflict is transmitted to the urgency and intensity of love in the novel. Though courted patiently by the deserving Muslim nobleman Osman, Ayesha, the Pathan proncess, hopelessly falls in love with the Hindu prince, Jagatsingh, arch-enemy and prisoner of her father Katlu Khan. These unforeseen happenings seem to take us from history to the realm of fantasy and wish-fulfilment. But the passion in Bankim’s fiction play an emancipator role, transporting the reader along with the characters to a visionary domain, that of the incalculable, removed from the obsequious colonial servitude that stifles the mind and spirit and which Bankim never failed to attack in his satirical sketches. There is perhaps a biographical urgency in all this. Being one of the two first graduates of Calcutta University, Bankim was promptly inducted into the colonial service and had to give up his legal studies. He considered this appointment as deputy magistrate and deputy collector a curse upon his life.
Even the story and the plot of Durgeshnandini is the consequence of history of unbridled, though not emancipator, lust: here the passions enslave and thereby take on the role of something akin to fate. Swami Abhiram had been a remarkably intelligent and studious scholar, but irresistibly drawn to the pleasures of the flesh. The illegitimate child born out of his sexual liaison with a local woman near Fort Mandaran was Tilottama’s mother. Exposed and humiliated, Abhiram exiled himself to Varanasi and pursued his studies further. But such was the ungovernable force of his sexual urge that a second liaison, this time with a low-caste woman, produced Bimala’s mother. Again, what brings together the widower Virendrasingh and Bimala is reckless passion.
If the novel, in this description, seems to suggest a potpourri of sentimentalism, melodrama, and wild fantasy, it is more than redeemed by its poetry as also by a contrapuntal irony scaling down that poetry. Once again, we may recall Shakespeare who uses similar, contradictory, strategies to transform the sensational and sentimental crudity of his sources. Bankim’s poetic language with its sinuous rhythm and sonorous power extracts the most it can from the inexhaustibly varied euphonic resources of Sanskrit. According to his younger brother, Purna Chandra, when Bankim, apprehensive of grammatical and stylistic errors, read out the manuscript to a select gathering, one of the pundits present declared that he had been so carried away by the language as not to notice any flaws; another asserted that the flaws had beautified the language further.
In historical terms, the novel marks the culmination of an attempt made by several learned authors and translators of Bankim’s time to infuse the sinewy and resonant energy of Sanskrit into newly-emerging Bengali prose. Vidyasagar, the great social reformer, grammarian, and educationist, had not fully succeeded in this venture since his Sanskritized vocabulary was not entirely unburdened of erudition. Bankim’s language, by contrast, is authentic Bengali and yet in its exalted register capable of opening up an order of reality for its reader far beyond the drab banality of Bengali social life in colonial times. Thus we enter on the wings of this language, a plane of intensity bordering upon the tragic. This can do longer be mistaken for the fake melodramatic strategies of sentimental romance.
As a counterpoint to the high poetic register we have a low register anchored in humdrum routine life involving, for example, soldiers’ banter, maidservants’ commonsensical chatter and above all, the farcical scenes centred on the clownish figure of Vidya Diggaj. The language used here is colloquial with an earthy, demotic tang that establishes a doubleness of style that yet another of Bankim’s achievements. Before him, the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ styles in Bengali has been kept apart: Kaliprasanna Sinha translated the Mahabharata into a heavily Sanskritized Bengali, but in his famous satirical sketch, Hutom Pyanchar Naksha, drew upon the lingo of the streets of Calcutta. In Bankim for the first time we have the two styles juxtaposed, resulting in a polyphonic fidelity to contemporary reality.
Since the Oaf Vidya Diggaj imagines himself to be a latter-day Krishna hankered after by both Bimala and Aasmani, the reader must pause to question if the theme of love itself is not subjected to ironic scrutiny. The authorial voice of Bankim in Durgeshnandini already has a tongue-in-cheek undertone to its intimacy-this ironic detachment, carrying the suggestion of an alternative perspective, develops later into an integral part of his novelistic art. The intensity and mood of total surrender in the love of Ayesha, Tilottama, Jagatsingh, and Bimala is travestied not only by these farcical episodes but also by the constant reminder of women as war booty, an object of the insatiable sexual appetite of the power-hungry male.
If the power of women is displayed in their ability to use their charm-Bimala, for instance, mesmerizes her guard as well as Khan himself-a much higher power is suggested in Bankim’s intoxicated but intellectually controlled description of female beauty. We must not forget that women were largely confined and concealed within the inner quarters of the household. Bankim makes them confidently visible, each woman’s distinct from that of the other. As readers we are impelled to admire the beauty of Tilottama, Ayesha, and Bimala not furtively or guiltily; the poetry is thus once again emancipator, inspiring us to uninhibited enjoyment and admiration. At the same time, in keeping with the farcical interlude involving Vidya Diggaj, this exalted poetry with its Sanskritized vocabulary and interlinked compounds is exactly mimicked in the description of Aasmani’s beauty but now in an unmistakably parodic vein.
Despite the elaborate description, the women are not rendered objects of male fantasy and desire; rather, their beauty is inseparable from their selfhood, identity, and even agency. It is a picture, of a woman’s inner vitality, reinforced by constant association with nature in her regenerative and elemental potency. In fact, nature lends a contemplative dimension to the novel. Much of the significant action takes place in darkness when the familiar visible world melts away and silhouettes and reflections in water take over. By cintrast, Katlu Khan’s depraved pleasures of the harem are accompanied by the hard glint of concubines’ ornaments in artificial light.
It is natural vitality that expresses itself in the women’s passions which drive them beyond the usual social bounds and conventions. Overpowered by passions-at a moment of dramatic crisis, Tilottama, the youngest and most vulnerable, faints and falls ill-women nevertheless manage more than the men to keep their emotional turmoil in control. Tilottama responds to a contrite Jagatsingh without any bitterness or resentment and Bimala reconciles herself happily to the undignidied secrecy of her marriage. But the best example of this self-control is of course Ayesha who is in many ways the central figure of the novel. The fire of love burns within her silently and imperishably, expressing itself in a rare generosity of spirit and strength of character. Stung by her unsuccessful and jealous suitor Osman’s accusations, she declares her love for Jagatsingh with a bold candour that marks the culmination of the empowerment of women.
Both Tilottama and Ayesha, the two heroines, vastly different as they are, are characterized by an openness of nature that contrasts oddly with the guile and duplicity to which women would have been habituated because of their social situation. Bimala reminds Jagatsingh that a woman is compelled by society to lead a hidden life and cannot reveal her identity. Of course, Bimala knows how to manipulate people, especially men, but she remains steadfast in her passionate loyalty to Virendrasingh. If contemporary social conditions do not for Shakespeare’s women, they are not creations of wish-fulfilment either; rather, they embody the tendencies and possibilities latent in their world. It is for this reason that the women are shown in situations of solitude and reflection; both Bimala and Ayesha communicate their feelings and experiences in the introspective from of the letter. After meeting Jagatsingh, Tilittama is shown at twilight, as it were, in the eddies of river Amodar flowing by the fort. At the end of the novel, Ayesha is similarly situated late at night by a window, observing her mental state in the moat brimming over with water quietly reflecting the starlit sky.
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