The contemporary Indian novel might be said to have two strains. The first is the Indian novel in English, and its best-known representatives are household names: Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Chandra, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga. The second is the Indian novel in languages other than English, and who the great names are in this space depends very much on the language and geographical location of the reader. The English-speaking reader, relying solely on translations and looking down again from a pan-Indian perspective, might say that currently these are the Bengali novelists Sankar and Mahasweta Devi, the Tamil writer Salma, the Hindi writer Alka Saraogi, the Oriya writer Chandrasekhar Rath, and the Rajasthani folklorist Vijay Dan Detha.
One remarkable aspect of the Indian novel is that both these strains trace their origins in the work of one man, Bankimchandra Chatterji (1838-1894). The first Indian to take a BA under the new English-medium educational system set up by the British, Chatterji thereby came under the influence of the novel, then a prose form unknown in India. Chatterji’s first novel, Rajmohan’s Wife (1865), written while he was a young deputy magistrate in the newly established Indian civil service, was composed in English.
Debi Chaudhurani:Oxford University Press, 276 pages, Rs495.
But thereafter Chatterji switched to his native Bengali for his fiction (while continuing to keep up a wide-ranging correspondence, often with fellow Bengalis, in English—this itself is a question worth exploring at greater length). In the dozen or so novels he wrote over the next three decades, he hauled Bengali literary language forward into the modern world by making it more free-flowing, less formal, more idiomatic, while also exploring religious and nationalist themes that were animating the Bengal and India of his day. The most popular of his books was Anandamath (1882), which tells the story of a band of forest warrior-monks striving to rid Bengal of both Muslim and British foreign rule, and contains the song Vande Mataram, one of the rhetorical pillars of the nationalist movement and an object of controversy to this day.
English translations of almost every one of Chatterji’s Bengali novels are easily available (five of them, in translations by different hands, are in a Chatterji omnibus published by Penguin in 2005). But so far the late novel Debi Chaudhurani (1884), a key text in Chatterji’s oeuvre, had remained untranslated. Now that breach is filled by Julius Lipner, a professor of Hinduism at Cambridge, who published a translation of Anandamath also in 2006.
Debi Chaudhurani is the story of a young woman, Prafulla, who is thrown out of her bridal house after some allegations are made against her. Prafulla disappears into the forest and re-emerges some years later as Debi Chaudhurani, a dreaded female bandit embodying both shakti, or female power, and dharma, or a Hindu ideal of righteousness.
Late in his own life, Chatterji had become something of an ideologue, deeply invested in the question of what a revitalized Hindu society would look like (contemporary Hindu nationalism boasts of no such figure who also writes novels). To his mind, such a society would have to keep up a deep engagement with the glories of Hindu tradition, while also embracing modernity and refashioning its understanding of caste so that privileges were now meshed to responsibilities.
What is remarkable is that he chooses a woman to embody this regeneration. In the forest, Prafulla is trained in the Sanskrit texts (such as the Gita, from which the novel draws its closing line) and arts by Bhabani Pathak, a benevolent bandit, and returns to society as “a sharpened weapon” in order to reform it. Lipner’s extensive introduction and notes provide a rich context in which to appreciate the novel.
The contemporary Indian novel in English is usually reluctant to engage with Hinduism, restricting its representation to the odd puja, decadent Brahmin, or saffron-clad right-wing leader. But the glories and dilemmas of “the Hindu way of life” are vividly explored in this fascinating work by the first great Indian novelist.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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