Mar 25, 2023
Mar 25, 2023
‘…. what I contemplated in these Confessions was to emblazon the power of opium – not over bodily disease and pain, but over the grander and more shadowy world of dreams’ – so said Thomas De Quincey in the preface to his classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Very few know that Bankimchandra was a great admirer of De Quincey in whose imitation he created a character named Kamalakanta who also used to eat opium to induce dreams but of an entirely different kind. Before we narrate one of his famous dreams let me introduce him in Bankim’s own words in my translation.
Many thought that Kamalakanta was mad. What he said or did had no rhyme or reason. Not that he was illiterate. He knew some English and some Sanskrit. But what is that learning which fails to earn you money? You have to mix with the Sahibs or the powers-that-be and do some lobbying. There are so many half-literate people who can hardly sign their names – they have prospered in life with ease and in my opinion they are the real learned people. But the learned people like Kamalakanta who have only read some books are real idiots in my view.
Kamalakanta once got a job. Pleased by his spoken English a Sahib had once employed him as a clerk in his office. But he failed to retain it. He didn’t do any office work. Instead he wrote poems in office ledgers. On office letters he used to quote from an author whose name was Shakespeare; in bill books he drew pictures. Asked to prepare monthly pay bills he drew a sketch of the Sahib throwing money among some naked fakirs who had come to beg; at the bottom of the bill he described it as the real pay bill. As soon as he saw this new kind of pay bill the Sahib terminated his employment.
This far he had gone in his service career. He was not in great need of money either. He was a bachelor. Some food and a few grains of opium available anywhere were enough for him. He stayed in my house for a considerable time. Because of his madness I liked him. But after some time he left me. He never stayed at one place for long. One morning dressed like a mendicant he went away to some other place which I have not been able to find out so far. Nor has he come back.
Kamalakanta kept a kind of a diary. He used every scrap of paper he chanced to find; the rubbish he wrote on them were all beyond my comprehension. At times he read them out to me, but whenever I listened to them I felt sleepy. All those scraps were kept bundled in a dirty and rotten piece of cloth. At the time of his departure he gifted it to me as his parting present.
What should I do with this precious possession? First I thought I should use it as an offering to the fire god. Then I felt an urge to do some public good. I realized that if I didn’t do some good for the people my life will be futile. This diary is the best panacea for insomnia – whoever will read it will soon fall asleep. So, for the benefit of those who suffer from insomnia I decided to publish it.
- Shri Bhismadev Khosnobis
[Before being published as a book in 1875 Bankim’s Kamalakanter Daptar came out serially in his Bangadarshan which was started in 1872. Among his non-fiction writings Kamalakanter Daptar is unique and without any parallel in Indian literature. He wrote it in a light humorous tone and colloquial tenor to discuss serious matters like the socio-political and philosophical ideas of contemporary thinkers such as Mill, Bentham, Comte and others. Perhaps he is the greatest intellect that 19th century Bengal has produced. He kept himself abreast with the intellectual developments of his day around the world. Through his writings he tried to introduce these issues and ideas to his countrymen.
Here is my most favourite piece from the Daptar in my translation. Through a fable it is an introduction to and the interpretation of the moral theory of Utilitarianism (the greatest good of the greatest number) propounded by Mill and Bentham. The influence of the liberal ideas of these two British philosophers on Bankim was great. I am yet to come across a Bengali scholar who has made a thorough study of the extent of their influence on Bankim.
In The Cat there are many layers of satire but the chief object is obviously the British rulers and capitalists under whom Bankim was serving as a Deputy Magistrate in which capacity he must have punished many thieving cats.
Today we have achieved our independence from foreign rule. But the cat has remained and will always remain a thief.
Within a fortnight after assuming power the new government of West Bengal has unearthed hundreds and thousands of fake ration cards in the Maoist infested districts where the subsidized food stuff meant for the poor were so long being siphoned off. And the Marxist government of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was satisfying their hunger with bullets. Here is the amusing story of the Maoists, sorry – the cat, as told by Bankim. Fortunately he died long ago, otherwise like the Maoists he would have been either jailed or killed by the Bengal Marxists. Hope we have not forgotten the murder of the young Block Development Officer Kallol Sur.]
In my bedroom on a four-poster with a hookah in my hand I was dozing. The flame of a small lamp was flickering casting dancing ghostly shadows on the wall. My dinner was not yet ready. Hence with a hookah in my hand with half-closed eyes I was thinking – had I been Napoleon could I win the battle of Waterloo? Right then I heard a small sound, ‘mew’.
I opened my eyes but failed to realize what it was. At first I thought that having got the form of a cat Wellington had come to me to beg for a few grains of opium. I felt an instant impulse to be very firm and curtly say that the Duke had already been sufficiently rewarded and now no additional reward could be awarded to him. Specially, too much greed was not good. But the Duke replied, ‘Mew’.
Opening my eyes wide I took a closer look and found that it was not Wellington, it was a small cat. Prasanna, the milkmaid, supplies me milk. It had lapped that milk up to the last drop. I failed to notice it because I was busy planning my battle line at Waterloo. To show to the whole world how pleased she was drinking this pure milk, not adulterated with water, she was announcing in a sweet voice, ‘Mew’. I was not quite sure if there was an element of satire in it. Probably she felt amused thinking that someone does the hard work but its fruits are enjoyed by someone else. In her ‘mew’ she perhaps wanted to know how I felt about the matter. She seemed to say, I have drunk your milk, now what have you got to say about it?
What should I say? I failed to find an appropriate answer. The milk was not my paternal property. It belonged to Mangla the cow and was milked by Prasanna the milkmaid. Hence the cat’s right to it was as good as mine. I had no right to be annoyed by its behaviour. But according to the age old custom cats are to be chased and beaten whenever they steal milk. It was not desirable that not following that custom I should prove myself a worthless specimen of the homo sapiens. Moreover, who knows if the cat will not ridicule me for my cowardice among its own race? So I thought that I should behave in a manly fashion. I therefore put down my hookah, found a broken stick after much searching and brandishing it manfully got up to chase the cat.
The cat knew Kamalakanta well; she did not show any sign of feeling threatened. She only looked up at my face, yawned and moved away a little and said, ‘Mew’. Realizing that she wanted to say something I threw away the stick, again took up my hookah and ascended my bed. I seem to have got a divine power of hearing and could hear what she said.
She seemed to say, ‘Why fighting? Take up your hookah, pause a little and ponder. You will drink all the milk, eat all the cream and all the fish and meat, but why shouldn’t we get some? You are men and we are cats, what is the difference between us? You feel hungry and thirsty, don’t we feel so too? When you eat we do not object, but why do you chase us with sticks and clubs when we also eat? I have searched a lot but failed to find out what shastra prescribes this behaviour. Take some advice from me. Unless you get yourselves educated by wise quadrupeds like me you will remain ever uneducated and ignorant. From your so many schools and colleges it seems to me that this has dawned upon you at last.
‘Look, you bed-loving human! What is dharma (the highest ideal)? It is doing good to others. Drinking this milk has done a lot of good to me. This has been possible because of the milk you kept in your kitchen. So you will enjoy its spiritual rewards. As I was the means to that noble end, instead of beating me you should be thankful to me!
‘Look, I am indeed a thief, but have I become one of my own sweet will? If one’s hunger is satisfied who wants to be a thief? There are many big sadhus (pious people) who tremble at the very thought of thieving but there are few bigger thieves than these sadhus. They don’t resort to thieving because they have no compulsion to do so. They possess more than they need, yet they don’t come out to help the thieves. That is the reason why thieves do thieving. It is a crime to steal, liability for which is of the miserly rich and not of the thieves. Yet it is the thieves who get punished and these misers go scot-free. Why?
‘Crying ‘mew, mew’ I walk along the boundary walls, but none throws away a single fish bone for me. People throw away the remnants of their meals into the ditches and ponds but never to me. You are well fed, how will you know the pain of my hunger? Alas, is it dishonourable for you to feel sympathy for the poor? You feel ashamed to realize the pain I suffer. One who does not give alms even to a blind beggar is regarded as a prince. When such a man falls in a difficult situation people sympathize with him. But to feel sympathy for the lowly poor is a matter of shame.
‘Suppose some learned men came to drink your milk. Would you beat them up with a club? With folded hands you would rather ask them if you would give them more. In my case why do you use clubs? You will say, they are great pundits and honourable men. But are they more hungry than me because they are learned? To carry coal to Newcastle is a kind of disease of the whole human race – none understands the needs of the poor. You hold feasts for those who do not need them whereas you punish those as thieves who eat your food uninvited because of hunger. Isn’t it a matter of shame?
‘See our condition – all day long we are roaming on boundary walls and in compounds and buildings, we are mewing and looking around, but nobody gives us anything. However those among us who are able to become your pets they are well fed and become your favourites as are the brothers of young wives to their old husbands or chess players to their rich ignorant friends. Their tails are puffed up and their beauty inspires many cats to become poets.
‘Look at us, see our sorry predicament – for want of food our bellies have caved in, we have been reduced to skeletons, our tails are hanging, our teeth are prominent and our tongues are lolling – in hunger we are mewing all the time, but getting nothing to eat! Don’t look down upon us because of our dark complexion. We also have a right to the fish and meat of this world. Give us something to eat or else we will steal. We are dark-skinned and lean, seeing us crying in sorrow don’t you feel sorry for us? There is punishment for stealing, why not for cruelty? When the poor man tries to find his food he is punished, why the rich is not punished for his miserliness? You Kamalakanta, you are clairvoyant because you are an opium-eater – can’t you see the poor become thieves because of the rich? Why one man will garner five hundred persons’ food depriving those five hundred? Again, why shouldn’t that man give to the poor what remains after his consumption? If he doesn’t do that the poor will steal from him because in this world none was born to die of hunger.’
I could not tolerate this long lecture any more and said, ‘Stop, stop you cat! You are talking very much like a socialist! You are the root cause of all social disorders! If people cannot accumulate wealth according to their abilities then they will lose their spirit of enterprise and the society will not prosper and be wealthy.’
The cat replied, ‘What is that to me? Prosperity of the society means prosperity of the rich. If the rich do not become richer does it cause any loss to the poor?’
I explained to her, ‘Without accumulation of wealth society cannot progress.’ Angrily she replied, ‘If I go hungry then what shall I do with that social progress?’
I found it very difficult to make her understand the problem. You can never convince with your reasonings those who think themselves to be very intelligent and are full of arguments. This cat being such a character she had the right not to understand what I said. So instead of getting annoyed I told her, ‘The poor may not be interested in the progress of the society but the rich are and consequently it is their duty to punish the thieves’.
This lady of a pussycat replied, ‘I have no objection to the law that hangs the thieves, but it should include a clause. Before punishing a thief at least for three days the judge himself should go without any food. If after that he doesn’t feel the urge to steal he will be free to hang the thief. You raised a club to beat me. Fast for three days from today. If you are not caught stealing from the godown of Nasirambabu then I shall not object to your beating me to death.’
Beaten in argument it is wise to give advice in a solemn fashion. So I told the pussycat, ‘These are immoral things and their very thought is a sin. Forget them and follow the right path. If you want I can give you the works of Newman and Parker to study. Or for your benefit you may read Kamalakanter Daptar which will at least show you how very great are the properties of opium. Now retire to your own den. Prasanna has promised me some cheese tomorrow. Come at meal time and we will share it equally. No more burgling of kitchens today! If you feel hungry then come again and I shall give you a good grain of opium.’
The pussycat replied, ‘I don’t need your opium. As to burgling, it will depend on the fact how hungry I feel.’
After this she left and Kamalakanta felt immensely happy thinking he had enlightened and saved a damned soul.