x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The bandit queen of Bengal

A new English translation of the classic Indian novel Debi Chaudhurani offers a powerful early vision of Hindu nationalism, writes Chandrahas Choudhury

An idol of Hindu goddess Druga before its immersion in the River Ganges at the Durga Puja festival in Kolkata, West Bengal.
An idol of Hindu goddess Druga before its immersion in the River Ganges at the Durga Puja festival in Kolkata, West Bengal.

A new English translation of the classic Indian novel Debi Chaudhurani offers a powerful early vision of Hindu nationalism, writes Chandrahas Choudhury Debi Chaudhurani, or The Wife Who Came Home Bankimchandra Chatterji Translated from the Bengali by Julius Lipner Oxford University Press Dh38 Hindu nationalism today has a considerable presence in Indian politics: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and smaller state-level organisations; support in sympathetic publications and TV channels; even celebrity endorsement. But one realm that has been persistently indifferent to the allure of Hindu nationalism, whether in its benign or militant incarnations, is the Indian novel, particularly the Indian novel in English.

Hindu nationalism argues that Hinduism is the engine of Indian history and asserts the cultural equivalence, or at least the overlap, of the terms "Indian" and "Hindu". It believes that Hinduism in India has for centuries been under siege by foreigners: first Muslim invaders from the north-west who converted swathes of Indian society to Islam; then the British. It holds, further, that modern-day Hinduism continues to move towards marginalisation because of the encroachment of proselytising religions (in contrast, one cannot convert to Hinduism), the neglect of the secular Indian state, and the lack of religious consciousness and embarrassment about religious assertion exhibited by Hindus themselves.

Yet the story of India's past and present narrated by the Hindu right rarely makes it into fiction, except within an ironic frame. The political rise of Hindu nationalism over the last three decades has generated many persuasive ideologues, but the movement does not, in English at any rate, have a house novelist, someone to turn ideas and abstractions into characters and plots. This is a shame. Firstly, it allows Indian novelists of a certain ideological disposition a free run of the land. The result is often a facile secularism, a kind of reflexive celebration of India's diversity, that borrows its vocabulary and its tropes from well-worn ideas, and thus has no linguistic or narrative energy to call its own. Tellingly, when Hindu nationalists appear in such novels, they are condemned from first sight by the narrator as zealots, driven by anger, hate, and lust (Arya in Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva, or the cartoonish Minister Prasad in Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay).

Secondly, it would appear that there is a want of serious engagement in the Indian novel in English not just with Hindu nationalism, but with the immense weight of Hinduism itself. Not only is Hindu nationalism artistically unfashionable (except as a convenient source of villainy and conflict), its absence points to a deeper failing that, ironically, might be seen as lending credence to the Hindu nationalists' complaint about cultural marginalisation. Barring exceptions such as Raja Rao's Kanthapura, Hinduism itself is rarely explored or interrogated in an extended way in modern Indian English-language novels.

This suggests a narrative orientation in the Indian novel in English that is not just politically centrist or left-of-centre, but which engages with religion more at the level of observation and backdrop than of sympathetic immersion or experience. Hinduism's massive repository of ideas, fables, images, exemplars, proverbs, aphorisms and narrative structures have left an impression on the Indian novel in English far smaller than the one that it exerts on public and private life in India. One might say that, while Hinduism should be part of the Indian novelist's wealth, the challenges of realising this worldview persuasively in English are such that it is usually treated as a tax.

This background makes all the more significant the appearance of an English translation of Debi Chaudhurani, a late work by the Bengali writer Bankimchandra Chatterji (1838-1894), India's first major novelist. One of the earliest recruits of the Indian Civil Service established in the middle of the 19th century by the British, Bankim - so familiar a name in Indian letters, across linguistic traditions, that he is usually referred to by his first name - spent his working life as a deputy magistrate in the colonial administration. But, even though he represented the vanguard of a new class of anglicised Indians (going so far as to write his first novel, Rajmohan's Wife, in a sonorous English), Bankim's ear remained close to the ground.

His novels, particularly those of his late "nationalist" phase, are preoccupied with imagining the future (and reprising the past) of a predominantly Hindu Bengali society hobbled, from without, by the martial superiority first of Muslim rulers and then the British, and from within, by a stagnation of thought, social structure and gender roles. Debi Chaudhurani (1884), based on the story of a real-life female bandit in 18th-century Bengal, offers the reader a deeply felt vision of "the Hindu way of life" - one that celebrates but also questions Hindu tradition. If one were to imagine contemporary Hindu nationalism as its best and most intellectually coherent (something it is mostly not), this might be the kind of reading of Hinduism it offered.

Like many 19th-century realists (Hardy, Flaubert, Zola), Bankim was fond of female protagonists, the better to portray the constraints and inquities of the patriarchal society that was, as much as the individual, the subject of his enquiry. When we first see his heroine, a young woman called Prafulla, it is as the victim of the neglect of society and "the pinchings of poverty" (this is one of Bankim's lovely phrases from his one and only English novel).

Although married into a prosperous Brahmin family, Prafulla has been thrown out by her father-in-law Haraballabh (a representation of all that is negative about upper-caste Hindu society) because of allegations made against her by members of her village. Even though he loves her, her young husband Brajesvar is powerless to defend her. Although Brajesvar forsakes Prafulla at Haraballabh's command, Bankim provides only a muted critique of this decision, setting against it Brajesvar's memory of a verse from the Mahabharata that emphasises duty to the father. This is one of several instances where the reader finds his or her long-settled assumptions about duty and family upended by Bankim, whose vision of an ordered Hindu society leads him to privilege or at least defend the right of parents to filial obedience.

Left on her own, Prafulla is kidnapped by a local goon, and then abandoned in the forest after the venture goes awry. Here she finds herself at the mercy of a bandit called Bhabani Pathak. But Pathak, a Brahmin, also turns out to be a scholar of Hinduism. Impressed with Prafulla's native intelligence, he sets out to train her for five years in a syllabus that aggregates the great texts of Sanskrit grammar, logic, literature and philosophy. The last text to which Prafulla is exposed is the Bhagavad Gita, "the best of all works". One might think of this reading list as a nationalist's reply to the policy of English as a medium of higher education advocated by Macaulay's Minute in 1834, and imposed by the British in India thereafter.

Even more unusually, Prafulla is shown receiving a physical education. She learns, in tussles with a female adept, to wrestle. The implication is that Brahmins, hitherto the intellectual elite of Hindu society, must learn in a time of crisis to fight. Once Prafulla's education is complete, she becomes the revered leader and moral compass - hence the honorific "Debi Chaudhurani" - of a band of skilled vigilantes who apply their private vision of justice to a lawless realm. "Each [fighter] had a staff tied to his back - the weapon typical of Bengal," remarks the narrator. "The Bengali once knew its proper use; it was when he abandoned the staff that he lost his spirit." Versions of this lament about the pusillanimity of modern Hindu civilisation are widely echoed in contemporary Hindu nationalist tracts.

Yet Prafulla's major victories in the text are achieved not by force, but by love and ethical action. Elevated by her education, she becomes an exemplar of the ideal of "nishkama karma" or selfless and detached action, advocated by the Gita, and of the "dharma", or vision of order and justice, central to Hindu philosophy. All along she remains steadfastly faithful not just to Brajesvar, but to the well-being of the patriarch who cast her out (even as the reader roots for his downfall). The novel's final chapter shows her renouncing banditry and returning, under an alias deciphered only by her husband, to her bridal home, to take charge not just of the household but, in due course, of the entire estate.

Breaking down the fence of the European realist novel to make room for his ideological project, Bankim, in his closing chapter, makes his protagonist, elevated by the best that Hinduism has to offer, not just the idealised wife of Hindu tradition but an ideal for all Hindus. Strikingly, he claims Prafulla as an incarnation of the Krishna of the Gita who declares: "To protect the good, to destroy the wicked, and to establish right order, I take birth in every age." These are the closing words of the novel - words that would have, in the unfamiliar context of a novel and as applied to a female protagonist, amazed and roused the book's original readers, and also words that suggestively replace a Western idea of linear time with a Hindu one of cyclical time. Possibly no other Indian novel is as steeped in the glories of Hinduism, and so self-consciously preoccupied with a vision of the rejuvenation of Hindu society, as Debi Chaudhurani. Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and literary critic based in Mumbai.

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