The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The moor’s legacy
- Disowning and recovery shape the creation of the Indian vernaculars

In 1862, after his epic poem had been published, Madhusudan Dutt left for England, registering at Gray’s Inn to study law — to be joined there, later, by wife and children. Dutt’s arrival in the land where he’d once wished to be recognized as an “English” poet went unremarked; he was miserable and soon short of funds. He moved to Versailles; here, he concentrated his efforts to introduce the sonnet (which had, itself, once travelled from Italy to England) to Bengali literature, calling it the “chaturdashpadi”, which one might loosely translate as “the fourteen-line stanza”.

The sonnet, used to express the sentiments of courtly love at its inception, had lent itself to troubled meditations and to ambivalent sexual registers with Shakespeare; later, the seemingly pacific Wordsworth used it to propagate subliminally revolutionary messages. Yet the sonnet, even with Shakespeare, was a self-reflexive literary form; its subject, from the outset, had been itself. Dutt took the sonnet’s self-reflexivity, and also its ability to address the political, and used them to play out, explicitly, the drama of disowning and recovery, of exile and homecoming, that had shaped both his life and his artistic choices.

One of his most celebrated sonnets is called “Bangabhasha” (“The Bengali Language”); an earlier, equally well-known, version of this poem, “Kabi-Matribhasha” (“The Poet’s Mother-tongue”), is inserted into a letter written in English in late 1860 in Calcutta; it is probably his first attempt at the poem. Dutt says in the letter: “I want to introduce the sonnet into our language and some mornings ago, made the following...” The poet begins “Bangabhasha” with a complaint to his “mother”, Bengal, of the miseries of exile: “O Bengal, there are many treasures in your keeping;/ Yet (fool that I am!), neglecting these,/ Senseless with lust for others’ possessions, I’ve travelled/ To a foreign country...” (my translation).

The trope of exile (not unknown to Bengali devotional verse) is a prescient one: two years after the composition of the first version of this sonnet, Dutt would depart for England. In the ninth line, the addressee instructs her petitioner to return to the treasures hidden in his mother’s, or motherland’s, womb. “Then, in a dream, the goddess of my lineage proclaimed./ ‘O child, your mother’s womb is profuse with jewels,/ Why then are you in this state of destitution'/ Go back, ignorant one, go back to your home!”’ The final couplet seals the issue; it records the poet’s obedience to this directive, his withdrawal from the destitution of exile, and the discovery of those “treasures”, of which the principal one is his mother-tongue: “Happily I obeyed; in time I found/ The riches of my mother-tongue, in the great web of treasures.”

The simultaneously questioning and self-reflexive dimensions of the Shakespearean sonnet (a form which Dutt didn’t always use) serves him well here. To make a brief comparison: in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day'”, Shakespeare, in the first eight lines, praises the beloved’s beauty while noting, and querying, its transitoriness. The “turn”, the “But” at the opening of the ninth line, or third quatrain, introduces us to the conviction that the poet’s art, “where in eternal lines to time thou growest”, will preserve that mortal beauty from extinction. The final couplet encapsulates and summarizes this argument; here, the sonnet self-reflexively praises its own, and language’s, power to preserve and renew.

This Shakespearean structure, and the psychological movement it embodies, is employed by Dutt to dramatize the colonial, and post-colonial, movement from spiritual and geographical exile to cultural recovery. The general questions regarding exile and identity are posed in the first eight lines. Exile, distancing or cultural disowning are represented implicitly by the probable location of the sonnet’s revision, Versailles (Dutt was to write most of his sonnets in France); they are represented, generically, by the sonnet itself, which too is an exile and wanderer across cultures, although its incursion into the vernacular of a colonial culture was, till then, unprecedented. At the ninth line, the “turn”, the Shakespearean “But”, occurs as an interjection from the goddess, and the process of cultural recovery begins in the midst of exile; the “turn” of the sonnet becomes a cultural and almost physical turning towards the mother-tongue and one’s indigenous antecedents. The concluding couplet, which completes the act of recovery by attesting to the poet’s discovery of his language in the “web of treasures”, also confirms, in effect, that the sonnet is now an indigenous form; the self-reflexivity of the Shakespearean couplet is freighted, in Dutt, with an added colonial self-consciousness.

As if taking the goddess’s imperative to heart, Dutt returned to India not long after. He did, though, take his exams at Gray’s Inn, and came back to Calcutta a qualified barrister. Spiritual homecomings are all very well, especially when they lead to artistic voyages rather than actual ones; but real homecomings are a different matter. In Calcutta, Dutt practised, often controversially, at the High Court, lived extravagantly and beyond his means, and raced impatiently towards an untimely death. Both his and his wife’s health worsened, although there were brief periods of convalescence. He died in 1874, at the age of 50, reportedly a few hours after his wife Henrietta did. He is buried at the Park Circus cemetery, one of his sonnets (addressed to a passer-by or itinerant), which he’d composed as his own epitaph, engraved on a plaque outside.

Editing the anthology of modern Indian writing, I discovered that the paradoxes played out in Dutt’s relatively short life, and the trajectories and metaphors of exile and homecoming that define it, are patterns that repeat themselves in subsequent narratives of Indian modernity. Certainly, the lives of a substantial number of the major Indian writers of the 20th century, and, significantly, the shape and arc of their work, appear to be structured around these patterns. Briefly consider, for instance, the life and works of the novelist, O.V. Vijayan, that hugely influential figure in Malayalam literature.

Vijayan was born in 1930 in Palghat, Kerala; his first novel, Khasakkinte Itihasam (The Legends of Khasak), published in 1969, roughly a hundred and seven years after Dutt’s epic, is seen to represent a turning point in modern Malayalam literature. Based upon actual experience, it tells the story of an educated, rationalist young man who arrives as a schoolteacher in an obscure South Indian village in which time hasn’t moved. An ambivalent but characteristic psychological movement is revealed to us; the young man, who had come from elsewhere to enlighten, finds himself unexpectedly touched and transformed by the existence of the village; not only is the protagonist transformed, but also the novel; what might have been a social realist fiction about conscience and duty becomes something else. Vijayan, who, like many young men in Kerala at the time, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, tells us, several years after the novel was originally written, how it not only fictionalizes an episode in his life, but, as it were, also enacts the pattern of disowning and recovery.

He recalls, in an Afterword to the English translation, the provenance of his novel; how, as a young college graduate who’d lost his job, he’d taken a job as a schoolteacher in Thasarak through “a State scheme to send barefoot graduates to man single-teacher schools in backward villages”. He was, at the time, a member of the Communist Party, and had already published “two long stories depicting imaginary peasant uprisings”. He now wanted to write a “revolutionary” novel. Having grown up in the Palghat countryside himself, he was “familiar with its landscape... and its hilarious dialects”, and believed that the character of the “city-bred schoolmaster co- ming to the village” could be developed as the perfect “pilgrim-revolutionary”.

The novel, then, was planned as a radical act of disowning of, or as a riposte to, the feudal, the oral, the indigenous. “Looking back,” he says, “I thank Providence, because I missed writing the ‘revolutionary’ novel by a hair’s breadth.” Two things changed the direction the novel might have taken. The first was a historical event, the killing of Imre Nagy in Hungary, leading to Vijayan’s disillusionment with communism. The other was Vijayan’s arrival at the village itself, an arrival which was augmented into a sort of spiritual homecoming; just as, in Dutt’s sonnet, the neglected mother-tongue becomes the goddess who instructs and commands, the obscure village, in Vijayan’s fiction, becomes instructor to the schoolteacher: “The Stalinist claustrophobia melted away as though it had never existed. Ravi, my protagonist, liberation’s germ-carrier, now came to the village and re-entered his enchanted childhood. He was no longer the teacher, in atonement he would learn. He would learn from the stupor of Khasak.”

One might also find in this narrative, as in Dutt’s career, an implicit mirroring of the movement from the English language to the mother-tongue; for Vijayan, before he wrote his first novel in Malayalam, was a student of English literature, and has a Master’s degree in English. And this, as it happens, is a movement, or tension that recurs in the lives and works of many of the most influential writers in the regional literatures of what we call “modern India”; Qurratulain Hyder (Urdu), U.R. Anantha Murthy (Kannada), Mahashweta Devi (Bengali), Ambai (Tamil), to name only a handful of living contemporaries, have all been students, even teachers, of English literature. The cleaving of the tongue is symptomatic, again, of how disowning and recovery permeate and shape the creation of language in our literary history.

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