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Bengali Manhood in Sharatchandra's Devdas

Even after the lapse of an entire century since its composition, Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay’s romantic Bengali novella Devdas continues to command the admiring attention of Indians. It is the only story that could justifiably boast its career in the India’s movie industry, with three in Bengali (1935, 1979, 20012) and three in Hindi (1936, 1955, 2002), the most lavishly produced and enacted by a galaxy of superstars being the Bollywood production of 2002. The characters of Sharatchandra’s story, most notably its eponymous hero, has provided a template for an ideal romantic male figure— narcissistic, alcoholic, effete, effeminate, and by the same token quite adorable—for the Indian youths of almost every ethnic background:

Debdas, composed most probably during 1900-1 in Bhagalpur, Bihar (Sharatchandra’s maternal grandfather’s home where he grew up), was first published as a magazine article serialized in the Calcutta based Bengali literary magazine Bharatvarsa (Caitra 1323-Baishakh-Asad 1324 [March 1916-April-June 1917]) and subsequently as a discrete book on June 30, 1917. It is generally believed to be an idealized and fictionalized rendering of the childhood romance of its young author. In particular, Debdas’s childhood is a mirror reflection of Sharat’s in his native village in Bengal, Debanandapur. Debdas’s licentious adolescence and early youth is a representation of Sharat’s life at Bhagalpur. Yet he remained quite circumspect as to the novel’s quality. From Rangoon, Burma (where he lived from 1903 to 1916), Sharat wrote his Calcutta acquaintance Pramathanath Bhattacharya: “Don’t select [for publication] Debdas, don’t even try. I wrote that book totally inebriated. In fact I am quite ashamed of it. It’s ‘immoral’.”[1] Despite its author’s demur as to its publishable potentials, most critics, Subodh Chandra Sengupta in particular, consider it “the best novel of Sharat’s early youth.” [2] One scholar claimed Debadas’s literary triumph over Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Chandrashekhar depicting the love between Pratap and Shaibalini or even over William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette (1595) and concluded: “The expanse and the depth of Debdas, the limitless pathos of its tragedy — the heart-rending story of the utter ruin of two beautiful and wonderful lives — are simply incomparable.” [3]

This story of a spineless and reckless young man with an underdeveloped sense of eros as well as masculinity has been hailed by almost all Bengali readers and critics as the epitome of a perfect tragedy — the ruinous denouement of childhood romance between an upper caste country boy Debdas Mukhopadhyay and his girl friend also from the same caste but of a lower order Parbati Ghosal (nicknamed Paru) — under the cruel injunctions and taboos of a caste-ridden patriarchal society. While Parbati revealed her precocious womanhood (vide her conversations with her sister-in-law Manorama and with Debdas visiting home after his father’s death), Debdas wallowed in the mires of timid and cowardly acquiescence in his parental injunctions and his delayed manhood, though he covered his own inadequacy with rude and cruel behavior to the young woman whose unqualified love for him he took for granted. The scene in the story in which Debdas hits Parbati (who comes to surrender herself to him) with a fishing rod drawing blood on her forehead is a bizarre and yet unmistakable drama of his symbolically wedding (and possessing) his girl friend instead of a romantic or erotic response to her overture. Parbati is forced by her parents into marrying a wealthy widower with children and Debdas slides into a low life of alcoholism and whoring in Calcutta and gets involved with a pretty prostitute. His prolonged “suicide” ends dramatically when the terminally ill young man returns to his own village and dies under a tree near Parbati’s home. When she comes to know about a well-attired corpse she rushes out and upon recognizing the deceased falls to the ground senseless. While her ineffectual lover ends his aimless and worthless life and thus achieves his emancipation from living, she is forced to carry on un-living her unloved life.

Admittedly the story of the sacrifice of the young on the block of mindless stubbornness of the old makes the parents of both Parbati and Debdas appear as social and moral butchers. However, it is the effete but a diehard social conformist Debdas who really emerges as the sexually retarded Bengali male deserving no better readers’ reaction than their profoundly contemptible pity — the handout fit for a morally and spiritually bankrupt narcissus. And yet this missing link between manliness and manhood is capable of inflicting gratuitous pain upon the two women who fall for his outer charm: Parbati and Chandramukhi. Sharatchandra’s friend Kalidas Ray observes shrewdly: “Debdas’s character displays hauteur [ugrata] and obstinacy, but not firmness. This lack is the sole reason for his pathetic end.” [4] Ironically, however, Sharatchandra’s Debdas furnished for the Indian male a template for an idealized lover greater in magnitude than the legendary lover, and adored all over northern India, especially Bengal, the Emperor Shahjahan (r. 1628-58), builder of the Taj Mahal, and brought instant celebrity for the author of the novella. [5] It is, however, ironical and sad to watch the morphing of Sharatchandra’s Devdas, so realistically represented by Pramathesh Barua and Kundanlal Saigal of yesteryears, into a muscular male by the Bollywood hunk Shahrukh Khan — a costly distortion of a sickly alcoholic’s tamas-ridden persona as a modern debauch with a robust physique.

Reproduced with some modifications from Narasingha P. Sil, The Life of Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay: Drifter and Dreamer (Madison, NJ/Lanham, MD: Fairleifh Dickinson University Press/Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Ltd., 2012).

[1] Undated letter (written most probably in 1913). Gopalchandra Ray, ed., Sharat Patrabali [Sharat’s Letters] (Kalikata: Parul Prakashanii), 29.
[2] Sharat-Pratibha [Sharat’s Genius] (Kalikata: Bibhutibhusan Chattopadhyay, 1337 [1930]), 40.
[3] Kshitindrachandra Ghosal, Sharat Pradaksin [Sharat Visited] (Kalikata: Sharat Samity, 1998), 34.
[4] Kalidas Ray, Sharat Sahitya [Sharat’s Works] (Kalikata: Kabita Sen, n.d.),  169.
[5] For an interesting psychoanalytic interpretation of the story and film versions of Debdas in the context of colonialism see Poonam Arora, “Devdas: India’s Emasculated Hero, Sado-masochism and Colonialism” (1997).


More by :  Dr. Narasingha Sil

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