Brave new words in 1845?
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Over the past couple of weeks, George Orwell’s 1984 has suddenly become required reading, and has even reached No.1 among fiction in the Washington area, according to The Washington Times. No points for guessing why. But what could possibly have prompted Kylas Chunder Dutt to write, in 1835, a novella titled A Journal Of Forty-Eight Hours Of The Year 1945? Not even two decades had passed after Mary Shelley had written Frankenstein, arguably the first-ever proper science fiction novel. What odds that a work belonging to the same genre would appear in distant Calcutta (now Kolkata) within the lifetime of Mary Shelley?
Kylas Chunder was a student in Calcutta’s famed Hindoo College, and belonged to the storied Dutt family of Rambagan. The novella—or rather short story, since it ran to just over 5,000 words—appeared in the June 1835 issue of the English-language periodical Calcutta Literary Gazette and described an imaginary armed uprising against the British in 1945, opening with the following stirring lines:
“The people of India and particularly those of the metropolis had been subject for the last 50 years to every species of subaltern oppression. The dagger and the bowl were dealt out with a merciless hand, and neither age, sex, nor condition could repress the rage of the British barbarians. These events, together with the recollection of the grievances suffered by their ancestors, roused the dormant spirit of the generally considered timid Indian.”
Within the first few lines appears the viceroy of India, glorying in the name of Lord Fell Butcher, whose “refined cruelties” are expatiated upon by one Bhoobun Mohun, “a youth of twenty-five splendidly attired in kincaub and gold”. Bhoobun Mohun gives a rousing speech on the “inordinate rapacity of our present odious government” but this is soon followed by a bayonet charge by a squadron of the British army, leading to the following scene of battle:
“The clashing of swords, the discharge of guns, the shrieks of the wounded and the groans of the dying made a fearful noise. During this bloody transaction our hero was not a silent spectator of the scene. He ordered his attendant to bring his proud war horse, and having adjusted his clothes with military nicety, he buckled his pistols round his waist, waved his sword and mounted his charger. Receiving the benediction of the venerable priest who stood trembling a few paces distant, and whispering a prayer to Heaven to strengthen his arm, he darted himself into the midst of the fray. Lieutenant Martin, mad with rage, confronted him and aimed a furious blow at him which he eluded with great dexterity. Escaping the blow, he in his turn gave a smart rap on the head of his antagonist, which made him reel in his saddle for a minute or two.”
There’s more of this, though it all ends rather badly for Bhoobun Mohun. There is enough evidence in the story to suggest that the writer was probably channelling scenes from the French Revolution, down to the guillotining. But why Kylas Chunder chose to write such a story in 1835—the year in which governor general Lord Bentinck demitted office—remains unclear.
A decade later, another member of the Dutt family, Shoshee Chunder Dutt, wrote a similarly futuristic work titled The Republic Of Orissa; A Page From The Annals Of The Twentieth Century, which came out in the Saturday Evening Hurkaru of 25 October 1845. When the work was later anthologized in an 1870 collection of Shoshee Dutt’s other works, the author felt it necessary to enter the following disclaimer: “That the object of this paper may not be misunderstood, it is perhaps necessary to state that it was written…long before the days of mutiny and disloyalty. It has been included in the present collection because the author believes the harmlessness of the squib to be too apparent to give rise to any misconception.”
Though not as rousingly told as Kylas Chunder’s alternate history, Shoshee Chunder too shows the British under the generalship of Sir G. Proudfoot marching into Orissa (now Odisha) in the year 1919, and crushing an insurrection with great cruelty. But the tables are swiftly turned at the Battle of Jumna in 1921 and the British army is routed, leading to the independence of the republic of Orissa, and the subsequent waning of the British raj in India: “We regret for its fallen grandeur;—we regret to see an imperial bird, shorn of its wings and plumage of pride, coming down precipitately from its aëry height.”
Brave new words in 1845? A century would pass before Shoshee Chunder’s prophecy would come true.
Endpapers is a monthly column on obscure books and forgotten writers. Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and is director, Jadavpur University Press