SOCIAL HISTORY AND REALITY IN THE NOVELS OF BHABHANI BHATTACHARYA
BY DR. RAM SHARMA, SENIOR LECTURER IN ENGLISH, J.V.P.G COLLEGE, BARAUT, BAGHPAT, U.P.
Bhattacharya deals with social history and reality in his novels, the Bengal famine and the ill effects of the Bengal famine, the impact of the world was 11, caste-system. untouchability and other social evils. The background of his writings is the historical events and he divides into two parts — pre-independence or from world was II to independence and the second part from independence to the late seventies. The famine of 1943 brings so many hungers, the hunger for food, money and sex, the exploitation of man by man seemed to him to have become the creed of the day. The prevailing social conditions also worked upon the growing mind of Bhattacharya, and inspired him to create his first novel. The famine of 1943 which stalked through the scared soil of Bengal, was one of the such events as he himself confesses:
―Then the great famine swept down upon Bengal. The emotional stirrings I felt (more than two million men, women and children died of slow starvation amid a man — made scarcity) were a sheer compulsion to creativity. The result was the novel So Many Huniers.”1
Bhattacharya‘s novel So Many Hungers is based upon man‘s ―hunger for food and political freedom‖2, the Indian freedom struggle, Bengal famine and the second world war, hunger for food and political freedom. The novel is regarded as a socio-political novel. The novel deals with the political, social and economical history of the pre- independence India. K.K. Sharma asserts that this novel,
―is, infact a very deep and lively study of the history of India, of times first preceding the independence which no history book could have rendered in that detail and with that much of depth and liveliness. The novel records the political, social and economic history of the pre- independence society with minuteness and aptness.‖3
It deals with the two plots — the story of the young scientist Rahoul and his struggle for freedom and the peasant family. Then Young girl Kajoli and her family. Devata (Devesh Basu) is the link between the two plots. Samarendra Mist‘ by profession is a lawyer and he has two sons Rahoul and Kunal. Rahoul has in himself strong patriotic and nationalistic qualities and he has contemplated joining the independence movement and is willing to get arrest. Samarendra Basu is a shrewd and money-minded man. His main aim is to please The British rulers and to earn titles and he thinks or makes plans of earning
money. He buys rice at a very low price from the villagers and hoard it and later sells it at a very high price. He wants his son Rahoul to do a job as Technical Advisor in New Delhi. But at the end of the novel his dreams arc shattered, when he comes to know that Rahoul has been arrested for _joining the Quit India Movement and Kunal goes missing in Italy.
Samarendra‘s father Devesh Basu, popularly known as Devata because his love for the common people, is a Gandhian character. Devata encourages the people of the village to take part in the Quit India Movement. He believes in non-violence. He always thinks about the welfare of the villagers and advises them not to sell their rice to the government agents. He lives in a village, Baruni with Kajoli and her family. Her father and brother Kanu have been arrested for their participation in Civil Disobedience Movement, started by Mahatma Gandhi. Devata shares food with them and now he becomes the head of the family. Devata was arrested but he said to the villagers to be strong, true and deathless. Kajoli is also the victim of this man-made famine. After the arrest of Devata. they have to face the terrible pangs of starvation. It was the situation where hungry people cry themselves to death Rahoul notices this on the platform:
―Some yards away on the platform, half concealed by another packing case, a destitute woman lay on her side, her legs drawn up, eyes closed, a baby at her breast. The women lay still, but she moved its lips faintly as it suckled. The mother was dead.‖(p.154)
Kajoli was also dying from starvation and when she meets an Indian soldier and asks him for food. He gives her a bread, which she gulps without thinking about her brother and mother, and just in return for one piece bread he rapes her. However, the two satisfy the hunger of each other because she has the hunger for food and he has the hunger for sex.
After some time her brother Onu comes and begs the food from the soldier with pathetic cries, saying his mother, his sister and he himself were hungry and requests him to give them some food to live. It was the time when hungry people start having those things which the animals refused to have. A six year old girl is sold to a procuress for only ten silver rupees. There is a scene in which an empty jam tin is dug out by Onu from a rubbish heap. The tin is snatched by a bigger boy.
In order to ward off starvation, people have to live on roots, figs and what ever else their luck could bring them. Vultures eat them alive as
they do not have the necessary strength to show the vultures off. Kajoli decides to become a prostitute but is finally saved from it.
Thus the novel shows the different dimensions of hunger. Kajoli is miserably suffering from the hunger for food, the soldier was suffering from the hunger for sex, Samerendra Basu‘s hunger for money and Rahoul‘s hunger for freedom is shown by creating fictional prototypes of real characters and situations in this novel, Bhattacharya presents a real picture of the socio-political, economical, cultural and ethical history of India‘s life.
Bhattacharya‘s novel Music For Mohini, deals with political and social freedom; it is concerned with the social realities of the old and the new times and attempts a synthesis of the two. The social changes of the post-independence period are remarkably portrayed in the novel. I3hattacharya says that social freedom is important for the real progress of the people because without it even the political freedom is ineffective.
Mohini, is a central figure in the novel, is described by the novelist as having a passion for the bright, joyful life, and a contempt for all that is dull and dead. ―Mohini, who loved the warmth the colour of life, could not bear image of decay.‖4
Caste-system is a big problem in Indian social life. The Brahmin boy Heera Lal, under the impact of his grandmother does not eat meat. When the low born snake-chamer, who does not believe in the taboos of caste, scorns this age-old social evil. Heera Lal does not tolerate him and said: ―And a Brahmin‘s a Brahmin‘, snapped Heera Lal. His temper rose. He felt the inside of his nose itch. Defile caste. I never not for the Nizam‘s Treasures. Not for the governor of Bengal‘s powers.‖5 Marriage of a girl is a major problem for the Indian parents. Mohini‘s marriage causes immense worry to her father and grandmother. Mohini‘s father has to go through the matrimonial column in the daily newspaper. The custom of showing the girl of the family members of the prospective bridegroom and Mohini, however,
does not like this but she is to follow this because it is a custom and Mohini also has to under-go this ordeal more than once. Dowry is the decisive factor in marriages.
Bhattacharya by depicting Jayadev‘s and also Harindra‘s hatred for inequality on the basis of caste, hints at the idea shared by Mahatma Gandhi in this regard, Mohini and Jayadev notice that even the revolutionary Harindra can not find it easy to marry his beloved, Sudha, because of the difference of the caste: ―But what of the rock like barrier of caste? Even the bold impulsive Harindra would find
caste hard to sermount. Even Sudha‘s great uncle would be against the marriage.‖ (p.1 58)
Bhattacharya also depicts the rituals and superstitions of Indian social life. Mohinis‘s grandmother is worried to see her grandson, Heeralal, getting weaker day by day, and she decides to take help of an amulet, which she believes, ―will guard his health; it will strike evil Eye sightless.‖6 She asks Heeralal to wear the copper amulet in his neck and he refuses to wear it and says that if he wears it then his classmates would laugh at him. When Mohini sees a white owl sitting on bokul tree early in the morning and pays respects to the owl of the future which blinks as the light grows and flies away after some time. When her mother-in-law is suspected that she is a barren woman then she persuades her to cut the skin of her bosom and offer her blood to. Devi, so that she may become a mother. Professor Hanuman is famous and widely advertised for reading man‘s life correctly and telling him his past life correctly. Mohini is not permitted to eat anything on her marriage day because it is the ritual that a bride cannot eat the food until the marriage is over.
When her father scorns this practice and protests against it. The old Mother can not break any conventions, inspite of her strong desire to
do so. She is very sad to see that she can not accompany the girl, to the railway station to see her off with her husband.
Mohini is a care-free person having a passion for .life and is playful. She is married to Jayadev. He has a deep belief in Nehru‘s beliefs that at the time of India‘s attainment of Independence. In this manner of Nehru, Jayadev is of the opinion that the greater task of social freedom is still lying ahead. He wanted to achieve his goal without thinking his newly wedded wife. Jayadev is a social reformer and wants to make his village Behula a modern village. He knows that it is not a cake walk. He knows that it‘s not as easy as writing books rather, for that, he has to do a great labour and struggle for it. He wants Mohini‘s help to achieve his ideal. He wants Mohini to teach the village women how to read and write. He knows that ignorance and illiteracy is the main reason of their slavery at the hands of the powerful people. Jayadev meets Harindra, a surgeon, who also understands the problems of the village very well. Another social evil is the caste-system. Jayadev decides to make people free from the fetters of caste and creed. Mohini and Jayadev find that even the revolutionary Harindra can not find it easy to marry his beloved Sudha because she belongs to a different caste.
Bhattacharya, in this novel, depicts the social, cultural and economical history of India just after the attainment of freedom in 1947.
He Who Rides a Tiger deals with the fearful consequences of the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Quit India Movement. It focuses attention on the caste-ridden social order and the degrading political and economic system that prevailed in India. Kalo, the central character and his daughter, Chandralekha, suffer a lot owing to the caste-system and the economic to patterns of society. Hunger and famine drive Kalo from his village to Calcutta. Famine of Bengal was grinding the people to death. The Bengal Famine drives him to go to Calcutta to seek employment. He has to leave his daughter, Chandralek7ha, with his old aunt. On the way to Calcutta he steals three bananas to save himself from starvation. He steals bananas to preserve his life for the sake of his family. The magistrate says in an inhuman manner ―why did you have to live?‖7 Kalo, a low-born blacksmith, is not happy with the people of his class and he maintains distance from them. Another very significant aspect of social life realistically treated in the novel is the unbridgeable gulf between two entirely different classes — the rich and the poor, the low and the high. Kalo sees that the poor are dying miserably under the impact of the ravenous hunger created by the rich for their profit. The caste-system, indeed is the
worst evil that has been crushing, Indian society for ages. Kalo tells Chandralekha that the low-caste untouchables are helpless creatures who cannot dare to go to the police. Then there is the problem of marriage between the boy and a girl of the same caste. Kalo is not able to get a suitable match for his daughter in his own caste. He is also shocked to find that owing to her low caste, she does not get due praise and admiration for the medal she wins as a brilliant student. Kalo‘s sister Purnima is in love with a low-caste boy and when her parents get to know this they become hostile towards her. Kalo asks why the society as well as the parents could not understand that love is beyond all things and that they just try to make their child‘s life miserable just because of caste-system. His sister commits suicide and he observes that:
―What evil power was it that, in minute, turned loving parents into brutes? How could the force of belief be so blind and devastating? For they who could have given all they had to make their daughter happy condemned her to a living death. 1-low was such perversion possible?‖ (p.167)
The cruelty of society becomes unbearable to Kalo when he sees that under the compulsion of circumstances he found his daughter in a brothel, he was also doing a job in the brothel and when he heard the
voice of crying for help near his room lie went there and saved his daughter from becoming a prostitute. He finds himself and his daughter Chandralekha too weak and helpless before the mighty social conventions. He is ceaselessly haunted by torturous thoughts: ―His daughter was polluted, fallen, even to have breathed the air of the harlot-house would mark a woman as fallen. That was the terrible fact, almost displacing all feeling. Whoever was to blame, the fact was there. What could he do about it? Was he not helpless against the social idea which branded her for all time?‖ (p.71)
He becomes hitter in his heart against the society. He feels that his miseries or sufferings are not only the result of his past bad deeds and the Bengal famine is not only responsible for his miseries but the rich, the money lenders are also responsible for his difficulties and just because of these money lenders he has to leave his village, his daughter and everything that belongs to him. After leaving his village he had to go to jail for stealing bananas and even he finds his daughter in a brothel and then he thinks that he would take a revenge against the society and the rich. Then he reminds B- I 0 what he said. He said that ―to hit back‖ the rich or the enemy is the only solution to remove the miseries. Now Kalo knows the many ways in which ―to his back‖ — faking a miracle to get a temple raised by exploiting haves and to
make them fools. Now his fight starts against the social, religious and the rich people. He disguises himself as Brahmin and adopts a name, Mangal Adhikiri, the prosperous priest of the temple. Now he is ready to ride a tiger and can not get down from its back. Bhattacharya accepts Kalo‘s revenge against the social evil and caste-system but he was not happy with the way in which it was taken. Kalo pretends to be happy but his heart knows that whatever he is doing is wrong and his transformation into Mangal Adhikari starts eating his soul. He finds that he is doing the same thing, the one against which, he had started his fight. His daughter, Chandralekha, was also unhappy with his disguise because she thinks that he disguised himself just because of taking revenge against the corrupt people but now he is doing the same thing. She starts keeping a distance from her father and when he sees it he feels depressed. The only way to get back to her is to disclose his identity. So he prefers to kill the tiger and emerges victorious. The social reformer who has renounced his Brahminism to lead the destitutes in their struggle for food, has come back to hear Kalo. The victory of Kalo is not the end of the war but it is only a step in the process that Kalo moves out of the temple B-10 and Vishwanath continues his struggle. Kalo has not only a purpose in life, but also the power to achieve it.
Bhattacharya in his novel A Goddess Named Gold deals with the happenings in a village during the period immediately preceding ―India‘s attainment of freedom. The novel is set in the hundred days prior to the attainment of Independence on 15 August l947.‖8 It refers to the Freedom Movement, though it embodies the novelist‘s concept of ideal freedom. The country has not reaped the full benefit of the political freedom which we got alter a long period of struggle and sacrifice. The novel gives a realistic picture of the social life of Indian villages. It was the first time when women took part in the freedom struggle and came out of their houses, Atmaram a wandering Minstrel, gave an amulet to his grand-daughter Meera. He said that if she does a noble act then this metal will transform into gold. Seth starts a new business with Meera on a fifty-fifty basis. But Meera and Seth got disappointed by the amulet because it didn‘t show any desirable result. Meera throws the amulet into the river. At this moment, the Minstrel appears in the village of Sonamitti and interprets the symbolism of the amulet. Through him the novelist expresses his belief that political freedom is not a remedy for all social, political and economic maladies, it can not impact an all-sided prosperity to a country. It creates an environment to give man an opportunity to show his best and attain prosperity by hard work.
Bhattacharya affirms that political freedom opens up where there are no ways, but miracles can not occur without hard work. Then Atmaram says to the villagers:
―……The miracles will not drop upon us. It is we who have to create them with love and with sweat……‖ (p.303)
The novel gives a realistic picture of The Bengal Famine and the political events around Independence Day. The women were suffering from acute shortage of clothes caused by the profiteers. Women had to wear patched saries and many of them had to sleep almost naked at night in order to save their saris from further wear. Seth was the only cloth merchant in the six villages around, who was responsible for the miseries. He raised the prices to increase his profit. He was a money lender also and he gave the people money at a very high rate of interest and most of the villagers were deep in debt. The village women start a movement against the Seth and with the help of his wife Lakshmi, compel him to give each one of them a sari free of cost. He does not find anything wrong with his profit motives which he has learnt from the big businessman no body condemns and punishes.
A Goddess Named Gold also satirizes the election methods actually adopted by the politicians. An election is to take place at Sonamitti for
The District Board. The Seth decided to contest it. He spends a lot of money and employs all sorts of stunts to purchase votes. He hires the school children to convince the people that he is a brother and equal to the poor. He plans a number of tricks to win the election. He thinks of using the squads of young teachers from the village school to go around crying slogans in his favour. Bhattacharya depicts the caste differences and superstitions prevailing in Indian villages. The Halwai of village Sonamitti wants to marry young Meera but in their marriage there was a problem of caste. He knows that they both belong to different castes and the villagers won‘t allow their marriage but he believes that his wealth can enable him to overcome the caste barrier. He tells Meera that there is only one way of their marriage and that is to give the money to the five elders. Seth also knows the power of . gold which enables man to work a miracle and attain great heights. Superstitions oppress the villagers as much as casteism. The villagers were obsessed by the fear of apparitions visible at certain places in the night. The Seth, who is more enlightened than most of the illiterate villagers, is terribly frightened when one night he has to pass by a neem tree supposed to be haunted by the bhootni, a female ghost. The villagers faith in the horoscope is also brought out in the novel., the description of the marvellous legend of the talking goat. The goat was
purchased to be slaughtered for meat on the occasion of a marriage feast. But when about to be slaughtered, it spoke in a human voice. The result was that the owner could not dare kill it, rather he broke down in remorse and fell at the animal‘s hoofs. It was believed that a noble human soul resided in the goat‘s body.
Bhattacharya also deals with the evils of dowry and bribery in this novel. The need for dowry for a girl‘s marriage causes a lot of misery and hardship to Indian families, it is also one of the cause of poverty in our country. Money helps the parents to get a suitable husband for their daughters. An unfortunate old woman had a daughter and she was not able to get her married to a suitable boy because she did not have money and that‘s the main reason. The corrupt practice of bribery and other unfair dealing, so rampant in Indian society are among the prime reasons of the nation‘s slow progress. It was the first time when women came out of their houses and took part in the struggle for freedom. How Gandhi cast a magic spell on the women of Sonamitti is clearly portrayed by the novelist. An eleven year old girl, Meera, could not confine herself to her hurt at the time of Quit India Movement Lakshmi, the wife of the cloth merchant, the Seth, did not worry about her inconvenience for a moment and joined the procession: ―Seven months. There was the heavy-bellied mother-to-be
with short quick-steps, breathless in her effort not to be left behind‖ (p.12). In the end Ministrel points out to the people that ―to win the freedom to be free‖ (p.301) is more important than political freedom. Bhattacharya in this novel shows the multi-dimensional freedom, philosophy of Gandhi towards the end of the novel, the social, cultural, political and economic history of India just after achieving freedom. He shows the social reality and history of the country after getting freedom in 1947 and his main concern was how to preserve this newly attained freedom.
Shadow from Ladakh depicts many social realities of the post Independence India. This novel deals with ―India‘s recent history, the problems and challenges that India has faced in the wake of Chinese aggression.‖9 On the political level it deals with the conflict between Gandhian social and technology. Comparing this novel with So Many Hungers, Bhattacharya himself declares that it is, ―rooted more deeply in Gandhian thoughts.‖10
The need for overlooking caste-system for the betterment of the society is emphasized in this novel. On the political level it deals with the conflict between Gandhian social and political ethics, and the modern forces of science and technology. The two major characters in the novel, Satyajit and Bhaskar, represents these two contrasting
attitudes to life. Satyajit is dedicated to the Gandhian way of life and lives in Gandhigram modelled by him after the Gandhian philosophy of life. On the other hand Bhaskar has created a new westernized kind of life centred around steel civilization in Steel town. Bhattacharya shows Satyajit and Bhaskar‘s conflict but by and by they iron out their differences and ultimately reach an understanding and adjustment. The novel emphasizes that synthesis comes from correct understanding and adjustment. The novel also refers to the population explosion which is becoming a problem to the national life of India. Bhaskar is portrayed to be afraid of this horrible problem of the birth of a child after every five seconds in India, the idea of feeding, rearing, clothing, educating, giving cultural welfare, giving employment and giving their due share of human existence to these babies harasses Bhaskar.
Bhattacharya‘s description of our great leaders such as Nehru, Tagore, Gandhi and Dalai Lama a few characters based on the Gandhian and Nehru‘s vision of India, clearly shows the insight of the political history of India. Bhattacharya‘s method of presentation of the historical perspective is one of comparison and contrast, the contrast is not between Gandhigram and Steeldown but it is between two contrary ways of life. Sayajit‘s plan of forming a Shand Sena is born of his faith in Gandhi‘s non-violence. He feels that Shanti-sena could
touch the hearts of Chinese and draw them away from their aggressive desire.
Sayajit is dedicated to the Gandhian way of life. Bhaskar is against Sayajitism, has created a new westernized world for himself. The one believes in simple living and high thinking but the other believes in western ways of life and industrialization. Bhaskar is of the opinion that Indians who have been a slave to the Britishers and Muslims should achieve their full share of a free and happy life.
Beside discussing the Chinese aggression and its impact an Indian social and political life, the novel gives consideration to the pernicious evil of the caste system. At Santiniketan, where Satyajit, the central character of the novel, happens to serve for some time, we find the total rejection of caste. He discards his surname, `Sen‘, indicating his caste affiliation, and prefers to he simply casteless in the style of yogis who would renounce the world to become `casteless and rootless‘. He is in love with Suruchi, who belongs to a different caste from this own. He told Suruchi, that caste system won‘t create any hurdle in their marriage and soon, they married without any difficulty and their families were also happy and satisfied with their marriage. Santiniketan. Gandhigram, too aims at eradicating untouchability and casteism. The untouchable and the casteless are given homesteads
beside the people belonging to high castes and strata. Suruchi, is the first person to comprehend the synthesis of traditional and modern values of life, she favours the harmonious blending of the old and new. Satyajit and Bhaskar realize the essence of one another for the benefit of the country.
Thus we see that the novel records graphically the political condition of India, China and Tibet around the year 1962. Bhattacharya presents these realities of Indian history, in the wake of Chinese aggression with a lively description. From these novels, we can have an understanding of the undercurrents of the social life of India spanning from the Bengal Famine of 1942-43 to the Chinese attack on India in 1962. It deals with the various planes of reality — political, historical,
social, economic and spiritual reality of life.
Sorot, Balram S. The Novels of Bhabani Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991. p.13.
Bhattacharya, Bhabani. So Many Hungers. New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1978. p.3 (1947, rept. All The Subsequent references are to the same edition.)
Sharma, K.K. Affirmation of Life: The Vision and Themes of Bhabani Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1979.p.14.
Bhattacharya, Bhabani. Music For Mohini. New Delhi: Orient Paper Backs, 1984. p.6 and all Subsequent references are to the same edition.
Sharma, K.K. Affirmation of Life: The Vision and Themes of Bhabani Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1979. p.133-135.
7. Bhattacharya, Bhabani. He Who Rides a Tiger. New Delhi: Arnold — Heinmann, 1977. P.31 and all the subsequent references are to the same edition.
Bhattacharya, Bhabani. A Goddess Named Gold. Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1960. p.25 and all the subsequent references from the same edition.
Bhattacharya, Bhabani. Shadow From Ladakh. London: W.H. Allen, 1967. p.29.
10.Chandrasekharan, K.R. Bhabani Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1974. p.107.