Thursday, June 23, 2011


To tell you the truth, I was not impressed at all when I first read Arnayak long time ago, during my school days. We had a small piece from that classic novel in our Bengali textbook. That time it was so boring, monotonous description of nature of our area, Chotonagpur plateau, in India. That description was so common, ordinary to me. I used to see many of the natural wonders described in the book on a daily basis and reading about the same in a book, and that too in a text book, did not excite me. I started reading the novel due to my father's forceful request but left it halfway. It was lying, neglected, in a cupboard with many other old books. I forgot about it.

After a long time my wife bought the book. I started reading it. Now I realized that probably I did the right thing by not reading that classic literature during my teen, when I was too immature to understand nature, human relationship and relationship of nature with human beings. It provoked so many emotions, so many pictures of my lost childhood and more importantly my lost innocence amidst rough, tough nature of chotonagpur plateau. During my childhood I was almost like of some the kids described in that novel.

The novel was written during 1937-1939 by Bibhutibhusan Bandhyodadhya. It was mainly based on his personal experience during 1924-1930, as an estate manager for a landlord Khilat Chandra Ghosh in wild Azamabad - Fulkia – Lobtulia areas of Bihar state. To understand the novel we probably will need to know little more about the author.

Bibhutibhusan was born in 1894 in a village near Kalyani, about 100km away from Kolkata, in British India at his maternal uncle's house, following the tradition that child birth should happen in mother's paternal home or maternal uncle’s home- to save husband and in-laws from the hassles of child birth, to ensure proper care for the new mom and the child and observing so many rituals and restrictions, mainly for new mother, of course. His father, Mahananda Bandyopadhyay, was a sanskrit scholar and a kathak, one who used to tell stories for a living. His home was near Gopalnagar police station in Bongaon, North Twenty Four Parganas. Bhibhutibhusan studied in Bongaon High School, one of the oldest institutions in Brithish India. Incidentally, he also taught at this school at the beginning of his working life. His early days were spent in abject poverty, so typical of an honest scholar and priest, which is still a reality in India. Nevertheless, he fought his way to complete his undergraduate degree in history with distinction, at the Surendranath College, Kolkata. Though he was admitted to the MA and law classes, he could not continue his studies. 

He was married to Gouri Devi. She died in childbirth after only a year of their marriage. Bibhutibhushan again married Rama Chattopadhyay when he was 46. Their only son, Taradas, was born in 1947. Bibhutibhusan died on 1 November 1950, of a heart attack while staying at Ghatshila, in Jharkhand state of Chotonagpur plateau.

Despite of having a childhood in rural India and traveled extensively in that part of India, I did not have much idea about the lives of the common people described in the novel. I had the curiosity but satisfied with watching it from a distance. I neither could gather the courage to proceed further. I started wondering when Satyacharan (the person who narrates the story in the novel) questions himself, “what people want- success or happiness? Why should we succeed if that takes away happiness from us? I know so many people who had succeeded but lost all their happiness. Our consciousness looses its sheen with too much indulgence. We lose the ability to wonder, to become happy. Life becomes so boring, colorless and meaningless. Our minds become too polished to express or extract happiness”. I am not sure if my translation conveys the real meaning of the statement made by Bibhutibusan through Satyacharan. No, I did not have the ability to understand the statement the time I first read Aranyak. Now, I think, I can.

Characters like Jugal Prasad, Raju Pande (Panree), Dhautal Sahu, Nandalal Ojha, Rashbihari Singh, Chutu Singh, Motuk Nath Pandit, Asrafi Tindel, Dhaturia are so real, at least to me, that I could not but recollect so many people that I can assign those characters to. Probably we all know such people around us. 

The descriptions of women in that wild, less forgiving nature indicated Bibhutibhusan’s sensitivity and understanding of human relationship. I really pity those men, those societies who try to strangle, suffocate women and think they can enjoy the charm, the company and even sexuality of women. How stupid they are! They do not know what they are missing. The ease with which tribal princess Bhanumati; Kunta, the daughter of a "baiji" (notch girl) and widow of a Rajput; Manchi- the simple, lively, inquisitive young adult and wife of an old man, are described shows maturity of Bibhutibhusan in man-woman relationship, especially in our highly conservative society, that too in British India.

Bibhutibhusan's attitude towards caste and religion is so evident in many places of the novel. He has no problem to eat and stay with people not only from different caste but also from different religions. The character of Satyacharan was and still is a model of an ideal administrator. It seems that to become a good administrator we need to screen people with both heart and head, not by some rot memorization and coaching based screening test that we use now to make our civil servants. Probably that's why, despite of having the most competitive screening test, Indian civil service is among the most corrupt and ineffective in Asia (1, 2) and "the most stifling" in the world (3). It seems that a head without a heart can only bring darkness to the world.

Many of us, if not majority, still insult people based on social, professional and economic hierarchy. Many of us feel proud thinking they are the descendants of true Aryans and loudly insult people who does not qualify as Aryans - like the tribal king Dobru Panna Birwardi, Jogru Panna or beautiful Bhanumati. We kill so many Dhaturias by not allowing them to learn and express what they love and excel in. We are so blinded by our own distorted interpretation of “education” and “success” that a retired deputy magistrate and his family members never think before they insult Satyacharan, riding a horse in a forest with not so sophisticated dress. Such people hardly care to express their ignorance and stupidity while insulting local, tribal people and their culture. Does our sense of "green" (a catchy phrase for marketing of almost any product these days) have developed in last one century to think before we pollute forests, sea beaches, historical places and many other places of beauty with garbage from their civilized picnic or noisy partying, as we see in almost each and every place in India these days?

Probably such attitude among older (and a small section of current) generation of Bengalis gave rise to mass annoyance, if not anger, against Bengalis in all those places where Bengalis flocked in mass for routine outings  or travel or settled outside Kolkata (which became synonymous to Bengal)- be it within Bengal itself (any person who is not from Kolkata is surely "uncivilized"!) or in North Eastern states, Bihar, UP, MP, Orissa or any other place in India. Many famous Bengali personalities, who used to regularly go to the "west" (west to Bengal- i.e. mainly Bihar, MP, UP and Orissa) for health reason, behaved in the same pathetic way. Majority of them not only exploited and insulted local people and their culture but also practically contributed nothing positive there. Probably it is now payback time for Bengalis in places like North Eastern states, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh etc. Later that urban "civilization" spread all across India. What many Bengalis did a century ago, many other Indians learned and continue to do it today. It gave rise to mass frustration and sometimes anger. That is partly responsible for fast spread of extremist movements like Naxals. Some of such naive Indians taste the same medicine when they travel or live abroad. Then they start understanding and then shouting about racial discrimination. They never understood, leave alone analyze, their own behaviors in their own country, against their own people. It is not at all surprising, to me at least, that India is still a highly feudal, hierarchical and racist society.

I am really surprised with the foresightedness of Bibhutibhusan when he questions our model of “development”, when we destroy our century old natural and human wealth for “success” of few people and logic for establishment and spread of slum culture. He did that at the first half of 20th century, when India was much better (relatively speaking) in terms of natural and human beauty. He seemed to be knowing the consequences of spread of third-world style of "development" of towns and metros like Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi that invariably increase poverty. Have you ever seen filthy open drains, stinking people or crying, malnourished babies running all over in a (economically) poor, remote village anywhere in India, untouched by industrial exploitation? Probably no. Just wait till a factory comes up and see the immediate change!

Have you observed Mumbai, the most prosperous and the financial capital of "shining" India, from the sky? It looks more like a slum city with tarpaulin and blue plastic roof, slums all over with few scattered high rises. Can you imagine a $2 billion house, the costliest in the world, in the midst of sprawling slum anywhere, in any developed country? Probably it is possible only in a third world country like India. Mumbai has more than 60% of its population live in slums (4). Slums have increased dramatically since 1950s, despite of so many developmental programs. A person with 2 million rupees ($ 44,000) annual income, which constitute probably less than 1% of its population, does not dare to buy a decent apartment (leave alone having own house) in a decent locality and settle there in that financial capital. Honest economic activities in those cities are not sufficient to support a family there with decent living. Money from all over India is being accumulated in few metro cities. Yet many consider that as development! It is even more surprising that not many people and our policy makers understand what we are losing while trying to impose “development”, that not so educated Bibhutibhusan understood with his BA in history degree, about a hundred years ago!


  1. While the blog is nice and lively, I agree to what you said , that happiness is inversely correlated to wealth. But sometimes the truth is more than just simple. We all say we were more happy 200 yrs back, we were all much better 50 yrs back, India was a much better country several decades ago.. is that really that simple? maybe you need to ask someone 200 yrs back and bring him(theoretically)now and ask in which scenario was he/she more happy.. then or now. I am sure that person will NOT have a good reply. While there are many things that were good then(more green earth, much simpler peoples,less pollution, ozone layer was more intact then...), but it must also be shadowed by extremely high child mortality, deaths due to simple causes like diarrhea or small infections, poor ways of amusements, hopeless commute system, uncontrolled natural calamity and maybe extreme poverty). So in a nut shell , though we might think that those old days are golden, still am sure those days were also terribly miserable and troublesome. We had problems then... we had different set of problems now.. and 200 yrs from now, peoples them will say that 20-21st century was so nice and so good ! Its always like a mirage. The more you drive towards it, the more it fades away.
    It all depends what you call happiness and how you define it. That happiness was always there and will be always there, only that we need to custom define it each of us... and your definition of happiness might be completely different from mine.

  2. Dear Subhradip, you may get your reply in my blog Steady-state economy and de-growth models of development.
    In short, happiness is a art and need to be taught, preferably at the very beginning of one's life. We need to provide a conducive socio-economic environment for that. It is becoming harder to sustain a career, family life with something that many people love but not that much financially remunerative. That is directly proportional to number of people sharing the resources and resulting competition.
    You also can read the Definition of intelligence and responsibility of a scientist to read the science and politics of happiness.

    Let me quote from Buddhadeb Basu (in his novel "Somo"; quoting a famous British author and philosopher), "if we can teach a child to love, at least, one aspect of the world there is much less probability for him/her to do any crime".
    It is widely accepted fact that today it is tough to sustain a career by simply loving to play violin, or drama or even research. There is almost no chance to get another Mozart or Einstein these days. It is not because world stopped producing such talents, but we can not retain and groom them.

  3. After checking a link to your blog at BBC site, I happen to come across your blog. In the past I had read and enjoyed your comments there and related to Soutik Biswas' articles.

    Your comments about Bibhutibhusan Bandhyodadhya novel Aranyak touched a chord in me. As I was growing up during my teenage years I used to be a voracious reader and Bibhutibhusan Bandhyodadhya was one of my favorite authors. In addition, since I grew up in Kharagpur - where tribal folks from nearby villages came to work and studied in Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith, Deoghar - another place where tribal members lived nearby - I used to enjoy his writing on tribal cultures and people. I had read most, if not all, of his books set on tribal culture.

    Even though now I live in Canada for the past forty-three years and haven't read any of his books for many years, I still have poignant memories. At the same time and just like you, when I visit India or even read about what happens there, I wonder what could have happened or still can happen.

    The problems highlighted by Bibhutibhusan Bandhyodadhya in his novels certainly have a very strong connection to modern day India. Such problems were also echoed by other luminaries such as Tagore.

    ALL societies have flaws - all have their own crosses to bear. In a huge country such as India - with countless number of religions (and sects), languages, ethnic cultures, etc. etc. - how can one try do even initiate a meaningful change? India is like NO other country in the world - NONE!!

    However, in practical terms India has regressed in so many areas. To me the root cause of ALL evils is lack of Rule of Law - not just in the minds of Indian citizens to be disciplined but also in its enforcement. Interestingly, Indian jurisprudence emanates from British laws, just like those in US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. In these other English speaking countries, laws are enforced totally strictly.

    If interested, you may want to read the following white paper:

    So where does it leave us? Indian intellectuals in general and Bengali intellectuals specifically have always made the connection of ineffectual governance and societal apathy with poverty in India. And yet, Indians do not care and the resulting situation in India is what it is now.

    As a lone individual I have tried to influence some to do a few things in the past - without any success. Coming from a business environment - and many things learned there is also applicable in societal settings - it has always been my belief that to affect the root cause, one has act. I can always be an armchair critic; but if I cannot find a solution and then deploy the same, my criticisms are nothing but empty rhetoric.

    Perhaps people like you may have certain ideas. Who knows, collectively things can still be done - even in a country such as India.


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