'From behind the waves of the ulukhagra flowers that surrounded Shiptom Saheb's grave, a women's figure rose up with a start, hurriedly and stood still in the hazy moonlight like a marble statue.' The final novel to be published in the author's lifetime. Ichhamati revoles around life in the Mollahati Indigo's plantation –one of the numerous neelkuthis or indigo factories that dotted Lower Bengal under Company rule. Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay did not to wish to write an ethnogralphic treatise, but there is enough in the novel about the coerction that went into indigo cultivation, the intricate nexus about the coerction that went into indigo cultivation the intricate nexus between the English manager and the Brahman dewan, the peasant subjects, Musalman and Hindu, including episodes from the Indigo Revolt, sometimes called the 'Indigo disturbances', of 1859-1862.
Restless Waters of the Ichhamati is a brilliant translation that ecovatively reflects the myriad moods of the original as well as its variations in style.
Rimli Bhattacharya trained in Comparative Literature and works on literature, performance history and the arts. Her translations from Bangla to English include the autobiographies of Binodini Dasi My Story & My Life as an Actress (1998). Rabindranath Tagore's Four Chapters (Char Addhyay) and two other novels of Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Aranyak: of the Forest (2002, 2017) and Making a Mango Whistle (Aan anthir Bhepu) (2007).
Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay was born in Ghoshpara-Muratipur village in Bengal on 12 September 1894. His ancestral home was in Barakpur (formerly in Jessore District) on the banks of the river Ichhamati. He moved to Calcutta for higher studies.
Bibhutibhusan spent his time writing and travelling intensively, particularly in the forests of Bihar, participating in literary meets and conferences, until his sudden death in Ghatshilla on I oeuvre comprises seventeen novels, seven diaries-travelogues and over two hundred short stories. He was posthumously awarded the Rabindra Puruskar in 1951 for Ichhmati, his last published novel.
Ichhamati, Ichhamati. The restless waters of the river Ichhamati flow past villages carrying in whirls and eddies the stories of ordinary folk –subjects and subjectivies that do not find a place in the grand roll call of history. Both prologue and epilogue and epilogue to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay's epic narrative Ichhamti cue us to a mode of reading. The gaze of a slow moving attentive river –farer brings into view glimpses of vibrant plant life, traces of human habitation and changes of sky and water in the course of seasons. These are signs, evoking the flow of time in which generations unknown have lived and those unborn will live along the icchamati's banks as it wends its way through Jessore district towards the Bay of Bengal, Born of this tension between the ephemeral and the forever, the novel's own riverine course dispense with chapter breaks –the writer's decision that my translation follows.
Bibhutibhusan had long wanted to write a novel with a 'vast canvas' –at least form the time he was writing Pather Panchali in the forests of Bhagalpur, Scattered allusions to impressions of people, places and incident that would later be woven into Ichhamati are found from the late 1920s in many of his diaries or dinalies,1 as well as in this many of his unpublished journal of 1949. The description of a certain 'Morrism Saheb's silk –cotton tree' in Barakpur, his native village, is quite similar to the banyan by the river under which Bhabanicharan, the protagonist, sits down to medidate and is interrupted by Grant Saheb.2 Reflection of Bibhutibhusan's own fulfillment in marriage to a younger women in his life and his life and his new-found joy in his infant son permeate the novel. A letter to his wife dated 1 December 1941 is about the Bonsimatala ghat and a picnic in which he misses her intensly.6 This emotional link between place and person is refracted in the novel's idealized female protagonist, Tilu who think wisfully of Bonismtala when the women decide to go bathing in a group to another ghat.
In a 1944 radio talk Bibhutibhushan emphasized how the warp and weft of his writing came from the minutiae of all that he had abosorbed in his life.4 Ichhamati, the final novel to be published in the author's lifetime, is set in the village of Panchpota and the Mollahati indigo plantation in the second half of nineteenth –century Bengal. But the novel is interwoven with numerous strands of Bibhutibhusan's entire experimental life.
Ichhamati does not aspire to be a historical novel. Historical references appear likes flares, lighting up mundane, often intimate, moments in the lives of a cross section of people of nineteenth –century rural Bengal. The author internalizes , to some extent, the dialectics of history in the way affective ties are shaped and hierarchies are played sahebs, the occasional memsahib, the never-quite mem, and the multitude of people whose lives are bound visibly and invisibly with the plantation economy make for a localized yet expansive canvas evoking other lands in the invisible chains of imperial economy.
The indigo dye or nila was known since c. 500 BC in the Indian subcontinent and production and dyeing processes were brought to a fine art long the western coast extending to the north up to Punjab Sindh and Multan, but indigo was a late entry to Bengal.5 Summing up the indigo trail in a global context, a historian observes: 'From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries indigo was fugitive among industries, wandering from Gujrat in Westren India to the West Indies and then Back to Bengal in Eastern India,'6 In fact, it was shortly after British planters in the West Indies turned to coffee and sugar as more lucarative, crops, that indigo was introduced to Bengal on a big scale, to be manufactured by Europeon planeters by 'West Indian methods.'7 The British in turn had followed the French, the Dutch and the Spanish –nations embrolled in 'economic rivalries' in what is known as 'the Caribbean era of indigo'8. The 'regional' in Bibhutibhusan's narrative is thus already bound by the ebb and flow of capital, labour and goods across oceans.
Is Ichhamati then a 'plantation novel', revolving around life in one of the numerous neelkuthis or indigo factories that dotted Lower Bengal under Company rule? (Lower Bengal' is the geographical term for the delataic region, where the floodplains were particularly suitable for growing indigo.) there is enough in the nowel about the coercion that went into indigo cultivation, the intricate nexus between the English manager and the Brahman dewan, the peasent subjects, Musalman and Hindu, including episodes from the Indigo Revolt, sometimes called the Indigo disturnances', of 1859-1862.
Clearly though, the plantations in Bengal were distinctive from say, the ones in the West Indies;, the later were worked entirely by slave labour transported from thousands of miles away from Africa Besides, drawn slowly into the episode flow of the narrative, we realize that Bibhutibhushan did not wish away from fragile alliances and the bonds of custom and law, into the unrealized possibilities of unexpected love in oppressive sociopolitical contexts of 'native' and 'saheb', upper caste and outcast, reunicate and householder. The novel is not made of sharp breaks, twists and turns, dramatic denouement. Rather, the 'highlights' –if they may so called lie in the glint of an ornament encircling Tilu's arm in the light of the oil lamp, Nistrani stumbling upon the pearl- seeded oyster as she emerges dripping and exhausted after a long swim in the Gaya-men, teasing, flirtatious and heroically steadfast –an icon dignity and endurance –even if she was 'given' as an adolescent to the Burra Saheb by her own mother. The reader holds on to such moments for their extraordinary resonances.
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