As famous Indian writer Sunil Gangopadhyay sets forth in the premise of the books we mention below, Bengali used to be a language that mostly existed in the spoken form. Just a little over three hundred years ago, hardly anyone used Bengali in the professional or academic domain.
Educated Muslims used Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi (Persian), while Hindu academics used Sanskrit. Many also draw a parallel between this phenomenon and the place of honour Latin held in Europe in the medieval ages.
How did Bengali become more common in writing and academia? What is the story of the phenomenon many refer to as the Bengali Renaissance?
Sunil Gangopadhyay writes about this fascinating period in history in a series of three epic works of historic fiction, taking us from a few decades after the arrival of the East India Company to this part of the world, to the independence of India and the birth of two nations based on religious identities.
Historical fiction is a tricky genre. Set against the backdrop of the early Colonial period in India, and often with iconic historical figures as key players in the story, it can be hard to find just the right balance between being factually authentic and using creative license to tell an engaging story. Sunil Gangopadhyay succeeds in this aspect, staying true to the major historical events, while elegantly turning icons of Bengal history into flesh-and-blood characters whose hopes, fears, and character flaws we can all empathise with.
Shei Shomoy, the first of these three books, deals with a time period from the 1830s to the beginning of the 20th century. The story centers around one wealthy landlord and his two sons, paired with the comings and goings of several other characters, many of them figures from history. A large part of the story, for instance, is devoted to Ishwar Chanda Bidyasagar and his role as a social activist and academic. Bidyasagar's story is about the dual mission of popularising the use of Bengali, and enacting social reforms for a more enlightened community.
Towards more widespread use of Bengali, Bidyasagar becomes one of the first to start using Bengali in writing, beginning with written accounts of Bengali folk tales that till then were only transferred via word of mouth. On the social reform front we hear stories of the collective effort he led to ban the sati ritual, and pass laws legalising remarriage of Hindu widows and outlawing child marriage.
While a big part of the story is devoted to Bidyasagar, he is still not the protagonist in the conventional sense. Smaller but not insignificant portions are also devoted to Bankim Chandra, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, all people who greatly influenced Bengali culture, literature, and even religion.
Over the span of the story, we are taken through Bengal's slow but steady journey out of superstitions and unquestioning obedience of often inhumane customs, to a more enlightened, creative period in its history. The book ends with one of the main characters receiving an invitation to attend a party at the Tagore household, to celebrate the birth of Debendranath Tagore's son Rabindranath.
The second book, Prothom Alo, picks up around three decades after where Shei Shomoy wraps up. As an obvious consequence of the cultural awakening and social growth, Bengal has now begun to yearn for independence. Bengali literature is on the ascent, with a young Rabindranath Tagore leading from the front.
Like Bidysagar in the first book, Rabindranath plays a very prominent role in this one. Given the author's focus on the rise of the freedom movement, we are introduced to several other characters like a young Gandhi, and there are mentions of an adolescent Subhash Bose. Another prominent character is the scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, as we are taken along in his efforts to prove that Bengal has contributions to offer to science and technology.
Prothom Alo also has its share of dark moments. As Bengal nurtured its newfound independent spirit, the British Empire had to resort to novel, often unscrupulous ways to compromise their strength and resolve. Thus began their plan of dividing the nation against one another, showering benefits on some while discriminating against the others.
In particular, the motivation behind dividing the two Bengals becomes evident in light of how it distracted people on both sides from a united struggle against British Imperialism. In this context we also see Rabindranath's transformation from an ivory tower poet to a conscious citizen, deeply interested in the politics of the day.
Prothom Alo ends at a time when the spirit of Independence stemming in Bengal has spread all over India, with the youth seriously contemplating a call to arms, albeit more subversive than conventional warfare. Rabindranath, in his old age, has retired to Shanti Niketan, detaching himself from the outside world.
Interestingly, the third book, Purbo Poshchim, has a much darker tone than the previous ones.
The story opens at the dawn of the independence, with a gloomy account of a family's migration to the newly formed India leaving their ancestral home in East Bengal. This theme of people being uprooted, of a haunting realisation that independence does not of itself guarantee happiness, permeates the book.
A lot of the darkness of tone is due to the impression of heartbreak and unrealised promises the youth of this new nation felt, in particular. This eventually paves the way to the story of the Naxal movement, and the beginning of brain drain as many promising youth decide to fly out to the western world. As the author poetically remarks, many decided to forego the pursuit of happiness in the east and settle for the material comforts of the west. Many decided to forego the dreams they had for a new nation, and settled for the career goals offered by immigration.
Significantly, Purbo Poshchim does not present any real individual from history of this period. It is almost as if this is a metaphor for how the nation as a whole lost stature, even as it gained independence. It also has a more fatalistic tone.
Even though focusing primarily on India and West Bengal, the story of our Liberation War finds mention, particularly because of the impact it made in the lives of the people of Kolkata. The assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is also mentioned towards the end of the book, with ominous foreshadowing of what this will mean for the infant nation.
With these three books, Sunil Ganguly covers a span of nearly 200 years. As the author himself is fond of saying, the real protagonist of these books is time. Each book needed a lot of research, something that the author almost laments when he says that circumstances rarely allowed him the opportunity to read as much as he would have liked to.
Nevertheless, these books remain excellent examples of historical fiction, with an elegant balance of real history coupled with good fiction writing. Their common theme is the rise of Bengal as a major cultural and political player, and its eventual destiny after independence.
As February and the Ekushey Boi Mela approaches, these set of books might be an excellent read!