Sesh Prashna ('The Final Question') is one of Sharatchandra Chatterjee's last major novels, and perhaps his most radically innovative,. Breaking the bounds of Bengali romantic fiction, Sharatchandra challenges the norms of nationhood, society, and womanhood. The novel caused a sensation when it was first published in 1931, drawing censure from conservative critics but enthusiastic support from general readers, especially women.
The heroine, Kamal, is exceptional for her time. She lives and travels by herself, has relationships with various men, looks poverty and suffering in the face, and asserts the autonomy of her individual being. In the process, she tears apart the frame of the expatriate Bengali society of Agra, where she lives.
Kamal's life is set off against those of other women, and of the men who enter into relations with them. On another plane, it is placed against the evolving ideology of Indian nationalism. Through Kamal, Sharatchandra questions Indian tradition by the canons of a radical modernity. But modernity too is probed and assessed, and many questions remain unanswered at the end of the novel.
This major work is translated here into English for the first time. It reveals a new face of Sharatchandra to readers who know him only in translation. It also extends and challenges established notions of the political and social milieu of its own day and of ours.
This translation is the collective effort of several members of the Department of English, Jadavpur University. The first draft was prepared by Shirshendu Majumdar, Sipra Dasgupta (Mukherjee) and Sunish Deb. This was then worked over by the editors, who accept responsibility for all shortcomings. The project was conducted under the UGC Special Assistance (DSA) Programme of the Department.
We are grateful to Dr Amitava Das of the Department of Bengali and Professor Supriya Chaudhuri of the Department of English for contributing the Introduction and Afterward respectively.
The Bengali text followed is that in the sixth edition published by Gurudas Chattopadhyay and Sons, Calcutta (no date).
ARUP RUDRASUKANTA CHAUDHURI
Department of EnglishJadavpur University, CalcuttaOctober 2000
From the Introduction:
More than six decades after his death, Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay or Chatterjee (1876-1938) remains the most popular Bengali novelist ever, not excepting Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). He was not a saint or sage, but the most extraordinary of ordinary men. A recent biographer, himself an eminent Indian writers, has described him as 'the great wayward soul'. In life he was sometimes a wanderer, sometimes an ascetic; but his fiction takes domesticity as its accustomed point of reference.
Sharatchandra inherited his wanderlust from his father Matilal. Matilal too was a poet and fiction-writer, but his dreams remained unrealized-owing to poverty, but also from a willful inconsistency of purpose. Much of Sharatchandra's childhood and youth were spent among relatives in Bihar; his college education could not be completed for lack of money. But he was an enthusiastic student of science, philosophy and history, and more particularly of anthropology and sociology: Herbert Spencer's Descriptive Sociology influenced him deeply. He was also an avid reader of Dickens, Balzac and Bernard Shaw. His vast personal library was destroyed in a fire in Yangon.
Sharatchandra is a committed writer. This makes him more overtly emotional than either Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838-94) with his classical, ethically attuned world-view, or Rabindranath with his unremitting engagement with artistic form. Sharatchandra's target readership lay among the middle and lower-middle classes. At a reception in the Calcutta Town Hall on his fifty-seventh birthday, he openly professed his allegiance to those who have only given to the world but obtained nothing from it; those who are deprived, weak and oppressed; who are human beings, yet of whose tears humanity has taken no account; who, leading helpless stricken lives, have never discovered why they have everything, yet have no rights over what they have.... Their pain has freed my utterance, they have sent me to tell humanity of the allegations laid at its door by human beings.
Sharatchandra lacks detachment: this may have enhanced his popularity. The writer Pramatha Choudhuri (1868-1946) suggested two other reasons for that popularity:
First, his language.... Sharatchandra's language is simple, lucid and dynamic; it has a flow. His second virtue is that his novels do not imitate any English novel. The only ingredient of his narrative is what might happen, and does happen, in Bengali society.
His social novels, like Dicken's, preserve the fading picture of a receding age. As Rabindranath said, 'He belongs entirely to his country and his age. That is no light matter.
Sharatchandra's creativity flows out of a contradiction: he is full of tenderness and nostalgia for the very society that he castigates. He admits as much in his 1916 essay, Samajadharamer Mulya ('The Value of Social Order'). From 1903 to 1916, Sharatchandra sought his living far away from Bengal, in Myanmar. His first novels and stories chiefly present an earlier century. In that milieu, life within the joint family was marked Renaissance of the age was largely confined to the urban elite. At a time when Calcutta was witnessing campaigns for widow remarriage, women's education and women's freedom, Sharatchandra's village annals present Madhabi Bardidi (The Elder Sister, , 1913), the suffering child widow; Biraj in Biraj Bou (Biraj the Wife, , 1914) with her tormented chastity and wifely in Pallisamaj (Village Society, , 1916) with her frustrated love, in a community divided against itself; or Parbati in Debdas (1917), forced to marry the elderly, previously-married Bhuban Choudhuri.
Yet in the midst of this, when Surendranath in Bardidi asks on his deathbed, 'Are you my elder sister?', Madhabi's reply frees her individuality from the confines of a socially determined identity: 'I am Madhabi'. In Pallisamaj , Rama cannot be united with Ramesh as she is a Hindu widow. "Two greatsouled people thus end up crippled and frustrated', writes Sharatchandra. 'If I can reach this message of pain to the closed doors of human hearts, I will have done enough.' He shows the defeat of the individual spirit at the hands of a cruel society in many other works of this period: Chandranath (1916), Arakshaniya (The Girl Who Must Be Married, , 1916), Swami (The Husband, , 1918), or Bamuner Meye (The Brahman's Daughter, 1920).
In his later works, Sharatchandra came to treat of certain new encounters between society and the individual. These explorations continued through the entire period between the two World Wars. This was when he played his part as a dedicated fighter for Independence. He joined Mahatma Gandhi's non-Co-operation Movement; yet he also supported the armed struggle for self-rule, and had a warm friendship with Netaji Subhaschandra Bose. His political novel Pather Dabi (The Call of the Road, , 1926) was banned by the British Government. He also exposed the economic exploitation of the colonial order in short stories like Mahesh (1922) and novels like Dena-Paona (Owings and Borrowings, 1923).
But his works strike the clearest note of modernity where he presents the individual's protest against the tyranny of society. Kiranmayi in Charitrahin (The Rake, 1917), Abhaya in Shrikanta, Part II (1918), or Achala in Grihadaba (The Burning of the Home, 1920) not only voice the social protest of the Hindu wife or widow but radically reassess the relationship between woman and man. Shesh Prashna (The Final Question, , 1931) belongs here too.
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