Ghulam Murshid, Lured by Hope: A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003. ISBN 0-19-565362-9. Pp 238 + xvi
‘You may take my word for it, friend Raj, I shall come out like a tremendous comet and no mistake,’ wrote Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73) to his friend Rajnarayan Basu in July 1861. The appearance of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (i.e. Datta) in Bengali literature was indeed not unlike that of a striking comet; perhaps the only ‘mistake’ in this self-assessment, as Michael’s biographer Ghulam Murshid has pointed out, was in his use of the future tense. When he penned these words, Michael was already at the peak of his literary career, well-established as the most important poet and playwright of the new Bengal of his times. Intellectually, he was a rebel and a product of the Bengal Renaissance, and challenged much of the value system encoded in traditional literature; a gifted linguist, he taught himself several Oriental and Occidental languages, and was well-read not only in English literature, but also in other European literatures, including the Greek and Latin classics. A naturally talented writer, he was thus in an excellent position to mediate many new foreign influences to Bengali letters. He became a major innovator and experimenter in formal matters, introducing blank verse and the sonnet form into Bengali poetry; he was an important pioneer in dramatic writing; he wrote a grand heroic-tragic epic in nine cantos which is quite unique in the corpus of Bengali literature; inspired by Ovid, he wrote poems about the sorrows and hurts of love spoken by women in an epistolary or dramatic monologue mode. A hundred and thirty years after his death, his eminent stature in the field of Bengali writing is not questioned. The fact that he began by writing in English, then, persuaded of the futility of that endeavour, turned his attention to the mastering of his neglected mother tongue, and ended up by becoming the most important modern precursor to Rabindranath Tagore in poetry and drama, has had a special appeal to Bengali pride. This turn-round has endeared him to his readers and enhanced his status.
In addition, Michael’s exceptionally colourful personality and his unconventional, dramatic, and in many ways tragic life have added to the magnetism and glamour of his name. Generous in friendship, romantic and passionate by temperament, he was also fond of the good life, financially irresponsible, and an incorrigible spendthrift. He experimented not only in the field of writing, but also in his personal life. The only son of a well-to-do kayastha family with roots in Jessore, he was sucked into the vortex of new ideas while studying at Calcutta’s famous Hindu College. He ran away from home and converted to Christianity to escape an arranged marriage. Unable to continue his education at Hindu College, he went to study at Bishop’s College. He then went to work in Madras, where he married a woman who was three-quarters white and had a family by her. Later he abandoned his first family and lived with another woman who was fully or partially white and had a second family by her. Although the British in India in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries often married or lived with native women, the reverse situation, of Indian men marrying or living with white women, was very rare. Michael went to London to become a barrister; he and his second family lived for some time in Versailles in France, because Michael thought it was cheaper to live there than in London. Much of his time abroad, especially in Versailles, was spent in abject poverty, as the money from his late father’s estate on which he was relying did not come regularly. He fell hopelessly into debt and appealed repeatedly for help to that great personality, the scholar, social reformer, and activist Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, who laboured to ensure that sums owed to Michael from his property at home were remitted to him. After some delay, the poet did eventually return as a barrister and practised in Calcutta for a while, but gifted as he was, he was also his own worst enemy, and he was not able to make such a great success of his legal career. His extravagant life-style, fecklessness in money matters, and reckless drinking to drown problems conspired to wreck his health and happiness, and likewise the health and happiness of his second partner, who had also succumbed to alcoholism during her days of poverty in Versailles. They died prematurely, within days of each other, leaving orphaned children.
Colourful as Michael’s life was, the absence of a reliable modern biography, one that could separate the facts from the numerous fictions that had sprung up round his name, had long been a regrettable gap in the critical literature on him. Ghulam Murshid’s biography of Michael, Ashar Chhalane Bhuli, first serialized in the magazine Desh and subsequently published in book-form (Ananda Publishers, Calcutta, 1995; revised and enlarged edition, 1997), has been a milestone in Bengali biographical writing. Dr Murshid, formerly of Rajshahi University and a resident of London for several years, is an author with many titles to his credit. He is a well-known essayist and a meticulous scholar with a distinct penchant for historical researches. Among his other important books, I am personally familiar with Rabindra-visve Purbabanga: Purbabange Rabindra-charcha (1981), Reluctant Debutante: Response of Bengali Women to Modernization, 1849-1905 (1983), and Kalantare Bangla Gadya (1992).
Making good use of his location in London, Murshid has explored many published and unpublished sources of information which have a relevance to the vita of Michael, in particular the archival records and institutional publications from colonial times which are available in Britain and France. With the help of such sources he has been able to unearth new facts, correct many previously held misconceptions, and cast new light on areas of Michael’s life which had been veiled to the public eye before. In particular, his assiduity in chasing records of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths is exemplary. His work has been invaluable in establishing the real identity of the two women who shared Michael’s life, Rebecca Thompson and Henrietta White. In my generation we grew up with the notion that Henrietta was his second wife and that she was French. She was neither. She was also from the English-speaking circle of Madras. Her father was a friend and colleague of Michael’s, and she and Michael became close after she had lost her own mother and her father had remarried. She and Michael do not seem to have been formally married, presumably because Rebecca had never granted him divorce. There is no record either of their marriage or of Michael obtaining a divorce from Rebecca. Henrietta and her children were fluent in French because of their French sojourn, but as Murshid points out, had she been of French ethnic origin, her name would have been Henriette, not Henrietta. Prior to Murshid’s definitive researches, even this very simple clue hadn’t been followed up by anybody. Murshid has been able to show that Rebecca Thompson was an orphan who was three-quarters white (with a British father and a mother who was classified as an ‘Indo-Briton’). Henrietta’s father George Giles White was clearly British, but her mother Eliza might have been either British or Eurasian.
Murshid’s documentation has been specially valuable for the reconstruction of those dramas of Michael’s life which were enacted away from Calcutta, those relating to his years in Madras and his life in Europe, but his special forte as a literary biographer is that he is interested not just in presenting discrete facts, but in making connections between them, in presenting facts in their contexts, and weaving all the details into a narrative that flows. His biography is packed with social, cultural, and intellectual history, and is outstanding in making connections: between the man and the work, between Michael’s life-experiences and the themes developed and elaborated in his poetry and drama. Michael thus emerges as a figure in three dimensions whose works of art are elucidated by his life-story. In particular, Murshid shows in detail how Michael projected onto his art his suffering and sense of guilt at the failure of his marriage to Rebecca and his abandonment of his first family. Michael did not speak openly about this aspect of his life to his friends, but his emotional turmoil is recorded in his poetry and drama: if we know how to decode it, we can read it clearly, and Murshid helps us to do it. This is a real triumph for a literary biographer.
It is therefore good to see that Oxford University Press, New Delhi, has issued an English version of this book. Gopa Majumdar, a professional translator with many published works of translation, writes a fluent, idiomatic style, and the book should be a good read for those who cannot access the original work. Let us hope that this book will introduce the colourful figure of Michael Madhusudan Dutt to those who have never heard of him, and fill in some of the much-needed details for those who have heard his name but know little else about him. A commendable feature of the English edition is the Select Bibliography that has been compiled by Murshid and appended to the end of the book. Regrettably, though, there is not a single portrait of Michael Madhusudan anywhere in the entire book, not even on the front or back cover. I must say I cannot applaud this decision of the publishers. For a biography not to show the face of the person whose life is being unravelled, when one or two authentic likenesses are available, is odd indeed. The Bengali book has an abundance of pictorial material (though not always very well reproduced), and I think readers do value the visual quality. Pictures, even faded and blurred pictures, help to make a book reader-friendly and arouse interest in the subject. A few illustrations, a few human faces to relate to, a few facsimiles of documents: such things make all the difference to the feel of a book, and I would say that in a biography they are indispensable. This book could have easily had a few faces, a few documents, a sample of the poet’s handwriting, the title-page of one of his books, perhaps a photograph of his grave, but it has no such visual material, just the English text, which seems to say to us: ‘Don’t look for anything else. Here there is only one modality, the textual.’
Sadly also, the literary resonances in the title and chapter-headings of the original book have been silenced. The title of the book, accurately translated from the original Bengali title, comes from a line of Michael’s poetry, but nowhere in the book is that explained. Indeed, the original title, Ashar Chhalane Bhuli, along with its full bibliographical details, does not seem to get a mention anywhere, which is odd. The six original chapters were each named after fragments of Michael’s lines, but all that has been abandoned. There are not even page headers telling us in which chapter we are. The additional chapter, where Murshid had lovingly gathered together information about Michael’s descendants, has been jettisoned. This was a strange decision, I think; in my opinion, this additional chapter would have enhanced the overall attraction of this book to general readers. Besides, Michael’s own descendants are all English-speakers. Some are settled in Australia, but a few (I hear) are still living in India, and a few could even be in Britain. Some of these descendants might well have taken an interest in this book, and could have perhaps brought a few more facts to light, if this chapter had been made available in English.
The transliteration of Bengali words and names in the Roman script is a nightmare for anybody working with Bengali material in English. In her ‘Translator’s Note’ Ms Majumdar says: ‘The main difficulty lay in the absence of certain letters in the Bengali alphabet, ‘v’ in particular.’ That, I would have thought, was the least of our problems! We can soon adopt a compromise over the v/b problem. Essentially, the ‘v’ has disappeared from Bengali. There is only ‘b’. The real hurdles in representing Bengali are much more formidable. First, a decision has to be reached on whether we represent the pronunciation or the orthography. Secondly, unless extra symbols and markings are used, the usual apparatus of the Roman script, as used in English, is very inadequate for reproducing many of our sounds. The difficulty really is that the Roman script, as it is used in English, lacks enough letters for representing Bengali. The difficulty of distinguishing between the dental consonants and the cerebral consonants, of distinguishing between the short ‘a’ and the long ‘a’, or between the short ‘a’ that is pronounced as ‘aw’ as in ‘awkward’ and the short ‘a’ that is pronounced as ‘o’: these are some of the genuine problems with which we have to struggle. Everybody has to adopt some compromise or other. On the one hand, the way we say things has to be respected; on the other, if spellings are wrenched away too much from the way they have been represented for a very long time, people have difficulty in recognizing them, and communication, the very purpose of all language, is affected. I was amused to see in this book the spelling ‘Janhabi Debi’ (the name of Michael’s mother); the representation of the conjunct is close to the way we would pronounce it, but I wonder if other Indians will realize that we do still write it as ‘hn’, not ‘nh’! But I was more amused to see ‘Dushyant’, for we never pronounce it that way! That’s the Hindi pronunciation; in Bengali we do not drop the end-vowel! How has that crept in? And Manomohan Ghosh, usually written Manomohan Ghosh in this book, has become Manmohan at least once (p. 161)! But these are the hazards of the business of writing and being published, like typos. Talking of those, I have noticed a handful, of which ‘a hundred year’s time’ for ‘a hundred years’ time’ sticks out on the first page of the Foreword, and likewise ‘I did what I could do [to?] streamline and edit’ sticks out in the Translator’s Note (p. xv). ‘Alexandra’ puzzled me slightly on p. 158, until I was reassured in a few lines that ‘Alexandria’ was meant. However, ‘Laudon Street’ twice on pp. 195-96 is a more serious error; it needs to be Loudon Street.
In the second part of this article I wish to concentrate on the translation aspect of this book. Those who are not interested in the details of translation issues need not plough through this second section, but to those who are, it could be like a translation workshop. Before I leave this section, I should mention that Murshid has edited the letters of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, which are all in English, and that book is forthcoming from OUP Delhi. We look forward to it.