New Delhi: The exalted Bengali novelist and one of the leading minds behind the creation of Bengali prose, literary journalism and social satire, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was a literary genius in his own right, but not without contradictions.
The writer of India’s national song Vande Mataram, Chatterjee passed away on 8 April 1894, but his body of work continues to occupy an important position in literature and interestingly, in politics too, even today.
ThePrint remembers the illustrious writer on his 125th death anniversary.
Born on 27 June 1838 in a Brahmin family in Kanthalpara village near Naihati in what was then known as the Bengal Presidency, Chatterjee got married at the age of 11. However, after his wife passed away in 1859, he remarried. Chatterjee and his second wife, Rajlakshmi Devi, had three daughters.
Chatterjee went on to become one of the first graduates from Calcutta University, and after graduation, he was appointed the deputy collector of Midnapur by Lieutenant Governor of Calcutta in 1859. He later also acquired a degree in law from Presidency College in 1869.
He worked as the deputy collector serving the British government for 32 years and retired in 1891. It was during his stint as the deputy collector that existing social order and politics began to affect him. Chatterjee began to feel a fierce sense of commitment to the art of novel writing — almost as a means of defending it from the criticism that fiction-based works ‘lack human content’.
Chatterjee’s literary career began with poetry, before he realised fiction was his calling. His first novel Rajmohan’s Wife became the first ever English novel written by an Indian.
Although Chatterjee was a great admirer of the English language, he wanted to communicate ideas to the Bengali people in their own language.
About writing novels in Bangla, Chatterjee believed “…the language that alone touches their heart, vilifying and permeating the conceptions of all ranks, will work out grander results than all our English speeches and preaching will ever be able to achieve.”
Writer Sisir Kumar Das, one of the biographers of Chatterjee, said it is this passage by Chatterjee that “can be described as a manifesto of his plan to foster a new spirit of enquiry among the people of Bengal”.
Chatterjee, in all, wrote a total of 13 novels in his lifetime.
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His conflicting ideologies
Historians continue to debate over Chatterjee’s “real intentions” that drove his writing.
Tanika Sarkar, in her paper, Bankimchandra and the Impossibility of a Political Agenda sheds light on the seemingly contrary and mutually non-accommodating nature of Chatterjee’s worldview and ideologies.
According to Sarkar, Chatterjee was never a believer of “full-throated celebration of the non-Westernised Hindu way of life”, instead he insisted on internal reform, which would lead to greater emancipation of the community.
However, there was also a strand of thought in him that grew stronger with time. This line of thought believed in revivalist nationalism.
Sarkar believes Bengali Hindus opting to be loyal to the British in the revolt of 1857 ignited a sense of guilt and shame in Chatterjee. This, combined with pride in Hindu norms and a complete negation of the very possibility of internal reform as a means of resisting the British criticism of Hinduism, began dominating his worldview.
Another very significant event in Chatterjee’s life was his exchange with British Reverend Hastie of the General Assembly in 1882 who was rather brutal and acerbic in criticising Hinduism. Critics believe it was this encounter that led Chatterjee give up his writing on universal issues, and he became exclusively concerned with ideas of Hinduism and Hindu leadership. This explains why after 1882, his novels Raj Singh, Anandamath, and Sitaram had such prominent themes of Hindu empowerment.
However, in her paper The nation and the community: Hindus and Muslims in the novels of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, writer Ranjana Das argues while Chatterjee’s encounter with Reverend Hastie may have caused him to turn more dogmatic, the underlying tone of ‘otherness’ can be sensed in his earlier novels such as Durgeshnandini too.
Chatterjee was acutely conscious of foreign rule, but his work has been criticised for often seeing Muslims as “foreign” too.
“His novels suggest a pattern; from an implicit expression of uncrossable boundaries between the two communities, the novels subsequently assume forms of absolute dichotomy,” writes Das.
Nation in Bankim’s writings
One of Chatterjee’s greatest known works, the hymn Vande Mataram — the lines were part of his novel Anandamath — later became the national song of the country.
The original version begins with Sanskrit lines, moves to Bengali and then ends with Sanskrit. The song deifies the nation as the Mother — the female symbol of “giving”, and sustenance. But this mother, for all her magnanimous qualities, can also turn violent and vengeful when she needs to.
Chatterjee, using his exceptional illustrative abilities, creates an imagery of the nation as the Mother, thereby sanctifying the land itself. Evidently, this theme explored by the song continues to find its bearing on the politics of this country till today.
The song has seen a fair share of adulation as well as controversies over the years. Certain parts of the song refer to the nation as “Thou art Durga” — to which certain communities have objected to, as it goes against their monotheistic faith. The song has also been appropriated by different political parties at different points, to yield potential dividends.
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Death and legacy
Chatterjee passed away in 1894 in Calcutta when he was only 55 years old. His body of work left such an indelible mark on his readers that even two centuries later, his work continues to be taught, debated, and deliberated upon.
Following Chatterjee’s death, Rabindranath Tagore decided to resurrect his literary magazine Bangadarshan in 1901. Calling Chatterjee ‘sabyasachi’ (ambidextrous), Tagore said, “With one hand, he created literary works of excellence; and with the other, he guided young and aspiring authors.”
“Bankim created a language, a literature and a nation”, philosopher Sri Aurobindo said about Chatterjee’s contribution to the world of art and nation-building.