Pather Dabi caused an enormous furore following its serialization in a Bengali monthly – Bangabani. The story of Sabyasachi, the charismatic leader of the military organization, Pather Dabi, and the powerful woman characters around him – their inter relationship, agony and ecstasy stirred the public imagination.
Later published as a book, 5000 copies of the novel sold out within a week of its publication. The book was not a piece of political propaganda, as the British regime held it, but a work of art. However, the bitter criticism of the government contained in it made the rulers issue a proscription.
Sarat Chandra wrote in a letter to Rabindranath Tagore, “If as a writer of Bengal, I have to suffer punishment even though I have not written anything untrue in my book, I am prepared to face it…”
Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, leading novelist and short story writer of Bengal, died on 16 January 1938. The ban on the book was lifted only in March 1939.
Prasenjit Mukherjee (born 1957) did his Master’s degree in English literature from Utkal University in 1976 with the highest distinction. From 1977 to 1980 he served as an English lecturer in Berhampur University before joining the Indian Audit and Accounts Service. He has to his credit another translation of Sarat Chandra (Palli Samaj).
Pather Dabi was first serialized in a monthly journal, Bangabani, between Phalgun 1329 (February-March 1922) and Baishakh 1333 (April-May 1926).
As the novel appeared in Bangabani, in monthly instalments, the British government took note of the bitter criticism of the British rule contained in it, the highly inflammatory tone of the writing, and the insurgency that it advocated. It was decided to proscribe the novel when it appeared in a book from, and to prosecute the author and the publisher on charges of sedition. This was disclosed to the publisher of Bangabani, Ramaprasad Mukherjee, by Rai Bahadur Taraknath Sadhu who, in addition to being the Public Prosecutor, was also a writer and an admirer of Saratchandra.
The last chapter which appeared in Bangabani carried the legend ‘To be continued’ at the end to delude the authorities into believing that the episodes would continue for some more months.
In the meantime arrangements were made to publish the novel in a book form. Sudhir Chandra Sarkar, proprietor of Messrs M. C. Sarkar & Sons, had earlier agreed to publish the novel and had even paid an advance of one thousand rupees to the author. But after consulting his lawyer, he told Saratchandra to delete the objectionable portions which the author refused to do.
Saratchandra returned the advance which he had received from the firm and approached Haridas Chatterjee of Messrs Gurudas Chatterjee & Sons, who had published most of his earlier books. But they too backed out.
Ramaprasad Mukherjee, who had serialized the novel in his magazine, then agreed to publish the book. But another problem cropped up. No press was willing to print it. Finally, the Cotton Press belonging to the booksellers, Messrs S. C. Lahiri & Sons, agreed to print it.
The novel was published as a book an on 31 August 1926. Umaprasad, younger brother of Ramaprasad Mukherjee, was shown as the publisher, and Satya Kinkar Banerjee, manager of the Cotton Press, as the printer. It was apprehended that the British government might arrest the author, the publisher, and the printer on charges of sedition, or at least institute cases against them. They were, however, prepared for all eventualities. Ramaprasad offered to defray the expenses if a sedition case was initiated by the government.
The book became so popular that the first edsition of 5,000 copies was sold out within the first week itself. When the police came to the office of the Bangabani to seize the copies of the book, not a single copy was found. Then, at their special request, Ramaprasad obtained a coopy of the book from his younger sister and gave it to the police.
In November 1926, Sir Charles Tegart, Commissioner of Police, Calcutta, wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Political Department:
‘I have honour to forward herewith, for consideration and orders of Government, the translation of objectionable passages from the book entitled Pather Dabee written by Saratchandra Chatterjee, a well-known novelist in Bengal, printed by Satya Kinkar Banerjee from the Cotton Press, 57, Harrison Road, and published by Umaprasad Mukherjee, 77, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Bhawanipore, Calcutta. A printed copy of the book was sent to the Public Prosecutor, Calcutta, for his opinion, and he advises that the book is liable to be proscribed under Section 99A of the Criminal Procedure Code and the author and the printer to be prosecuted under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.’
B. L. Mitter, the then Advocate-General of Bengal, dealt with the case in considerable detail and gave his opinion in favour of only proscribing the novel. The Chief Secretary, W. D. R. Prentice, agreed with him and issued the following notification:
‘In exercise of the power conferred by Section 99A of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, as amended by the Third Schedule of the Press Law Repeal and Amendment Act 1922 (Act XIV of 1922), the Governor in Council hereby declares to be forfeited to his Majesty all copies, wherever found, of the Bengali book entitled Pather Dabi, written by Sri Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, printed by Sri Satya Kinkar Bandopadhyay at the Cotton Press, 57, Harrison Road, Calcutta, and published by Sri Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay, 77, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Calcutta, on the ground that the said book contains words which bring or attempt to bring into contempt and excite or attempt to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in British India, the publication of which is punishable under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code.’
Saratchandra felt that, whether it produced any result or not, there should be a protest against the action of the government. He approached Rabindranath Tagore and requested him to consider whether it was not desirable to make a protest.
Rabindranath wrote back:
‘I have gone through your book Pather Dabi. It causes excitement; that is, it causes disaffection in the mind of the reader against the British rule. It may not be objectionable on the part of the author to do this, because if he feels that the British rulers deserve to be censured and it is his duty to expose them, he cannot keep quiet. But he must be prepared to face the danger arising out of his action. It is, I think, undignified to expect that the British government will deal with us leniently when we denounce it.
‘I have visited many countries. It is my experience that no other government, whether Indian or foreign, tolerates its criticism by its own subjects as patiently as the British government does. If we are bold enough to speak ill of the British government not out of our own strength of mind, but taking advantage of their patience, we demean ourselves, and show by our behavior that we actually have regard for the British government. The government has the physical force; if we consider it our duty to stand against it, we must possess the spiritual force. But we expect that from our British rulers, not from ourselves. That proves that whatever we might say, we unconsciously admire the British government. When we denounce that government in the expectation that they will not take any punitive action against us, we show by our behaviour how we admire them. If we consider that even though the British government is all powerful, they have simply proscribed your book and not taken any action against you, it is almost an act of pardon. No other government, whether in the east or the west, would have done this. That our own government would not have done so had India been a free country is amply proved by the behavior of the Indian rulers and our own landlords.
‘But does that mean that you should give up writing against the government? No, I don’t suggest that. You should write if you feel that it is your duty to do so, but you should be fully prepared for the punishment. Wherever there has been a conflict between any government and its subjects, the rebellious subjects rose against their government knowing fully well that it would not leave them in peace.
‘Had you written seditious things in newspapers, it would not have had any lasting effect. But when a writer of your standing writes against the government even in a novel, it will have enormous effect on the people for all times to come. Every reader, from boys and girls in their teens to old men and women, will be greatly influenced by your writing. In the circumstances, had the British government not proscribed your book, it would have proved that they were either unaware of your power as a writer and your high position in Bengali literature, or were contemptuous of your influence. When you attack a powerful government, you must be prepared for a counter-attack. Only then will your attack be meaningful. If, however, you start bemoaning the government’s counter-attack, your own attack will lose all its significance.’ (27th Magh 1933.)
This letter of Rabindranath aggrieved Saratchandra who felt it contained a veiled insinuation that he wanted to protest against the action of the government merely to save his own skin. He wrote the following reply but, on second thoughts, did not dispatch it.
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