INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON BENGAL AND BENGALI NOVELISTS.
A knowledge of the vernacular is necessary for all officials, while, in the case of judicial officers, it may be regarded as a sine quâ non. The magistrate, who is thoroughly at home in the language, is able to dispose of cases with promptitude, and feels a certainty as to the correctness of his decision which cannot be felt by those who have to rely, in whole or in part, on the services of an interpreter. These facts alone constitute a sufficient incentive for acquiring a complete mastery of the language. No doubt, speaking generally, the vernacular languages of India are not worth studying for the sake of their literature; but if in this respect one vernacular is worthy of study more than another, it is certainly the Bengali language.
Many people in England regard the natives of India much in the same light as they regard the natives of Africa. A perusal of the following tale will at least give them some conception of the stage of civilization at which the Bengali race has arrived, and of the intellectual attainments of the educated classes. A few words regarding the Province and its material progress may not be out of place.
The census of 1881 shows that the population, which now stands at 69,536,861, has increased 10·89 per cent in ten years. The Hindus number 45,452,806, and the Mohammedans 21,704,724. The average density of persons to the square mile is 371·41. In some districts the average density of the rural population exceeds 1000 to the square mile, and has caused some alarm. Hitherto there have been no migratory movements on a large scale, owing to the conservative habits of the people and the fondness of the agricultural community for their ancestral fields and homesteads.
"Beatus ille, qui procul negotiis
Paterna rura bubus exercet suis."
But the danger, though appreciable, is not so great as is supposed. There are vast tracts of untenanted and untilled lands awaiting the plough, and these lands are in some cases situate within a few miles of those parts where the density of population is greatest. Emigration, though still unpopular, is losing its unpopularity by degrees. Education is spreading among the masses, and the old order is changing, giving place to new. That which has happened in western countries will assuredly happen in India. During the year 1882 nearly 11,000 persons were registered as emigrants for tea-gardens in Assam, and nearly 9000 were despatched to Mauritius, Trinidad, and other colonies. The fact that 2000 of these emigrants were Brahmans is a hopeful sign, and indicates that caste prejudices are dying away.
Cultivation is improving, and the fact that the land goes on producing good crops year after year seems to negative the supposition that the soil is being deteriorated or gradually exhausted. As to famine, alarmists should bear in mind the fact that India is a food-exporting country, and nothing short of general widespread famine could stop such exportation. In India the anxiety is not so much on account of the sufficiency of food-supplies as of the difficulty of transportation in emergencies to distressed areas; and, with the extension of railways, this difficulty is gradually disappearing.
The judicial system is most elaborate, and, in the case of the criminal courts at any rate, justice is not only exceedingly cheap, but brought to the doors of the people in a manner that is quite unknown in European countries. The jails and jail administration may compare favourably with European countries. The number and value of civil suits has largely increased, while the number of notarial registrations in 1882–83 exceeded half a million. There is scarcely a branch of the administration which does not point to the increase and diffusion of wealth, and the material progress of the country. The Government has not only not enhanced the land revenue, but the rate of incidence per acre has actually been diminished. Nevertheless, owing to increased cultivation, the receipts from this source continue to rise in the temporarily settled provinces. In permanently settled Bengal the revenue paid by the Zemindars represents only three or four per cent. of the value of the gross produce. The receipts from salt, excise, stamps, forests, registration, post-offices, and telegraphs continue to rise. In another decade the excise revenue will probably rank in importance with the revenues from salt and opium.
The material progress and increased comfort of the people makes itself manifest in many ways. District officers are unanimous in their reports on this subject. More masonry houses are being built; substantial tanks and wells are excavated; orchards of fruit trees are being planted in large numbers; stone and earthenware vessels have given way to brass utensils; wooden bedsteads, chairs, and stools are to be seen in the houses of all but the very poorest classes. The number of carts for transport has increased by thousands, and the number of draught bullocks by tens of thousands. During the scarcity of 1874 nearly a quarter of a million draught bullocks were collected in a few weeks in Northern Behar and Bengal for the transport of grain by Government. On the rivers, too, the number of boats has largely increased, and they are of a better and more substantial kind. Nowadays the ryot may be seen tramping along with an umbrella in his hand, and, if the weather be fine, shoes on this feet; if wet or muddy, he generally carries his shoes in his hand or slings them across his shoulder! He wears better clothes, and covers the upper part of his body with a jacket or coat, while in the cold weather he has also a shawl or wrapper. The wages of labour have largely increased, and women of the lowest classes may be seen with silver ornaments; brass ornaments are giving way to silver and silver to gold. The quantity and quality of jewellery worn by the women is a very sure and safe criterion of the prosperity of the people, as it is notorious that they like to invest a great portion of their savings in this way. Thefts and housebreakings, and the occasional occurrence of dacoities or gang-robberies, show that the habit of hoarding and burying treasure is not yet extinct, and that the desire of the people, and especially of the trading classes, to conceal their wealth, is still prevalent, though not so strong as under native rule. Magistrates feel some surprise on reading the daily police reports of crime to find that sums of five hundred to a thousand rupees in cash and ornaments have been stolen from some oil-seller or cloth-seller who does not even pay the license tax! These facts are mentioned to show that the outward and visible signs of comfort and prosperity are not the only indications of the wealth of the country. Of course Indians, as compared with Europeans, are poor, and must remain so for a long time to come; but their wants in the shape of food, housing, and clothing, are smaller and more easily and cheaply satisfied. It is probable that the poorest classes feel the pinch of poverty far less than the same classes in England; hunger is not dreaded in ordinary times, nor are there any sufferings from the rigours of climate. The private charity shown towards the old, infirm, and helpless, as well as towards religious mendicants and professional beggars, has hitherto obviated the necessity for any poor law, and is one of the best elements of the native character. Dr. Birdwood ascribes the comfort and happiness of the agricultural classes to the happy administration of the land, and the excellent character of the landed tenures. Certainly the land question seems to have been solved in India in a satisfactory manner, while its solution is as yet incomplete in Ireland, and appears to be only beginning in England and Scotland.
Though wealth is still hoarded to some extent, the natives have become fully alive to the benefits of trade, commerce, and investment of capital. Twenty millions sterling of the national debt of India is held by natives; and the reason they do not hold more is that they can generally get safe investments, which yield more than 4 or 4½ per cent. Deposits in the Savings Banks are increasing, and the people are thoroughly familiar with currency notes, as is evident from the fact that during the year 1882-83 the total issues of notes from treasuries in Bengal amounted to £3,880,000, while the receipts of currency notes from the public amounted to £3,600,000. The increased enlightenment and prosperity of the people is manifest also from the postal and telegraphic transactions of the country. At the close of the year 1882-83 there were in the province of Bengal 1439 imperial post-offices and 3512 letter-boxes. The number of miles of lines open was 10,845 (exclusive of railway mileage). The number of articles of all kinds received for delivery during the same year was 41,829,892 as against 38,431,484 in the previous year, showing an increase of 8·8 per cent. The value of insured letters and parcels delivered by the post-office reached the high figure of £1,550,000. The rate of postage compares most favourably with that of European countries. For two pice (= three-farthings) a letter can be sent from Scinde to Assam, from Peshawur to Cape Comorin (nearly two thousand miles)! The postage from London to Brussels is twopence-half-penny.
Professor Seeley, in his "Expansion of England," has shown that India has no nationality or national unity. The English did not introduce a foreign domination into India; the foreign domination was there already. Prior to British rule, lawless anarchy was the chronic state of the country from the time of the invasion of Mahmoud. Such anarchy was suspended for a short time over a portion only of Northern India during the reigns of Akber and Shah Jehan. With this exception it may be said that there never was any security for person or property, much less for trade and commerce. The Maharatta rule was but an organised system of robbery and pillage.
Under the English India is more united than she ever was before. But even so, there is no Indian nationality. There are different religions and different languages. Islam and Hinduism neutralise each other, and thereby create a sort of equilibrium. For eight hundred years before the advent of the British the Indians were under oppressive foreign despots; the British rule has at least been benevolent and humanising. After centuries of misrule and oppression the country is at rest and enjoying to the utmost the blessings of peace, order, and civilization.
As to the danger of foreign invasion, it may be said that India has from a remote period been swept from time to time by waves of invasion from beyond its north-west frontier. The white-skinned Aryans must themselves have been the first. Then comes Alexander the Great and the Scythian invasions; then in succession Mahmoud of Ghazni, Tamerlane, and Baber; and lastly, Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah. But in those times there was no solidity in the empire such as there is at present; nor were there the same means of resistance. Moreover, an oppressed people, ground down with taxation, might naturally welcome a new ruler. But the keenest opponents of British rule know only too well that, by the advent of Russia, they would be jumping from the frying-pan into the fire. As for internal dangers, they can only become appreciable when we cease to govern India for India. At the same time we should not neglect the ordinary precautions which the strongest European Governments deem it necessary to take against disloyalty and sedition.
The foregoing sketch is of use in judging and accounting for the peculiar position and character of Bengali literature. A backward people have, so to speak, rushed to civilization at one bound; old customs and prejudices have been displaced, uno ictu, by a state of enlightenment and advanced ideas. The educated classes have suddenly found themselves face to face with the richest gems of western learning and literature. The clash of widely divergent stages of civilization, the juxtaposition of the most advanced thought with comparative barbarism has produced results which, though perhaps to be expected, are somewhat curious. If one tries to close a box packed with more than it can hold, the lid may be unhinged,—new wine may burst old bottles. The colliding forces of divergent stages of civilization have produced a literature that, for want of a better expression, may be called a hybrid compromise between eastern and western ideas. So we find that the Bengali novel is to a great extent an exotic. It is a hothouse plant which has been brought from a foreign soil; but even crude imitations are better than the farragos of original nonsense, lists of which appear from time to time in the pages of the Calcutta Gazette.
The above remarks are merely general, and there exist of course bright and notable exceptions, among whom may be mentioned the names of Peary Chund Mitter (the father of Bengali novelists), Bunkim Chandra Chatterji, Romesh Chandra Dutt, and Tarak Nath Ganguli. The "Allaler Gharer Dulal" of the first-mentioned author may be called a truly indigenous novel, in which some of the reigning vices and follies of the time are held up to scorn and derision. A deep vein of moral earnestness runs through all the writings of Peary Chund Mitter, and he takes the opportunity to interweave with the incidents of his story disquisitions on virtue and vice, truthfulness and deceit, charity and niggardliness, hypocrisy and straightforwardness. Not only general vices, such as drinking and debauchery, but particular customs, such as a kulin marrying a dozen wives and living at their expense, are condemned in no measured terms. The book is written in a plain colloquial style, which, combined with a quiet humour, procured for it a considerable degree of popularity. Towards the latter end of his life Peary Chund Mitter gave up novel-writing and wrote several pamphlets on religious subjects and short memoirs of eminent men, of which the "Life of David Hare" (first written in English and then translated into Bengali) is best known.
"Durgesa-Nandini" was the first novel written by Bunkim Chandra Chatterji. Though he borrows to a great extent from English novelists he has too much originality to be a mere servile imitator. Some of his novels contain exceedingly realistic descriptions of domestic life; as, for instance, the mid-day scenes in the inner apartments of Jogendro Nath's house (Bisha-Brikhya). The Bengali language and literature are much indebted to this prolific writer. He has enlarged the capacity of the language for the expression of varied ideas, and has imparted to it a degree of elasticity which it did not before possess. The style is pithy, incisive, and elegant; while avoiding the stilted, pompous, and florid diction heretofore in vogue, he has improved on the simple but somewhat bald style of Peary Chund Mitter.
Romesh Chandra Dutt may be called the Sir Walter Scott of Bengal. His works embrace the period during which the Maharatta power was on the ascendant, and describe the marvellous perseverance and heroism of Sivaji. To my mind, the style and language are perfect. Lucid and perspicuous to a degree, there is a finish, a musical arrangement of cadence, and occasionally a richness of phrase that remind one of the rhythmical and rounded periods of Macaulay. Aspirant Bengali writers of novel or romance cannot do better than saturate themselves with the style of Romesh Chandra Dutt.
I believe Tarak Nath Ganguli has written one novel only, namely, "Sorna-Lota;" but this novel is truly indigenous. It describes the every-day life, the incidents, the cares, the quarrels, the intrigues of a Hindu joint family. There is room for plenty more novels of this sort. In a prose romance or novel, the first matter of interest is the scheme, the idea, the subject. Next come the incidents—on which depends the construction, the interest of the plot. Improbability of incident is generally resented by an educated reader; and such resentment is a wholesome critical feeling, though, if carried too far, there could be no prose fiction whatever but the novels of real life. Much of the interest of a novel depends, again, on the author's powers of description, whether of scenery or of every-day objects and places of social resort. But it is by his characters that a novelist is chiefly judged. Estimated according to these tests, "Sorna-Lota" takes a high place among Bengali novels.
It would exceed the limits and scope of this notice were I to mention all works deserving of mention. But I cannot refrain from naming Indronath Banerjee, Damodhur Mookerjee, and the talented authoress of "Dîp Nirbân." Indronath Banerjee's "Kolpa Toru" is a work of merit. In point of caustic humour he perhaps has no equal; and the pages of "Punchanonda" (Bengali Punch) contain some very witty and sparkling sketches from his pen.
A word of advice in conclusion to present and future writers. Society can only be improved by faithfully pourtraying it as it is, and showing up its worst phases. To conceal, to gloss over, to pretend that no cancers exist can only increase the virulence of the cancers. In order to excite loathing and contempt they must be held up in all their ugly nakedness. Shib Chandra Dutt, in "The Hindus as They Are," has made a very mild and tentative step in this direction; at least so it appears to those who are conversant with the biting lampoons and satires of English literature. Nevertheless, he has been abused by many of his countrymen for letting in the light of day on portions of the inner life of the people; but there is nothing that he has written which was not known to many European officers. A magistrate, perhaps, sees the worst side of the people; but the bad must be described along with the good; otherwise the picture is inaccurate and misleading. Prose fiction possesses advantages superior either to history or to poetry. It has been remarked that it is chiefly in the fictions of an age that we can discover the modes of living, dress, and manners of the period. In this respect, much remains for Bengali fiction writers. Let them describe the domestic and social life, the cities and villages, dwelling-houses, temples, shops, furniture, clothing and finery, jewellery, toilet requisites, dietary and utensils for preparation, the use of stimulants, opium, ganja, betel, drinks, &c. Again, under the head of morals and customs, may be mentioned descriptions of ceremonies, such as betrothals and marriages, pregnancy and births, death and burial, contracts and oaths, proverbs, sports and games, pictures, &c. Then there is agricultural life and the microcosm of the Bengali village, with its numerous members, the relations of landlords and tenants, litigation, money-lending and indebtedness, the various phases of crime as seen in the criminal courts, the peculiar position of prostitutes, the breaking up of joint life, the virtue and truly Christian self-denial of some widows, the laxity of others, the music and musical instruments, education, emigration, diseases, religion and religious customs, idols and their appurtenances, priests, female priests, astrologers, the police, the village police, the jails, dramatic representations, dancing, singing, recreations, and amusements,—these and a thousand other subjects may well be touched on in the novels of real life. I should be extremely glad if aspirant writers would take a hint from the above disjointed list, and produce some really indigenous novels that would be interesting not only to Indian but to English readers.
For the portion of this article that treats of the relative merits of various Bengali novelists I am indebted to some extent to my friend and quondam tutor Babu Krishna Kishor Acharjya, Sheristadar of the Thakbust Office, Midnapore.
H. A. D. Phillips,
E. I. U. S. Club, London,
- The above facts are worthy of the attention of persistent and pessimist detractors of Anglo-Indian administration, such as Messrs. Blunt, Hyndman, and Seymour Keay.