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Sivnath Sastri : A Prologue for a New Prelude

‘Rememberest thou not the words wherewith thy Ethics treat of the three dispositions which Heaven wills not …’

‘Inferno’, Canto XI, The Divine Comedy

Once upon a time, there was one Sivnath Sastri, a defense and shelter, a back-stage worker and a fore-frontier, a demon with the demure personality – a milestone, a symbol of homage and sacrifice, an idol of wisdom and confrontation, an ideological balance between teamwork and disharmony. In one word he was an icon of the nineteenth century Bengal Renaissance – in the true sense.

But who was Sivnath Sastri? A social reformer? – then please mark his ”vivid” achievements. An historian? – his famous book RãmtanuLãhiri and Tatkãlin Bangasamãj, (RamtanuLahiri and the then Bengal Society, 1904) is more introspect, than the proper discipline of history. A biographer? – to some extent, for his Rãmtanu Lãhiri and Tatkãlin Bangasamaj and obviously for his autobiography  Ãtmacharit (1918). A litterateur? – that is one almost forgotten chapter.

Sivnath Sastri wrote four novels, Mejo Bou(1880), Yugantar(1895), Nayantãrã (1899), Bidhabãr Chhele (1816). From the angle of the orthodox literary critic, those novels are not so much outstanding or attractive. His poems, Nirbãsiter Bilap, Himãdri Kusum, or Pushpamãlã were also not much magnetic in is manner of expression or ornamentation, which was counted as the mark of poetic skill. But excellent for his power of clarity to express his own sensitivity, and confident with his own stance of ideological creed and desire for one positive state of social truthfulness. His own belief on Brãhma movement and his own critical view point on that movement procedure too, led him to write. Though his poems are apparently nature-praising, descriptive and deductive also, but intelligent and ”brilliant” – in the proper meaning of the word. If the twenty-first century readers will pay their patience, and attention like one true pilgrim, like Dante’s attention to Virgil :

Then Virgil said: ”Say to him quickly, ‘I am not he, I am not he whom thou thinkest.’ ” And I replied as was enjoined me.

Whereat the spirit quite wrenched his feet; thereafter, sighing and with voice of weeping, he said to me : ”Then what askest thou of me? …” : Inferno, Canto-XIX, The Divine Comedy.

– may felicited. The readers will achieve one great pleasure of expedition in the Kingdom of non-synthetic poetical world.

Rabindranath, adolescent Rabindranath, in his first narrative Karuna (1877-78), pinched Sivnath Sastri – under the name of the character Swarup babu, the poet – for some of his mannerisms, path-finding Rabindranath accepted Sivnath Bhattacharya as one potential poet and so he was eager to attack him, Sivnath, to keep his own vow of searching his own diction. And young Rabindranath attached with Bhãrati, the periodical invited Sivnath to contribute and appreciated his literary power – this is very much important factor, because Rabindranath was very much meticulous in his reading habit and appreciation too.

Certainly only this comment is not the ultimate measuring unit, but no doubt, authentic one. Sivnath Sastri was not at all popular or discussed, as a poet, but Rabindranath honoured him as one prominent literary personality, as one cultivable personality also.

‘He said to me : ”Philosophy, to him who hears it, points out, not in one place alone, how Nature takes her course from the Divine Intellect, and from its art; and if thou note well thy Physics, thou wilt find, not many pages from the first, …’

: ‘Inferno’, Canto-XI, The Divine Comedy

In this study, the focus concentrates in, two novels of Sivnath Sastri – Mejo Bouand Nayantara. The time of novelist Sivnath, was also the time of Bankim Chandra, the-then matini-idol of Bãnglã novel. Other potential novelists were Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, Swarna Kumari Devi, Rames Chandra Datta; Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay, Taraknath Gangopadhyay etc. Bankim Chandra though constructed his own image as an orthodox ”Hindu” – writer but with that uttered and claimed stance, rather in the shelter of that fabrication, he continued his quest for women’s ”power and glory”, their capability of progressiveness, which was very much attacked, mocked, debated and disputed. Durgesnandini, Kapãl Kundalã, Devi Chowdhuranithese three novels are great advocating – utterance of women-power, their wisdom and fruitful strength and stamina of leadership. May be the precedent of historical Rãni Bhabani and his contemporary incident of Rãni Lashmi Bai inspired him. Bankim  Chandra most intelligently ”used” the genre of historical romance – and after the acceptance of the readers’ response, he wrote Indirã, Rajani, Rãdhãrani – narratives, has prevented the triumph of women-power – glorious and gorgeous royal family associates to middle class or lower middle-class women. Sastri’s Mejo Bou and Nayantara- these two novels also women-centric, middle class and upper middle class women of average and more-than average family. Sastri consciously selected his known world for his target readers, the inhabitants of that social surface. And that was his passion also to illustrate this social category, their crisis and desire. For instance his Rãmtanu Lahiri, his magnum apus, which was not formal history,  but more than history of his time, was also written from his extreme passion to express the character of more or less middle class Bengali Society. That selection was, the readers may estimate, as his first commitment as the novelist. He rejected the genre of romance and was rejected automatically by the vast romance-loving reader-group. And in this context the reading claims a clear understanding of that time – its problem and conflicts.

The problem which was crucial-most in the then society that was the doubt of self identity and matter of confidence. Especially the clash between the religion and social customs – religion and theology, theology and revealed theology. Aggressive behaviour at attitude of the administrators – both Hindu and Mahamadan, and the outsiders too – Vargi to European Merchants, smashed and shattered the internal peace and security  of the people. So the process of rejection has been started among the people in their behavioural pattern. Especially after the Vargi-invasion, the Brãhmans, the privileged category and egoist about religious customs, also felt a puzzled condition in that phase of great trauma and going to give up their undoubled devotion. That journey of their rejection of religious dependence has been started in the socio-psychological paradigm. So many people were tempted in their inward extent to reject their age-old prejudices in the eighteenth century, posing questions that attacked the core-point of Hindu theology; questions that could have come from Buddhist philosophy or even from Nyay. Obviously the average Hindu had no cerebral or intellectual courage to construct the proper disbelief, but with the little bit mockery or ridiculing the myths or mythical gods and goddesses, were the signs of their internal process of rejection. Rammohun Roy was the pioneer who uttered his quests against the ‘Hindu Religion’ in his bold and out spoken manner and with the formation of Ãtmiyasabhã he wanted to continue and expand his queries in the vast periphery of the society. In the next step or next stage the formation of Brãhma Samãj, Brãhma-society, the followers of Rammohun appeared to cultivate those ideas to create or ”re-create” the society with the education of morality with logical approach and philanthropist activity to serve the mankind, for the upliftment of the society. Sastri’s novels are the ”gallant” presentation and expression of that journey, the result of that journey – to think, or judge everything from the stance of the reality.

Mejo Bou, was ultimately the story of the disaster and defeat of one housewife, Pramodã. But why? The most common answer is, her ”bad-luck” – but here is the excellence of Sastri, the novelist, he was not at all a believer of luck-factor. He pointed out the patterns of law of causality and the facts of co-incedences. The proper message was the theology or believe in super natural miracle – capable revealed theology had met not any success to save them from their total familial disaster. So the defeat or the tragedy of Pramoda was ultimately the defect of the dependence on Hindu theology. In this novel he introduced one Brãhmo young man, Haritaran, very loyal and friendly but inactive and almost non-entity. With his inactivity, or just a little presence seemed to the reader, the unimportance of the Brãhmo-believers. And with this touch Sastri pointed that, the Hindu belief was also became inactive too.

So the tragic condition of MejoBou- contained and expressed his Brãhmo mission, without any direct utterance or typical missionary like approach. As a novelist he took the position of the omnipresent commentator and stated the desires and the incidents of gradual ”degradations” of one family. After the critical illness of Prabodh Chandra, husband of Pramodã, he became unable to continue his lawyer’s practice, his economic stability was smashed in that situation. And his sister Bama was compelled to start earning by teaching, in a missionary girls’ school. Sivnath was steady in his stance to circulate the message of importance of female-education, would be able to serve the family in distress.

But Nayantarais different. Here Sastri portrayed the face of the new age woman. This novel was published in 1899 – in the feg-en of the nineteenth century, he announced the proximity of the twentieth century women, learned, intelligent and brave. Sastri painted Nayantara as his protagonist. Her father Kãlipada Roy was a person of perfectly progressive mentality. Sãstri selected Chuncharha, the then Chinsura, as the locale of this novel to draw the nature or characteristics of the Suburban Zones and Suburban elites. He introduced two Brahmo, Mahendra and Paresnath Roy, who were active in their field and Mahendra is one important character, in this novel also.

At the time, Bangla novel was on the way to adopt the character of English Drawing room drama. With the development of the consciousness of urbanity and elitism, the imitation of British domestic style or pattern also took place in the society. The fact of cultural dominance and the slow but steady formation of the colonial mind – is another parameter here. Sastri in his outlook accepted that newly developing household pattern, was uttered in Mejo Bou also – in a ”teaching-learning method”. Nayantara is the narrative of a socio-cultural ideological expectation. So he was extremely careful in his brushwork to draw the details of the family with their space, to explicit his perspectives. Sivnath admired that British household-pattern, as the identity of metropolitan set up, and one stage of achievement of urbanity, cultural and intellectual.

”Advancement of Learning” – which is the motto of the University of Calcutta, is also the aim and object of the Brãhmo-society too. Sivnath Sastri in his lifelong journey was a devoted worker in this field, and in this novel he narrated those characters, who were fond of learning and interested in cultural activities in various dimensions – Kalipada Roy, Mahendrababu, Vidyãratna, Sures Chandra and Harendra. Nayantara contains a good account of Brãhmo activity with the pleasure come ”practice” of Upasana, prayer also. Sivnath narrated the positive role of the Brãhmo youth in the society, who were appreciated by the educated Hindu-people, because of their morality, honesty and sincerity towards society. Whereas the parallel journey of the Hindu youth was condemned by the Hindus for their dishonesty and Philistine attitude in comparison with the Brãhmo-youth.

Though this is not the sphere to describe or discuss the storyline, but there are two incidents, much colourful. Harendra, the son of Harideb Chattopadhyay, the mentor of Kalipada Roy, is one important character. After the premature death of his father, Harendra’s mother was also compelled to accept the job of the cook in one family to bear the familial responsibility, to educate Harendra. Harendra established himself from that miserable condition and admired by Nayantãra. He became her saviour in the railway platform when Nayantara was in a state of distress, was harassed by two local youth, Harendra was in the platform to escort Nayantara, and thrashed them. The readers are allowed to make their question was that event the starting of the chivalrous attitude of the heroes in Bangla novel? The second incident also claims much research, Sastri stated the incident of a cricket match between Hooghly College students and the fort-resident Britishers. The college-team led by Harendra achieved victory against that team of the whitemen. Rabindranath in his Gora (1910), mentioned this game, and in his Sahajpath too. And Sastri, most probably the first writer, who has stated this game in Bãnglã novel. And at the same time he imagined the victory of his countrymen against the Britishers before historical victory of Mohun Bagan in 1911.

‘But follow me now, as it pleases me to go.’

: ‘Inferno’, Canto XI, The Divine Comedy

When Sastri, was in his full stamina, then BrahmoSamãj was in the trouble of groupism – troubled with internal clashes. And at the same time the Hindu revisionist movement can be traced, directed against the Brãhma activities. Hindu revivalism has started their propaganda to obey all rites and rituals and appeared with the sake assessments and analysis of the customs with the science-discipline. Kesab Chandra himself violated Brãhmo ideology and so the Brãhmo mission also, was cursed like mythical Sisyphus, efforts and achievements were rolled back downwards. But SivnathSastri was in his own stance, determined to reconstruct the movement, his vow, again. He was unperturbed and incessant to carry the responsibility of his ideology, to preach the doctrines not the sake of his institutional duties, but for the sake of his own intuition to frame again the positivity of his own ”vision and design”, already painted in his canvas, for the society.

In this present time of dogmatic attitude and traumatic situation, we have to read again Sivnath Sastri, the undaunted one, not to worship him, but for the sake of ourselves – to gain or regain, the lost Paradise, the Paradise of knowledge, Wisdom and intuition.

– By Sumon Bhattacharya

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