Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sharat Chandra : The Messiah Of The Oppressed

“In the dead of night Gafur set out , holding his daughter by the hand. He had nobody to call his own in the village. He had nothing to say to anybody. Crossing the yard he stopped and crying loudly. “Allah”, he said raising his hand and face towards the dark, starry sky, “punish me as much as you can- but remember, Mahesh died in thirst. Not a tinniest bit of land was left for him to graze. Pray, never forgive those, who denied Mahesh the grass to eat, water to drink, which you provided for all on this earth.”

Those were the heydays of Zeminder’s, second and third decade of twentieth century. The author of this story revolving around a landless peasant Gafur and his bull, “Mahesh”, is Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, the most popular novelist in Bengal. His novels have been translated in almost all other Indian languages and were equally popular. Many films based on his novels were termed as super hit films in Bangla, Hindi and other languages. The films ‘Devdas’ and ‘Dev D’ released recently are prime example of his appeal to the masses for generations. There lies the paradox. Devdas was the scion of a prosperous Zamindar family of Bengal and the novel was about his tragic love story. The same writer writes about a Muslim landless peasant and his bull ‘Mahesh” and it was selected as UNESCO heritage literature.

Sharat Chandra spent his childhood and the best part of his youth in dire poverty, living a vagabond’s life in search of livelihood. His childhood was spent in his maternal uncle’s family at Bhagalpur in Bihar due to abject poverty. In his youth he worked as a manual labor and later as a petty clerk to sustain himself. The life he saw was smitten with hunger, famine and death; so were the novels and short stories he wrote, which depicted the realities of life in rural Bengal and not the sophisticated urban life of the educated middle class. For him the creator and the universe had no meaning because even the moon looks like half-burnt bread for the hungry. Characters like Satish in his novels Charitraheen, Ramesh in Pallisamaj and Sabyasachi in Pather Dabi were rebels, more of a rebel than a hero, who defied the religious strictures, social norms and stood against the landlords, their cronies and the priests, who exploited the poor peasants to live a life of opulence. Without any political overtone Sharat Chandra was able to weave mass uprising, agrarian movements and message of social reform in his novels and short stories.

Sharat Chandra was very fond of Charles Dickens and was definitely influenced by his style of narration and social awareness. He excelled over all great story tellers of his time because of his intimate knowledge of life of the people from the lowest strata of life- the peasants, the snake charmers, the courtesans, prostitutes etc. Gafoor in his short story ‘Mahesh’ was a muslim landless peasant and Mahesh was his bull. He used to feed the animal even when he himself had to remain in empty stomach for days together. But he was driven to the wall because of the relentless demand of the landlord and the priests to fill their coffers. One day, in a momentary rage he hit the bull hard and the famished bull died. Gafoor left his house and the village and went to the city with his daughter to work as a laborer in a Jute mill.

Mritunjay in the story ‘Bilasi’ was a snake-charmer, who had left his middle class family and opted for this profession out of love for Bilasi. He died while trying to catch a cobra ignoring Bilasi’s warnings. After his death Bilasi had nothing to live for. So at the end she also commits suicide. We find another character of snake charmer in his autobiographical novel ‘Srikanta’. ‘Annada Didi’ had left her family and honor to live with her characterless, drug addict husband, who had never accepted her as his wife. He also died while playing with a poisonous snake in a drunken state. Annada spent her rest of life alone carrying the memory of her so called husband.

In ‘Abhagir Swarga’ the mother Abhaghi is a lower caste woman, whose only dream was that after her death she should be cremated with full rituals like the high-caste Hindus. She dies in penury and his son went further into the debt trap to fulfill his mother’s last wish.

Sharat Chandra was acknowledged as a writer with profound sympathy for women and deep ‘understanding of the whole gamut of the women’s inner life, be it as a mother, sister, wife or the beloved, thereby often fighting through her the fight of the modern woman for recognition as a free individual and personality in her own right.’ There are many instances in his writings, where he was seen more as a revolutionary than a social reformer, which forced the British rulers to proscribe his novel ‘Pather Dabi’ as sedition.

To pay tribute to the great writer, reformer and humanist Sharat Chandra one should ask an honest question, whether the exploitation, the suffering of the silent majority in British India, he depicted in his writings could be eradicated seventy years after independence, and if not, why. The answer is obviously ‘no’ and there lies his relevance for the posterity.

The Talking points on Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay in All India Radio 
- Amar Mudi

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