"A Lecture given to the Sarat Academy London UK"; Bill Bland, June 11th 1998. First pubished in "Sarat Analytica"; Journal of the Sarat Academy.
It was that ideologist of British imperialism Rudyard Kipling who wrote:
"East is East, and West is West,
And never the twain shall meet."
Rubbish, of course! For here we are, meeting in the capital of what was once the British Empire, celebrating an 'obscure' Asian writer.
If I say that Sarat was an 'obscure' writer, I use the word not in any derogatory sense, but rather in criticism of the narrow insularity of Western culture, most of whose encyclopaedias contain no entry for Sarat.
Being a poor young student who can afford to buy few books, I use the British Library a lot. Among its millions of books, its computers list only one book in English by Sarat. Which only goes to show -- never believe a computer! There are in fact at least twenty works by Sarat in English in the library, but they are listed under different transliterations of his name. Here, surely, is a task for the Sarat Academy -- to contact the British Library and correct this confusion for future generations!
When I mentioned to a friend that I was speaking to the Sarat Academy, he said: 'But you don't know the language. You can't really appreciate. Sarat unless your read him in the original'.
Now, of course, I accept that all literature loses something in translation. But every nation produces wonderful works of literature. It would be impossible in one lifetime to become fluent in all the languages of the world, and a good translation -- even if it does lose something of the original -- makes a literary work available to millions to whom it would otherwise be inaccessible.
Of course, all nations produce great artists, but Bengal has been particularly favoured in this respect -- who would question, for example, that Satajit Ray was among the world's greatest artists in the medium of the cinema.
Perhaps, indeed, the West -- in spite of its bloody history of oppression and exploitation of the East -- may even claim some little credit for Bengali culture, for Bengal numbers among its finest writers not so much the Sanskrit writers from the ossified native Ashrams, as those who were influenced by Western culture -- I am thinking here of the pioneering Bankim and of Rabindranath Tagore as well as Sarat.
Just as the European Renaissance was the product of the rising bourgeoisie and the influence of classical Greek and Roman culture, so the Bengali Renaissance was the product of the rising bourgeoisies of the nations of India and the influence of British culture. In Bengal, secular literature -- and particularly the novel and short story -- was the product of this fusion of cultures,
Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the second of nine children, was born in 1876 and died in 1936 at the age of 62. His grandfather was a wealthy Brahmin who
lost his money, so that Sarat says of himself:
"My childhood and youth were passed in great poverty. I received almost no education for want of means. From my father I inherited nothing except, I think, his restless spirit and his love of books".
(Sarat, cited in: Edward J. Thompson: Preface to: Sarat: 'Srikanta'; Calcutta; 1922; p. vii).
At the age of 27, he went to Burma as a penniless vagrant, and his range of experience was greatly broadened by the ten years he spent in that country, which in those days enjoyed freedoms that were non-existent in Bengal. In his novel 'Srikanta' , for example, there is a marvellous picture of human beings travelling to Rangoon as deck passengers.
As with Dickens, whom he greatly admired, many of his novels were first published as serials.
Sarat saw and wrote from the viewpoint of ordinary people and he portrayed in a realistic manner their everyday lives. Although he became relatively well-off in later life. he never lost his understanding of and sympathy with ordinary people -- demonstrably in his portrayal of the poor, the oppressed and the outcasts of society. Perhaps his greatest short story is of the love of a poor peasant for his bull, Manesh.
He wrote in the spoken language of ordinary people, and even in translation, the simple, clear, precise, un-ornamanted style of his writing emerges. He is above all a story-teller, but one who strips off false cloaks of respectability to rottenness that often lies beneath. Perhaps no other Indian writer has drawn such vivid pictures of the Hindu extended family, with its contrasting tensions and harmonies.
He was a master of character drawing, and his portraits of women are particularly striking -- especially of women who dared to challenge the stifling conventions of the period, which did not recognise a woman's -let alone a widow's -right to love. He also had a penetrating insight into the psychology of children.
Sarat lived in no ivory tower. He joined Congress in 1921, and threw himself feverishly into the struggles of the Indian people for liberation from British rule and from the fetters of feudalism, which was hand in glove with the British occupiers.
In his long poem 'Sisera's Child', he expresses the view that Christianity, far from coming into conflict with Hinduism and Buddhism, complements them by affirming reincarnation. But he often expressed his burning indignation at the tyranny and hypocrisy associated with religion, and in 'Sisera's Child' he expresses his hostility to religious fundamentalism.
In the Introduction to this poem, he says:
"The purpose of myth is to express religious beliefs, not to state historical truth".
(Sarat: 'Sisera's Child'; London; 1967; p. 26).
Who can forget the cry of Keshab as the body of little Charan is being cremated:
"It did not take long for the little body of Charan to burn into ashes. Keshab watched, heaved a terrible sigh and shouted:
'Lies! All lies! Those who say that whatever God does is for the best, they are all wicked bastards and crooks!"'
(Sarat: 'The Pundit', in: 'Collected Works' (Bengali); p. 338).
And who cannot but admire the woman who has the courage to tell her husband that she has become an atheist:
"My husband seemed surprised and said:
"Who doesn't believe in God?"
I said: 'I do not'
He said: 'But why don't you believe in God?'
"Because he doesn't exist". I replied, 'that's why!
(Sarat: 'The Husband', in: 'Collected Works' (Bengali); p. 386).
May I conclude by thanking you for the honour you have done me by inviting me to speak to the Sarat Academy, and expressing my gratitude to my friend Bhaskar for having first introduced me to the incomparable writing of Sarat.
BIBLIOGRAPHY -- Western Languages
HUMAYUN Kabir: 'Sarat Chandra Chatterjee' ; Calcutta; 1963.
SEN GUPTA, Subodh Chandra: 'Saratchandra -- Man and Artist' ; Calcutta; 1945.
TARA-PASH Vasu: 'La soci6t6 bengalie du vingtieme siecle dans l'oeuvre de Sarat Chandra Chattrerji' (The Bengali Society of the 20th Century in the Work of Sarat Chandra Chatterji); Paris; 1940.
THOMPSON. Edward J.: Preface to: SARAT: 'Srikanta';
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