Book Reviews

Srikanta: The Listless Vagabond*

Puzzlingly enough, the novel that had elevated Sharatchandra to the rank of the greatest prose writer of late colonial India, was seen as unsuitable for publication by the author himself. After publishing the first installment of his novel in Bharatbarsa he wrote Haridas Chattopadhyay, proprietor of the distinguished publishing house of Calcutta, Gurudas Chattopadhyay & Sons:

I never thought my “Srikanter Bhramankahini” worthy of publication in the Bharatbarsa, nor do I think it now, though I hoped that someone would publish it. I had hoped that the slanders and the ridicules in my story, not deserving of a spot in your magazine would nevertheless be found publishable by another journal….Should you want, I’ll continue writing…But please see that I remain anonymous. Anyway kindly let me know the readers’ outrage [at Srikanta]. Until then I shall not write another line on the novel. [1]

A distinguished scholar of Bengali literature observes about the four-part novel:

We discover an uninhibited, asocial, and rootless nomad in Srikanta. He is sailing from port to port in the four parts of his life, though there’s no sign of his reaching sam [the musical term sam means a terminal point of a measure or a rhythmic resolution] —a destination. He could not have reached a final destination even if Sharatchandra added four more parts simply because of his rudderless vagabondage. It is noteworthy that each part of Srikanta has aimlessness as its leitmotif.[2]

Indeed, every part of the novel commences with the protagonist’s profession of his aimless life. As he goes on:

Again at the sunset hours of this globe-trotting life I recall so many episodes while trying to relate its one chapter. Thus I grew from my childhood to this old age.”[3] “I could not imagine I would be called upon to link up the chapter of my homeless life I had closed with my final tearful farewell from Rajlakshmi…” [4] “Up till now, my life has been passed as a satellite. I could neither earn the right to come near nor the permission to move far away from that I circle around.”[5]

The above quotes might show Shrikanta as a mature male past middle age, but actually the internal evidence of the text makes him a precocious young man of thirty-two. The entire story of Srikanta in four parts is spread over five years, his age at the inception of the narrative being twenty-seven. Really speaking, his mental age is much more than his biological young years. This is because he represents the postwar generation of Bengali male who has leapt from adolescence to middle age by escaping the youth as if by a double promotion. Shrikanta is a representative of the Bengali male who has grown old, cold, and weary right in his youth. The postwar economic depression, administrative division of Bengal (since 1905), relocation of the national capital from Calcutta to Delhi (since 1911), political turbulence and governmental repression through the Rowlatt Bills (1919) leading to the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act (1919) — all these historical developments enervated and bewildered the youths of Bengal. Sharatchandra’s literary career coincides with this troubled time and thus the male characters of his fiction show no initiative, activism, enterprise, and determination. They are easily swayed by the exigencies of events and though they do not lack intelligence, they are unable to make use of it in activism. Shrikanta mirrors the Bengali society of the time and thus his odyssey as penned by Sharat was adored by the readers.

Srikanta is a picaresque novel par excellence. In this type of writing it’s the author who leads the reader through the maze of events in the external world as well as the unseen inner workings of the human mind and heart. He is the controller and the commentator. The events of this novel are scattered lacking unity and coherence but are tied together through the sensibilities of the protagonist. Sharat appears as the traditional kathak in this work. In the first part of the novel Shrikanta is shown as an appreciator of beauty and a thinker, in the second he is an intellectual, a lone patriot in the third, and a poet in the fourth. The background of the first part is Bihar, of the second part Burma, the village of Rangamati in Birbhum district of the third, the verdant countryside of Muraripukur Baisnab akhda [congregation] of the fourth. The first and the fourth parts contain wonderful description of nature’s beauty and mystery.

The distinguished poet Mohitlal Majumdar (1888-1952) observed that Sharatchandra’s Srikanta is a unique creation in that it depicts its author’s personal life interfaced with an imaginary account — it in fact is a literary rendition of his atmajiban.[6] Sharat’s uncle-friend Upendranath writes: “Curious readers often ask me whether Sharatchandra is really Shrikanta. My response has been that Sharat may be regarded as Shrikanta only if we start thinking of sugar as sandes [a variety of cheesecake adored by the Bengalis].”[7] As such this work betrays certain characteristics of an autobiography: the writer’s complete absorption in his remembered experiences, his unabashed self-expression betraying his identity despite his concern for hiding it, sentimental excesses, and loose plot. The aesthetic merit of an autobiographical novel lies in its elemental nature. Yet it must be noted that Sharat never made himself completely visible in the plot. Shrikanta does not command the same attention as do some significant characters of the story such as Indranath, Annadadidi, Shahji, Abhaya, or Rajlakshmi, aka Peary Baiji [professional danseuse].[8] He has produced an amalgam of reflexivity and autobiography. As he avers: “One can create an image only when one is able to restrain himself from telling too much. It is harder not to paint or not to speak than paint and speak. An authentic work of art calls for a lot of discipline and self-control.”[9] Nevertheless, he does reveal his own worldview through the plots, dialogues, and occasional authorial interventions and asides. His Srikanta would surely have vindicated the protagonist of Dorotnhy Richardson’s novel, who would refuse to “read books for the story, but as a psychological study of the author.”[10]

In the first part of the novel, we savor the author’s delectable description of nature, the childhood odyssey of Shrikanta, his adventurous associate Indranath, his acquaintance and intimacy with Indranath’s elder sister Annada, and his chance encounter with his long lost childhood girlfriend Rajlakshmi (Kalidasi in real life) now turned into a nauch [nac] or a professional dancing and singing girl under the assumed name of Peary Baiji. As mentioned earlier, the first part contains the youthful author’s experiences at Muzaffarpur.

The second part contains his Burma experiences that he relates carefully and thoughtfully. Published in 1916 when Sharat came to live at Baje Shibpur, Howrah, this part reflects a mature rendering of his Burma life. By now Sharat had created strong and rebellious female characters such as Rama (Pallisamaj), Sabitri, and Kiranmayi (Caritrahin). Thus Rajlakshmi in this part emerges as a self-conscious and self-confident woman proclaiming her feminine need and demand.

The third part of Srikanta published in 1927 (originally serialized in Bharatbarsa during 1920-21) deals with patriotic and nationalistic themes as the author himself had been involved in nationalist politics since 1920. A major character of this part of the novel, Bajrananda, a young sannyasi (echo of Bankim’s Anandamath, 1882), leaves his family not in search of an abstract divinity but of God as his motherland and thus becomes a part of a larger family.[11] Rajlakshmi has undergone a sea change in her social standing and in her personal life. She has become the matron of a large estate and she has turned quite religious, if not spiritual. Shrikanta is entirely under her secure shelter but far from being close to her. He himself undergoes a transformation in the fourth part when he meets his boyhood Muslim friend Gahar and the Baisnabi Kamallata at the Baisnab akhda at Muraripukur. Following the Baisnabi’s departure for Brindaban, the diehard vagabond undergoes a conversion experience, as it were, and realizes that his listless and hapless life will find its direction and purpose by joining it with that of Rajlakshmi, who had surrendered her soul to her childhood beau long ago and who now is gloriously equipped to proffer nurture, nourishment, stability and security to the promeneur solitaire.[12] Sharat’s portrayal of the character of Rajlakshmi shows him as a verbal sculptor of femininity far superior to the best works of the visual artists of Renaissance Italy. Without doubt, Srikanta is Sharatchandra’s magnificent magnum opus.

* Adapted from Narasingha P. Sil, The Life of Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay: Drifter and Dreamer (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2012), ch. 7.
[1] Sharat’s letter (November 15, 1915), Gopalchandra Ray, ed., Sarat Patrabali (Kolkata: Parul Prakasani, 71.
[2] Pramathanath Bishi, Bamla Sahityer Naranari [Men and Women in Bengali Literature] (Kolkata: Maitri, 1953), 140.
[3] “Srikanta,” Sukumar Sen, ed., Sarat Sahitya Samagra, 2 vols. (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 2002), I: 268.
[4] Ibid., 325.
[5] Ibid., 449.
[6] Srikanter Saratcandra [Sharatchandra of Srikanta] ( Howrah: Ba?gabasi Granthalay, 1950), 9.
[7] Upendranth Gangopadhyay, Smritikatha, 2 vols. (Kolkata: D.M. Library, 1961), II: 35.
[8] Prasun Mukhopadhyay,Sarat Samiksa o Srikanta [A Discourse on Sharat and Srikanta] (Kolkata: Indian Associated Publishing Company Private Limited, 1972), 39.
[9] Sharat’s letter to Haridas Bhattacharya (November 15, 1915), Ray, ed., Sarat Patrabali, 71.
[10] Cited in Mhairi C. Pooler, “Of Language, of Meaning, of Mr. Henry Joel.”  (accessed 3/10/2014).
[11] “Srikanta,” Sen, ed., Sarat Sahitya Samagra, I: 401.
[12] For an insightful analysis of Rajalakshmi’s repressed tragedy as a failed lover see Saratcandra Cattopadhyayer Srikanta (pratham parba), ed. Shuddhasatva Basu (2003. Sixth Rpt. of Fifth revised edition. Kolkata: Prajnabikas, 2013), 108-10.


More by :  Dr. Narasingha Sil

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