Colonialism, politics of language and partition of Bengal PART XVIIIby Nurul Kabir
IN HIS long linguistic and literary journey, Bankim evolved his own style, with equilibrium in the use of tatsama, i.e. Sanskrit words, and tadbhaba, i.e. words derived from Sanskrit, the use of reduced number of compound words, and syntax consistent with the standard colloquial practised in and around Kolkata. [Sukumar Sen, Bangala Sahitye Gadya, Ananda Publishers, Kolkata, 1998, p 109]
‘Successful’ Bangla novels written in English fashion remains one of Bankim’s fundamental contributions to the development of the Bangla language and literature. He took Bangla, particularly its prose, to an unprecedented height. In fact, Bankim remains the most important literary figure in the history of Bangla prose between Ishwar Chandra Sharma and Rabindranath Tagore. Giving a poetic ‘ovation’ to Bankim in 1936, Tagore rightly observed that he ‘would continue to live as long as Bengal exists on earth’, for in Bankim’s possession was the literary ingredients of the new era to come, while he provided the Bangla language and literature with the ‘torch’ it required ‘to proceed through the darkness of night’ and ‘removed the inertia’ of the language’. [Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindrashamagra (Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Volume 18, Pathak Samabesh, Dhaka, 2012, p 13. Tagore composed the poem, Bankimchandra, in 1936. The lines of the poem quoted here is the paraphrase of the poetic work.] In praise of Bankim, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), famous among the Bengalis as the ‘rebel poet’, wrote in an article: ‘If Rabindranath [Tagore] is the sun of our Indian sky, inflicted with the darkness of misfortune, Bankim Chandra appeared as the hope of the dawn — the morning star.’ [Kazi Nazrul Islam, ‘Bankimchandra’, Nazrul Rachanabali (Collected works of Kazi Nazrul Islam), Volume XI, Nazrul Birth Centenary edition, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2012, p 291]
Ahmed Sofa says that Bankim is ‘one of the greatest children of Bangla, for it was in his hands that Bangla prose reached its maturity, became lucid and dynamic enough to contain multidimensional human feelings.’ [Ahmed Sofa, ‘Banglar Sahityadarsha (Literary ideology of Bengal) in Morshed Shafiul Hasan (ed.), Ahmad Sofa: Nirbachita Prabandha, (Selected essays of Ahmed Sofa), Maola Brothers, Dhaka, 2002, p 84]
Bankim’s linguistic and literary exercises not only developed the Bangla language and literature but also substantively contributed to shape the politics of India in general, and that of Bengal in particular for decades to come. The philosophical direction of those developments, literary and political, unfortunately, was communalistic that helped divide the populace in question on religious lines. His literary and political influence continues to deeply affect the democratic polity of India. In this regard, it is worth noting that Bankim is equally respected, and his works idealised, by north Indian leaders and activists of Hindu fundamentalist politics today, as they were by the Hinduised ‘anti-colonial terrorist movements’ of Bengal in the early 20th century.
In the course of modernising the Bangla language and literature, Bankim found it important to express one’s thoughts and feelings in clear and unambiguous terms. Again, to express ‘clearly and completely’ in Bangla, he rightly felt the importance to increase the vocabulary of the language, by way of liberally accepting words from different foreign languages. In his famous essay on Bangla, ‘Bangala Bhasha’, Bankim wrote in 1878: ‘Things to be said have to be said clearly, and completely. To say clearly and completely, accept words from any language — English, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, rustic or sylvan, unless they are vulgar.’ [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhya, ‘Bangala Bhasha: Likhibar Bhasha’ (Bangla: the written form), Bankim Rachanabali: Sahitya Samagra (Collected Works of Bankim: Collection of Essays), First Tuli-Kalam edition, Tuli- Kalam, Kolkata, 1393 BS (I986 Gregorian calendar), p 373]
Bankim apparently sounded liberal when he talked about accepting ‘words from any language’. But, in reality, he was not, for he had particular preferences for Sanskrit. In the same essay, Bankim writes: ‘Bangla is still an undeveloped language. It would, therefore, be necessary at times to borrow words from other languages. In that case, it is essential to borrow from the all-time lender Sanskrit. Sanskrit, in the first place, is the richest lender, which can provide form its rich vocabularies any word one needs. Secondly, Sanskrit words gel better with Bangla, for Bangla’s bone, marrow, blood and flesh are made of Sanskrit.’ [ibid, p 372] It is worth mentioning here that linguists, even Bengali linguists, are divided over the philological root of Bangla.
That Bankim, in the last instance, is opposed to the idea of borrowing even the naturalised words of Arabic and Persian origin found clear expression in his remark of appreciation for the language of Mir Musharaf Hossen — a contemporary Muslim litterateur, the syntax and semantics of whose Bangla prose was Sanskritised.
In praise of the prose style in Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s Jamidar Drapan, published in 1873, Bankim said, ‘there was no trace of Mussalmani Bangla in it, and the Bangla language of this Muslim author is purer than that of many a Hindu writer.’ [Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya is cited in Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Bangaleer Jatiyatabad (Bengalis’ Nationalism), The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2000, p 28] Notably, Muslim prose writers of Bengal then used a large number of Arabic and Persian words getting naturalised in the Muslim societies over the period of a few centuries. But, for Bankim, the Bangla language is ‘purer’ when there was ‘no trace of’ anything ‘Mussalmani’ in it.
Understandably, Bankim did not accept the linguistic notion that the concept of ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of words/languages is fundamentally flawed. Syamacharan Gangapadhya/Ganguli, a linguist of Bengal, pointed out in an essay in 1887: ‘Purism is radically unsound, and has its origin in a spirit of narrowness. In the free commingling of nations, there must be borrowing and giving. Can anything be more absurd than to think of keeping language pure, when blood itself cannot be kept pure? No human language has ever been perfectly pure. Infusion of foreign elements does, in the long run, enrich languages… Seeing then that languages, as men speak them, must be mixed, impure, heterogeneous; to reject words like garib (Ar. garib) and dag (Ar. dag) from books, on account of their foreign lineage would be most unreasonable. Current words of Persian and Arabic origin connect us Hindus of Bengal with Moosalman Bengalis, with the entire Hindustani speaking of population of India, and even with Persian and Arabs. Is it wise to speak to diminish points of contact with a large section of our fellow countrymen, and with kindred and neighbouring races, with whom we must have intercourse, in order that we may draw closer to our Sanskrit speaking ancestors? [Shyamcharan Gangapadhya, ‘Bengali, Spoken and Written’, in E. Lethbridge (ed.) Calcutta Review, Volume LXV, 1877, pp 405-406. Also reprinted in Annadashankar Roy and others (ed.), Akademi Patrika, Third issue, Pashchim Bangla Akademi, Pashchimbanga Sarkar, Kolkata, May, 1999, pp 22-23]
Still, many people make efforts to ‘diminish contacts’ with living ‘fellow countrymen’ in order to ‘draw closer’ the ancestors. Shyamcharan Gangapadhya has an explanation for the Hindu behaviour in this regard:
‘Human happiness would seem to be better promoted by increased points of contact with living men than by increased point of contacts with remote ancestors. But men are very often swayed in these matters by sentiment more than by reason. The feeling that impels Bengali Hindus towards Sanskrit is perfectly intelligible. With Sanskrit are associated the days of India’s greatest glory, with Persian and Arabic the days of her defeat, humiliation, and bondage. The budding patriotism of Hindus everywhere would therefore naturally eschew Persian and Arabic words as badges of slavery.’ [ibid, p 23]
Bankim was well aware of Shyamcharan Gangapadhya’s forceful linguistic argument but his ‘budding patriotism’ not only stood in the way of his accepting Arabicised/Persianised Mussalmani words but also inspired him to use his extraordinary literary talents to revive Hindutwa politics even at the cost of isolating the majority Muslim population of Bengal from its Hindu neighbours. [That Bankim was aware of Shyamcharan Gangapadhya’s argument gets evident in the fact that he quoted the latter in his own famous essay on Bangla, ‘Bangala Bhasha’, published in 1878. See, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya, ‘Bangala Bhasha’, Bankim Rachanabali: Sahitya Samagra (Collected Works of Bankim: Collection of Essays), First Tuli-Kalam edition, Tuli- Kalam, Kolkata, 1393 BS (I986 Gregorian calendar), p 371]
The Hinduised contents of Bankim’s prose works, particularly his so-called historical novels, played the gravest literary role in politically dividing Bengal on religious communal lines. Bankim used the literary form of modern novel to advance his politico-philosophical conviction of creating a Hindu state in India, excluding the Muslims. For that to happen, Bankim needed to demonise the Muslim rule of India by distorting history, glorify the British colonisers by underplaying their multidimensional exploitations and vilify the Muslims in general by depicting them subjectively. He did all these in his so-called history based novels, such as Anandamath, Devi Chowdhurani, Sitaram, and Raj Shingha.
In the novels in question Bankim appeared to be the political prophet of visualising a Hindu state in India; his Anandamath became the political ‘manifesto’ of the Hindutwa movement. The Muslims had hardly any respectable place in the Hindu state and society that Bankim aspired for.
Anandamath is a novel claimed to have been based on the anti-colonial peasants’ revolts in Bengal in the third quarter of the 18th century. India had witnessed a series of peasants’ revolts during the English colonial rule. Of those, some taking place in Bengal and Bihar provinces between 1763 and 1800 came to be known in history as Sannyasi and Fakir revolts against the British colonial administration based in Kolkata. Bankim based his Anandamath on these revolts, organised and participated by both Muslim fakirs and Hindu sannyasis. However, in the novel, he projected the revolts in question not only to be a political rebellion solely of the Hindu sannyasis, excluding the participation and sacrifices of Muslim fakirs but also a struggle primarily against the oppressive Muslim rulers of Bengal. History says Muslims were not ruling Bengal at the time of Fakir and Hindu Sannyasi rebellion. Even Bankim himself says twice in the novel that Warren Hastings was already the governor general of India. [Bankim Chandra Chattapadhaya, Upannyassamagra (Collection of novels), Khan Brothers & Company, Dhaka, 2013, p 761 and p 785. Warren Hastings served as the first governor general of Bengal from 1772 to 1785]
Again, the ‘enemy soldiers’, who came to fight against the Hindu rebels of Anandamath, or Santans as they are called in the novel, comprised ‘Tailangi, Muslims, Hindustani and Europeans’ [ibid, p 777] and were led by an Irish captain called Thomas. But the war cry that the Hindu rebels used as they fought back the ‘enemy soldiers’ was mar mar, nere mar (kill, kill, kill the neres). [ibid, p 772. Bankim has used derogatory words like nere, yaban, mleccha to identify Muslims in all his historical novels including Anandamath.] Besides, while killing the Muslims, some Hindu rebels are found eagerly asking one another, ‘Brother, won’t a day come when we would be able to build the temples of Radhamadhab on the debris of the mosques?’ [ibid] In the midst of all this, a leader of the Hindu rebels, Bhabananda, is seen approaching the European captain of the enemy soldiers, Thomas, to say: ‘Mr Captain, we will not kill you. The English is not our enemy. Why have you come here in support of the Muslims? Come, we grant you life, you are just a prisoner of war for the time being. Let the English be victorious, we are your friends.’ [ibid, p 776]
To be continued.
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