I had a jigsaw of a map of India but it wasn’t a proper map. It had the names of cities on it but it was covered in pictures too, scenes of ‘typical everyday life’ for people who lived in various parts of the country. This jigsaw introduced me to India. I saw lots of elephants and tigers and women picking tea and men drinking the tea and coconut trees and mountains and a few deserts. The trees, elephants, tigers, women and mountains were all the same size. Sri Lanka was included in the map and because it is a much smaller landmass it only had room to show one elephant and one woman picking tea.
This jigsaw was one of several jigsaws that I had in the same series. They were all the same size too, so that I came away with the mistaken impression that India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South America were all as large as each other. I have checked just now and I see that these jigsaws were made by Waddingtons and called ‘jig-maps’ and now I also learn that the Indian one didn’t contain Sri Lanka after all. The fallibility of memory! Looking at it for the first time in almost fifty years I discover that Bangalore is represented by a man playing a flute to two cobras in a basket while a wise mongoose looks on. Was Bangalore ever really like that? Was it like that when the jigsaw was made? Clearly a lot has changed in half a century.
The jigsaw was only the starting point of my intellectual discovery of the Indian subcontinent. Films augmented my growing awareness. Films showed me that the meaning of India could be found in elephants, tigers and women picking tea, not to mention men drinking tea, coconut trees, mountains, deserts. The place seemed marvellous. I decided to go there one day. But when? The thing to do was to consult a proper atlas, not a jigsaw, in fact a battered old atlas bound in ripped green cloth that dated from the 1920s and was probably a book once owned by my great-grandfather.
India seemed far away, yes, but not as far as Australia, and because I had cousins in Australia who had come to visit (bringing me a boomerang as a gift), I knew the voyage was feasible. First, I would reach France, that was the first step, and I felt confident I could walk to France. There was the inconvenience of a stretch of open sea between Britain and France, but I believed I could construct a raft from driftwood and sail across without too much trouble. Once I arrived in France the remainder of the journey would look after itself. I equipped myself for the walk. I took a penknife and a flask of orange squash, and I set off. There was woodland near the house where I grew up and I walked for ten minutes or so before meeting a boy I knew who was unsuccessfully trying to climb a tree. He came down with a crash, asked me for a drink and I obliged. Half the squash went down his gullet and I knew I could never hope to reach France on a half empty canteen. I returned home.
But I never abandoned the quest to reach India, I merely postponed it. The country had snakes in baskets! How could I resist that? Where I came from, the only stuff you found in wicker baskets was laundry. Boring in comparison! The snakes in India were musical and loved flute melodies. That also was amazing. It occurred to me that snakes were flute-like themselves and perhaps had even evolved from flutes (or vice versa) which explained the association. What if the strong resemblance led to a flautist accidentally trying to play a snake instead of a flute? The question alarmed me for days.
Maybe the music produced as a result would be the best ever heard by any human ear? Or perhaps it would be the worst! Yet another thing to find out for myself when I got to India. In the meantime, to continue my research, I spent a lot of time with a toy called a ‘View-Master Stereoscope’ that showed images on slides in 3-D. It was a plastic box with two lenses and a lever that rotated a disc on which the images were fixed.
One of the discs in my possession was an arrangement of “spectacular views” from around the globe. It included Banff in Canada, the Golden Horn in Turkey (those are the only other two I remember) and yes, a frontal view of the Taj Mahal. I studied the Taj Mahal carefully. It was vast and white. What clues could I glean from it? I wasn’t sure. Someone told me it was constructed by elephants. I accepted this but wondered what use elephants had for such a grand monument. It wasn’t edible. It wasn’t a bun.
On a school trip I was taken on a bus to Bristol Zoo, which seemed to lie at an extraordinary distance from the small town where I lived. We were shown an elephant and informed by a teacher that it was an Indian elephant, because it had small ears. Those ears looked vast to me and from that moment I had no choice but to regard the teacher as incompetent, a fool who didn’t know the difference between big and small. The incompetence of adults was something I learned the hard way, like most children. For instance, another teacher told us that crude oil was ‘liquid gold’ but I knew he was wrong. Oil was black and gold was golden, they couldn’t be the same. He had neglected to explain it was a metaphor. That might have helped his credibility.
My grandmother knew a little about India because one of her uncles was a sailor and had been there. He came back full of stories about it. People in India were able to levitate cross-legged, he had told her, after studying a thing called yoga. But yoga was dangerous. Some men had tied themselves in knots doing it and couldn’t be untied. They had spent the rest of their lives as a knot. Only the lightest men could levitate as far as the ceiling. Occasionally one of them would go up the chimney and drift away on the breeze. He had sometimes been far out at sea and watched them drifting over his ship. He had waved to them but if they broke their concentration they would come back down and make a splash, so his cheerful greetings were ignored. No offence taken, he said, he understood their predicament. Well, that was India for you.
In Calcutta he had seen a magician with a rope who had thrown it up high in the air and it had become rigid. Then he climbed it and vanished at the top. It was an impressive trick but he couldn’t see the point of it. He preferred the men who slept on nails instead of mattresses. Had he actually seen any of these chaps himself? No, not exactly. Nails grew on trees in that country and during his stay there had been a drought and a bad harvest and there weren’t enough nails to spare and those magic men had to sleep on porcupines instead. It was better than nothing, he supposed. My grandmother passed these tales onto me, uncritically and with evident approval. She always regretted not being born a man and going to sea herself. She wanted to be a pirate.
My grandmother’s uncle knew all about curries but I didn’t and I waited a long time before I tasted my first. It blew off the roof of my mouth, but looking back, I imagine, it was a very mild curry. Like most British men I soon acquired a taste for spices and eventually I became what is known in common parlance as a ‘chilli head’, going so far as to munch on the spiciest raw chillies available and insisting through a forced grin that they were “nothing special”, but that was later. My first curry was an eye opener. On second thoughts, it was more of an eye shutter, as I squeezed back the tears into my ducts. Yet this experience is a necessary rite of passage for all British males. It is the ‘test of fire’ and no less important than ‘the test of liquid’ (one’s first beer in a pub) and the ‘test of hair’ (the first shaving of the chin). These are the three essential tests, although there might be some others of lesser importance.
It must also be admitted, and I don’t say this cheerfully, that Kipling had a deep influence too on what I thought I knew about ‘India’. He is a problematic author now, one who made too many assumptions about how acceptable it was to work within the rigid structures of an imperialist system and only petitioning for greater humanity within that system. We can look back now and chide him for not opposing the system itself, but as a young British boy, I had no thoughts about systems of any kind. I was unhistorical despite my interest in history. The past was a place of knights bashing each other with maces, the distant past was a place where cavemen bashed each other with clubs. The present could never be history because it wasn’t the past, a simple equation in my head, and when Kipling wrote of his contemporary India, I received his impressions in my own time. Therefore, his India became mine too. ‘Gunga Din’ was exactly the sort of chap one might meet in the streets today. It never occurred to me that Kipling was a relic, an antique, for the reason that his books stood on my bookshelves now, and thus had contemporary relevance.
My sister’s best friend at school was an Indian girl, Joya Ghosh by name, but because we lived in a small town in Wales, I don’t think it registered in my mind that her parents had come from elsewhere. I didn’t think about the matter very much, if at all. She was merely a person with a deep laugh, much deeper than the laugh any child ought to have, thinking back on it now. It rumbled. It was the sort of laugh I later came to associate with hearty men with big beards, Captain Haddock or Taras Bulba types. She didn’t have a big beard or even a small one, at least I don’t recall seeing one.
She once courageously interceded in order to stop a pillow fight between myself and my sister. Her diplomacy in maintaining her neutrality as she did so impressed me considerably. But I never asked her anything about India. Maybe she wouldn’t have known much, but that is beside the point. I never even made the attempt. Nor do I remember meeting her parents or siblings, though I surely must have. She was here and India was elsewhere, so no connection could be logically made. The Jungle Book cartoon film filled in all the gaps anyway. I learned that in India wolves held conferences, that monkeys had kings, and that vultures were willing to join forces with humans to frustrate the machinations of tigers. This seemed perfectly reasonable.
When I was 14 years old, a brief article on Buddhism in an encyclopaedia captured my imagination. I wanted to know more about this philosophy. Where should I turn in order to find out more? There were no books on the subject in my local library, which was the only source of reading material in the town, and no adults I asked knew anything about it. The Buddha had found enlightenment under a tree in India. Would I have to travel to India to find enlightenment about his enlightenment? That seemed probable. My grandmother’s uncle hadn’t said anything to her about it, strangely enough, so I had to extrapolate from that one encyclopaedia article. It mentioned reincarnation and I liked this idea. To get an opportunity to be every other animal under the sun! To understand that already I had been many of those animals. Sublime!
The deeper aspects of the philosophy were passed over in that article. But my mind was made up, I would henceforth be a vegetarian, and I have been one ever since. There was familial opposition to my decision, of course. If I was no longer going to eat meat, what would I eat? British food back then was famous for being terrible (some would say it still is) and there was no tradition of tasty vegetarian meals. A vegetarian meal was simply an ordinary meal but without a lump of meat included, in other words a plate of boiled potatoes, boiled carrots, boiled cabbage, sprinkled with salt and pepper. This was years before the Curry Revolution that shook our island nation to the core, threw out our complacency and shattered our culinary blandness.
I now decided that I was a Buddhist and would go to live in a monastery in the mountains when I was older. Unlike my first attempt at walking to India, my second attempt would see me equipped with more than just a penknife and flask of orange squash. I would go equipped with inner tranquillity. That was the idea anyway. If I met with an accident during the journey, savaged by wild beasts or attacked by bandits on mountain slopes, it wouldn’t matter too much because I would be reborn as some other animal, maybe a squirrel or goose, and have an interesting life in a new form. I might even be reborn as an animal with enough strength to turn the tables on my attackers. A rhinoceros or hippopotamus. That would be fun and I regretted that I wouldn’t be there to see what happened, even though in another sense I was there…
But I kept putting off the day of my departure. There were too many other things to do first, such as pass my school exams and save enough pocket money to buy a new bicycle. Also, I didn’t want to shave my head. Time and tide wait for no man, or so they say, and weeks turned into months, months into years, and then I lost interest in walking seven thousand kilometres overland because I had started to go on hiking trips with friends and was learning what distance really meant to legs and feet. My first proper manly hike was 28 Km through forested hills and my feet were blistered on the soles so badly that for the next three days I walked on tiptoes like a conspirator but while making noises that no conspirator would make, “Ouch!” and “Yow!”
I grew up even more than I already had, went to university, graduated and travelled. I had friends who went to India and came back and they told me tales of their adventures. These adventures were suspiciously devoid of canyon rope bridges and cobras swaying to flute music, and equally suspiciously full of ghee-laden sweets and cheap beer. I eventually made it to India, but I went first to Sri Lanka, for reasons too complicated to outline in an article of such a short length. Yes, there were ghee-laden sweets and cheap beer shortly after I landed in Bangalore, but I think that was just coincidence. As for canyon rope bridges I still haven’t encountered any, but I did see an incredibly rickety broken bridge when I went to Coorg, absolutely the sort of thing one finds in old adventure novels or in the films adapted from them.
And now I sit under a magnificent banyan tree and consider how all my current knowledge about India deviates from what I thought I knew about the country in my distant youth. I think I have only really learned one thing, which is that India is simply too large to comprehend. There is too much of it, and it is full of people doing things, and those things are baffling even when explained because the explanations, no matter how lucid they are, are also baffling. This is a complicated way of saying I haven’t found any snakes in my bed yet, no bears in my bathroom, and I still haven’t been eaten by a tiger and reincarnated as a mongoose. But anything at all can happen.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.
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Ratnottama Sengupta shows the impact of Gandhi and his call for non-violence on her father, Nabendu Ghosh as she continues to emote over his message of Ahimsa and call for peace amidst rioting
The ferocity and senselessness of riots — Nabendu Ghosh had personal experience of both. In his autobiography, Eka Naukar Jatri (Dey’s Publication, 2008, Journey of a Lonesome Boat), he writes at length about grappling with the riots that had rocked Calcutta, Bengal — nay, the entire Subcontinent on 16th August 1946.
The Direct Action Day call was given out by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to press the demand for a separate Muslim State, Pakistan. The epicentre was Calcutta, a flourishing centre of business and education, that had Suhrawardy of Muslim League as its chief minister. On that black Friday, they unleashed unprecedented bloodletting along communal lines. At least 4000 deaths were reported on the very first day of the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ that continued for more than four days. Many women were raped, many were kidnapped, many killed and hung naked in public areas… Dismemberment, forced conversion, bustees set on fire… Violence spread to Khulna in East Bengal, and Bihar. Within a year the hatred ignited on religious grounds culminated in the Partition of India.
The savagery of the mindless bloodbath had left such a deep dent on the yet-to-be-thirty writer, that he wrote a number of stories and novels on the theme: Phears Lane, Dweep, Trankarta, Ulukhar, ‘Chaaka’(Full Circle), and ‘Gandhiji’.
Gandhiji builds majorly on the author’s own memories of a darshanof Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi while he was passing through Patna, sometime in early 1931. This is how he records his ‘encounter’ with the Saint of Sabarmati who worked magic on the masses with the mantra of Ahimsa, non-violence.
“By 1930 all of India and its British rulers too were uttering one name with awe: Gandhi. One evening it came to my ears that the Mahatma would reach Patna at 7 am the next morning, spend the day in the city and leave by the Punjab Mail at night.
“I did not sleep well that night. I was up at the crack of dawn and left home at 5 am on the pretext of getting a book from a friend. But I could not get anywhere near the Patna railway station, which was teeming with people who had arrived before sunrise. It was no different along the path he would be driven down. I hung around at one end of the platform, eyes glued to the exit gate.
“Policemen on horseback trotted past me. A police van was parked close by. Those patrolling the platform carried bayonets and batons. Because of my green years and my small built, I was allowed to inch ahead. From time to time the sky was rent with the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Long live the Mahatma!’
“All of a sudden, perhaps to steel myself, I started to whisper: ‘Vande Mataram! I salute you, my Motherland!’ As if on a cue, the man next to me cried out aloud: ‘Vande Mataram!’ The crowd roared in an echo: ‘Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!!’
“Suddenly a train rolled in with a long whistle. And people all around me broke into the cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’ ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’ ‘Vande Mataram!’ I found myself matching their voice…
“Soon people started saying, ‘There he goes…’ Some cars came forward with Gandhi-topi clad volunteers. And then, there was the face so familiar from the newspapers, peering out of a hood-open Ford. Mahatma Gandhi, clad in a knee-length khadi dhoti, a chadar draped over his bare torso, a volunteer on either side, was greeting everyone with folded hands. What an inspiring image!
“I also broke into the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’‘ The crowd had started running behind the moving car. I joined them, without a pause in the slogan. A few paces later, I bumped into someone and fell down by the wayside. As an elderly gentleman lifted me up and soothingly dusted me off. I felt a resolve surface in my thoughts: ‘Freedom must be won!'”
Nabendu Ghosh may or may not have had another prototype for the protagonist Ratan in Gandhiji. But it is said there actually lived close to College Street — where Nabendu lived at the time — a person named Gopal Mukherjee who owned a meat shop. He was a devotee of Subhash Chandra Bose and a critique of Gandhi. Reportedly this ‘paatha‘ — butcher — was funded by some Marwari businessmen and he led his team to retaliate from the fourth day of riots. After Independence, when he was urged to surrender his guns, knives and sword to Gandhiji, he apparently refused, saying, “I would willingly lay down my arms for Netaji, but not for Gandhiji. Why didn’t he stop the killings in Noakhali?”
The author may have woven in some traits of Gopal Paatha but, like a mirror image that is identical yet opposite, his protagonist Ratan is transformed by the iconic personality so that he surrenders his weapons — expressed symbol of violence — at the feet of the Mahatma.
As I watched Kamal Hasan’s Hey! Ram (2000), I was reminded of this story, ‘Gandhiji’ that was published in the collection Raater Gaadi (The Night Train) in 1964. Perhaps unknowingly the character played in the film by Om Puri reflects the protagonist Ratan.
In Hey! Ram, A rioteer who has snuffed out scores of lives walks up to the fasting Gandhi in Beliaghata, throws a roti towards him and says, “I have bloodied my hands with many lives but I will not have your death on my conscience.” He resonates Ratan, the butcher who finds his biggest high in draining out human blood but once he rests his eyes on the frail sage, something happens deep inside him. He who wondered why his taking a life should matter to ‘Gendo’, stakes his own life to protect a Muslim.
Nabendu Ghosh experienced the magic of the Mahatma at age fourteen, long years before he became my father.
I felt the magic of the man whom Rabindranath Tagore gave the name of Mahatma when I was well into my forties, and was doing a Fellowship in Oxford, on a Charles Wallace award, on John Ruskin and his Influence on Gandhi and Tagore.
Then, almost 20 years later, we were at the critical juncture in time when we were completing 70 years of Gandhi’s passing and approaching his Sesquicentennial Birth Anniversary. That is when I started wondering: “What does Mohandas Karamchand mean to those acquiring voting rights in India now? Is he only the face on every Indian currency note? Is he only ‘M G Road’ — the high street of every city in India? Is he a boring memory who forces every one of his countrymen to shun drinking on his birthday?”
Or, is there any valid reason to recall what he said — in Natal and Transvaal and Pietermaritzburg; in Kolkata and Noakhali, Chowri Chowra and Dandi, Bombay and Delhi? Is there anything in his actions that can change the lives of not only Indians but everywhere in the world where people are tired of terror strikes and gunshots and discrimination in the name of caste or creed or colour?
For, influence he certainly did, the lives of so many personalities… Not for nothing was Mohandas of Porbandar to become Gandhiji, Mahatma, Bapu, Father of the Nation.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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Title: The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830
Author: Ranabir Ray Chaudhury
Publisher: Niyogi Books
If you ask any layman about the city of Calcutta (now rechristened as Kolkata) you will get three major pieces of information — namely, it was founded by Job Charnock in 1690; it was the seat of East India Company and capital of British India till 1911; and that it was divided roughly into two sections — the white English town at the centre and towards the south and the native town in the north. Beyond that, very few people have the idea of how the city developed spatially and how several major arterial roads, tanks and squares were built systematically during the beginning of the nineteenth century and this is where The Shaping of Modern Calcutta: The Lottery Committee Years, 1817 – 1830 by Ranabir Ray Chaudhury gives us plenty of information about the gradual development of Calcutta. This was undertaken by raising money through sale of lottery tickets and implemented by the creation of a Lottery Committee which functioned specifically for thirteen years from October 1817 to 1830.
Under the system then prevalent, the surplus lottery funds remained with the Bank of Bengal which would continue to be involved in the sale of tickets and the payment of prizes but would have nothing to do with other payments. The three senior members of the committee were John Eliot, Charles Trower and Henry Wood who had already looked after the construction of the square and tank at Baparitala (Wellington Square) and the new road being built from Dharamtala Road to Bowbazar. Later officials like Henry Shakespear and Barwell, G. Gordon and A. Colvin were inducted, and featuring in various sub-committees, they were also deeply engaged in the city’s development work.
In 1830, for all practical purposes, the functions of the committee relating to the improvement of the city ceased effectively. Though the beneficial impact of the committee’s work affected everyone, native and European alike, and there was nothing remotely furtive about it, yet the Directors of the East India Company in London were not happy with what was happening in distant Calcutta on the city-development front, choosing to view the evolving picture in a different light. Keeping in mind the virtues of economy in expenditure, the Company wrote to its Government of Bengal that whenever there was any activity relating to general and public utility, some part of the charges ought to be borne by the inhabitants. Further, the Lottery Committee was handling large sums of money and perhaps there was the Company’s deep-seated skepticism about the sensibility of such expenditure in general and a tendency to conclude that the money was not being spent efficiently. The work done by the committee was phenomenal because the projects conceived and implemented by it still cast a long shadow on life in modern Calcutta.
It becomes very clear that the city of Calcutta gained immensely from the development work carried out by the Lottery Committee since October 1817. The Strand Road had spruced up the eastern bank of the River Hooghly beyond recognition; the western side of Tank Square (today’s BBD Bagh) down to the Maidan till the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, had been given its modern shape with its grid of streets; pucka drains had been built and upgraded all over the city; the major north-south arterial road extending from Park Street in the south to Shyambazar in the north with four squares along it had been constructed; Free School Street had been made; the entire area south of Park Street up to Circular Road had been transformed into ‘virgin’ land ready to be settled in by the genteel (for the most part, sahib) population of Calcutta; and the modernisation of the Garden Reach area, reaching up to Khidirpur in the north, had been begun.
Among other things, the Lottery Committee built the major arterial roads in the northern and central parts of the city, which in time determined the layout of the contiguous residential areas. Dalhousie Square and the entire ground between Park Street and Circular Road were developed by the committee. Previously, a large part of the ground south of Park Street was low-lying and marshy, generating pestilence all around. Bustee clusters were located here probably because of the availability of Gangajal from Tolly’s Nullah (the Adi Ganga) through the existing network of drains, the river being some way off to the west.
The story of the making of Strand Road is narrated in detail, as with increasing economic activity and population pressure, it would provide the inhabitants with easier access to the river, both for recreation and commerce. The Lottery Committee was also responsible for putting up the first brick-and-mortar decorative balustrade which still adorns the Chowringhee area and Red Road. Thus, in its 13 years of effective functioning (till 1830), the committee had been successful in providing the critical push necessary to transform Calcutta from the topographical shape it had inherited since the years immediately following the landing of Job Charnock at Sutanati in August 1690 into one which, in a manner of speaking, would make the city ready to be launched into the 20th century and beyond.
The interest in reading the book persists throughout because apart from the maps, figures, numbers, statistics, and other logistic details, we get a lot of information of the different hindrances the Lottery Committee faced while implementing their projects. Human nature has not really changed much and so we read about people at that time who flouted the rules to line their own pockets and for whom profiteering was the norm.
The basic premise here is that human nature being what it is, there are some aspects of life and behaviour which are universal in their reach, both temporally and spatially. Another very interesting area of study is how the officials encountered the problem of encroachment, the process of land acquisition and the demand for compensation by native plot holders. The committee was aware of matters affecting the native sentiment and there are instances of how they altered the alignment of a major road to suit the convenience of the natives. Even then in some instances tiffs and legal hassles with local residents in North Calcutta were also recorded. Apart from private property rights, religious considerations too played an important role in the decision-making process of the committee.
Before concluding it is worthwhile mentioning a few lines about the author of this volume. During his quarter-century with The Statesman in Calcutta (1970-94), principally as a leader writer, Ranabir Ray Choudhury became interested in the past of a great city which the East India Company had selected as the nerve centre for its operations in the Indian subcontinent and further to the east, extending to Singapore and beyond. In time, this growing interest led to three compilations – Glimpses of Old Calcutta 1835-1850 (1978), Calcutta a Hundred Years Ago 1880-1890 (1987), and Early Calcutta Advertisements 1875-1925 (1992). He next wrote The Lord Sahib’s House, Sites of Power: Government Houses of Calcutta 1690-1911 (2010). A City in the Making, Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth (2016).
This volume under review is his sixth book and thematically is a sequel to the last one. That work ended with the formation of the Lottery Committee in 1817: this book takes up the story from there. From a connoisseur of the city, we get details of its development to a point that a lot of unknown facts are provided to the reader which the author garnered from documents and archival material available at the West Bengal State Archives.
Though he is not a historian, trained or otherwise, the author mentions in the ‘Introduction’ how he faced the constant struggle to avoid getting enmeshed in detail and to refocus attention on the broad current of policy and the effects of its implementation. Attention to the specific problems faced in the day-to-day execution of projects also does help to throw light on the precise nature of hurdles encountered at the grassroots level. The book is therefore highly recommended for scholars of history, architecture, town planning and every layman reader who is interested in Kolkata – a city which has been defined in multifarious ways as a city of joy, a city of palaces, a dead city, and so on.
Somdatta Mandal, an academic, critic and translator, is a former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.
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If nations are imagined (but not therefore imaginary) communities, Bengal is a nation. The reality of nationhood rests on the quality of the imagination that goes into it.
Calcutta, where I was born in 1957, provided me with a cartographic point of entry into the imagined geography of Bengal. My Bengal began with West Bengal, within which lay a rough face-to-face society rich in visual and oral provenance. The everyday homeliness of rural thatched mud huts were reflected in the high gabled roofs which contoured the spiritual skyline of Dakshineswar. Minstrel bauls walked through the soul, half-starved on their way to seeking salvation for everyone. The very soil of Bengal broke out in bhatiali song. The chau dancers of Purulia dramatised Hindu epics in a language emotively accessible to all. The energy of santhali dances invoked the performative agency of a tribal culture that refused to let pre-industrial and pre-state time lapse into contemporary irrelevance.
Agricultural West Bengal encompassed the legacy of a land whose grasp was much longer and larger than the social circumference of middle-class life in Calcutta. In my own ancestral village in Hooghly district, a short train journey from Howrah station, boys my age could climb trees and run barefoot and naked across scorching soil, outpacing the shy urbanite in me. Young women, taught to avoid the roving gaze of male strangers, lowered their eyes to the ground in modest contemplation when men passed by. Farmers could bend unbearingly long to till the land, standing upright for only a few minutes before they resumed their toil. No one spoke English. No one needed to. No one needed me. I needed them.
To the west of West Bengal lay the rest of India. The “rest of the Indians” were decipherable. In Bihar and Odisha, once a part of Bengal Presidency, rump Bengal lived on in the linguistic and cultural traces of the colonial past. Farther west, West Bengal vanished into an eclectic Indian nationalism. I must say, though, that on a long train journey from Calcutta to Cochin in Kerala as a teenager, I thought (rightly or wrongly) that the particular shade of green found in the vegetation of West Bengal was lost till it was found in Kerala again. The renewed connection between Calcutta and Cochin made it possible for me to extend my Bengali-ness vicariously all the way to Kerala, making me quite a pan-Indian Bengali, I suppose. The connective nationalism of Indian Railways (like that of the State Bank of India) plays no small part in protecting the unitary reality of contemporary India.
Farther to the west of the rest of India lay the lands of Islam. They began with forbidden territory: Pakistan. Pakistan embodied the Partition of India, the departure of space from Indian time. For me, West Pakistan was unknown terrain: No one I loved or hated lived there. But if, indeed, there was an “Islamic world”, then I certainly inhabited it subliminally. I was (and am) a Muslim. I belonged to the global efflorescence of a great faith that had spread into my birth and self-recognition. West Pakistan had nothing to do with it. My mother was a practising Muslim (after a fashion), my father was a practising atheist. As a five-day-old, I had been “adopted” by a childless Hindu couple who lived in the same block of flats as my parents. Nilima Kurup (née Bose) took me to temples, and Parameshwara Raghava Kurup, well-versed in the Vedas, stayed away from the Puranas. But no one made me anything but a Bengali indebted forever to the Islamic religiosity of South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. Certainly, I belonged to the lands of Islam. There was nothing vicarious about this. It is just that West Pakistan had nothing to do with my identity. I respected its existence even as it stayed indifferent to mine (since it had no idea that I existed). That was all.
East Pakistan was different. I had relatives there on both my mother’s side and my father’s. I remember a childhood visit to my paternal uncle’s home in Narayanganj. It was raining. Unlike West Bengal (where rain falls on people), the people of East Bengal fall on the rain. A female cousin, all of six years old, made an excuse of going to the bathroom: instead, she took a bath in a roomful of rain as wide as the skies outside, within sight of the elders, dancing with the abandon of the water that flowed through her tresses, kissed her eyes, drenched her frock, and caused an uproar that led her to be dragged back to lunch, laughing unrepentantly. Meanwhile, her elder brother wanted to go to the “bathroom” as well. He was held back by his hair and resisted violently, raining cries of recrimination on everyone. Watching my wild bangal (native East Bengali) cousins in righteous ghoti (native West Bengali) awe, I decided that East Pakistan was too Bengali for me.
But it was not to be.
Baker-ul Haque came to live next door to our flat in Nasiruddin Road, Park Circus, Calcutta, in 1971. A year younger, he caught up with me in historical time with vivid stories of how he and his family had escaped Bogra, trudging through forests as the Pakistani air force strafed fleeing civilians, people fell dead on the left and the right, his mother held on his elder sister’s hand, he grasped his younger siblings firmly, his father led on, and all of them made their way — to me. I doubted specific details of his heroic journey, but not his visceral courage. I witnessed it when my pet dog chased him to the fourth-storey terrace, he climbed on to the parapet and kept walking on it calmly, I held the dog back, and I implored Baker to climb down. He smiled at me insouciantly. It was only when he saw tears in my eyes that he relented. Once he was safely down, I wanted to give him a hearty kick, but settled for a rib-shattering hug instead. Epaar Banglawins when Opaar Banglais safe.
Baker and his family lived next door, in the third-storey flat which the writer Syed Mujtaba Ali had occupied briefly earlier. Given his literary reputation, I stayed away from him, but he was rather fond of me, and I invaded his rooms whenever I found the door ajar. The family which stayed with my own family was that of Lutfar Rahman, an Awami League Member of the National Assembly from Khulna. Chachaji smiled a lot but was fierce, chachiamma was benign to a fault, their elder son Ornob took after his mother and their younger son Tulu (his pet-name) took after his father. Both brothers, who were much younger than I was, became mini companions on laughing excursions to the same terrace on which Baker had reduced me to tears.
The liberation of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971 (which happily and sadly soon saw Baker’s and Lutfar Chacha’s families returning to Bogra and Khulna) was my rebirth as a Bengali. I had been born into the bifurcated mythos of Bengal, which was first partitioned administratively in 1905 in an act rescinded in 1911, and then partitioned along national lines in 1947 to produce Pakistan. The partition of that Pakistan in 1971 produced an independent Bengali nation called Bangladesh. It is only in the years to come that I would understand the reasons for the ontological security of Bangladesh: it is a sated or satisfied nation because its borders guarantee the two conditions of its existence — that it be Bengali and Muslim in co-determinate measure — with provision being made for the rights of non-Bengalis and non-Muslims within its borders. Indeed, so successful has Bangladeshi nationalism been that its majority population finds it unnecessary to seek links with West Bengal to achieve cultural completion. That attitude is reciprocated in West Bengal, whose incorporation into the Indian ethos makes Bangladesh its closest neighbour, but a neighbour nevertheless.
Yet, to look across the border within Bengal, to see its integrity, is to un-see its divisions. Bengal is named ground: To walk on it, even vicariously, is to recover the insights of Walter Benjamin on his visit to Moscow. Benjamin’s delineation of Russia as named ground (in his Reflections) leads him to proclaim that “you can only see if you have already decided… Only he who, by decision, has made his dialectical peace with the world can grasp the concrete. But someone who wishes to decide ‘on the basis of facts’ will find no basis in the facts”. The facts are always too many. The facts are contested. The facts might not even be facts. But Bengal is decidedly one — not because of its successes but because of its vulnerabilities.
The Refugee Within
The fragile figure of the refugee straddles the two Bengals. Achintya Kumar Sengupta’s poem,Udvastu, rendered unforgettably in the recitation by Kazi Sabyasachi, is a part of an aural tradition without which it is impossible to re-imagine the Bengal that existed once. What makes the refugee central to the idea of Bengal as a state of mind is that she embodies the land’s biological unity and integrity in the very act of losing her place in its stolen geography. Bearing the scars of uprooting, dispossession and exile, the refugee socialises the pain which lasts long after the immediate displacement of enforced migration has passed. To seek refuge is to pass from basha to bari. Basha is a temporary place of residence, no matter how long that temporarity lasts. Bari is an inherited abode which is both ancestrally personal and nationally interchangeable with desh, the native land. The udvastu or vastuhara from East Bengal seeking refuge in West Bengal since 1947 had to contend with what Nilanjana Chatterjee calls “epistemological denial in India”, wherein those who had crossed the border were treated as an economic burden.
The epilogue to the story of the refugees of 1947 was written in 1971, when it was the turn of Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan to join Bengali Hindus in seeking refuge in West Bengal. While the vast majority of refugees spent months in harrowing conditions, professional and other middle-class families were often hosted by middle-class families in West Bengal who could afford to do so. It was not unknown for the family of a Bengali Hindu, who himself had come from East Bengal in 1947, to share its basha with a Bengali Muslim family. The Bengali Muslim knew that he would return home if Bangladesh won the war. His Hindu host kept dreaming of a bari relegated forever to the nostalgic lay of a lost land.
My family was more lucky. Our first trip to Bangladesh was to Lutfar Chacha‘s home in Khulna across the land crossing in Benapole. Of course, I enjoyed the royal spreads at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. But what filled my eyes was the sight of Ornob, Tulu and their little sister (by then), strutting about their home as if it was theirs. It was theirs. Bangladesh restored in me my extended sense of myself, my identity as a resident of Epaar Bangla who sought completion in the autonomy of Opaar Bangla. Soon after, I visited Baker in Bogra. At one dinner, his mother sat down just the two of us together. Naturally, I got the larger piece of fish in a bowl. I cooked up an excuse for Baker to go and look for something. I exchanged the bowls. He returned to eat. When we began with the vegetables, he exchanged the bowls. That insouciant smile again. I hate him. He has outwitted me always inspite of being a year younger.
The refugee is the first citizen of imagined Bengal. She will also be the last. That is, without Bangladesh and West Bengal being the ultimate refuge of the transitional Bengali self, there will be no Bengal.
There will be no me.
Birth matters. No one can be born in two places.
In his essay, “Englands of the Mind”, Seamus Heaney registers the birthing role of place in the “interlacing and trellising of natural life and mythical life”; what a land does is to afford a man “nurture that he receives by living among his own”. Bengal forms a similar geography of the mind. It received me among my own. Life was material, which is to say that it veered from the banal to the brutal, but it was redeemed by the furtive companionship of the imagination. The trellising which Heaney notes does not have to be idyllic. It rarely is. Australian writer Dorothea Mackellar’s poem, “My Country“, written while she was homesick in Britain, captures the native lore of a land that her ancestors supposedly discovered for her. She writes: “I love a sunburnt country,/ A land of sweeping plains,/ Of ragged mountain ranges,/Of drought and flooding rains.” Australia is nothing without its enervating drought and its equally uncaring rain. Mackellar dismisses the pastoral epiphanies of a promised expatriate land, particularly “When sick at heart, around us/ We see the cattle die”. Natural disasters provoke her to reclaim art from nature. She redeems a wayward landscape by offering it refuge in her lines.
I am no Heaney or Mackellar. Bengal has no need to find refuge in my words. May these English words of mine find refuge in the lap of Bengal from which I sprung into life.
 Epaar Bangla: This side of Bengal (West Bengal)
 Opaar Bangla: That side of Bengal (East Bengal or Bangladesh)
 Father’s younger brother is chacha and ji is an honorific in chachaji
Travels formed an integral part of the personae and creative artist that was Rabindranath Tagore. During his travels to England and the America (1912-13 and 1920) Tagore wrote essays for publication in various Bengali journals. Rabindranath Tagore was an inveterate traveller who travelled to the furthest corners of the globe. Detailing his travels in the colloquial everyday language (also referred to as ‘chalit’ bhasha or language) during his tour of England and USA in 1912-13, he used to publish regularly in journals like Prabasi, Bharati and Tattwabodhini Patrika. As the translator-editor Somdatta Mandal informs us, Vishwa Bharati Publication Department in 1946 decided to discard Rabindranath’s own selection. They went back to the earlier formal register and included writings of the 1912 tour, irrespective of whether they were related to his travel.
The book blurb says: “In 1939, Tagore selected fourteen of these essays and an appendix containing seven letters he had written to some of the teachers in the Santiniketan ashram while he was on these trips, for publication as a volume. It was at this point that he rewrote the original essays then using the colloquial instead of the formal language; he also revised the texts substantially. Later editions altered the number of essays, sometimes digressing from Tagore’s own selection, sometimes going back to Tagore’s original formal language.”
The travelogue, if it can be called that, provides an insight into Tagore’s perception of the different facets of western life and the diverse philosophical issues that cross his mind as he journeys from one continent to another. Thus perhaps it is more appropriate that the collection is named “gleanings’’ rather than a travel account or narrative. They are philosophical ruminations where Tagore holds forth on various aspects of civilizations and cultures.
In the very first segment, Tagore’s critical observations about Indian society comes to the fore. Thus he comments on what he sees as cultural differences and civilizational clashes, in “Prelude to the Journey”: “We always comfort ourselves by saying that we are a religious and spiritual race”. He sees this as a compensatory move by Indians to cover up our own sense of inadequacy, about our “weakness” in the external world.(Tagore was acutely conscious of India’s status as a colonised country). “Many of us boast that poverty is our asset”, dwelling perhaps in a haze of pseudo-spiritualism which balks at admitting that this attitude is merely a kind of bravado.
Tagore’s essay here unpacks the notion of the binary that the West is materialistic while the East is spiritual by lauding certain aspects of Western and European culture. Thus he writes that “if we go to Europe with the aim of a pilgrimage, our journey will not be in vain”. He further explains that this is not only because of the material developments achieved by Western culture, but their spirit and attitude.
Power, according to Tagore, is more than an external manifestation; rather, it has to do with a sense of real inner strength. He goes on to cite the instance of the Titanic and people’s altruism and self-sacrifice that was in evidence at that time, to interrogate the view, held by many Indians, that the average European is self-centred and self-serving. On the other hand, Tagore also gives plenty of instances where the spiritual poverty of Indians was in evidence. Thus he writes, “I know there has been a clash between our welfare and that of Europe and because of that we are suffering deep anguish and pain. We do not trust their religion and we criticise their culture as being too materialistic.” However, he continues that there are aspects of European culture which are worthy of emulation, which we would do well to follow, without feeling that it threatens our culture. He strongly commends that the path to seek the truth is a pilgrimage on which we should proceed without being blinded by ego, prejudice and false pride.
Coupled with this contrast of cultures, are observations about people and places. Thus he talks about the women of Bombay who are visible on the beaches of Bombay and contrasts it with the city of Calcutta, which according to him, is bereft of women in public places. Tagore also muses on the vast and limitless ocean which to him offers a cornucopia of literal and symbolic meanings. The sea and the ocean signify vastness, depth, boundlessness and infinitude, as well as the lure of the unknown. In contrast, he bemoans the loss of man’s ties with nature signified to him by the colonial appropriation of the river. He reflects that the river “Ganges was once one of Calcutta’s ties with nature…It was the one window of the city from where you could look out and realize that the world was not confined to this settlement.” He bemoans the fact that the once natural strength of the Ganga had been dissipated, “it has been dressed up in such tight clothes on both its banks and its waist band has been tightened so that the Ganges seems to be the image of a liveried footman of the city”. In contrast, the “special glory of the sea is that it serves man but does so without wearing the yoke of slavery on its neck.” His evocative description brings to life the various aspects of the landscape in full measure.
Tagore’s ‘travel’ writing is not just a mapping of people and places, but shows him as the supreme cartographer of the imagination. Witness his contrast of the earth and the ocean. The earth is compared to an excessively doting mother who binds her children to her and does not allow them to venture far away; the ocean by contrast “constantly allures him to venture towards the unattainable”. He adds, “Those who responded to that call and moved out are the ones who conquered the world.” Moreover, “that race of people on this earth who have specially welcomed this ocean have also found the unceasing effort of the ocean in their character.” Travelling on the Arabian sea, glimpsing distant shores, he stresses that the union of the two — the land and the ocean — signifying stability and movement are vital to an understanding of the truth.
The urge to travel, to move forward continuously, is forever present in man. In a philosophical vein , the poet muses that the soul “always wants to travel” and that it dies if it does not do so.In a series of similes and metaphors drawn from nature, he reflects: “Let us keep moving on, like the waterfall, the waves of the ocean, the birds at dawn, the light at sunrise.” He even transcends to the next plane when he says that “even the call of death is nothing but just a call to change the dwelling place”. In almost the same breath, he compares himself to a fairy princess who is fast asleep and who cannot be woken from her slumber, except with a golden wand.
Part anthropological study– at one point, the poet reflects that the vastness of the surrounding sea would have elicited devotion among many Indians, unlike the European traveller who is intent on enjoying the comforts and varieties of entertainment on the ship-part philosophic meditation, “Gleanings” represents the quintessential Tagore. His interrogation of Indian claims to spirituality is made in the tone of a concerned father warning his children not to fall prey to false pride and vanity. Deeply patriotic as well as an internationalist, he straddled two contrasting worlds of materiality and spirituality, without succumbing to limiting binaries and stereotypes.
Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
In Conversation with Professor Uma Das Gupta, Tagore scholar, author of A History of Sriniketan: Rabindranath Tagore’s Pioneering work in Rural Reconstruction published by Niyogi Books, 2022
Tagore (1861-1941) has been celebrated as one of the greatest poets of the world, a great philosopher, a writer, an artist, a polyglot but what did the maestro himself perceive as his greatest ‘life work’?
He wrote: “My path, as you know, lies in the domain of quiet integral action and thought, my units must be few and small, and I can but face human problems in relation to some basic village or cultural area. So, in the midst of worldwide anguish, and with the problems of over three hundred millions staring us in the face, I stick to my work in Santiniketan and Sriniketan hoping that my efforts will touch the heart of our village neighbours and help them in reasserting themselves in a new social order. If we can give a start to a few villages, they would perhaps be an inspiration to some others—and my life work will have been done.” This was in a letter in 1939 to an agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst (1893-1974), who helped him set up Sriniketan, a craft and agricultural development project for the villages which fell under the purview of the Tagore family zamindari.
To Tagore, his ‘life work’ lay in the welfare of humankind and poetry was just one of the things he did, like breathing. He told a group of writers, musicians, and artists, who were visiting Sriniketan in 1936: “The picture of the helpless village which I saw each day as I sailed past on the river has remained with me and so I have come to make the great initiation here. It is not the work for one, it must involve all. I have invited you today not to discuss my literature nor listen to my poetry. I want you to see for yourself where our society’s real work lies. That is the reason why I am pointing to it over and over again. My reward will be if you can feel for yourself the value of this work.”
These are all incidents woven into a book called A History of Sriniketan by historian and Tagore biographer, Uma Das Gupta, who did her post-doctoral research on the maestro and the history of the educational institutions he founded at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. She moved out of Oxford and pursued her studies in Calcutta. She has highlighted Tagore uniquely as an NGO (Non-governmental organisation) operator and also an educator. Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) in her book Our Santiniketan, recently translated by Radha Chakravarty, focussed on his role mainly as an educator who sought to revive values, a love for nature along with rigorous academics to create thinkers and change makers like the author herself.
A History ofSriniketan is about his work among villagers to bridge gaps. Often, his poetry and writing expresses the empathy he felt for pain and suffering, his need to instil beauty and well-being into humankind so that they could evolve towards a better world — an ideal which he described to an extent in poems like ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’ and India’s national anthem.
Dasgupta did this by not only delving into Tagore’s own writings but by devoting her life to unearth the depth of the maestro’s commitment and the hard work and money he invested in the project he described as his ‘Life’s work’. She even visited the villages and talked to the beneficiaries and workers. Her book is peppered with photographs of Tagore in Sriniketan. It is amazing to see pictures of the poet with people from Sriniketan sitting on the ground or celebrating festivities.
Tagore, Das Gupta tells us, poured all his Nobel prize money, into the Sriniketan Bank project which was led by his son, Rathindranath. The project hoped to free the peasant from debt. How well were these experiments received by Tagore’s contemporaries? Das Gupta writes in her book: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rabindranath had to encounter all of those things, that is, to ‘overcome opposition’ and to ‘conquer space and time’, in no uncertain measure. In short, he had to drive hard to do anything good for a better village life. As a first step, he insisted that Indians should unite to provide nation-building services to the village and not look to the State for doing what was our own duty towards our people. For him, this had to be the more important function of the Swaraj being sought from alien rule.
“In Rabindranath’s view, what had misled society in our transition to modernity was the introduction of the Western concepts of private property and material progress. What this led to was that mankind, though never free from greed, now crossed the limits, within which it was useful rather than harmful. What came about as a result was that property became individualistic and led to the abandoning of hospitality to our people and loss of communication with them. As a consequence, there was an increasing divide between city and village. He found all that to be the reality, when trying to bring about changes, both in his family’s agricultural estates and in the villages surrounding Santiniketan-Sriniketan.”
To bridge this divide, Sriniketan was created with the involvement of more of the Tagore family, agriculturists, scientists from all over the world, like Leonard Elmhirst whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work, and artists, like Nandalal Bose. It was a path breaking experiment which found fruition in the long run. They adapted from multiple cultures without any nationalistic biases. Rathindranath brought batik from Indonesia into the leather craft of Sriniketan. We are told, “One of the early influences was from Santiniketan’s association with a group of creative thinkers from Asia, who were spearheading a Pan-Asian Movement that questioned Western hegemony in art and artistic expression. A pioneer of the Pan-Asian Movement was Kakuzo Okakura (1863–1913, Japanese scholar and author of The Book of Tea). He came to Calcutta in 1904, when he met Rabindranath, and they became friends. Okakura admired and supported Rabindranath’s Santiniketan school. Nandalal’s Kala-Bhavana syllabus included Okakura’s artistic principles of giving importance to nature, tradition, and creativity, which were the same as Rabindranath’s artistic principles.”
That Tagore’s effort was unique and overlooked by the mainstream is well brought out through the narrative which does not critique but only evidences. For instance, Das Gupta contends: “He (Tagore) wrote the same to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, in a letter dated 28 February 1930, when appealing for a government grant towards agricultural research. ‘I hope I shall have the opportunity on my return for another talk with Your Excellency in regard to what has been my life’s work and in which I feel you take genuine personal interest.’ Lord Irwin had come for a visit to Sriniketan at the time and Rabindranath was told of his favourable impression of what he saw during his visit to Sriniketan. In his letter, Rabindranath wrote how he was doing the work ‘almost in isolation’, without any understanding from his people or from the government.” Does that often not continue to be the story of many NGOs?
Sriniketan by Dasgupta is a timely and very readable non-fiction which brings to light not just the humanitarian aspect of Tagore but the need for the world to wake up to the call of nature to unite as a species beyond borders created by humans and live in harmony with the Earth. It all adds up in the post-pandemic, climate-disaster threatened world. To survive, we could learn much from what is shared with us in this book. I would love to call it a survival manual towards a better future for mankind. Scholarship has found a way to connect with the needs of the real world. The book is reader friendly as Das Gupta writes fluently from the bottom of her heart of a felt need that is being voiced by modern thinkers and gurus like Harari — we need to bridge borders and unite to move forward.
Das Gupta retired as Professor, Social Sciences Division, Indian Statistical Institute. She was Head of the United States Educational Foundation in India for the Eastern Region. Recently, she has become a National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IAAS), Shimla, and a Delegate of Oxford University Press. Her publications include Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography; The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Essays on Education and Nationalism; A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Rabindranath Tagore and Edward Thompson, 1913–1940; Friendships of ‘largeness and freedom’: Andrews, Tagore, and Gandhi, An Epistolary Account, 1912–1940. In this interview, she focusses mainly on her new book, A History of Sriniketan, while touching on how Tagore differed from others like Gandhi in his approach, his vision and enlightens us about a man who created a revolution in ideological and practical world, and yet remained unacknowledged for that as in posterity he continues to be perceived mainly as an intellectual, a poet and a writer.
You are a well-known biographer of Tagore and have done extensive research on him. What made you put together A History of Sriniketan?
Grateful for your kind appreciation.
Writing a history of Sriniketan has been a priority for me. As a Tagore biographer, my dominant theme is about a poet who was an indefatigable man of action. His work at Sriniketan is of prime importance in that perspective. The secondary theme is of him as a poet and writer of many a genre, lyric, poetry, narratives, short stories, novels and plays. I had to make a choice of emphasis between the two themes since I did not intend to write a full-scale biography covering all aspects of Tagore’s life, equally. My choice was to explore his educational ideas and to examine how he implemented them at his Santiniketan and Sriniketan institutions. His work as an educator and rural reformer is even today hardly known because his genius as a poet and a song writer overshadowed his work as an educator, rural reformer, and institutional builder. That area of research was quite virgin when I started it as a post-doctoral project in the mid-1970s. For perceptions about his poetry and his large oeuvre I have drawn on the work of the scholars who know the subject better than I do.
My focus is on the concerns that featured persistently in Tagore’s writings and his actions. These were about the alienation in our own society between the elite and the masses, about race conflict and the absence of unity in our society, India’s history, nationalism, national self-respect, internationalism, an alternative education, religion, and humanism as elaborated by him in his collection of essays titled The Religion of Man (1931).
A History of Sriniketan is a detailed presentation about his ideas and his work on rural reconstruction. The idea of doing something to redeem neglected villages came to him when he first went to live in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal. His father sent him as manager in 1889. The decade that he spent there was his first exposure to the impoverished countryside. He was then thirty, already a poet of fame, and had lived only in the city till then. The experience played a seminal part in turning him into a humanist and a man of action. The closer he felt to the masses of his society the further he moved from his own class who were indifferent to the masses. His independent thinking gave him the courage of conviction to work alone with his ideas of ‘constructive swadeshi’.
As a pragmatist he knew there was not a lot he could do given his meagre resources as an individual in relation to the enormity of the needs. But he was determined at least to make a beginning with the work. His goals were a revitalized peasantry, village self-reliance through small scale enterprises, cottage industries and cooperative values. He wrote, “If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”
Disillusioned with nationalist politics he turned to his own responses to the many troubled questions of his times. Tagore was convinced there could be no real political progress until social injustices were removed. He pointed repeatedly to the sectarian elements of Indian nationalism which kept our people divided. He hoped that the Santiniketan-Sriniketan education would create a new Indian personality to show the way out of the conflict of communities. He thus brought a different dimension to nationalism by arguing for universal humanity. It led to doubts about his ‘Indianness’ among his contemporaries. He had the courage to defy the idea of rejecting the world as a condition for being ‘Indian’. In fact, he tried continuously to break out of the isolation imposed on his country by colonial rule. He had the foresight to sense that the awakening of India was bound to be a part of the awakening of the world.
What is the kind of research that went in into the making of this book? What got you interested in Tagore in the first place?
I am a historian by training. Historians have to back up every statement they make in their analysis by written documents. That is why the historian’s main source is the archives. Likewise, my research for this book has been mainly archival. I searched for written documentation from 1922 when the Sriniketan scheme of rural reconstruction work was officially launched. The documentation included the minutes of meetings, memoranda exchanged among the workers of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, official notes, and annual reports written and filed.
In addition, I used to visit the villages in which the scheme was implemented to get an understanding of the ground reality. The work was started with six villages in 1922, extended to twenty-two more villages in the first ten years, and to many more villages afterwards. When the work was being run on a small scale, the Institute tried to post a village worker to stay in the village itself and work along with the villagers to implement the Sriniketan scheme. Some of these villages actually kept notes and records of their work which I could use as part of my local level research. I also interviewed some of the workers who had retired but who were still living around Sriniketan in their old age though their number was small. I have used those oral interviews in my documentation. Some of the Village Workers had their own private correspondence to which they gave me access.
There is also extensive personal correspondence in the Rabindra-Bhavana Archives between the leaders of the Sriniketan work. Among them first and foremost are Rathindranath Tagore and the British agricultural scientist, Leonard Elmhirst, whom Tagore had invited in 1921 to lead the Sriniketan work. Elmhirst had been to India earlier as a Wartime Volunteer during World War 1. When Tagore came to know of him through another British agriculturist working in Allahabad, Sam Higginbottom by name, he contacted Elmhirst with a request to come to Santiniketan and to lead the Sriniketan work. One of Tagore’s prime targets was to implement Scientific Agriculture in the villages. In fact, many years earlier, in 1906, he had sent his son Rathindranath and another student of the Santiniketan school, Santoshchandra Majumdar, who was Rathindranath’s classmate, to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne to study Agriculture with the view that they would bring back the expertise for the Sriniketan work at the completion of their studies.
Elmhirst was in Sriniketan from 1922 to 1924 after which he returned to his work in England. He worked closely with the Sriniketan team even from far through the letters they exchanged. Rathindranath consulted Elmhirst regularly over Sriniketan’s work in progress and this correspondence is in the archives.
There is also a very charming body of personal letters between Tagore and Elmhirst. Tagore’s originals are among the Elmhirst Papers in the Dartinghall Hall Trust archives in Devonshire, UK, and Elmhirst’s original letters are in the Rabindra-Bhavana archives, Santiniketan. This correspondence has been published.
Another very important source of documentation is available in the Diaries of Leonard Elmhirst which he wrote from the start of the Sriniketan work in 1922. Elmhirst’s Diaries were published by Visva-Bharati titled Poet and Plowman. There are some day-to-day accounts of how the work was being done on the ground by a group of senior students from Santiniketan who had chosen this field for training and of course by the Village Workers who had been appointed by the Institute. There were other leaders who helped with the work throughout like Kalimohan Ghose who later carried out the pioneering Surveys of the Villages. I have included some of these path breaking Surveys in the Appendices of A History of Sriniketan.
Last but not the least important for my research were Tagore’s ideas of education and rural reconstruction about which he wrote several essays in two important collections, namelyPalli-Prakriti(Countryside and Nature) and Sikshya (Education). Some of the essays were autobiographical as to how he started the rural work in his family’s agricultural estates in East Bengal where his father sent him in 1889. He stayed at Selidaha, the Estates’ headquarters, with his family till 1900 when he moved to Santiniketan in South Bengal’s Birbhum district where his father had founded an ashram and called it Santiniketan, the ‘Abode of Peace’. It was not a monastic ashram but one for householders to spend some days in prayer and meditation away from their household responsibilities. This is where Tagore and his young family moved in 1900-01 with his plans to start a school for children in the heart of nature. It was to be a school where the children could learn to creatively assimilate the knowledge imparted to them instead of in the classroom that characterised colonial education. This was how his Santiniketan school was founded in 1901.
Santiniketan was located within two miles of the Bolpur Railway Station on the East Indian Railway Line. It was situated on high ground, in the middle of a wide plain, open to the horizon on all sides. There, father and son had planted noble groves of mainly mango and sal trees. There, in the heart of nature not far from a big city, Tagore had the advantage of being able to draw upon both raw materials and cultural products in equal measure as it were. There was the influence of trees, open fields, and the seasons changing so starkly on the one hand; on the other hand, there was the inspiration of artists, science teachers, libraries, and hand-made, machine-made, equipment.
You ask why I got interested in working on Tagore. There is a very personal story to share. When our son was born in Oxford where my husband and I were working with University Fellowships during 1972-73, we decided to move to Visva-Bharati on an invitation from the then Vice-Chancellor, the eminent historian Pratul Chandra Gupta. We were of course attracted to the possibility of being at Tagore’s institution and also to the prospect of raising our child in its pastoral environment. We did thus move to Visva-Bharati in 1973 leaving our Calcutta jobs at Presidency College, where my husband was Professor of History, and Jadavpur University, where I was teaching. Once we went Visva-Bharati, I began to explore the possibility of doing post-doctoral research on Tagore rather than on colonial history as was the area of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Oxford.
What would be the purpose of such a book? Do you think Tagore’s model would work if multiple NGOs adopted his ideas?
As I have already mentioned I am a biographer of Tagore’s educational ideas and the history of his institutions at Santiniketan and Sriniketan. To me writing this book on a history of Sriniketan was an integral part of my research. But at a personal level, I was concerned that the history of that practical and experimental work that Tagore did under the most difficult of circumstances might get completely forgotten if it were not documented. That was a genuine concern because of two reasons. Firstly, while Santiniketan has retained its charm as a popular tourist spot, and as Santiniketan’s oldest buildings of exceptional architecture had become heritage buildings, Sriniketan did not have anything to show or display for outsiders to connect with its one-time strident presence in bringing life and action to the villages. Secondly, Sriniketan never reinvented the wheel but just carried on from the 1950s as a unit of Visva-Bharati University to fill in for routine bureaucratic and funding purposes. Even its beautiful and thriving craft work that brought acclaim to Sriniketan from well beyond its precincts, would slowly but surely erode.
Therefore, the primary purpose of this book is to document a pioneering humanistic enterprise for posterity, and also for the next generations who were expected to be engaged in the field of rural development even though the original model was not necessarily practically and theoretically viable in today’s socio-economic scenario. The book is also for the scholar and for the generally interested person. When I was starting my work in the mid 1970s, there was no doubt in my mind that Sriniketan was becoming less visible.
As for whether multiple NGOs could use the Tagore model is for the NGOs to tell us, but I do know that in its neighbourhood, Sriniketan remains an important inspiration for mobilizing villages non-politically. There have been one or two such movements in the vicinity of Santiniketan-Sriniketan which are continuing to work actively at grassroots. One is Pannalal Das Gupta’s ‘Tagore Society for Rural Development’. Founded in 1969-70 as a registered society, the Tagore Society specialises in motivating villagers to take on environmental self-help projects. There is also the ‘Amar Kutir Society for Rural Develoment’ located very close to Sriniketan which was once a shelter for runaway political prisoners. Founded in 1923 by Susen Mukhopadhyaya, a young revolutionary freedom fighter then, who was attracted to Tagore’s work in rural reconstruction. We learn from his writing that he kept observing the work while coming in and out of jail himself. ‘Amar Kutir’ developed the work of organising local crafts persons, upgrading their skills, training them in design, and in marketing their products for economic rehabilitation. The Birbhum district had several families of traditional weavers. Some of them had been engaged in trade by the East India Company.
Another such non-governmental private initiative for rural development has come up more recently in 1984 in the outskirts of Sriniketan called the ‘Elmhirst Institute of Community Studies’, (EICS), whose members are working mainly in the areas of women and child development including family counselling, family adoption, de-addiction and rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS education and intervention. They were started with substantial moral and financial support from Elmhirst who was interested in spreading Sriniketan’s pioneering enterprise and taking the ideas further to meet the needs of the later day.
In other parts of India individual leaders were drawn to the work of building village self-reliance and a few had dedicated themselves to the cause in post-independence India. For his Ashrams at Sabarmati and Wardha, Gandhi himself kept closely in touch with Sriniketan which he visited several times even after Tagore’s passing and knew it well. Gandhi’s follower, Baba Amte, in Madhya Pradesh was a key worker in the field. More contemporarily one reads of the utopian commune ‘Timbaktu Collective’ in rural Andhra Pradesh where a husband-and-wife team, Bablu and Mary Ganguly, have organised the hapless farm labourers of Anantapur district to work for the regeneration of wasteland and start projects on organic farming, soil conservation, propagation of traditional food crops and have also taken steps for women’s and Dalit empowerment and rural health. Most of these ideas were at one time born and nurtured in the holistic laboratory for socio-economic development that Sriniketan was. Bablu Ganguly acknowledges Fukuoka as his mentor. Being Bengali by birth, it would not be surprising if he was aware of Tagore but perhaps only as a poet and songwriter.
Tagore withdrew from the national movement to develop villages, which is where, he felt lived a large part of India. Gandhi had a similar outlook. So, where was the divide?
With his deepening sympathy for the suffering millions of his country, Tagore became increasingly critical of the changes that Britain had brought to India. But he also felt strongly for the West’s ideas of humanism and believed they were of benefit to Indian society. Revolutionary changes were inescapably entering into our thoughts and actions. This was evident in the proposition that those whom our society decreed to be ‘untouchables’ should be given the right to enter temples. The orthodox continued to justify their non-entry into temples on scriptural pretexts, but such advocacy was being challenged and resisted. The people’s ‘voice’ had put out the message that neither the scriptures nor tradition nor the force of personality could set a wrong right. Ethics alone could do so.
There were important factors that led gradually to this new way of thinking. The impact of English literature was one such. Tagore pointed out that acquaintance with English Literature gave us not only a new wealth of emotion but also the will to break man’s tyranny over man. This was a novel point of view. The lowly in our society had taken it for granted that their birth and the fruits of their past actions could never be disowned; that their sufferings and the indignities of an inferior status had to be meekly accepted; that their lot could change only after a possible rebirth. Society’s patriarchs also held out no hope for the downtrodden. But contact with Europe became a wake-up call. It was no surprise that in his landmark essay Kalantar (Epoch’s End) Tagore recalled and endorsed the British poet Robert Burns’s unforgettable line, “A man’s a man for a’ that”.
It was in that longing to bring hope to the deprived people that Tagore and Gandhi felt really close. They were both carrying out rural reconstruction work because they knew that the majority of Indians lived in villages and wanted to bring awakening and national consciousness to the villages as the prime goal to freedom. Both men focused their attention on the peasantry as the largest class within Indian society who were paralysed by anachronistic traditions and weighed down by poverty and the absence of education.
The major issues on which Tagore and Gandhi differed were debated nationally. Before discussing the specific issues in the controversy, it would be useful to examine their general positions on freedom and nationalism. In The Religion of Man (1931), Tagore developed the position that the history of the growth of freedom is the history of the “perfection of human relationship”. Gandhi applied the same principle to resolving India’s racial conflict. Tagore took the idea further and challenged the credo of nationalism. Tagore argued that the basis of the nation-state was a menace to the ideal of universal harmony or to the “perfection of human relationship”. But to the nationalist leadership all over the country, including Gandhi, political self-rule or swaraj came to be understood as a necessary phase of spiritual self-rule, or swarajya, and nationalism as the first step towards attaining free human fellowship.
Tagore alone spoke out against that trend. He argued that the crucial stumbling block in India’s future lay in the social problems of the country such as the absence of human rights for the masses and the alienation between the educated classes and the masses. He emphasised what the country needed most of all was constructive work coming from within herself and the building of an ethical society as the best way for rousing national consciousness. The rest would inevitably follow, even political freedom.
In his novel, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), Tagore seemed critical of Gandhi’s call for Khadi and burning of mill cloth imported from England. Yet, Sriniketan was a handicraft forum for villagers to find a way to earn a living through agriculture and craft. So, why the dichotomy of perspectives as both were promoting local ware? Where was the clash between Gandhi’s interpretation of Khadi and Tagore’s interpretation of selling indigenous craft?
There was never any conflict in their perceptions or feelings for the poor, Gandhi’s and Tagore’s. Other issues were stirred in relation to the Khadi campaign and the burning of foreign cloth. For instance, the Congress in 1924 moved a resolution under Gandhi’s recommendation enlisting its members to spin a certain quantity of cloth on the charka (spinning wheel) as a monthly contribution. The idea was to give the movement country-wide publicity, and also, to make spinning a means of bonding between the masses and the politicians.
Tagore was wholly opposed to the idea of using the charka as a political strategy for swaraj and explained his position in his 1925 essay titled ‘The Cult of the Charka’. He argued that there was no short-cut to reason and hard work if anything was to succeed; that nothing worthwhile was possible by mass conversion to an idea; that our poverty was a complex phenomenon which could not be solved by one particular application such as spinning and weaving Khadi. Tagore raised the question if our poverty was due to the “lack of sufficient thread”, or due to “our lack of vitality, our lack of unity”?
On burning clothes Tagore’s position was that such a method hurt the poor by forcing them to sacrifice even what little they obtained from selling those clothes. He concluded that buying and selling foreign cloth should be delegated to the realm of economics. In his reply Gandhi wrote, that he did not draw “a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics”. He added that the economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation “are immoral and therefore sinful”.
Is Sriniketan unique? Can it be seen as Tagore’s model for rural development?
To the best of my knowledge there is no parallel institution in India.
I am not aware if Tagore was ever talking of a ‘model’ that he expected others to follow. He was certainly hoping, as he wrote, that his work will help to establish an “ideal” [his word] for the rest of the country.
My own sense is that an “ideal” has been established given that empowerment of the villages through the Panchayats has become a nationwide project. Of course, the government’s approach is not fully in character with Tagore’s holistic vision for the individual’s humanistic development. Today the individual hardly counts, politics and economics are what matter. All the same it has to be said that the villages are getting some attention and are not left to rot as had been the case in the earlier century.
You have said that Tagore faced criticism for the way he used Nobel Prize money. Can you enlighten us on this issue? Tell us a bit about the controversy and Tagore’s responses.
As anyone would surmise the Nobel Prize money was very precious also to the Santiniketan community because the teachers and workers there had to struggle over the resources for the institution. But contrary to the community’s expectation, Tagore decided that the Prize money would be given to the cause of rural credit. He had started the Patisar Krishi (farmers’) Bank in 1906 followed by the Kaligram Krishi Bank. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Pal, the total investment in the rural banks in 1914 amounted to Rs 75,000 of which Rs 48,000 was invested in the Patisar Krishi Bank at 7% interest per annum and Rs 27,000 at the same rate of interest in the Kaligram Krishi Bank. Tagore decided that only the interest from those investments could be used to pay for the maintenance of the Santiniketan school. The actual purpose of the fund was to give loans to the poor peasants so as to relieve them from exploitation by moneylenders and some unethical landlords too. In order to repay their loans, the peasants had to sell their produce at a rate lower than the market price immediately after drawing the harvest. This phenomenon was causing them perpetual indebtedness. The Krishi Banks were to loan money to the peasantry at a lower rate than the money lenders and relieve them from the age-old exploitation.
Tagore was firm that the primary beneficiary of his Nobel Prize money would be the poor peasantry of his family’s estates, and the Santiniketan school would be only the secondary beneficiary. He tried thus to balance his two main concerns when settling the future of his Nobel Prize money.
It cannot be said there was a ‘controversy’ over this as Gurudev (which was how the community addressed Tagore) was too revered for a controversy to be raised about a decision that he had taken. But there was disappointment. It seemed strangely that even his inner circle had not realised his deep emotional attachment and ideological commitment to the cause of the impoverished peasantry. Perhaps, my response to your earlier question may explain why.
Tagore had noticed the gaps between the different strata of Indian society. Sriniketan was an attempt to bridge the gap. How far did his ideals succeed?
There was tremendous societal gap between the different strata of Indian society. With all of Tagore’s will and effort, it cannot be said that the Sriniketan ideals could bridge the gap. Even today, a perceptive visitor, who visits Santiniketan and Sriniketan, located only within two miles of each other, can tell the difference between the two. Santiniketan looks bright and thriving, but Sriniketan looks neglected.
Community life in the Indian villages was seen to break for the first time with the emergence of professional classes among the English-educated Indians. The city began to attract them away from the villages. Those Indians were happy to let the government take over guardianship of the people and relinquish to it their own traditional duties to society. The result was a widening gap between town and country, city and village. Tagore knew from his life’s direct experience that none of those who dominated the political scene in his time felt that the villagers ‘belonged’. The political leadership apprehended that recognising this vast multitude as their own people would force them to begin the real work of ‘constructive swadeshi’. They were not even interested to try. That was where the Sriniketan effort was invaluable to Tagore. He saw that the endeavour built at least a relationship with the village, if nothing else.
The Sriniketan scheme sought to bridge the gap by bringing to the village a combination of tradition and experiment. Tagore knew that a civilisation that comprises of only village life could not be sustained. “Rustic” was a synonym for the “mind’s narrowness”, he wrote. In modern times, the city had become the repository of knowledge. It was essential therefore for the village to cooperate with the city in accessing the new knowledge. One such vital area of expertise was in agriculture. His study of “other agricultural countries” had shown that land in those countries was made to yield twice or thrice by the use of science. A motor tractor was bought for Sriniketan in 1927 because he believed that the machine must find its way to the Indian village. He wrote, “If we can possess the science that gives power to this age, we may yet win, we may yet live.”
Your book tells us that Sugata Dasgupta’s publication, A Poet & A Plan(1962) showed that Sriniketan had benefitted the villages it adopted decades after Tagore’s death. Has there been further development of these communities or is it status quo?
No, it cannot be said that it is status quo from the 1960s. There have been changes for sure. There have been benefits to the villages from the Government’s projects. Indeed, the government had adopted some of their early projects from Sriniketan’s original work.
More interventions are needed of course but it has to be said something is being done. Of course, the changes I can mention that have benefitted the condition of the villages and therefore the villagers’ lives came well after Sugata Dasgupta’s publication. The three that I can mention are communications, roads, and electricity. Today there are more long-distance buses than ever before transporting people to and from the villages. Totos and cycle rickshaw-vans take passengers from the bus stands to the interior villages. Roads are another major development. Besides the highways, the mud paths in the villages are now being converted to metalled roads. There is electricity in the villages.
I should mention one other significant change which is that secondary education is now fairly common to the present-day rural populace. College education has also come within their reach.
What is the current state of the present day Sriniketan? What do you see as the future of Sriniketan?
Presently, Sriniketan runs as a department or unit of Visva-Bharati University and works according to the University’s requirements. I am not acquainted with the requirements. I continue to be a regular user of the University’s Rabindra-Bhavana archives even now. But I have not been connected with the University in any official capacity after the 1980s which is a long time ago.
Thank you for your time.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)
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Title: John Lang; Wanderer of Hindoostan; Slanderer in Hindoostanee; Lawyer for the Ranee
Author: Amit Ranjan
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Retracing colonial history is always fascinating. And, if the characters are out of the ordinary, that re-examination is even more interesting. This book revisits the life of John Lang, an Australian writer-lawyer settled in India in the 19th century.
John Lang: Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer of Hindoostanee, Lawyer for the Ranee by Amit Ranjan is about Lang’s life, his accomplishments and his literary works. Lang (1816-1864) was a fiery journalist and novelist who constantly annoyed the establishment of the East India Company with his vituperative and pathogenic humor. He had lived in India since the age of 26.
A visiting fellow at University of South Wales, Sydney, a Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Miami and who teaches English at NCERT , New Delhi Ranjan’s earlier books include poetry collections Find Me Leonard Cohen, I’m Almost Thirty.
A lawyer, John Lang picked up Persian and Urdu quickly to argue cases in lower courts. He mostly fought against the British and won a few well-known cases in the company’s own court. Also, Lang represented Rani Laxmibai in her legal battle against the annexation of her kingdom of Jhansi by the East India Company.
In about five hundred pages, Ranjan looks at the personality of Lang rather vividly. Also Australia’s first native-born novelist, John Lang had a remarkable life. Coming from a family of ten children (including half- and step-siblings), he went to Cambridge to qualify as a barrister. When he represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, he documented his impression of the queen.
Amusingly, this became the basis of some scenes in an Indian television serial depicting a fictitious intimate relationship between them. Lang flamboyantly fought yet another case of Lala Jotee Persaud for his due as a provisioner in the British army. Persaud won 2 lakh rupees, which was, in 1851, a princely amount.
It is not because Lang was the first Australian writer or was among the first writers of English prose on India, or because of the historical place where Lang lived in the politically volatile 19th century that propelled Ranjan to write the book. The motive behind the book is clear: Lang was a fine writer.
In his short life of 48 years, Lang produced 23 novels, one travelogue, some plays and five volumes of poetry. His novels were mostly in the romance genre and were set in India. His themes were typically bold and very much so somewhat rebellious. After his death in 1864, he remained a well-known writer and his books continued to sell for another 40 years. Lang’s novels were found to be too feminist for Victorian comfort, and his white male protagonists were often described by the narrator as ‘India he loved, England he despised’.
Lang also pursued a career as a journalist, producing The Mofussilite from Meerut — editions of which came out from Ambala, Calcutta. Apparently, as it carried anti-government reports, its file copies were destroyed.
“Lang can indeed be viewed as the father of Indian tabloid journalism. The tabloid, of course, had its equivalent of what is now known as ‘Page 3’, but it was very different–in that it was very literary, with an overdose of Lang’s Latin, Boccaccios and Byrons,” Ranjan writes in the book.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the Indophile spoke at least five languages and produced works as a translator. There were numerous fictional works presumed to have been written or co-authored or significantly inspired by Lang.
Lang’s versatile talents and established scholarship were surpassed by the colourful life that he led. His escapades and misadventures — landed him in a Calcutta jail for libel and in Vienna on suspicions of being a spy. He won the bets. His divorce and love affair even led to an illegitimate child.
Lang had a rationalist’s curiosity about phrenology — a pseudoscience that correlated measurements of different parts of the skull with race and mental ability that was fashionable among Europeans in his times. All these are explored and commented upon.
The book also captures some interesting episodes in Lang’s life like this one: There was a party in progress at John Lang’s house in Mussoorie as he died. Lang had frowned upon the idea of truncating it merely on account of his illness. Bronchitis was the immediate cause of this unforgettable personality’s demise.
Writes Prof. Saugata Bhaduri in the foreword: “Far from being just another piece of sound academic literary-historical work and a well-researched biography of a lesser-known author who needs to be repatriated to the canon, this book is an exuberant exercise in passion – a passion that set one off on a late-night foray into the unknown just to look up some obscure tomb, or to pick up some obscure discursive thread. Amit’s is an exercise that demonstrates how variegated, yet connected, our little histories are.”
Part history and part literary pleasure, this book is captivating. It will be a delight for history and language buffs as also aficionados of wordplay. Ranjan’s book is well researched, with plenty of reference and end-notes. Witty and interweaving, the narrative makes for an interesting read.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of Unbiased, No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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