Review: Prothom Alo (The First Light)

Prothom Alo by Sunil Gangopadhyay

A review

Prothom Alo (The First Light) by Sunil Gangopadhyay is an epic work by the great author which encompasses the society of Bengal in the later part of the nineteenth century.
The period is often referred to as the period of the “Bengal Renaissance” as this period saw a number of great personalities in action in this region of pre-independence India.

Sunil Gangopadhyay is undoubtedly one of the most important literary figures of his era in Bengal and Prothom Alo is a phenomenal piece of work by him.
It is a historical novel where Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore are mere characters. Sunil treads the boundary between fact and fiction with elegance, combining documented incidents with his author’s imagination, lending even well-known anecdotes a fresh perspective. The novel deals with a number of important personalities who breathed during the period, from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay to the young freedom fighters in the later stages. However, the lion’s share of pages are dedicated to the Ramkrishna-Vivekananda movement and the Tagore family.

The saint Ramkrishna as well as his disciple Swami Vivekananda are presented in a refreshingly irreverent fashion, shorn of the many legends, myths and aura that they are often ornamentally clouded with. What this did for me was endearing these two extraordinary personas to me. While Ramkrishna is mesmerizing as a man with disproportionately great insight into the human character and spirituality, than what a modern man would associate with his level of formal (or even informal) education, his disciple’s journey from a North Kolkata lad to a monk respected deeply across continents is one of a friend with whom we once spent days chatting with and who later went on a path of his own, rather than a guru. Later, we also encounter Sister Nivedita, whose journey from her Irish roots to India is a stiry in itself. A related parallel plot is that of Girish Ghosh, the famous playwright, lyricist and actor and with him, a number of other playwrights and stage personalities of that era and how they shaped and adorned the stages of the city.

Rabindranath Tagore is presented in a humane form too, rather than a divine presence which is his more commonly found avatar in the Bengali and Indian psyche. He comes with his magnetic personality and his occasional frailties and of course, with his superhuman genius. The episodes of Rabindranath with his scientist friend Jagadish Chandra Bose present us with another less-discussed aspect of this great poet’s character. Prothom Alo also acquaints us with Rabi, the younger brother, Rabindranath, the husband of Mrinalini Devi and the father of their children.

As much as real-life characters enthrall, the brilliance of Sunil shines through in the fictional part of the novel. Sunil creates a contemporary character who is in the scene and serves as a lens for the reader to watch events unfold and personalities walk past. Through it all, the life of this character himself unfolds towards an intriguing conclusion.

Prothom Alo is a riveting read. Sunil weaves a story around history and what a story it is !

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