On Bankim Chandra Chatterjee

On Bankim: The first major Bengali novelist

Before there was Rabi, there was Bankim..

I started reading Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (also known as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee) at an impressionable age. I was still in school and had heard Vande Mataram. So, when I became aware that this legendary melody was part of a novel an extract from which was part of our text, I gave Anandamath a go. Impressionable age added to the fuel of patriotism meant instant flares. The schoolboy felt the warmth of Bankim’s rebels’ fiery speeches in his veins. And my affair with Bankim had started.

The striking feature of Bankim’s writing is his flourishing way with words. He mesmerizes, almost to the point where mesmerizing seems to be something the man himself almost relished doing

When discussing this extraordinary novelist, one needs to keep in mind the context of his age. The Bengali language was very much in its adolescence. Literary figures of note were still to emerge and the body of work as yet wasn’t huge. Most importantly, his most illustrious successor, Rabindranath Tagore (whom, incidentally, he himself hinted at being a worthy carrier of the flame) was yet to set the literary stage alight.

The striking feature of Bankim’s writing is his flourishing way with words. He mesmerizes, almost to the point where mesmerizing seems to be something the man himself almost relished doing. He puts up a grand show and takes the reader on a tour. On roller-coasters and joy-rides he takes him, pulling all stops and sparing no efforts. Incidentally, he does not hesitate breaking the fourth wall too (ref.: Bish Brikkha, The Poison Tree) in his novels, an example of his outrageous confidence. Bankim’s legacy, though, is not limited to novels. His articles ranging from humor-laden social commentary to analysis of Indian epics bore the mark of an active thinker ahead of his time.

His initial novels were romantic pieces and even Rabindranath’s first novel, Bou Thakuranir Haat, does seem to be influenced by Bankim’s writings of this phase. This trend gradually gave way to a series of novels with patriotic shades of varying hues.

A piece on Bankim Chandra cannot be complete without mentioning the nationalistic streak in his literature. His ode to the motherland, lent a tune by his illustrious flag bearer of Bengali literature, became the voice of a generation of freedom fighters in India and is perhaps one of the most influential songs in the history of mankind. A phase in his novelist career was marked by a strong fervour in arousing the people of India. He invoked past glories, the tales of bravery from the history of India and decorated it in a hue of his own, half-truth half-wishful-imagination. Since, he has invited controversy with both his ideas of Hindu nationalism and doubts about whether he went all-out against the Raj. But, as I said in the very beginning, Bankim needs to be judged in the context of his times. Maybe, it is best to have two distinct views of the man – one of a literary figure in 19th century Bengal, and the other of a rebellious Deputy Magistrate in the British Raj in colonial India. While I have doubts about the latter and do not subscribe to his ideas and ideals in their entirety, the former remains my favourite Bengali novelist.

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