Srikanta (Part 1)
by K. C. Sen and
With an Introduction
by E. J. Thompson.
Humphrey Milford. Oxford University Press
London Bombay Calcutta & Madras
Associated Printers Limited, Madras.
|Part I. Indranath|
|Chapters I—III||… 1—38|
|Part II. Annada Didi|
|Chapters IV—VI||… 39—75|
|Part III. Natunda|
|Chapter VII||… 76—85|
|Part IV. Piari|
|Chapters VIII—X||… 86—139|
|Part V. The Sadhu|
|Chapter XI||… 140—159|
|Part VI. Rajlakshmi|
|Chapter XII||… 160—175|
SARATCHANDRA CHATTERJI was born at Devanandapur, a small village in the Hugli District of Bengal, on September 15th, 1876. His grandfather had been an extremely wealthy man. But he lost everything, so that the novelist's father was poor. In Sarat Babu's own words, 'My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, as I believe, his restless spirit and his keen interest in literature. The first made me a tramp and sent me out tramping the whole of India quite early, and the second made me a dreamer all my life. Father was a great scholar, and he had tried his hand at stories and novels, dramas and poems, in short, every branch of literature, but never could finish anything. I have not his work now—somehow it got lost; but I remember poring over those incomplete mss. over and over again in my childhood, and many a night I kept awake regretting their incompleteness and thinking what might have been their conclusion if finished. Probably this led to my writing short stories when I was barely seventeen. But I soon gave up the habit as useless, and almost forgot in the long years that followed that I could even write a sentence in my boyhood. A mere accident made me start again, after the lapse of about eighteen years. Some of my old acquaintances started a little magazine, but no one of note would condescend to contribute to it, as it was so small and insignificant. When almost hopeless, some of them suddenly remembered me, and after much persuasion they succeeded in extracting from me a promise to write for it. This was in the year 1913. I promised most unwillingly—perhaps only to put them off till I had returned to Rangoon and could forget all about it. But sheer volume and force of their letters and telegrams compelled me at last to think seriously about writing again. I sent them a short story, for their magazine Jamuna. This became at once extremely popular, and made me famous in one day. Since then I have been writing regularly. In Bengal perhaps I am the only fortunate writer who has not had to struggle'.
Very few of his fellow-novelists have had his experience of life. Mention of Rangoon above reminds us that he lived for many years in Burma, serving in a Government office. He thus had the inestimable advantage of viewing his land and people from outside. His fiction deals very largely with social problems, and with tyrannies 'that have obsessed the modern Bengali life against reason and humanity'. Especially, he handles the dowry-system and the difficulty felt by the upper classes in marrying their girls. No problem is more insistent with the educated classes to-day. The sales of his books have been enormous, greater than those of any other Indian novelist.
Srikanta is his most ambitious book, in style and scope. It is understood to be largely autobiography. Like most autobiographical novels, it is rather a string of episodes than a connected story. This is not the place for criticism. But it may be permissible to draw attention to its value as showing the view taken of themselves by Bengalis, and as bringing the foreign reader closer to Indian life than perhaps any other work given to the outer world. The earlier chapters are a sort of Bengali Huckleberry Finn; and the Ganges escapade of the two boys is a fine piece of writing, as is also the night on the burning-ghat later on in the book. The translator, Mr. K. C. Sen, has done admirably in his rendering of these two elaborate passages.
The novel was an exotic in Bengal. Its course can be epitomised under three names. Bankimchandra Chatterji took Scott as his model, and popularised the new form in a very short time. Bankim was propagandist as well as novelist, and his work was often a reconstruction of earlier days in his country, as his imagination pictured them. His handling of those days may be compared profitably with Scott's revival of former history. Neither he nor Scott is impartial, as a historian is supposed to be, both frankly taking sides. But Bankim knew his surroundings, and his pictures of Bengali life would be better known abroad if they were accessible in better translations. Even as it is, he is a name that has reached the wider world. Rabindranath Tagore belonged to the Brahmo Samaj, and to the most cultured and eclectic family in that circle. He has told me that he does not consider that he has been quite familiar with ordinary Hindu life, and the criticism is often made by his own countrymen that his novels and short stories depict what is really Brahmo life. When he was passing out of his teens, Bankim hailed him as his successor and the younger man repaid him by grateful appreciation. The one sharp division between them, a breach happily healed by the generosity of both men, came from their different attitude towards Hindu society and religion. Bankim grew increasingly conservative—always a conservative, he became in his last days reactionary; whereas Rabindranath has been always a critic, as uncompromising as he thought the truth required. Irony and criticism are never absent from his fiction. But his greatness is as a poet, and his novels, with the exception of The Home and the World—which is really a series of episodes treated in the manner of short stories—, are not among his best work. One other, Gora, has fine qualities, and Sarat Babu regards it much as Stevenson did The Egoist. 'I have read it at least twenty times,' he says. This is the link—this, and Rabindranath's short stories, many of which are with the finest short stories ever written,—between Bankim and Sarat, and this is the way in which the torch which the former handed to the young poet of Evening Songs, nearly forty years ago, has from Rabindranath reached the most prominent living novelist of Bengal.
Sarat Babu has gone to the world of to-day, and given us pictures of the present. In his work criticism of society is found, but it is not the radical criticism of such a fearless work as The Home and the World—one of the most courageous books ever written, for which Rabindranath deserves a salute from everyone who loves a brave man—and such stories as Living or Dead and Subha. It does not seriously break a spear with tradition. Yet he has not escaped attack. Srikanta is written round his favourite social theme, the problem which is constantly exercising his mind—society's attitude towards the professional and public woman. The reader will be glad that he has made Rajlakshmi so attractive.
The second and third parts of Srikanta have been published. The present volume is only the first part. The translator is responsible for the greater part of the footnotes. Valuable advice and help in preparing the book for publication have been given by Messrs. N. Carrington and C. W. Stewart.
Edward J. Thompson.
- In a letter to the writer.