This rich biography, coinciding with his death centenary, illuminates the remarkable journey of Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848-1909) who was situated at the cusp of two centuries and two world views. His life embodies several aspects of colonial modernity and its negotiation with a rediscovered Indian past. He is variously remembered as an economic historian, a translator of Sanskrit epics into English, a novelist in Bengali, an exemplary ICS officer—the second Indian in the service—who later became a nationalist leader and the president of the Indian National Congress in 1899.
The book traces Dutt’s eventful life—from his running away to England at the age of twenty his life as a civil servant to his early retirement and his entry into politics. He spent several years in London educating the English public about conditions in India, hoping their opinion would create pressure for political reform through the intervention of the British Parliament. The last phase of his life was spent in the princely state of Baroda where he attempted to implement some of his administrative ideas.
Dutt’s life is marked by many contradictions —in his attitudes to language, to colonialism, to religion and to tradition—and Meenakshi Mukherjee does not gloss over any of them. Born into one of the most anglicized families of nineteenth century Calcutta, Dutt turned to Bengali for his creative writing; and even though his daughters were educated in English and married outside caste and linguistic boundaries, his historical novels idealized the caste-based values of Hindu society and glorified ‘sati’ and ‘jauhar’
Featuring Curzon, Naoroji, Vidyasagar Bankimchandra, Gokhale, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad and other luminaries of the national movement, this book captures an extraordinary moment in modem Indian history. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, it will be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.
Author of several books of literary and cultural criticism, including The Twice-horn Fiction (1971), Realism and Reality (1986) and Elusive Terrain: Culture and Literary Memory (2008), Meenakshi Mukherjee has taught in several universities in India and abroad, the longest spell being in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, In 2004, she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi award for her collection of essays, The Perishable Empire. Her book in Bengali, Upanysey Ateet Itihas 0 Kalpa-itihas (2003), explores the relationship of fiction, history and imagined history.
While working on this book, whenever I mentioned the name of Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848—1909) to people I know, I was surprised by the wide differences in their reactions. The identities by which he is remembered in India seem to be many.
Among social scientists, R.C. Dutt is known primarily as the author of the two-volume Economic History of India, published at the turn of the last century (1902 and 1904). The well-known Indian economist, D.R. Gadgil, in the Introduction to the 1959 reprint of these volumes describes them as ‘in essence, a preview of what later came to be called the economics of colonialism’.1 Some also remember Dutt as one of the earliest writers to criticize the British system of taxation in India and to hold the government culpable for the frequent famines in the nineteenth century. His ideas seem worth re-examining today in the context of the contemporary discussions on famine initiated by economists like Amartya Sen. There are yet others who remember him as one of the earliest Indian members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), an exemplary officer who had, nevertheless, the courage to openly challenge unfair official policies.2
To those who read Bengali, Romesh Dutt’s name is immediately associated with his four historical novels—especially Maharashtra Jiban Prabhat (1878) and Rajput Jiban Sandhya (1879). That he wrote novels about contemporary life as well does not seem to be so well known. Among those who know him through his English writings, many recall his abridged versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He was by no means the first English translator of these Sanskrit epics, but his verse translations remained popular for many decades after his death. My colleagues in English departments are quick to associate Romesh Chunder with the highly anglicized Dutt family of Rambagan, Calcutta, which had produced poets like Toru and Aru Dutt and a prolific writer called Shoshee Chunder Dutt. The collective poetic efforts of this family appeared in 1870, in London, in a volume titled The Dutt Family Album, which remains a minor curiosity in the history of Indian poetry in English. Romesh Chunder did not contribute to that volume, but like most members of that extended clan, he, too, was an occasional versifier in English, although that was by no means his claim to fame.
My first introduction to R.C. Dutt’s work was through his historical novels in Bengali. I read them in condensed versions when in school, and in later life, when I became interested in how history and imagined history were used in narrative fiction to consolidate an emerging nationalism in India, I went to Dutt’s four unabridged, original novels with a new perspective. A few years ago, while writing a book on the use of the past in imaginative literature,3 I delved more into the life and works of Dutt and began to discover the amazing versatility of the man. During his eventful career as a civil servant he also found time to write essays in English on a wide variety of subjects: anthropology, sociology, land reform, taxation, and local self-government. My interest in him deepened when I realized that one of Romesh Chunder’s major activities was translation, not only from Sanskrit to English—an area in which Oriental scholars of Europe had so far specialized—but also from Sanskrit to Bengali, which was a more hazardous enterprise because the Brahman scholars of Bengal, keen to maintain their monopoly on Sanskrit texts, were unwilling to let the common people have direct access to what was considered ‘sacred literature’. Dutt’s translation of Rig Veda Samhita into Bengali caused some controversy in the late nineteenth century partly because he was not a Brahman by caste, and hence was not supposed to have the right to read Sanskrit texts, much less to translate them.
That a successful administrator working under the British, the recipient of the title C.I.E. (Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire), should become the president of the Indian National Congress in 1899, is another paradox in the life of R.C. Dutt. He took early retirement from government service and spent several years in England writing and lecturing indefatigably on what was then known as ‘The India Question’, attempting to educate people in Britain about the actual conditions in India. He was also offered a chair in Indian history by the University College, London, at this time, probably in recognition of his two-volume History of Civilization in Ancient India (1890), which was published in Traubner’s Sacred Books of the East, a series initiated and largely edited by Max Muller. Incidentally, Dutt was the only Indian author in this series. Dutt’s enthusiasm about the Sanskrit literary heritage of India led him to translate several texts of the kavya tradition into English, including extracts from Kalidasa, Kshemendra and Bharavi. But he was also an avid reader of European literature in French and English and often used lines of British romantic poetry as epigraphs to his Bengali novels. Such wide-ranging interests make it difficult to place him neatly in the Orient list—Anglicism split among scholars in the nineteenth century.
Although most of Dutt’s years in government service were spent in Bengal Presidency (which those days included Bihar, Orissa and Assam), R.C. Dutt’s vision was for his time surprisingly pan-Indian. Not only did he spend a substantial part of all his holidays in traveling extensively in different regions of the subcontinent—Kashmir Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh—and writing about the history and culture of these areas, before completing the second volume of his Economic History, he also spent several months in the southern states—traveling through Bazaar (Vijay Wada), Madras, Hyderabad, My sore, and to villages in Western India, in Maharashtra and Gujarat, in order to understand the ground conditions in these places. In his essays about land reform, tenancy acts and irrigation, he constantly compared the systems operating in different provinces of India. He got one of his daughters married to a young man from Assam, and we know from a letter written by him that when posted in Cuttack, he was taking lessons in Oriya. During his stay in Baroda, he seems to have learnt enough Gujarati to read and comment on the Gujarati translation of one of his novels.4 The network of his personal friendships spread all over India and included—to take a few random examples—some pioneering thinkers and social reformers of the time, like Prince Kerala Varma of Travancore, Subramanian Ayer, then editor of the Hindu (who not only reviewed Dutt’s books regularly in his paper but also offered to translate one of his novels into Tamil—evidently from an English version), Ganj am Venkataraman Pendulum from Visakhapattanain and Justice Bedridden Tabbies from Bombay. Dutt published his English articles in journals appearing from Madras and Bombay as well from Calcutta, and one of his most important literary essays appeared in Wednesday Review, published from Trichinopoly. It is rare to find a product of the so-called Bengal Renaissance who completely bypassed the Bengal-centered and fragmentary view of the nation.
R.C. Dutt’s last years were spent in Baroda where he went at the invitation of Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad, first as his revenue minister and later as dewan (prime minister) of this princely state. Some of his theories about land revenue, industrialization and educational reform, which he had so far written about, could now be actually implemented in this state run by a progressive prince. He became very popular with the people there and one of the main commercial streets of Baroda still carries his name.
Romesh Chunder Dutt’s life overlapped with many public figures of his time—Dadabhai Naoroji, W.C. Bonnerjee, Surendranath Banerjea, Ferozeshah Mehta, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Bipin Chandra Pal, Aravind Ghose (before he became Sri Aurobindo), Lala Lajpat Rai, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Margaret Noble (known in India as Sister Nivedita) and many more. Researching on his life thus involved studying a wide spectrum of political and intellectual ideas of the time.
The more I read Romesh Chunder Dutt’s work, the more I was fascinated by the wide-ranging interests of this polymath and also intrigued by some of the contradictions in his intellectual life. His first visit to England, at an impressionable age (1868—71), coincided with a historic victory of the Liberal Party, and so impressed was he by the parliamentary process he saw in action in Britain, that till the end of his life he retained an unqualified faith in the basic democratic qualities of the British people, even though his experience with the colonial government did not always support this faith. Deeply influenced by Western traditions of political philosophy and comfortable in the cultural climate of England, he sometimes dreamt of living there permanently (‘with occasional visits to India’). Yet no civil servant of his generation was so agitated by the conditions of the peasants of Bengal, the improvement of which became his lifelong crusade. He was a believer in social equality, gender justice and secular principles in politics and did much to propagate these ideas both in public platforms and his personal life. He educated his daughters in English at a time when English education was not available to women of Bengal, and he seemed to have had no objection when his children got married outside caste, religion and linguistic boundaries. Yet, in his historical novels, there is an idealization of the caste-based values of Hindu society, and a glorification of ‘sati’ and ‘jauhar’. Despite his abiding admiration for English literature, he not only wrote six novels in Bengali but also was one of the earliest to write a literary history of Bengal. But it is interesting to note that his personal letters—even to his daughters and grandchildren—were always written in English. Many such contradictions mark his life, perhaps inevitable in a man who was locating himself between a reinvented tradition and colonial modernity.
The label ‘Moderate’ that has generally been used to describe his politics tends to gloss over the individual currents of his thinking. His last years coincided with the end of an era when the whole National Movement was undergoing a major shift—from seeking reforms within the existing administrative structure to a direct challenge to the colonial system. The word ‘swadeshi’ also came to be used with different connotations by these two groups at the time. As a man situated at the cusp of two centuries as well as at the isthmus of two different ideologies of nationalism, R.C. Dutt deserves more critical attention than he has received so far. His life is like a prism which refracts the relationships between the West and India, colonialism and nationalism, elite and subaltern Indians, literature and history and much else. I have attempted to write a composite narrative weaving in the different strands of his life—as a novelist, administrator, scholar of Sanskrit, translator, Anglophone modernize economist, political agitator, public figure and ,also, basically, as an individual, who enjoyed the company of family and friends, but was forced to spend a great deal of his time alone. I have tried to situate his life in the map of British India, highlighting in the process the fault lines that inevitably appear at the interface of uneven cultures.5
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