By Tirthankar Mitra
Long after Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s literary works sprang into fame, his reputation as a literary icon stands undimmed to this day. As his 147th birth anniversary is being celebrated on September 15, the contention few authors could rival his mastery of the condition of villages and plight of woman of his time in Bengal, remains unchallenged.
Being universally human and not quintessentially Bengali, the appeal of Chattopadhyay’s works is timeless. They continue to live in print and celluloid. He was a pioneer in style and content in his times nay in any other Indian language. Without shouting in support of women’s emancipation from the rooftops, Chattopadhyay championed it. Soudamini, the central character of Swami who stands up to her mother-in-law is one such woman. And of course, there are four feisty women characters in Charitraheen.
His pen breathed life into the characters of Rajlakshmi aka Pyaribai, Rama, Parbati and Chandramukhi to name a few and made them such sought after characters that their shades were discernible even in female characters of modern day works. Parbati remains the typical Indian girl next door who bows to her parental choice and weds their chosen groom and yet retains a soft corner for her first love,.
Chandramukhi, on the other hand, the courtesan whom Parbati’s onetime beloved Devdas loves to hate and yet cannot forsake, represents a world which society cannot do without and yet shuns. Chattopadhyay had first hand experience of the seamy side of life. “How can he write about things he has no knowledge about, as to know about them one either has to be a moneyed man or have wealthy friends.” Chattopadhyay said about an author who had penned a work about the societal underbelly. He was absolutely within his rights as he knew what he was speaking of.
There were male characters too and the first name that comes to mind is Devdas. Separated from his beloved, he hits the bottle to forget his Parbati and yet journey’s to her marital home to catch a glimpse of her before he drew his last breath.
And there was Ramesh the central character of Pallisamaj who stood up to social evils and in the end earns infamy and ridicule. What about Rashbehari, the smirking villain of Datta who has designs on the heroine’s vast estate and tries to make her tie the knot with his son. These characters have become part and parcel of Bengali life. Yet the characters in Chattopadhyay’s works continue to appeal far away from the state and are yet to be dated.
For the obstacles they faced remain till this day though in camouflage. Small wonder, the struggle to remove them continues especially on the silver screen when Parineeta and Devdas are running to packed houses having been remade again and again for successive generations.
Ahead of his times, Chattopadhyay’s works are pointers to his great courage and energy to portray men, women and children warts and all. A champion of secularism and woman emancipation cameos of Muslim characters stand out as gems in Mahesh and Pallisamaj.
The Pallisamaj character, a muscleman on a zamindar’s payroll flatly refuses to press a false charge after being beaten in a fair fight. How can I be the complainant after having always been an accused, he says and reiterates his uprightness.
Readers eyes moisten in the short story Mahesh when Gafoor who has to depart from his beloved cow Mahesh, makes a final appeal to his maker not to forgive those who have deprived his pet of God’s gift of grass and water. Does one discern the seeds of divisiveness leading to the dismemberment of Bengal?
Chattopadhyay never made any secret of his sympathy for the underprivileged and economically weaker sections of the society. His popularity had catapulted him in the upper strata of society but he remained a rebel with a cause in the way he has penned Abhagir Swarga.
A change of scene was in the air which Rabindranath Tagore had felt during his tour to Russia. Perhaps, though a Congress leader and riding the success of the popularity of his books, Chattopadhyay too had felt it and manifested it in his works.
Not born with a silver spoon, Chattopadhyay had known struggle in the early part of his life and relished it. He depicted strong characters apparently simple but often with subtle shades which may escape a casual reader. In the process, he left clear indications of the circumstances he had emerged from and the society he wanted to live in.
Born in Bhagalpur, Bihar the earliest stories Chattopadhyay penned were Korel and Kashinath. He went to Burma and married Shanti Devi and had a son though both passed away in plague; he later married Mokshada Devi, a young widow.
The man who joined Indian National Congress after coming in touch with “Deshbandhu” Chittaranjan Das was not enamoured of non-violent struggle for independence. His novel Pather Dabi espouses armed struggle and consequent run-ins with men in uniform who were in pay of an alien power.
It was once proscribed and brought out by Asutosh Mukherjee’s son, Uma Prasad who picked up the courage to publish it. Based in Burma, it’s central character Sabyasachi, presumably modelled after the great revolutionary Rashbehari Bose, sketches out a grand scheme to throw off foreign shackles and though his efforts end in failure, he refuses to give up.
Arguably, his works being translated in most Indian languages is an yardstick of the appeal cutting across the language barrier. At a function of naming a park after him, the then chief minister, Jyoti Basu recalled coming across Chattopadhyay who often visited Narendra Deb and Radharani Devi, a literary couple at Hindustan Park, near Basu’s ancestral home. They never talked in person, that was a regret the veteran leader carried. (IPA Service)