Unsung histories: Restless Waters of the Ichhamati

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Published: May 3, 2018 12:36:23 AM

A translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Ichhamati brings forth stories of the commoners that lived in 19th-century Bengal.

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The distinction of being the most famous adaptation of an Indian novel into a movie perhaps remains with Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali. The great debut of Satyajit Ray, arguably the greatest by an Indian filmmaker, immortalised Bandyopadhyay’s village on celluloid. It’s difficult to read his works without the inescapable references to Pather Panchali, which surface even in his last novel Ichhamati, which was recently translated into English as Restless Waters of the Ichhamati by Rimli Bhattacharya.

It narrates the stories of several families, woven around the river that carries “unwritten histories of joy and sorrow”. These are “not the conquests of kings and emperors, but the unsung histories of the mute people of our land”. The opening sentences amply confirm the position of the novelist.

Based in the second half of the 19th century, the novel has, in its background, the famous Indigo Revolt that saw many peasants rebelling against the forcible imposition of indigo plantation by the British. At the centre is a wandering sanyasi, Bhabani Barujje, who, at the age of 50, suddenly finds himself marrying as many as three sisters of an influential Dewan, Rajaram Ray, who is an employee of the British government.

As per the prevailing custom, any woman of a kulin (elite) household was never married into any sub-caste, let alone outside caste. The sisters are growing older, but their family waits till a right groom is found. Bandyopadhyay deftly underlines the psychology of Bengali society that conditioned even the women to accept their fate. The eldest of the three sisters, aged 30, has this to say about her marriage: “Did it matter that she was getting married to the same person along with her sisters? It was so in every other family like theirs which claimed a kulin lineage. Uncle Chandar’s father has seventeen marriages—common enough in kulin households.”

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The novel underlines the misery of indigo planters, as their lives were governed by neelkuthis, or indigo factories, offices that dotted the deltaic region of Bengal and controlled the plantation. While the novelist does not offer a detailed description of the revolt, several incidents are scattered across the novel that reflect a growing anger among peasants that eventually leads to the killing of the Dewan.

It’s also the phase when India is undergoing major transformations. Historical incidents surface mostly to lend it a temporal context and barely ruffle the narrative—yet they leave a mark. One hears about the assassination of Lord Mayo, the only Viceroy of India to be murdered in office, and in the two sentences, the novelist finishes his description of the incident that had shocked India and Britain. However, Bandyopadhyay manages to emphasise that the murderer was a Pathan. Read with Bandyopadhyay’s diaries, this stress does not seem without a purpose.

Throughout his diaries, which are published in two volumes in Hindi as Bibhutibhushan Ki Aranyagatha, he is seen mixing with the Muslim community, admiring them for various virtues. Contrast this with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, who had a rather hostile perspective of the community. This can be read as a novelistic response by Bandyopadhyay to his illustrious predecessor.

The narrative of Ichhamati meanders like a river, as if the novel corresponds with the stream in both form and character. Several characters are introduced, flow with the stream, and fade away.

Pather Panchali’s poor Brahmin Harihar Roy and his son Apu correspond with Bhabani and his son Khoka. Though he has fathered Khoka with the eldest sister, all three of them become his mother. Harihar dies early in Pather Panchali, and it seems that Bhabani has arrived to fulfill the father-son bond. “It is only now that I have become a father myself, after Khoka’s birth, that I have begun to understand the love of the father in divine,” Bhabani says to himself. Their bond reminds one of ancient Indian tales in which father and son fulfill each other.

In her introduction, Rimli Bhattacharya draws attention to a poignant fact that brings autobiographical elements into the novel: “Reflections of Bibhutibhushan’s own fulfillment in marriage to a younger woman in his late life and his new-found joy in his infant son permeate the novel,” she writes. Bhattacharya has several translations of Bengali works to her credit, including two novels of Bandyopadhyay: Aranyak: Of the Forest and Making a Mango Whistle.

For a general non-Bengali reader, the triad of Bengali novelists constitutes of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. They have been extensively translated in several Indian languages and accorded both critical and popular canonisation. Bhattacharya’s translation marks an occasion to expand the canon.

A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

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