Manik Bandyopadhyay (1908-56), India’s first important Communist novelist, offers is his stories a penetrating insight into the changing times that saw the disintegration of colonial rule in India, in a setting of famine, communal riots and peasant uprisings. With his uncompromising commitment to realism, he studies an urban middle class losing its older values in its struggle to survive, and rural masses driven by ruthless exploitation and deprivation to virtual marginalization and dehumanization. While he never loses sight of the socio-economic pressures at work, he concentrates on how human relationships are affected and only too often distorted in the process, and how rebellion grows.
Any selection of Manik Bandyopadhyay's short stories may seem to those who know them in the original, to have an element of arbitrariness about it. One reason for this could be the sheer volume and range of these stories, the fact that there are so many that could be included in any national or international anthology. Every reader of Bengali fiction has his or her favourite cluster of Manik Bandyopadhyay stories, some representing the allusive and pitilessly intricate syntax of his exposure of Bengali middle class life, others holding up with grim objectivity the lowest depths of marginalized existence, yet others plunging with sharp precision into the complex experience of famine, communal riots and peasant struggles during the last years of colonial rule. Against the background of this massive range of possibilities, to pick and choose from his work is to be shadowed continually by the sin of omission.
I would not even attempt to absolve myself of the sin. All that I would say on behalf of this anthology is that this is only one out of many possible anthologies of Manik Bandyopadhyay's stories. Also it is an attempt to introduce, primarily to readers having no access to the Bengali language, one of the greatest realist writers of our times—one who, in spite of a steady, if limited, popularity with the general Bengali readership, has had very little recognition outside Bengal particularly since the time of his death. It is to the common Bengali reader that we owe the currency of Putul Nacher Itikatha, Padma Nadir Majhi and Uttarkaler Galpasangraha. But apart from the two aforementioned novels, China (a novelette which adds a new dimension to experiments in narrative form) and a handful of short stories, variously translated in Indian and European languages, the vast corpus of Manik Bandyopadhyay's literary work remains sealed to readers unfamiliar with Bengali. This is in spite of the fact that Padma Nadir Majhi possibly tops the list of modern Bengali novels so far as the number of translations in other languages goes.
Apart from a few translations in various anthologies of stories from Bengal, the task of translating Manik Bandyopadhyay's stories into English remains particularly neglected. The only collection of his short stories in English (Primaeval and Other Stories) was edited by Debiprasad Chattopadhyay and came out in 1958, a couple of years after the author's death. We have no information as to whether any of his short stories have been translated into any other Indian language. There has not even been any reprint of Primaeval and Other Stories for some time. And this means that some of the most significant examples in Bengali of experimentations with realist narrative remain unknown to the rest of the world.
Primaeval and Other Stories contained eleven stories in all. Since the book has been long out of print, we felt that at least the most significant of these should be made available in English once more. The present anthology, therefore, has seven stories in common with the earlier one. Of these four are newly translated; as for the rest, the versions in the earlier anthology have been retained with a few minor revisions. Apart from these, nine other stories, which, as far as we know, have not been translated into English before, are included in this anthology.
Since the main target of this selection is the reader who has little acquaintance with Manik Bandyopadhyay's short stories, our intention is to offer him the sheer range and variety of the author's narrative enterprise. As many different kinds of stories as possible, representing different areas, modes and techniques of narration, have been included. Again somewhat arbitrarily, we have divided the stories into three chronological phases. The divisions roughly correspond to the author's most creative periods in short stories. This can be inferred, though not with absolute exactitude, from the rise and decline in the number of collections published each year, and the inference may be further tested against the evidence available in his notebooks.
The first story in our anthology comes from Atashimami (1935), the very first collection of his short stories. Apart from the title story, which was written when the author was just twenty years old, all the stories in this collection must have been written by him in his mid-twenties. Between this time and 1940, each year except 1936 when two of his major novels came out in book form, saw the publication of at least one collection of short stories. 'Pragaitihasik' and 'Chor' (pub. 1937) and 'Mahakaler Jatar Jat' and 'Sarisrip' (pub. 1939) as well as 'Keranir Bou' (pub. 1940) are stories coming from this period; 1941 and 1942 are relatively lean years so far as short stories are concerned. 1943, 1944 and 1945 each saw the publication of one volume. Quantitatively, this may not be very much. But the sheer excellence of his creative vision in the short stories of this period has made choice extremely difficult. Ultimately we settled on 'Dhan Jan Jouban' (pub. 1944) and 'Haludpoda' (pub. 1945). Between 1946 and 1949, however, there seems to be a great spate of creativity so far as short stories are concerned, and six collections in all came out. From this period come the last eight stories of our anthology: 'Ajkalporshur Galpo', 'Nornuna ' and 'Shilpi' from 1946, 'Chhiniye Khayni Keno' from 1947, 'Haraner Natjiimiii' and 'Sathi' from 1948, and 'Chhoto Bakulpurer Jatri' from 1949.
Manik Bandyopadhyay lived and wrote for seven years more. His death in 1956 when he was barely forty-eight years old, was a premature one, hastened by ill-health and financial worry. Particularly from 1951, his work was hampered by bouts of severe illness. Yet quite a few novels were written during this time. It seems, however, that in this period the novel engrossed his attention as a form rather than the short story, so that between 1950 and 1956 there were only two volumes of short stories. While these two volumes contain some very impressive stories they do not add any new dimensions to his earlier achievement as a writer of short stories. Possibly the post-Independence historical situation offered a new challenge to his realist technique for which he needed time to prepare himself. Had he lived longer, there might have been another phase of creativity. Some of the novels of this period show signs of a new development. But since here we are only presenting his stories, in this anthology we have not gone beyond 1949.
In the course of his development as a writer from the 1920s to the 1940s, Manik Bandyopadhyay lived through a very significant period of national history. What his fiction represents is the lived reality of an era of crisis, change and upheaval. The seriousness with which he regarded his vocation as a writer was based on an understanding of the significance of these turmoils in our national life. This historical insight raises him far above the other realist writers of modem Bengal and may indeed claim for him a place among the foremost realist writers of the world.
The pressure of colonial exploitation in its many forms came to be felt more acutely than before by the people from the late 1920s under the gigantic shadow of the economic depression that held the capitalist world in its grip till the late 1-930s. The process of land-alienation in Bengal, by which subsistence-cultivators were being turned into sharecroppers, was greatly accelerated from 1929 onwards.' This 'tragedy of land-relations', as Manik Bandyopadhyay would later call it in one of his articles," would eventually contribute to the man-made famine of 1943. This process of land-alienation eroded the basis of community life and marginalized and dehumanized large sections of the rural masses. At the same time, the depression also created a crisis in the life of the urban middle classes like professional groups and small traders. Unemployment was on the rise, the market was flaccid, and with the greater pressure on land owned by joint families, the metropolis teemed with more and more people looking for jobs. On the other hand, to a section of the same class, the Second World War brought opportunities of speculation and hoarding; the latter succeeded in enriching themselves by exploiting and aggravating the poverty of others.
This era was also characterized by the consolidation of the Indian working class, the transition among the peasant masses from the era of spontaneous rebellion to that of organized, sustained movements and by the formation of the Indian Communist Party. In Bengal, as everywhere in India, colonial rule had also meant the survival, even the intensification, of feudal forms of oppression; these were the means through which the labouring people, particularly the peasants, felt the yoke of colonial power most directly. They were gradually becoming conscious of the links between feudalism and colonialism. This had been largely neglected by the Terrorist movement, which none the less had a great impact on the middle class youth of Bengal in the 1920s and 1930s. It was this consciousness which led the masses more and more to participate in the movements led by the National Congress during these decades. Yet, in these movements, they were continually being relegated to the half-visible but turbulent margins of national history. The Communist Party at this juncture offered a new platform for the combined struggle against colonial and semifeudal forces, and soon grew to a force to be reckoned with.
It was the situation of these decades-which would again be radically altered by the transfer of power in August 1947-that was Manik Bandyopadhyay's reality. His decision to become a writer, and a writer of a particular kind, was a historic choice determined by his commitment to this reality.
Two major personal decisions went into the shaping of Manik Bandyopadhyay's literary career. A bright student, he joined Presidency College, Calcutta, as an undergraduate with Mathematics Honours in 1928. By his own account, which need not be taken quite literally, it was accidentally that he launched upon the career of a writer. It was however quite in character that having come to this decision, he also came to the conclusion that to be a serious writer one's total commitment should be towards writing. It was for him not a part-time passion, but a vocation in the full sense of the term. In spite of resistance from the family he left college to give his whole time to writing, and apart from short stints of employment once or twice for his income, he depended throughout wholly on his pen. Considering the fact that his financial resources were almost nil and he soon had a family to support and considering the way in which literary middlemen like publishers and editors of big journals dominated the literary market even in the 1920s, the decision may seem to have been lacking in worldly wisdom. But for Manik Bandyopadhyay it was a well-considered decision and he was prepared to accept its consequences. He was confident of his own abilities as a writer as well as of his acceptance among Bengali readers. Quite often he had a raw deal from his publishers, but his faith in his readers was vindicated because he has remained one of the best-loved writers in Bengali fiction. Except in rare cases he made it a rule not to write without money. For him, the writer was a 'pen-wielding labourer' and must be paid for his labour.' Writing was generally an ill-paid job in his time, but Manik Bandyopadhyay never compromised his self-respect as a writer even in the most adverse circumstances.
The second decision-to join the Indian Communist Party- came in 1944, although he had been inwardly preparing himself for this for quite some time. The decision seems to have been the result of a process of development rather than of instant conversion. At this time, although he was still in his thirties, he was an established writer with some of his greatest achievements already behind him. It was a case of mature resolution rather than mere youthful enthusiasm. But it is impo sible to completely isolate the Marxist phase of his writing from the pre-Marxist. Since the socialized character of human reality had been one of his main assumptions as a writer of realist fiction, his initiation to Marxist thought only deepened his commitment to the exploration of this and opened up new possibilities of experimentation. It gave him a new perspective to his own earlier writings, but he continued to think of the latter as essential phases in his own development as a writer.
The Indian Progressive Writers' Association, founded initially in 1936, was the first democratic mass front of Indian writers and intellectuals organized through the initiative of a few intellectuals who were close to the Indian Communist Party. In 1942, after some years of stagnation, it was re-energized under the new name of Anti-Fascist Writers' and Artists' Association (AFWAA). According to a document for which so far no supportive evidence has been found, Manik Bandyopadhyay's name was included in the first committee set up to organize the Association.' His growing interest in the Marxist theory of class-exploitation and in workers' movements surfaced for the first time in his novel Shahartali, which came out in the annual Autumn number of Anandabazar Patrikii, 1939; communist activists first appear as characters in his novelette Pratibimba (pub. 1943). At the time AFWAA was formed, he probably had ample reason to be interested in this new organization. But even if he supported it, even if his name really was on the list of the first preparatory committee, he took time to be actively involved in it. Yet once the commitment was made, it was retained throughout his life. He became one of the most dedicated and active leaders of the movement, participating in all its organizational and propaganda activities. The beginning, in 1944, of his active involvement with AFWAA (later renamed Pragati Lekhak Sangha) found its logical culmination in his becoming a member of the Communist Party in the same year. Particularly after government repression was unleashed on Communists in 1948, many established publishers made Manik Bandyopadhyay's political opinions an excuse for much harassment, at a time when he was in a tight corner financially. But his conviction in his decisionremained unshaken, and in spite of many inevitable tensions, his party comrades remained his closest associates in the last years of his life.
The divisions made in this anthology roughly correspond to these developments in the author's life. Our intention is not to break up the short stories into a pre-Marxist and a Marxist phase, but to indicate the elements of continuity and development as well as the enormous variety of his style in each phase. Whether he is seeking to penetrate into the semi-bestial, 'prehistoric' life of Bhikhu and Panchi, or exposing the reptilean contortions of repressed middle class fears and desires or tracing the demolition of traditional feudal consciousness under the impact of famine and peasant upheavals, his problematic remains the same-to relate the individual to the social life around him. But there is also a clear development in narrative emphasis as we cross the decade separating the outlaw Bhikhu from settled peasant-turned-bandit-turned-settled-peasant Jogi in 'Chhiniye Khayni Keno?' Jogi's articulateness and his changeability can be pitted against Bhikhu's animal-like endurance, and even the seemingly unshifting world of Bhikhu may be seen to change and break up in 'Chhiniye Khayni Keno?' through a shift in narrative focus, and a new complex of social interactions.
The stories included in the second section of this anthology are of special interest when we think of them as having been written when the author was consolidating his Marxist point of view. The most representative stories of this period are not explicitly political ones like 'Haraner Natjamai' or 'Chhoto Bakulpurer Jatri'. Yet the skill in suggesting the complicated structure of power relationships in society, moving through sexual, familial and economic levels, is immensely sharpened in stories like 'Dhan Jan Jouban'. In fact, this skill is anticipated even in earlier stories like 'Atmahatyar Adhikar '. 'Mahakaler Jatar Jat' and 'Sarisrip': and in the stories included in the last section, the introduction of the suggestive detail is made with an even lighter, crisper touch as the narrator moves beyond the apparently unmoving circle of the family to the changes taking place in the life of an entire community and breaking up the family circle itself. The face of the individual flashes before us and then recedes among a multitude of other faces, the story of a family offers entry into the lives of other families.
The relative dearth of short stories between 1940 and 1942, the gradual recovery in 1944-45 and the great creative upsurge during 1946-49 may be related to the phases of his intellectual growth towards a more articulated world-view represented by Marxism. The development of his artistry as a short story writer must also be related to the aggravation of a national crisis in the 1930s and 1940s and the consequent opening up of new worlds of experience. These are the specific preconditions of his growth as a writer. On the other hand, it would be futile to see these divisions as breaks; the consistency of his realist mode is evident throughout his writings.
It was more or less in the 1920s that 'realism' as a literary concept, as a conscious description of a certain kind of literary practice, emerged in Bengal. A new generation of writers, grouped mainly around the periodical KaLlol, headed an upsurge of rebellion against the so-called 'romantic' heritage in Bengali fiction of Rabindranath and Saratchandra. This heritage, they said, lacked in contemporaneity; the absence in Bengali fiction of any explicit treatment of sexual behaviour in society and of the life of to middle class squeamishness seeking to exclude the more unpleasant aspects of reality from fiction. Today, with hindsight, one might say that the sound and fury of Kallol did not produce anything like a formal breakthrough leading to a fictional discourse that could encounter the changing reality. But at a time when peasants, workers and women were becoming indispensable forces and gaining a new visibility in the anti-colonial movement in the country, the rebels must at least be given credit for demanding a greater representation in fiction of problems pertaining to these groups.
Manik Bandyopadhyay has sometimes been claimed by the Kallol group as the last and the ripest fruit of their era. But his literary practice does not warrant this claim. He was a college student, about to launch upon a literary career, in the heyday of Kallol. Like them, he felt utterly dissatisfied with the same vast gaps in fictional discourse, the absence of the same areas of experience." He also maintained a distant cordiality with the Kallol group. But his mode of realism acquires a distinct stamp from the very beginning. While he learned from them (as he also learned from Saratchandra), he was also acutely conscious of the limitedness of their demands.
Western models or prototypes of realism, of course, always present themselves when the term is used in the Indian context. In earlier times, Walter Scott's ghost had always haunted Bankimchandra's reputation as a historical novelist, although the latter had evolved a radically different narrative mode. Now in the 1920s as a mark of defiance against the romanticism of Bengali fiction the Kallol group themselves professed to court the diverse influences of Knut Hamsun and Maxim Gorky. Manik Bandyopadhyay did not find such eclecticism helpful for an aspiring author and later pointed out the complete divergence between Hamsun and Gorky as realists." However, if he was on the lookout for a specific Indian realism, this does not mean that he had no wish to study and appropriate suitable elements from Western models of realism. Gorky seems to have held a special interest for Bengali writers from the 1920s and 1930s, particularly because of Gorky's preoccupation with the 'lower depths' of society. Possibly this is what initially attracted Manik Bandyopadhyay too to Gorky. After the Soviet Writers' Congress of 1934, another dimension was added to Gorky's reputation among Bengali writers. The writer who had heralded the proletarian revolution in Russia with The Mother, was now also seen as the spokesman for socialist realism. After 1942, in the AFWAA circles, issues raised by the Soviet Writers' Congress were often discussed. Manik Bandyopadhyay never mentions the term 'socialist realism' in any of his writings; but he must have been aware of this model of realism too. However, the essential point about his realism is that these models can only serve him as points of departure.
Thus the notion that in him we see a transition, as a writer, from Freudianism to Marxism, from 'libido' to economic relations as the dominant motive force in man seems to be misplaced. Not only is the antithesis too neat to be authentic, its terms are used in such a narrowsense that they do not describe Manik Bandyopadhyay's works at all. Like many of his contemporaries, Manik Bandyopadhyay was interested in Freudian psychology; but it was only certain special elements of Freudianism that he absorbed as a writer. For instance, in his study of the repressive ethos of Bengali middle class life in the way it shaped human behaviour, he found some common ground with the Freudian notion of 'abnormality'. But Manik Bandyopadhyay's presentation does not necessarily follow the Freudian model of abnormality; it is shown to arise out of its own specific context as a response to certain specific pressures. While sexual repressiveness has a very major role to play within this situation, Manik Bandyopadhyay is not interested in the notion of sexuality as an abstract, universal phenomenon; for him manifestations of sexuality are only identifiable within a definite set of power-relationships in the family or in society. Abnormality of sexual behaviour is part and parcel of a whole area of familial and socio-political relationships which, however, are regarded by the participants in them as perfectly normal. Manik Bandyopadhyay's presentation always seeks to expose how the eruption of the 'abnormal' arises out of the intricately repressive fabric of 'normality'. In 'Sarisrip', abnormality spreads to the whole world; the only person not infected is the half-witted Bhuban who alone retains normal human feelings. This interweaving of relations between the individual and his social milieu, characterizing even his earlier stories, takes the latter beyond 'Freudianism. '
Later in his life, he finds the main defect of Freudian psychology to-lie in the limitation of its categories to the individual psyche which is but an abstraction unless it can be seen as an open field for interactions among supra-personal social forces." But the positive content of this theoretical position had been a part of his literary practice from the beginning. Similarly, the transition to Marxism can certainly not be seen as signifying rejection of his interest as an author in the 'abnormal'. In other words, Marxism should not be seen as 'curing' his interest in the abnormal, as if it was nothing but an expression of the author's own abnormality. What amazes us in Manik Bandyopadhyay's realism is his complete freedom from sentimental or cynical excesses, a freedom embodied in the short stories in the fluidity of the narrative voice. It adapts itself endlessly to different modes of speech, different shades of meaning so as to weave individual behaviour into the texture of social interactions. In stories like 'Dhan Jan Jouban', 'Haludpoda', 'Ajkalporshur Galpo', 'Nomuna', studies of individual abnormality are found at different levels; but their realism consists in making us uncomfortably aware of the connection of this abnormality with the abnormality of the whole social set-up. In the earlier stories, similarly, the criminality embedded in Bhikhu or in Modhu the thief, is never a detached phenomenon; their sexual lust is seen as a brutalized mode of self-expression arising from their grim struggle for survival in a hostile world. These appear as parts of their total existence, the entire mesh of relations which they weave with their surroundings.
While it would be futile to trace any direct causal relationship of stories like 'Keranir Bou' and 'Haludpoda' to their author's evolution to Marxism, we can certainly say that there is a close link between what made him write these stories and what propelled his development to Marxist thought. The latter shows, like his stories, a sustained interest in the relations within our social life. But stories like 'Ajkalporshur Galpo', 'Chhiniye Khayni Keno?', 'Haraner Natjamai' and 'Chhoto Bakulpurer Jatri' bear much more direct and overt links with the shaping of his political belief. These can be called political stories in a more obvious sense. In these stories, the author breaks up his narrative style and builds it anew. Already in the volume of short stories published in 1944 (Bhejiil) he had changed over from the formal literary idiom with its sadhu verbal forms and preference for words closer to Sanskrit (at that time quite a lot in use in Bengali fiction), to the colloquial kathya idiom.
In the aforementioned political stories, this colloquial idiom is sharpened to achieve an economy that is rare in Bengali prose. The layout of an actual situation is pregnant with signals of the potential, the outline of one human face continually breaks, pressurized by suggestions of other possible faces. In the short prefaces to Ajkalporshur Galpo (1946) and Paristhiti (1946), Manik Bandyopadhyay finds it fit to emphasize two things: (a) the stories arise out of the immediate situation, and (b) they are linked with each other; he is trying to capture here the actual rhythm of change in the life of the people. A complex community of experience is achieved, breaking down the traditional self-contained unity of the short story.
As I have said at the beginning, we are leaving out much more in this anthology than we are able to include. But it has been our intention to outline some kind of a coherent pattern in the short stories. The labels of 'critical realism', 'socialist realism' etc have been deliberately avoided for reasons suggested above. In the last forty years, the concept of realism has gone through many transformations, and many new techniques have been discovered and absorbed by realism. But it has continued to be the insignia of great art. In the sphere of third world narrative, Latin American writers have shown that realism can survive its colonial, bourgeois-rationalist hegemonic inheritance. Manik Bandyopadhyay's realism, forty years back, took a very different route to find an indigenous identity. The unremitted attack against established aesthetic attitudes that his method exhibited made it a difficult one to follow. So he has been a lonely pioneer although there were many superficial imitators of his style. But the voice of the times speaks out in his fiction with a clarity and a depth that is unparalleled.
Children’s Books (474)
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