SARATCHANDRA CHATTOPADHYAY (1876-1938) was born in Devanandapur, an obscure village of Bengal. His childhood and youth were spent in dire poverty as his father, Motilal Chattopadhyay, was an idler and dreamer and gave little security to his five children. Saratchandra received very little formal education but inherited something valuable from his father-his imagination and love of literature. He started writing in his early teens and two stories written then have survived-‘Korel’ and ‘Kashinath’.
Saratchandra came to maturity at a time when the national movement was gaining momentum together with an awakening of social consciousness. Much of his writing bears the mark of the resultant turbulence of society. A prolific writer, he found the novel an apt medium for depicting this and, in his hands, it became a powerful weapon of social and political reform. Sensitive and daring, his novels captivated the hearts and minds of thousands of readers not only in Bengal but all over India.
Some of his best known novels are Palli Samaj (1916), Charitrabeen (1917), Devdas (1917), Nishkriti (1917), Srikanta in four parts (1917, 1918, 1927 and 1933), Griha Daha (1920), Sesh Prasna (1929) and Sesher Parichay published posthumously (1939).
Aruna Chakravarti took her master’s and PhD degrees in English literature from Delhi University. Her academic record has been a distinguished one, her doctoral dissertation on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala being described as a ‘valuable contribution to Anglo-Indian studies’, by one of her examiners. She taught in Delhi University for many years and retired as the principal of Janki Devi Memorial College.
Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of Srikanta fetched her the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award. Those Days, a translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Sei Samai, published by Penguin Books India in 1997, received rave reviews and became a best-seller. This was followed in 2001 by First Light, a sequel to Those Days. She has also written a novel, The Inheritors (2004), and has edited a volume of Bengali short stories, The Way Home (2006).
A Conscientious Translator Takes On The Formidable Task of bridging gaps between cultures and traditions of the world through the medium of a chosen author and language. The Italian proverb Traduttore tradure (a translator is a traitor) may warn him about the pitfalls that lie in his path but does not ask him to abandon his task. When the translation is of a work as immense in range and depth as the one undertaken in this volume, the difficulties of communication become almost insurmountable.
‘Why then’, the reader may ask,’ did you take it up?’ ‘For that reason, precisely,’ would be my answer. ‘The more hazardous the task-the greater the challenge’. But that, of course, is not all.
Srikanta is, without doubt, one of the most significant novels of our age and time-a novel that defies translation. This is not to say that it has eluded translation so far. A number of translation projects have been taken up and successfully concluded in the regional languages of India. But srikanta a national masterpiece that deserves international status. Hence the need for a translation in a link language such as English which can ensure an extension of its boundaries from a minority of Indian readers to a plurality of receiving minds from all over the world. That its author, Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya, recognized this is evident from his off expressed wish that Srikanta be translated into English.
In 1935, his young friend, Dilip Kumar Roy, published an English translation of his novel, Nishkriti. The work was conducted under the supervision of Aurobindo Ghose and an introduction was provided by Rabindranath Tagore. Many eminent scholars, European and Indian, took an interest in the project. But the choice of the novel did not meet with Saratchandra’s approval. He thought Srikanta more suitable than Nishkriti for projection to a Western readership, and urged Dilip Roy to take it up. ‘Why do you hesitate to translate Srikanta?’ he wrote in a letter dated 21 May 1935 and two months before that, ‘Take up Srikanta this time. I wish to see its English rendering before I die.’ (21 March 1935, Awara Masiha, by Vishnu Prabhakar, 1974). His wish was not fulfilled. Dilip Kumar Roy did not translate Srikanta.
Saratchandra’s desire to see the novel’s inclusion in the literature of the West was based on a conviction of its universal validity. Srikanta is more than a simple work of fiction. It offers a penetrating analysis of the life and culture of Bengal-itself a microcosm of India-in the century preceding our own. Yet it is no mere sociological document. The social attitudes depicted in the novel are far from obsolete and still exist, in some form or other, all over the country. The devaluation of the female-the prop and support of nineteenth century Indian society-is still a contditioning factor in everyday life. The bride burnings and dowry deaths that are reported in the newspapers every day; the treatment meted out to widows and abandoned women and the double standards that determine man-woman relationships, provide ample testimony to a woman’s low worth even in this last decade of the twentieth century.
But the last thirty years or so have also seen a shifting of values in certain sections of society. Contact with the West on a basis of equality has sensitized the educated Indian’s perception of women. A novel like Srikanta is particularly relevant in the present milieu, for the world it depicts is recognized as still existing in some places, and one that needs to be drastically changed. The enlightened of today’s India find themselves identifying with Saratchandra’s position with regard to women in a powerfully motivated manner. Saratchandra is, undoubtedly, our first and most fiery feminist writer. It was this recognition that he sought from the rest of the world.
Was the Bengali novel ready to contain a work like Srikanta? Was there any precedent in the writings of Saratchandra’s predecessors for his sensitive analysis and ruthless criticism of the pressures exerted on women? At one level, we discern a breadth of vision and a bold dismissal of tradition that point to a greater affinity with European writers of the present century than with his predecessors of the Bengali novel. Yet, woven into the fabric of his startlingly original interpretation of everyday life is a streak of preconditioning that unites him unmistakably with his forebears and foster a sense of continuity. Saratchandra’s contribution to the Bengali novel lies, therefore, not in a breaking away from the literary tradition he inherited but in an extension and development of it.
A survey of this tradition reveals three phases. The first is dominated by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya with his historical romance (Raj Singha), novels of social and domestic life (Visha Vriksha, Krishna Kanter Will) and novels that are a combination of the two (Durgesh Nandini, Kapala Kundala, Mrinalini). The concern is less with social and historical authenticity than with depicting a glamorous world of princes and warriors, ascetics and astrologers, dacoits and a decadent feudalism. His characters are flat, for the most part, as he avoids analysis. His heroes are male stereotypes of the times, and his heroines paragons of beauty and virtue. Bhramar, Prafulla and Suryamukhi live out the traditional ideal of chaste womanhood, reflecting their creator’s deep-rooted faith in the Hindu moral order. Romance is the keynote of Bankim’s world. All is colour and light, unmarred by shades of grey.
The death of Bankim saw a fading out of this world and an emergence of a new world-a real one peopled by living, breathing human beings. The earliest writing of Rabindranath Tagore, the dominant writer of this second phase, show traces of Bankim’s influence. Rajarshi and Bou Thakuranir Haat are historical romances up to a point. Nouka Dubi is strongly biased in favour of traditional morality. With Chokher Bali, however, Rabindranath makes a bold deviation from the course charted by Bankim. He creates the child-widow Binodini-universally acknowledged as a landmark character in the growth of feminist consciousness in Bengali fiction. Yet the reader gets the distinct impression that Rabindranath was not sure of how far he wanted to go along with Binodini’s rebellion. Rabindranath tears apart the cloud of romance and sentiment that clung to the image of the woman but not with a ruthless hand.
There is recognition and acceptance of Binodini’s sexual aspirations but no sympathy. Binodini’s rebellion gets her nowhere. Her behavior grows stranger and more bizarre as the novel advances and at its conclusion she is presented as an image of destruction.
Yet saratchandra, the lion of the last phase, owed a great deal to Chokher Bali. He inherited Rabindranath’s realism and his perception of suffering in a society hedged in by traditional norms. But if Rabindranath was satisfied with depiction and analysis, Saratchandra was not. He was an angry rebel who defended human failings and aberrations with passionate logic. His relentless questioning in Srikanta of the worth of religion and society that only oppress and destroy, brings the novel within the mainstream of serious world literature. Society, in Srikanta, wields power in two ways. It is an external force that seeks to crush individual aspirations through established insdtitutions and venerated traditions.
But it also dwells within and has to be struggled against. The characters of Srikanta are ruled by the norms they have inherited and imbibed over generations. But some among them-the finest and the most sensitive-have feelings and perceptions that are at variance with these norms. The first, the collective consciousness, is very strong, particularly in women, and so inextricably blended with the second, the individual consciousness, that they are often indistinguishable. Only in cases of extreme provocation do the two separate and are perceived in a state of conflict. The pain and suffering that follows is rarely resolved in death. Death glorifies the protagonist in European tragedy but Saratchandra’s world there is no glory. Death is incidental and tragedy is seen in terms of a slow crushing out of beauty and greatness. Man is robbed of his glory and therein lies his tragedy. A sense of waste pervades the world of Srikanta.
The two central characters, Rajlakshmi and Srikanta, whose lives and fortunes provide the connecting link in the series of episodes that make up the novel, epitomize this conflict and the resulting loss. Rajlakshmi’s conflict is the more overt for it derives from the dual personality she has been forced to assume over the years. Wedded as a child to an elderly Kulin and abandoned immediately afterwards, she is sold into prostitution by her own mother and becomes the notorious Pyari Bai of Patna-famed for her beauty and her skill in seducing men. Then, one day, in a prince’s retinue, she meets her childhood sweetheart, Srikanta, and the little Rajlakshmi she had cherished and nurtured within herself through the stormy years, quivers into life. But Pyari does not die altogether. She lives on-in silence, in secret, rearing her head in flashes. And thus the eternal battle goes on-between a reaching out for happiness and fulfillment and submission to a faith that robs her of all fulfilment. She questions this faith in bitter, stinging words but cannot root it out. She takes Srikanta by the force of her personality-fighting his feeble resistance with every weapon in her possession. But, having won him, has no use for him as he has not been given to her through the holy mantra of wedlock. This mantra, which means nothing to Srikanta, is so important to Rajlakshmi that she puts herself through a strenuous round of purificatory rites so as to be enabled to claim Srikanta as her goal relentlessly and pitilessly but the peace that comes from such self-denial eludes her. Her prayers and pilgrimages, her hours of meditation and moral instruction are marred by the consciousness of what she is doing to the man she loves. This swaying between two extremes becomes more and more painful. She tries to resolve it by deserting Srikanta and practicing the rigid austerities laid down by the Shastras for the life of a widow. Then, becoming aware of the sterility of it all, she returns to her lover. But there is no triumph in the reunion. Srikanta’s health is broken and he has learned to find security in a withdrawal from reality. And the bitter battle that Rajlakshmi has fought with herself over so many years has taken its toll-destroying all that was bright, beautiful and divergent in her. At the end of the novel she stands considerably reduced. She has become an automaton engaged from morning till night in soulless service.
Srikanta’s conflict is pitched at a much lower key for he lacks Rajlakshmi’s strength. Hence his fight is usually lost even before it has begun. Srikanta is less of a hero than any other hero of Saratchandra’s novels. An aimless drifter and passive spectator, he has hardly any ties with the world around him yet, like some strange and beautiful parasite, he cannot survive without the support of some other, stronger, form of life. As a young boy he idealized Annada Didi and her unswerving loyalty to the husband who, having raped and murdered her own sister, was a fugitive from justice. In his child’s vision she appeared larger than life. She assumed the dimensions of a goddess, of a Sita, a Savitri-chaste women of the epics and legends on which he was reared. This idealization coloured his view of women for many years. Then it faded as he came under the influence of others. From Abhaya he learns to challenge the very basis of the Shastras which exacts unquestioning obedience and unflawed chastity from the wife but leaves the husband free to follow his own inclinations. He understands that moral tradition is geared to the well-being of a dominant class and becomes a powerful weapon in its hands. The Brahmin used it to dominate the Shudra; the male uses it to subjugate the female. It is from Abhaya that Srikanta derives the strength to acknowledge Rajlakshmi as his wife at the end of the second book. But the effect is transitory. Before long his collective consciousness takes over and, though he loves Rajlakshmi, he feels trapped by her love. He has learned from Abhaya that to sacrifice happiness because a cruel world demands it, is a foolish waste-yet he cannot rise to the level of his own aspirations. Like Hamlet he cannot act.
The character of Abhaya is generally believed to be modeled on that of a battered wife of Saratchandra’s acquaintance in the mistri palli (a locality in which the majority of the inhabitants are mechanics or artisans) of Rangoon. This woman had a lover who was willing to rescue her from her brute of husband. Such slavish chastity must have appalled the novelist and made him realize that it was far from being a virtue. It was a waste of human potential and an affront to human dignity. What is more, it encouraged men in their evil ways. So he makes his fictitious character leaves her husband and live openly with her lover. Srikanta tries to build up a case in favour of traditional morality but it cannot stand the test of Abhaya’s intelligent cross-questioning. Abhaya’s fiery logic pulls it to pieces, for saratchandra evolves the brilliant, new technique of making the woman demand her rights in her own voice. He ensures a complete victory for Abhaya’s rebelconsciousness over that of her inherited one. There is a struggle but it is brief. Abhaya is the only character in the novel who refuses to accept alienation as a way of life and boldly carves out her own destiny.
Most of the other characters are also based on real people. Rajlakshmi is generally believed to be Dhiru-Saratchandra’s childhood playmate from his ancestral village of Devanandapur. The dare-devil Indranath with whom Srikanta goes off on midnight adventures is either Satish Chandra Bhattacharya of Devanandapur or Rajendranath Majumdar of Bhagalpur. Some biographers back one view, some the other. A third point of view-the most credible one-is that the fictitious character is a combination of the two.
Annada Didi is another character located in biography. As a child Saratchandra and his friend often visited a Muslim woman who lived with her snake-charmer husband in a little hut in Malirpur village across the Saraswati river. It is fact that, after her husband’s death, she sold her earrings to the grocer at Devanandapur and left five rupees with him with the instructions that they should be handed over to Saratchandra. She disappeared from the village soon afterwards.
Gahar is another character taken from real life. Three or four miles away from Devanandapur, across the Saraswati river, stood Sri Sri Raghunath Goswami’s akhra (a place where Vaishnavs assemble for religious worship). A Muslim couple, who had partially assimilated Hindu customs and beliefs, lived near the akhra and their son-gahar-was Sarat’s playmate. The only important character for whom no counterpart can be found in real life is the Vaishnavi, Kamal Lata.
And Srikanta himself? Is he and Saratchandra one and the same and do they share a single view of the world? By the novelist’s own admission they have a great deal in common. In a conversation with Kalidas Roy, he said that many of his experiences have been depicted as Srikanta’s.
‘But,’ he added, ‘they do not follow a common course. Fragments of experience, at different times of my life, have been presented as complete experiences…with the aid of the imagination.’
Saratchandra evolves an interesting blend of the subjective and the objective for his treatment of this most famous of his characters. With no other character, in his huge gallery, is his attunement more perfect and yet he is Srikanta’s bitterest critic. Rigorous and ruthless self-analysis goes hand in hand with intimate self-revelation.
The form of the novel reflects this contradiction. It is a fictional autobiography-a story of the growth of an artist’s consciousness. But there is no movement towards a predetermined conclusion. The overall impression is one of structural disruptions and indirect presentation. Though not a travelogue, Srikanta is built around many journeys-physical and spiritual. It has the noise and confusion of a departure, the weariness and monotony of a lengthy journey and the fatigue of a midnight arrival. A sense of ceaseless travel leading nowhere pervades the air. Its prevailing atmosphere is analogous to a nightmarish journey of the soul.
Asked once about what he considered Srikanta to be-a travelogue, an autobiography or a novel-Saratchandra replied , ‘A collection of scattered memories-nothing else.’ (Sarat Samiksha by Shudhwasatwa Basu, 1975.)
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