Sei Samay: Interesting Times

Before the Princess of Bela-Rus left town we went book shopping. She insisted that I buy Those Days (Sei Samay) by Sunil Gangopadhyay. I had read his Neera poems but I was dubious about reading a whole novel about the Bengal renaissance.The Princess prevailed. All afternoon she had wickedly recounted anecdotes about young Bengali writers and one hot young Bengali's author's florid (and almost floral) attempts at wooing her. Implicit in the purchase of the book was the hope that I would perhaps understand what makes nice young Bengali men join either the local quiz club or writers' club, venues to give their erudition an airing. (On the other hand...)

Sei Samay
is a brilliant account of a period in Bengal's history when both intellectual and political movements flourished. The novel begins after the death of Raja Rammohan Roy and ends with the ironic prediction of great things from Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.And the book is peopled by the giants of a time when Bengali, the language, was considered a declasse vernacular in which it was vulgar for educated young people to write in.

The novel is focussed on the lives of two extremely wealthy families, the Singhas and the Mukherjees who are neighbours and close friends. The younger son of one household, Nabin, whose birth is the opening scene in the novel, is an erratic genius is modelled after Kaliprasanna Singha who amongst other acts of brilliance translated the Mahabharata into Bengali when he was in his 20s. He also wrote Hutom Penchar Naksha, a extremely well-known satire of Bengali society. (The English translation of this title is supposed to have suggested the name of Sarnath Banerjee's recent graphic novel, The Barn Owl's Wondrous Capers.) Nabin's older brother Ganga along with his contemporaries, the first generation of gilded youth with an English education gets swept up in the extremely interesting times. Who were they? Who did they owe their loyalties to? Was opposing child marriage in fact being disloyal to their own? To do what their fathers did or forge their own uncertain paths? These are the questions that they try to answer in their eventful lives.

Notable among Ganga's friends were Michael Madhusudhan Dutt (who according to this novelist was bisexual, brilliant and a drama queen) and the awe-inspiring Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. In this novel Vidyasagar is irresistibly attractive, noble but without a trace of the self-righteousness of great men. In my favourite scene he returns to his village to tell his parents that has just been appointed to a very senior position in an educational institution. The village is startled to see this important entity playing 'chase' with the village children, even before he gets home.

Vidyasagar's social reforms were gargantuan but even as a very young man he was deeply concerned with Bengali as a language and wondered how to promote it when Bengali was reviled as a mean dialect with no future and certainly too limited for prose. In that sense he reminds me of the Mahadev Desai immense polymaths of those days, the kind who decided to translate some gigantic Sanskrit epic to clear their head from important social action, like you would do Sudoku!

Despite its preponderence of great personages, Sei Samay (at least in this translation) is basically a thrilling page-turner. Dancing girls, adultery, death, stabbing, couples being caught en flagrante derelicto, fainting ladies, star-crossed lovers, madness, epidemics...aah...every page has something for everyone.

Sei Samay
was a revelation in other ways. I had a whiff of why even many of my contemporaries refuse to read Indian Writing in English. In comparison to this cornucopia most of IWE seems anaemic in comparison.

I would like to pick up a single strand to try and capture the difference: food, a theme reviled for its nauseating appearance in IWE. In IWE food is an aesthetic device. Sometimes, it is used as a ridiculous plot device. For most it remains a pretty thing to dabble in. Food has a very strong presence in Sei Samay too but what a world of difference! No one in this novel spends any time frolicking in the kitchen to express themselves. Food is serious business. The thakurs and the babus display their power by hosting vast weddings and other social gathering so thatthe city talks of how many baskets of luchis and sandesh had been made.As the babus' fortunes decline they have to make decisions about turning away people who turn up at their gates asking for food. The vast serving staff of households save for the old age by stealing small portions of food everyday and selling it. And across the landscape of the book is a food theme no one writes about any more, that of hunger. The starvation of farmers who lose their land in the Permanent Settlement, the servants, poor relatives, of child widows on Ekadasi. Crooks grow fat and those who suffer, gaunt.

Aruna Chakravarthy's decade-old translation frequently is quaint but I was grateful for its quaintness. Sometimes phrases like 'he made her his own' fits beautifully into a novel full of palkis and rosy landscapes. What was even more amusing was the incredibly unselfconscious introduction. One of Sei Samay's major preoccupations is the link between the robustness of Bengali as a language and the identity of the people of Bengal under the British. Chakravarthy compresses a 907 page novel to 500 pages and says this is because “The English language lends itself, quite naturally, to greater precision than the Bengali.” Oh very well then!


quick question
Did you read this in english

July 6, 2012 at 5:00 PM  

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