Author: Beloo Mehra (April 2015). Published in New Race: A Journal of Integral and Future Studies, Volume I (1), pp. 54-59.
First, a disclaimer. This is not a book review in the actual sense. It is rather a close look at a book, a very special book in the annals of Indian literature in English language, Rajmohan’s Wife by Bankim Chandra Chatterji.
While the plot and the main characters of the novel are quite appealing in their own way, what is most fascinating about this novel is its history. This is the first Indian novel written in English, published in 1864, and the first and the only novel ever written by Bankim in English. This piece of work was considered a ‘false start’ by some commentators and critics of Bankim’s work and has often been ignored by those interested in Indian writing in English. After Rajmohan’s Wife, Bankim never wrote any fiction in English and wrote only in his native language, Bangla. The rest, as they say, is history, of the gigantic literary contribution made by this great son of Mother India.
In the Penguin Classics edition of this novel that I read, we find an informative Introduction and an analytical Afterword by Meenakshi Mukherjee. She provides the reader with some highly interesting facts about how some chapters of this novel were lost and then found by a mere stroke of luck (luck as in seemingly ordinary occurrences such as wrong sets of pages getting stapled together….yes, that is the kind of exciting story that led to the final surfacing of the chapters that were once considered lost by the lovers and scholars of Indian literature and Bankim’s writings). She also examines the place of this very special work in the whole corpus of the fictional writings of Bankim, as situated in the time and the literary and social-cultural context in which he lived and wrote, as well as the significance and impact this novel continues to have on the genre of Indian novel in English language that came afterwards, “a genre shaped…by the contending pulls of colonial education and indigenous traditions of storytelling” (Mukherjee).
As much as I appreciated reading the scholarly analysis and its contextual background, what I found most captivating in the novel was a “deep feeling for the poetry of life and an unfailing sense of beauty” — what Sri Aurobindo remarks as the distinguishing marks of Bankim’s style (CWSA, Volume 1, p.109). Read this passage below and you will know instantly how accurate this insight is. Read it once again to fully visualize the painting the novelist is painting.
“The recent shower had lent to the morning a delightful and invigorating freshness. Leaving the mass of floating clouds behind, the sun advanced and careered on the vast blue plain that shone above; and every housetop and every treetop, the cocoa palm and the date palm, the mango and acacia received the flood of splendid light and rejoiced. The still-lingering water drops on the leaves of trees and creepers glittered and shone like a thousand radiant gems as they received the slanting rays of the luminary. Through the openings in the chick-knit brought of the grooves glanced the mild ray on the moistened grass beneath. The newly awakened and joyous birds raised their thousand dissonant voices, while at intervals the papia sent forth its rich thrilling notes into the trembling air. Light fleecy clouds of white wandered in the solitude of the now purified blue of the heavens, which were fanned by a light breeze that had sprung up to shake the pattering drops from the pendant and wooing boughs.”
What a delightful picture of a fresh morning after a rainy night! The clear blue sky, the pleasing sounds of the birds, the moistened grass, and still-lingering water drops on leaves….beauty all around, loveliness that pleases and delights. And all this comes right after the description of a rather ‘heavy’ sequence in which a gang of dacoits is running around in the rain and feverishly hunting down the wife of one of the gang members who might have been a spy and an informer! All traces of any inkling of suspense, horror or anxiety that the reader might have felt when reading the preceding passage were completely washed clean by this delightful portrayal of after-the-rain-morning that brings with it a new hope and a new adventure in life. This is perhaps an appropriate example of what Sri Aurobindo describes as the novelist’s “keen sense for life, and the artist’s repugnance to gloom and dreariness” (ibid., p. 96).
TO READ AND DOWNLOAD THE FULL ESSAY, CLICK HERE.