Bhabani Bhattacharya as a Novelist
Bhabani Bhattacharya is an out-standing Indo-Anglican novelist of the present times. He has attained world-wide renown and his books have appeared in twenty six languages, sixteen of which are European. He has won the coveted Sahitya Akademi Award, for 1967 for his latest novel Shadow from Ladakh which is a deserving and deserved honour done to the genius of Dr. Bhattacharya. Speaking of the Award, he remarks:
“It is good to be known abroad, Even so, I must confess that I would like to be known to my countrymen too. The award redresses a balance. So far I have been better known in the U.S. and Europe than in my own country.”
It is a pity that Indians recognize the worth of Indian writers only after due recognition from the West. It has been our tradition to recognize talent only after it is vociferously applauded in other countries.
All the novels of Bhattacharya present a true picture of India and its teeming millions surging with life and substance. He does not believe in the dictum of art for art’s sake. All writing for him has a social purpose. His outlook is highly constructive and purposeful. Smt. Lila Ray writes
“As we read his writing, we hear the dialogue between man and his situation, between man and man and between man and the ideas he lives by.”
It is a strange coincidence to be a Bengali, born in Bhagalpur, a town in Bihar, writing in an alien language and living in Maharastra (“Godhuli’-Nagpur). He has a doctorate from London University on historical research. He has worked for several years as Press Attached to the India Embassy in Washington. Writing is his first love and full-time career. He has been inspired in his literary pursuits by his wife, Salila, who is herself a short story writer. He has recently joined the research centre of the University of Hawaii.
His works include Tagore‘s translations entitled The Golden Boat; Indian Cavalcade, a collection of historical sketches: Towards Universal Man, a commemoration volume published on the eve of the birth centenary of Tagore: Steel-Hawk, a collection of fifteen short stories; ‘Gandhi, the Writer: His Image as it Grew, a high stimulating and provocative study released on the occasion of the birth centenary of Mahatma Gandhi and five novels-So many Hungers (1947); Music for Mohini (1952); He who Rides a Tiger (1954); A Goddess Named Gold (1960) and Shadow from Ladakh (1967). He is at present working on another political subject-the impact of China over Asia. It will be more or less a continuation of his Shadow form Ladakh in theme and treatment.
His wide range of experience in and around the world and his close association with men, manners and their personalities have enabled him to grasp the innate significance of humanity and all this finds expression in the characters of his novels and short stories, carved out with a pen that never wavers. The reader lives with the characters of the stories and marvel at the author’s keen observation of the day-to-day incidents of life. Bhattacharya has written with a spicy language which is at once crisp and facile. He has caught the vein of rural speech and the informal behaviour of the people, their rustic world and their small and simple views about the great things that take place around them. He holds the view that “Indian writing in English has been a decisive factor in redressing the balance of false presentation by foreign story-tellers who with their limited possibilities of true experience have seen only the surface of our way of life failing to reach deeper into our spirit.”
His earlier novels have their roots in rural Vidarbha. He remains an unequalled master in interpreting rural India. Particularly in the novel A Goddess Named Gold the world of fable and reality that delve deep in the minds of our rural folk are skillfully and artistically blended. It contains, like his other novel He Who Rides a Tiger, some superb descriptions of rural folk. Sudhakar Joshi feels, “His novels have a penetrating and sympathetic analysis of the simple but insurmountable problems in Indian life. His themes generally revolve round poverty, hunger, pestilence, traditionalism, caste, India’s struggle against poverty, industrialization and the resulting controversy of Gandhian Panacea versus rapid industrialization.” In an interview with Joshi, Bhattacharya replies:
“Most of my characters have-shaped themselves from the real earth. The end of the story in my case is never the one in which I had in my mind in the beginning. Even the original plan itself gets modified or changed due to certain traits which my characters develop during the course of events.”
L. N. Gupta writes: “Pure intellectuals watch the crowds but do not force themselves on them. They visit slums and absorb the misery of their dwellers in their being. They tour the famine-stricken areas. They look into the shriveled faces and sunken eyes of the sufferer. They share their distress. But they do not use amplifiers to blare their benefaction. They suffer quietly, the process involves a cycle of seething tensions. The end product is a major work, say a great novel in the case of a fiction writer. It is a monument to its times. Such is the case with Bhabani Bhattacharaya.”
Dr. C. Paul Verghese rightly remarks that “Food is the primary requisite of human dignity; hunger debases and dehumanizes man. That is why hunger is the theme of a large number of Indo-Anglican novels. Bhattacharya has dealt quite forcefully with the theme of hunger and the concomitant theme of human degradation in his novels So Many Hungers and He Who Rides a Tiger.”
The Bengal-famine which had so devastatingly swept his own province, Bengal, in 1943, was the background to his first novel So Many Hungers. He was so profoundly moved by the famine that he wrote it-piecing the story together from newspaper clippings. It was published in 1947 and became a best-seller in various translations. L. N. Gupta states:
“It was a terrible indictment of the British Raj for all their crimes which aggregated into the disastrous famine of Bengal in 1943.”
It was a man-made famine that took a toll of two million innocent men, women, and children. The story centres round the Basu family, the peasant family, the girl Kajoli, her mother and her brother. Samarendra Basu thinks of organizing the concern of Bengal Rice Limited and the unscrupulous Sri Lakshminath helps the company extend its branches to every far-off corner of the province. It is this man’s genius that has so well spread the grease of corruption and stored the accumulated food grains. “The wells of pity seem to have almost dried up and only the jackals and the vultures have been vigorous and jubilant.”
Bhattacharya paints the naked horror of it all with a pitiless precision and cumulative detail. Dr. Srinivasa Iyengar states: “So many Hungers is no doubt an impeachment of man’s inhumanity to man, but it is also a dramatic study of a set of human beings caught in a unique and tragic predicament.” The story has been effectively told and the tragic pathos of the real mass-starvation described in the guise of fiction moves the reader deeply. The novel describes, as the Times Literary Supplement puts it “a factual and vivid account of one of the most shocking disasters in history.”
His second novel, Music for Mohini, deals with caste distinctions and poverty. L.N. Gupta remarks: Music for Mohini blows up the citadel of old traditions and superstitions which menace India’s progress.” Reviewing this novel, The New York Times observed, “It blends the story of an attractive girl’s marriage with the eternal problems of that caste-ridden land and its divorcement from various kinds of imperial rule. And the main brick-bats are not hurled at Britain.” The Chicago Tribune showered its praise on this novel by stating that ‘India as presented by Rudyard Kipling, Rabindranath Tagore and others has become to us a multiple image. Now these diverse pictures are brought into focus by a native son. In a splendid novel that may rank with Pearl Buck’s the Good Earth, Bhabani Bhattacharya gives us Modern India.’
In this novel, a young girl of seventeen is married in the traditional manner after observing the auspicious signs and comparing the horoscopes. Mohini goes to her new home. Jayadev, the quiet scholar who lives in his ancestral village, and Mohini, the young city-bred wife of his, who adapts herself very well to her new environment are the two forces that put the village on the path of progress and modernization. The superstitious old mother of Jayadev realizes in the end her mistake and reconciles herself to the changing times. The characters of Mohini and Jayadev and Heeralal are well drawn with sculpturesque precision and facile expression.
The third novel He Who Rides a Tiger is an attack on both who profited on people’s misery during the famine and those who exploited them as caste tyrants. It is a legend of freedom, a legend to inspire and awaken. Here he discusses a variation on the theme of hunger. It has a fascinating beginning. The story runs rapidly surging with emotion and agitation. Its sharp and vivid characterization and untainted realism make this novel a very interesting one. It is a grim satire on Hindu orthodoxy, Dr. Iyengar says, “The tempo of life in Calcutta the complex urban vices and urban sophistication, the pressure of mass movement and mass hysteria, the reign of superstition and mumbo jumbo-gives the novel an entire and piquant quality all its own.”
The novel is based on an ancient saying “He who rides a Tiger cannot dismount”. A humble village blacksmith, named Kalo takes his revenge on a rigid, caste-ridden society and makes a living for himself and his daughter by faking a miracle a miracle that begins as a fraud and ends as a legend and passing himself off as a Brahmin priest. The story ends with a note of triumph for the soul over flesh. Eventually when the fraud is detected, other low caste people hail him as their brother and the outraged upholders of caste are custom panic. Reviewing this novel, Orville Prescott of The New York Times says:
“He Who Rides a Tiger is a skillful and entertaining and an illuminating fictional glimpse inside the corner of India. Bhattacharya writes of Indians and the social, cultural and religious world in which they live with authority and understanding that no Western writer can hope to match.”
His fourth novel, A Goddess Named Gold is the best novel of Indian village life and makes a most illuminating and satisfying reading experience. It is a masterly satire on those who live by the lure of Gold. It tells how high spiritual values like spontaneous kindness are sought to be prostituted for purpose of gold. It is a modern fable of rural India and the close textured fabric of its life on the eve of Independence in 1947. The characters are introduced one by one in a leisurely manner and we see among them a pretty girl, a strolling minstrel and a magic talisman. Dr. Iyengar states “It entertains as a story, but it also disturbs us as a warning and as a prophecy.”
Meera’s grand-father, a wandering minstrel gives her an amulet and tells her that it will acquire the power to turn the base metals into gold, if she does an act of real kindness. She rescues a child. Seth Samsunderji seeks to profit out of India’s new found freedom and enters into a business deal with Meera on a fifty-fifty basis. Meera gets disgusted with it finally and throws the amulet into the river. The minstrel returns soon and explains that freedom is the real touch-stone.
Bhattacharya’s latest novel Shadow from Ladakh tells us an extremely gripping story of unsurpassed drama on a broad and revealing canvas. It tells what India needs for survival a meeting point between Gandhian social ethics and tremendous forces of science and technology. It deals with India’s conflict with China and her response to the challenge. The theme presents a considerable amount of truth of a politically conscious Indian family.
“It provides an insight into the contrasting contemporary life of India symbolized by Satyajit who regards Indian village life as the ideal life and by the Western minded American trained Bhaskar, the forward-looking chief engineer in a steel-plant, who feels India’s future lies in industrialization, ends on a weak note of coexistence of these two ideologies. Bhaskar wants to dispossess Gandhigram, because it is a hindrance to India’s industrialization. He brings every pressure to bear, but to his surprise, the community of the believers in non-violence stands firm under its great leader Satyajit, and he himself falls in love with Satyajit’s daughter, Sunita, a bare-foot, white-sareed girl…”
We can end with Dr. C. Paul Verghese who feels that “Bhattacharya has the vision of a welfare society at heart. His concerns are clear and unambiguous; they are political, economic and social. In other words, the dignity of man both in national and international contexts is upper-most in his mind. In this he follows the tradition of European social realism as does Mulk Raj Anand. For him art is always the communication of certain social and political ideals and the artistic form, the means of winning over his readers to his views. But the lack of depth in his treatment of problems in human relations is a weakness of his art.”