Books by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Others



Anandamath, or The Sacred Brotherhood: A Book Review

Ketaki Kushari Dyson

Bankimcandra Chatterji, Anandamath, or The Sacred Brotherhood, Translated with an Introduction and Critical Apparatus by Julius J. Lipner, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, ISBN 0-19-517858-0

Julius J. Lipner is Professor of Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion, and Chairman of the Faculty Board of Divinity at the University of Cambridge in England. Half-Czech and half-Indian by birth, he grew up in West Bengal and received his initial education in Calcutta, at St Xavier’s School and Jadavpur University. When he e-mailed me out of the blue, asking me to be on a panel of speakers at the launch of his latest book at the Nehru Centre in London, I felt honoured, but at the same time somewhat diffident, for I was in no sense a Bankimchandra expert: I had neither done any scholarly research on him, nor written on him, as had Sudipta Kaviraj, another scholar invited to speak.

I began my talk in a light vein, pointing out that I did have something in common with Bankimchandra Chatterjee, which the audience would never guess. The fact is that Bankim and I share the same date of birth! He was born exactly 102 years before me. Perhaps this knowledge did influence me and my life’s path in some subtle way. I was secretly very proud of the fact. My father was a great admirer of Bankim and bought me a complete set of his novels when I was just ten. By the time I was eleven, I had given a preliminary reading to all the novels. Later on, my father encouraged me to read Krishnacharitra and Kamalakanter Daptar. If I had been born in 1838 like Bankim, he would not have played the role in my life that he has done. Because I was born a century after him, he could become a kind of role model. He was always there, a venerable classic figure from whose books one could draw strength and guidance, and learn how to write good Bengali.

As if to fulfil some kind of internalized discipleship, I managed to get my second connection with the great man. When I first graduated in Calcutta, it was with English Literature as my Honours subject, but I also obtained the highest marks in the compulsory Bengali paper, thus getting the coveted Bankimchandra Chatterjee Medal. That too acted as a signpost in my life. At the time I got the medal after his name, I was just eighteen years old, and a budding poet. When, twenty years later, I made the decision to become a full-time writer and began writing my first novel, in Bengali, it was as if Bankim was quietly smiling at me. Some of my friends and family members did comment that it was an entirely appropriate decision for someone who had got the Bankim Medal.

So it is not as a Bankim scholar, but as a Bengali who grew up with the Bankim heritage and eventually became a Bengali writer, and thus an uttarasuri of Bankim, acknowledging him as a purvasuri, that I approach this new translation of Anandamath. The first thing I wish to say is that Julius Lipner has to be congratulated for putting this edition together. A translation of a classic into a contemporary idiom is always welcome. An old book is given a rebirth and a new lease of life among a different set of readers. And the critical apparatus Lipner has provided is erudite and impressive. I haven’t sat and compared his version with the original novel line by line. I have just dipped into his translation here and there, and my overall impression is positive. Lipner’s language is crisp and racy. No doubt there are spots where I might say to him: ‘This phrase might have been translated better this way,’ but in the case of literary translation no two persons ever agree about every issue. Lipner has produced a fluent and eminently readable translation, which is a laudable achievement. I must add that I really like his translation of the Vande Mataram hymn; it is poetic and rhythmic; the translation of the line ‘tomari protima gori mandire mandire’ as ‘Yours the form we shape in every shrine’ is particularly felicitous and appropriate.

His editorial decision to transliterate the Bengali letter cha sometimes with a ch (as in ‘Chatterji’) as is common in English and sometimes with a c in the fashion of Sanskritists (as in ‘Bankimcandra’) has left me somewhat bemused. Though this is a minor point, it has the potential to confuse some readers.

The long Introduction merits close study. Interestingly, Lipner has felt the need to justify ‘the viability of literary translation’ (p. 109) – I suppose because he was initially trained not in literature, but in another discipline. But translation matters even in religious studies, and Lipner cannot be unaware of that. Referring to our globalized world, he speaks of ‘the inevitability of translation in modern times’, but of course linguistic translation has played a seminal role in human intellectual endeavour throughout history. Indian stories were retold and emerged in Aesop’s fables; the Arabs translated Greek texts and brought new knowledge to Europe; the translation of the Bible played an important role in the history of Christianity; in India, where would we be without our vernacular versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? And in so far as Lipner is an Oriental scholar, he is himself an uttarasuri of men like Charles Wilkins and Sir William Jones, who translated Sanskrit texts and changed European perspectives.

So my message is: ‘Never fear, literary translation is a valid and extremely valuable intercultural act!’ Lipner asks: ‘Is Bengali a “subaltern” language? And does translation from Bengali into a world language like English, which dominates the global landscape today, serve only to endorse Bengali’s subject status, indeed to undermine its linguistic identity?’ (p. 119)

In my personal opinion, Bengali is certainly not a ‘subaltern’ language; I do not think that the adjective can be applied like that. I find this ‘subaltern’ a very problematic and insidious term: I don’t really trust it as a concept, and I agree with Lipner that it ‘calls for considerable contextual analysis’ (p. 119). If one accepts this kind of classification, one can easily become a subaltern. One of the reasons why I devote a good part of my time in diaspora to writing in Bengali is to remain my own captain and avoid being a subaltern of the London literary establishment. As for the second question in Lipner’s set of two questions, I wonder how the translation of a Bengali literary text into English can endorse the language’s subject status, or undermine its linguistic identity. If anything, the act of translation surely enhances the status of our language, puts it on the map! It would be a strange predicament indeed for us Bengali writers if others will not learn Bengali to read us, and nor can we be translated without our language losing its status and even its identity! It is as if we could never win, and must live in perpetual purdah. Others must not be allowed to read us! This particular question of Lipner’s puzzled me very much until he revealed, at the book launch, that this strange opinion was actually held by certain academics in Delhi who specialize in translation theory. It reminds me of those tribal people who do not like being photographed because they believe that the act of being photographed means that your soul or spirit is somehow being stolen.

Lipner has been shy about putting in more analyses of an overtly literary nature in his Introduction. In his Procedural Note he says that his Introduction ‘is not intended to be primarily a literary analysis of the novel, though it contains many literary observations.’ Later on he says that its aim is ‘more modest: to put the novel in context, and to suggest trains of thought that might open up the text to a deeper understanding’ (p. 48). I can see where he is coming from, from his own discipline of religious studies, and I have great faith in interdisciplinary research, and believe that there are many angles from which one can, and should, look at a literary text and thereby receive illumination, yet I would argue that when discussing a novel, the literary context ought to be the crucial context, the context that in an otherwise interdisciplinary investigation coordinates, binds together, and unifies the research work; otherwise one can get trapped in endless controversies from which there is no exit. To treat a foreign literary text solely as an example of religious belief, or a political project, or a heady mixture of both religion and politics, downplaying the literary aspect, is perhaps to make it an alien Other, and if a joke is permitted, even to subalternize it! It is similar to treating Tagore only as a religious teacher, a hallowed Gurudev, and not seeing him as an artist first.

Lipner’s discussion of the religion and politics in Anandamath is indeed very informed and nuanced; and I agree with most things in it; I am suggesting that putting it within an overall literary framework would have only saved him a lot of unnecessary hassle. Yes, Anandamath may have been used in politics, whether by nationalists in the past, or by the Hindu right of modern times, but that is certainly not the primary way I read it when growing up in Bengal. First and foremost, I read it as a novel, not as a historical novel in the precise sense, but certainly as a novel which made statements about certain historical events. Locating his narrative in the time of ‘chhiyattorer manvantar’ or the famine of the Bengali year 1176, Bankim clarifies how in the 1770s the era of Muslim rule in Bengal was over and why British rule was to be welcomed. The nawabs of Bengal had become degenerate rulers, not looking after their subjects. In that way they had betrayed the people and forfeited support. Bengali Hindus needed to cooperate with their new masters because they could learn new things from them. But they are not being asked to become slaves; surely the era of foreign rule must also come to an end one day, because isn’t love of the motherland a central theme of the novel?

I must honestly admit that when I was growing up in Bengal in the fifties I did not come across people who thought of Anandamath as an anti-Muslim book or as having an anti-Muslim agenda. Nor did I think in that way myself. I couldn’t, because I saw this book as part of a literary corpus, one novel amongst other novels written by Bankim. How could the creator of a character like Ayesha in Durgeshnandini and the many Muslim characters portrayed with sympathy in Rajsinha be anti-Muslim? In my opinion, the contextualized criticism of 18th-century Muslim rule in Bengal contained in Anandamath does not automatically make it an ‘anti-Muslim’ book. It is only in my British life that I have become aware that some people view the book as anti-Muslim. I must say that I do not agree with the opinions Lipner quotes from Tanika Sarkar or Akbar Ahmed, and I agree with the way he deals with their opinions.

On pp. 67-68 of Lipner’s book Tanika Sarkar is quoted as saying: ‘Since the British have something to impart to the Hindu, Hindu empowerment, it seems, must unfold within an overarching colonial framework. It is the Muslim, the vanquisher of generations of past Hindus, who will be the great adversary of the new Hindu. This is the concluding note and message of Anandamath.’ I sense a hiatus between the first sentence and the second sentence. There seems to be a non sequitur there. That Hindu empowerment would happen within a colonial framework is obvious, and this is part of the novel’s concluding message, but why the Muslim would in future be ‘the great adversary of the Hindu’ is not explained, and I certainly do not see this as part of the novel’s concluding message.

On p. 70 of Lipner’s book Akbar Ahmed is quoted as saying: ‘There is a direct causal relationship between Anandamath, written in 1882, and the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1992.’ Faced with this kind of reasoning, one could well ask whether in that case there was ‘a direct causal relationship’ between the Koran and the destruction, by Muslims, of numerous Hindu temples in India in the past.

As for the Hindu right using the text of Anandamath for their own purposes, we all know that the devil can quote from the scriptures for his own purposes. Now that Lipner has made a new translation available, with an excellent critical apparatus, people can think through these issues again, and more carefully.

The use of religious imagery to enliven patriotism in the Vande Mataram hymn is certainly not jingoistic or bigoted. It is a beautiful, stirring poem in praise of the motherland. My mother taught me the words and the tune in which it is usually sung before I read the book. It is a patriotic song which begins in the shape of a hymn, but it is not partisan or exclusive or anti-anything. It is asking people to think of the land as a mother, which is a perfectly legitimate exercise of the human imagination. The earth as a mother is an important image in the poetry of Tagore. Does that make Tagore suspect? The identification of the Motherland and the Mother Goddess in Bankim is, as Lipner rightly points out, through the fusion of the clay of the image and the clay of the motherland (p. 88). I myself used the clay image in one of my English poems; writing about severe floods just before the Durga Puja in 1978, I wrote:

Not She who laughs above Her soggy icons,
but our land, huts, bodies
are the infinite shapes of clay.

Does that make me a partisan poet? Poetry may have philosophical elements, but is not identical with philosophy. Poetry proceeds through concrete images, by making elusive ideas incarnate, giving them bodies and names, and is always embedded in cultural contexts. European poetry is often steeped in Christian imagery, but we do not object to that, do we? Traditional images are simply part of a poet’s toolbox. A poet has the right to use the tools at his or her disposal. There is no sinister agenda behind that.

I do think that acknowledging Anandamath as a literary text gets us out of unnecessary controversies. There may be a nationalist project in it, but first and foremost it is a literary text. I do not agree with the Bengali critic from whom Lipner quotes on p. 107, who says that Anandamath is not a novel, but a nineteenth-century parable of indigenousness, that there are many actors in this novel, but not a single character-portrayal. It may not be one of Bankim’s top novels, but it is a work of fiction all right. Bhavananda and Jibananda are certainly not mere types. Kalyani, Shanti, and Jibananda’s spirited sister Nimaimoni are not types, but credible women. If we neglect the female characters in the novel, we miss much of the humour. Gauri Devi cooking is drawn in brief brush-strokes, but is unforgettable. Shanti’s cross-dressing might have been derived by Bankim from Shakespeare’s plays. I think the female is important in this novel not only through the mother-image and the image of the faithful wife and loyal companion, but also through the daughter-image. After all, it is a little girl, the daughter of Kalyani and Mahendra, who is miraculously saved. The child that escapes murder is not a boy, but a girl. She is cherished. The novelist is determined to save her. Straightforward literary-biographical analysis tells us that Bankim, as an enlightened father of three daughters and with no sons, and as someone who enjoyed companionship with his wife, writes about the girl-child with deep sympathy.

Looking at the book as a novel also shows us the Muslim question in perspective. The agon or ‘contest’ in Bankim’s soul that Lipner hints at is also part of the ‘sthaan-kaal’ of the novel: the 1770s, the collapse of Muslim rule in Bengal, and the great famine of the Bengali year 1176. The novelist is not making a final statement about any community for all time, but showing characters speaking and interacting in an imagined juncture of time. As someone who has written both novels and plays, I feel bound to point out that dialogues put in the mouths of fictional or dramatic characters do not define the novelist or dramatist. Characters are speaking, not the author in his own person. Macbeth, not Shakespeare, is the murderer. It is a fact that when people are angry, they swear and use bad language. A writer portrays such scenes, but that does not mean that such language necessarily mirrors the author’s personal thoughts or attitudes. Similarly, as Lipner rightly points out, the location of the Sannyasi rebellion and of the temple complex and similar details are worked out by the author using both his observed realities and his imagination. A novel or a drama is always a composite material.

I end with a couple of comments. Personally, I find bhadralok, like subaltern, an overworked category, but I am not sure why Lipner identifies the bhadralok with men only (p. 4). I would say that women also belong to it, are included in it, and that is how some other historians see it. Secondly, when he says, on the same page, that ‘women’s emancipation as we understand it today was hardly a gleam in anyone’s eye’, the exact period being referred to is not altogether clear from the context. It gets blurred. Is he talking about the end of the 18th century, or the middle of the 19th? If the reference is to the middle of the 19th century, then one must point out that by then the question of women’s emancipation, especially their education, had certainly become a gleam in the eyes of some people. This was an important issue in the Bengal Renaissance. Suttee was made illegal in 1829, the Victoria School, later the celebrated Bethune School for Girls, was founded in 1849, and the act permitting Hindu widows to remarry was passed in 1856. According to the scholar Ghulam Murshid, women’s writings in Bengali began to appear in print from the 1850s onwards. And in the oral tradition there were nursery rhymes, songs, and fairy tales composed by women long before that.

But these are minor questions. This book is undoubtedly a fine addition to the treasury of Bengali literature available in English translation, and I recommend it to both scholars and lay readers.

(This review is based on a talk given at The Nehru Centre, London, on 18 November 2005, on the occasion of the launch of the book.)

Published December 12, 2005

Ketaki Kushari Dyson [ketakI kushaarI Daaisan*] was born in Calcutta in 1940 and educated at Calcutta and Oxford. She has been based in England since ... (more)

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