PENGUIN BOOKS THOSE DAYS
Born in 1934 in Faridpur, now in Bangladesh, Sunil Gangopadhyay came as a refugee to Calcutta in 1947, following the partition of India. The family suffered extreme poverty initially and Sunil, though only in his teens, was forced to find employment. He still managed to continue his education, taking his Master's degree from Calcutta University.
Sunil began his literary career as a poet, starting the epoch-making magazine, Krittibas, in 1953. His better-known poetry collections are Eka ebang Kayekjon (1958), Amar Swapna (1972), Bandi Jege Achhi (1974) and Ami ki Rakam Bhabe Benche Achhi (1975). Storming into the field of the novel with the trendsetting Atma Prakash (1966)—a powerful portrayal of the frustration and ennui of the youth of Calcutta—he soon rose to become the leading and most popular novelist of Bengali. Sei Samai (1982), which won him the Sahitya Akademi Award, and Purba Paschim (1989) are among his best novels.
Aruna Chakravarti took her Masters and Ph.D. degrees in English Literature from the University of Delhi. She has held the post of reader in one of the affiliated colleges of the university for many years and is, at present, its principal. She is also an author and translator of repute.
Her first translation, Tagore: Songs Rendered into English (1984), won the Vaitalik Award for excellence in literary translation. Her translation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya's immortal classic, Srikanta, is deemed her best work, having won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for 1996. Srikanta was published by Penguin India in 1993. She has also written a biography of Sarat Chandra, entitled Sarat Chandra: Rebel and Humanist.
Translated by Aruna Chakravarti
To Milu and Akhil. . .
When Penguin India approached me with a request to translate Sunil Gangopadhyay's Sei Samai, I found myself, I must confess, somewhat at a loss. I had read the book twice and loved every moment of it but the thought of rendering it into English was daunting. For one thing it was a marathon project—two volumes of closely printed text running into nine hundred and seven pages! And that was not all. I was instructed to compress the matter and bring it down to five hundred pages. I wrote to the author, whom I had met several times, and asked him to suggest areas that might be deleted without disturbing the intrinsic pattern of the book. But he, very graciously, wrote back to say that he would leave that to me, having full faith in my abilities.
Thus, with the responsibility fully and squarely on my shoulders, I sat down to take stock of the situation. And to my surprise, I found that the task was not so formidable after all. The English language lends itself, quite naturally, to greater precision than the Bengali. So, a certain amount of tightening could be achieved without undue strain. Discreet deletions here and there took care of the rest.
There was another hurdle that had to be overcome. The characters of Sei Samai speak the lively dialect of nineteenth-century Calcutta. I researched a bit, trying to find a corresponding dialect in English. Then, rejecting every one I found as unsuitable, I decided to make my characters speak plain twentieth-century English with a few Bengali phrases and exclamations thrown in for the ambience. The effect, I find, is not too much at variance with the original. I hope my Bengali readers will share this view.
And now—a few words about Sei Samai. The novel, appearing in serial form in Desh over a period of two and a half years and published in two volumes in 1981 and 1982, respectively, presents a bold and startling deviation from the Marxian search for man's salvation that was Sunil's forte in his work of the sixties and seventies. Sei Samai is a period novel set in nineteenth-century Bengal. It explores the cross-currents of social, political and intellectual life in the city of Calcutta during the period generally referred to as the Bengal Renaissance. This period, in the opinion of Shibnath Shastri, stretches through the two decades between 1825 and 1845. 'Those twenty years,' he writes in his Ramtanu Lahiri and Bengali Society of the Time, 'ushered in a new era in the history of Bengal. There was an awakening in the realms of politics, religion and education such as had never been witnessed before.' Sunil Gangopadhyay tries to reconstruct this awakening in Sei Samai but the time-frame of his novel is different. 'My personal view,' he writes in his epilogue to Sei Samai, is that the Bengal Renaissance, as we understand it, manifested itself not in the span between 1825 and 1845 as Shibnath Shastri suggests but in the three decades between 1840 and 1870.'
The novel has a vast canvas against which the lives and destinies of a number of historical figures of the time are traced. Many fictional people and events find their place, too. In fact, one of the unique features of the novel is the deftness with which the author weaves the actual and the purely fictional into the tapestry of his story. Another is the quality of his voice—rational, analytical and totally without bias.
Sunil Gangopadhyay's attempt is to synthesize two approaches to history. Like his illustrious predecessor, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya in Durgesnandini, Mrinalini, Chandrasekhar and Anandamath, he tries, on the one hand, to explore the reality of historical events and reconstruct them as faithfully as possible. On the other, he moulds history to the point where it embodies a vision. History is both symbolical and prophetic in Sei Samai.
The characters of Sei Samai, historical and fictional, are flesh and blood human beings, caught between two worlds—one old, decrepit and dying by degrees and the other struggling to be born. They are all protagonists; all engaged in a struggle—some to keep alive and perpetuate the old, others to hasten its death and bring about the birth of the new. The characters are historically authentic for the most part and so is the world they people. Yet, Sei Samai is not history. Sunil Gangopadhyay makes that amply clear. 'Sei Samai is a novel—not a historical document,' he writes in his epilogue. 'History is a record of palpable facts. Fiction is not. The fiction write, even when depicting historical truth, has to invest it with the light of the imagination.' Thus, Sunil's historical characters think, act and feel as he sees them do in his mind's eye. Vidyasagar speaks a rough and ready tongue and weeps at the slightest provocation. Debendranath Thakur exchanges the highest philosophical ideas with Rajnarayan Basu over a glass of wine. Harish Mukherjee goes drinking and whoring with the lowest of the low and Madhusudan Datta has homosexual yearnings for Gourdas Basak.
Readers have questioned these aspects of the book and indicted the author for taking unwarranted liberties. Sunil answers their charges with the words: 'We Indians believe in idol worship and cannot rest in peace till we have deified those we respect... But blasphemy is an excellent component of great literature—a most useful one, too. When an attack, true or fabricated, is directed against an illustrious personage of a previous age and time, the consequent situation is fraught with controversy. And in the analyzing that invariably follows new light is sure to be shed and a better perspective acquired. T.S. Eliot's near murder of Shelley did not destroy Shelley. It sparked off a curiosity leading to greater awareness in the mind of the reader. I have been accused of belittling the great sons of our land. I submit that I have done nothing of the kind. If, in the interest of realism, I've depicted some of them as having feet of clay, I consider that I've done no wrong.'
One agrees with Sunil. The creative writer is beholden to no one. Something or someone fires his imagination. He gives expression to it through a chosen medium. He is answerable only to himself for it is his bounden duty to be faithful to his own thoughts and perceptions. The reader is at liberty to accept or reject his work—in part or as a whole.
The creative writer, when recreating historical figures, is at a serious disadvantage. Barring certain events which are recorded history and an anecdote or two, perhaps made popular by repeated usage, he has little matter on which he can fall back. There is, therefore, no option for him except to enter into an imaginary dialogue with his characters. He has to penetrate their minds and keep pace with their steps—physical and mental. There are many who will challenge this kind of identification and dismiss it as false and frivolous. But the creative writer, in my opinion, should be given that liberty. He should feel free to interact with his characters and make them think and speak. Only, he shouldn't strike a false note. And he won't do so if he remembers to keep them within their time and context.
A point that has consistently plagued readers of Sei Samai is the true identity of Nabin Kumar Singha. Is his character based on that of Kali Prasanna Singha's or isn't it? If it is, why has the author changed his first name? And why is his paternity cast under a cloud? And if it isn't, why is the translation of the Mahabharat and the authorship of the lively Hutom Pyanchar Naksha attributed to him? And the book, interestingly enough, is dedicated to Kali Prasanna Singha.
Anticipating these questions, Sunil tells us that though Nabin Kumar's life and character bear a slight resemblance to those of 'a certain historic personage who died while still a youth', the reader should not make the mistake of seeking complete identification. Nabin Kumar and Kali Prasanna Singha were both scions of wealthy landed families, possessed extraordinary intellectual powers and died young. But here the resemblance ends. Practically nothing beyond these facts is known of Kali Prasanna Singha. Nabin is a product of Sunil's imagination—a dynamic character of a tremendous range and amalgam of qualities; a compound of strengths and weaknesses. Spoiled, arrogant and vain, he was forceful, brilliant and humane. Moreover, he is portrayed as striving, consciously and constantly, to better himself.
Though Nabin is the one character whose life and destiny are linked, albeit tenuously at times, with all the characters of Sei Samai, Sunil Gangopadhyay does not project him as its hero. If there is a hero at all it is Time. Time is the central character and the focal point of the novel. In order to invest this abstraction with flesh and blood and make it a living entity, Sunil Gangopadhyay had to have a symbol. Nabin Kumar is that symbol. His name, Nabin, meaning 'new' is a pointer to the part he is to play in the novel. 'Oh! Time that is yet unborn!' he scribbles on a scrap of paper just before his death. 'I salute you.
Nabin dies before fulfilling his dearest wish—that of hearing 'the cannon booming at midnight a hundred times, ringing out the old and ringing in the new—the twentieth century', but his spiritual successor, the young scholar and thinker, Pran Gopal, will do so. In fact, at the end of the book, he already does so—in the imagination. 'Looking out into the night he heard its footsteps in the distance and his eyes glowed with the light of another—a more glorious world.'
|List of Characters|
|The Singhas of Jorasanko|
|Ram Kamal Singha - a wealthy zamindar|
|Ganganarayan - his elder son|
|Nabin Kumar - his younger son|
|Bimbabati - his wife|
|Kamala Sundari - his mistress|
|Leelavati - Ganganarayan's first wife|
|Kusum Kumari - Ganganarayan's second wife|
|Krishna Bhamini - Nabin Kumar's first wife|
|Sarojini - Nabin Kumar's second wife|
|Dibakar - Steward of the household|
|Sohagbala - his wife|
Chintamoni ,Matu- maids
Duryodhan, Nakur -servants
|Bidhubhushan Mukherjee - A lawyer|
|Soudami - his wife|
|Narayani, Bindu, Suhasini- his daughters|
|Pramgopal - Suhasini's son|
|The Malliks of Hatkhola|
|Jagai Mallik - A wealthy old man|
Kaliprasad, Chandikaprasad -his sons
|Aghornath - his grandson|
|Durgamoni - Chandika's wife|
|The Dattas of Khidirpur|
|Rajnarayan Datta - a wealthy lawyer|
|Madhusudan - his son|
|Jahnavi Devi - his wife|
|Henrietta - Madhusudan's second wife|
|Dwarkanath Thakur - A wealthy banker and stevedore|
|Debendranath - his son|
|Keshab Sen - Debendranath's disciple|
|Jagamohan Sarkar - A rich babu of Calcutta|
|Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar - An educationist and social|
|Madanmohan Tarkalankar - his friend|
|Shreesh - his pupil|
|Harish Mukherjee - a journalist|
|David Hare - an educationist|
|John Bethune - an educationist|
|Ramgopal Ghosh,Dakshinaranjan ,Mukhopadhyay,Ramtanu Lahiri - followers of Derozio|
|Pyarichand Mitra - a writer|
|Kishorichand Mitra - a writer|
|Kishorichand Mitra - his brother|
|Rani Rasmoni - A wealthy woman of Calcutta|
|Mathur - her son-in-law|
|Heeramoni - a courtesan of Calcutta|
|Raimohan Ghosal - her paramour|
|Harachandra Samanta - her lodger|
|Goopi - a jeweller|
|Trilochan - a tenant farmer|
|Thakomoni - his wife|
|Dulal - his son|
|Mr Mac Gregor - an English planter|
|Golok Das - his steward|
|Devi Lal - Bindu's abductor|
|Mansaram Chhadiwala - a resident of Varanasi|
|Munshi Amir Ali - a Muslim lawyer|
|Janab Abdul Latif Khan - a landowner|
|Jadupati Ganguly - Nabin Kumar's friend|
|Deenabandhu Mitra - a playwright|
|Surya Kumar Goodeve Chakravarti - a doctor|
|Bhujanga Bhattacharya - Rent collector of the Singha estates|
|Gourdas Basak - Madhusudan's best friend|
An award-winning novel that uses both vast panoramic views and lovingly reconstructed detail to provide an unforgettable picture of nineteenth-century Bengal.
The Bengal Renaissance and the 1857 uprising form the backdrop to Those Days, a saga of human frailties and strength. The story revolves around the immensely wealthy Singha and Mukherjee families, and the intimacy that grows between them. Ganganarayan Singha's love for Bindubasini, the widowed daughter of the Mukherjees, flounders on the rocks of orthodoxy even as his zamindar father, Ramkamal, finds happiness in the arms of the courtesan, Kamala Sundari. Bimbabati, Ramkamal's wife, is left to cope with her loneliness.
A central theme of the novel is the manner in which the feudal aristocracy, sunk in ritual and pleasure, slowly awakens to its social obligations. Historical personae interact with fictional protagonists to enrich the narrative. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the reformer; Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the poet; the father and son duo of Dwarkanath and Debendranath Tagore; Harish Mukherjee, the journalist; Keshab Chandra Sen, the Brahmo Samaj radical; David Hare and John Bethune, the English educationists-these and a host of others walk the streets of Calcutta again, to bring alive a momentous time.
Translated from the Bengali by Aruna Chakravarti
Cover painting by James Baillie Fraser
Courtesy: Calcutta: City of Palaces (J.P. Losty)
© British Library/Arnold Publishers 1990