The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Aranyak: Of the Forest By Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Seagull, Rs 425

“I saw the nomadic Aryans cross over the north-west mountain ranges and come down like a torrent into an ancient India ruled by primitive non-Aryan tribes. Whatever history that India had, became subsequently the history of this Aryan civilization — the history of the vanquished non-Aryan races was not written down anywhere, or perhaps, it was written only in such secret mountain caves, in the darkness of forests...” Satyacharan, the first person-narrator of Aranyak, had this vision when he stood near the royal ancestral burial ground of the old Santhal tribal king, Dobru Panna. This vision informs the narrative style of the novel which celebrates primitive non-Aryan history and its unique timelessness.

As the translator, Rimli Bhattacharya observes, “Aranyak tells us of an innocence that is impossible.” It is the pre-industrial revolution “innocence” of Europe which Blake hailed in his poems. This innocence, still preserved in the forests of Lobtulia, Narha-Baihar, Ismailpur and Phulkia, is quite inaccessible to Satyacharan, who represents the civilized races, because its conceptualization calls for a willing suspension not only of disbelief, but of an entire belief-system. Satyacharan is thus agonized, not being able to get to the heart of the darkness epitomized by the forest.

The forest is inhabited by poverty-stricken Gangota peasants, landless Brahmins and nomadic tribes. Satyacharan is appointed by the landlord as a lease-manager and sent to Bhagalpur to recruit new tenants and draw up new legal deeds with them. Satyacharan is thus a victim of this revenue-system. His self-hood is split between the conflicting roles of a lover and a destroyer — an ambivalence reflected in the narrative style. Satyacharan says, “By my hands was destroyed an unfettered playground of nature…I have heard that to confess a crime in one’s own words lightens...the burden of the crime. Therefore, this story.”

How is nature painted in the novel' Nature in Aranyak is both pervasive and penetrative. Bandyopadhyay here goes well beyond merely exoticizing the forest and ventures to explore its mysteries in order to portray the unbelievable fortitude of its inhabitants.

Characters like the storyteller Ganu Mahato, the eccentric Raju Parey, the benevolent moneylender Dhaotal Sahu, the scholar Matuknath Parey, the nature-lover Jugalprasad, the poet Venkateswar Prasad, the female characters like Kunta, Manchi and Bhanmati, the oppressors like Rashbehari Singh and Nandalal Ojha are depicted as comprising a community that leads a primeval life and yet is very much a part of civilization. Bandyopadhyay is alert to the multilayered process of cultural invasion of the urban-industrial process into a marginal population.

“Bharatbarsha kon dike (Which way is India)'” is the stunning question put to the narrator by Bhanmati on the eve of his departure. The semantic possibility of this question encompasses a wide range of negotiations taking place between the centre and its margins and between the margin and its centre. Ably translated by Bhattacharya, Aranyak is a deliberately non-structured narrative charting out this ever-changing negotiation. Bandyopadhyay insisted that Aranyak is a novel, neither a diary nor a travelogue. It indeed is, by its down-to-earth documentation and imaginative mind-travelling.

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