Ideal & Waste?

On July 11, 2011 by admin

Amiya Dev

We know that Châr Adhyây (Four Chapters) was Rabindranath’s second political novel. We also know that like Ghare-Bâire (The Home and the World), 1916, the first, it fared ill with nationalists, and that one special reason for that had been his reference to Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907) in the preface in a supposedly derogatory way. We further know that Rabindranath withdrew that preface from the second edition, though it had been purportedly a ‘cue’ (‘âbhâs’) to the novel, for it related how his one-time friend and associate Brahmabandhab, Hindu-Catholic turned nationalist revolutionary, editor of the fiery daily Sandhyâ, had suddenly visited him one day in 1907 and while leaving after a little conversation turned around at the doorstep and said: ‘Rabibabu, I have fallen grievously’ (‘âmâr khub patan hayechhe’).1

Nationalism had had such hold over the readers that the spirit of the episode was utterly lost on them, the sensitivity unfelt; and even today, over a hundred years after Brahmabandhab’s death (October 27, 1907) the righteousness of 1934 might not have been fully exhausted. We may not do unwisely to recall the words that followed in the preface: ‘After he said this, he did not wait; he just left. I understood clearly then that he had come just to say these heart-rending words. By then the net of his activities had closed tightly around him; there was no chance of escape.’2 That was Rabindranath’s last meeting with him and the last conversation.

Anyway, my concern is not with Châr Adhyây’s immediate reception, nor with the full implications of Brahmabandhab’s confession, whether it hadn’t also hinted at a recent falling off his noble mission of adapting Catholicism to Vedânta. Had his brand of svadeúî been in the way of his truth, cherished with great ascetic fervour in the teeth of the dominant politics of then Indian Christianity? Nor is it my concern to test Châr Adhyây out against the latter-day svadeshiî of the early 1930s, branded ‘terrorism’, that claimed a great many young idealist lives. In a moving essay, written in fifteen days of Pritilata Waddedar’s heroic suicide in 1932 after leading a successful attack on Chittagong’s European Club and sustaining a wound herself, her preceptor ‘Masterda’ recalled her with great fondness, almost sentimentally, and bid her goodbye as he would bid goodbye to Goddess Durga on the day of her immersion.3

He also recalled many others that he had inspired to brave death or incarceration across the seas. How many mothers he had bereaved of their children, what emptiness he had brought about in home after home! All for a great cause no doubt, yet was it right? Would he be forgiven? Iron-willed Surya Sen was pierced by doubt. That Tagore, who had moved away from his svadeúî involvement during the agitation over Bengal Partition (1905) before long, was pierced by more than doubt and had absolute disapproval of ‘terrorist’ violence leading to tragic waste, was once again proved by his reaction to the attempt on the Bengal Governor’s life at Darjeeling in May 1934 involving a few youths’ blighted future; but I am not going to look for its contemporary transcript in Châr Adhyây.

I shall reread Châr Adhyây as a crucible of the time I have lived and the time I am living. Whoever has read Câr Adhyây a second time will not miss its design as a virtual drama in four acts. Whatever gathers is mainly by means of dialogue. The attendant narration is sharp and subtle, except in the prelude, so to speak, the prastâvanâ. The description too is sparse, as if only meant to lay the scenes. Also, the usual slow pace of a novel is missing along with the co-temporality of spaces. Novel readers will find more pleasure notwithstanding its triple perspective in Ghare-Bâire, let alone Gorâ or Jogâjog (Relations). Time-propelled, it seems to be rushing, without a hint of space coming in the way of time. Ghare-Bâire’s twin Chaturaaga (1916) too is time-bound, but being a quartet it also carries four squares of space. Though this may sound overstated, Châr Adhyây is indifferent to space.

WE recall Tagore’s defence of it as a love story, which it is to a large extent, but which by no means exhausts it. The three Ela-Atin dialogues that form the bulk of the novel have a clear crescendo, ending on a merging of love and death, a kind of Liebestod. But the ‘star’ that ‘crosses’ their love is the ideal to which they are bound, no less voluntarily than involuntarily. Ela is Indranath’s recruit, sworn betrothed to the svadeœ; but Ela is also Indranath’s means of instilling the spirit of sacrifice in his boys and keeping their morale high, above all, of pulling Atin to the cause of svadeœ. Over Ela-Atin’s love is cast Indranath’s shadow in the name of svadeœ; thus what turns out to be Liebestod is the eventual strategy of liquidation: Ela must go, for she has become vulnerable through her desperate love taken advantage of by turncoat machinations. That Ela must go at Atin’s hand is Indranath at his most ‘unattached’: the sound of the distant whistle that closes the novel is the surrogate arrow cutting through the air.

Tagore’s critics of the time found such fiction unfounded on svadeshî ideals. Ela would probably swallow cyanide before spilling out secrets. Ela surely would, but that is not the point. The point is: is the risk worth taking? Is she indispensable? Is anyone indispensable? Is there any room for love in the political underground? At the end of the third chapter, after Atin has been packed off to a safer underground, beyond Ela’s and through Ela’s, any other’s ken, Indranath suddenly appears on the scene and scolds Ela for thus yielding to her eros and risking their safety, saying: ‘If I could I would have straightaway killed you.’ There is an impelling dehumanisation that Rabindranath is trying to trace, arising out of the underground’s own logic. It is obvious that he is not making a transcript but mining out the truth. Indranath has a dialogue with his confidant-cum-assistant, Kanai Gupta, in Chapter One laying down his rationale of action. The crux of that rationale is obviously Gîtâ, 2.47a, karmanne yevâdhikâraste mâ phaleshu kadâchana. Indranath doesn’t quote the second line of the œloka that might have elaborated his cast of mind: mâ karmaphalaheturbhûrmâ te saago’stvakarmannei (do not either be the cause of action’s fruits, nor have a desire for inaction). The mâ of the mâ phaleshu kadâchana can be either plainly negative or prohibitive (Sibaji Bandyopadhyay has recently studied the history of this double interpretation relating it to the possible overall ideology of the interpreter). However, there is no ambiguity about the mâ of the second line—it is prohibitive.

Now, whether as the mere interlocutor or as truly desirous of svadeshî’s success, Kanai Gupta does raise the issue of ‘fruits’: ‘But I feel you are overdoing your denial of purpose to this enterprise.’ ‘Not at all. I shan’t do wrong, shan’t go mad, shan’t shed tears by calling my country “mother” and “goddess”, yet carry on my action—there lies my strength.’ ‘But how are you going to fight your enemy if you do not call him enemy and hate him?’ ‘It’s like fighting a stone you stumble on, with unexcited intelligence. …’ ‘But you are not sure of success.’ ‘No matter. But I won’t do an insult to my inner self (svabhâb) …’ (pp. 483-484) Svabhâb or svabhâva is a concept analogous to karma. One ‘acts’ according to one’s svabhâva. By doing this karma (svadeshî) Indranath is answering his svabhâva. But can he deny that all else are doing that—Atin, or Ela, for that matter? If not, then by answering his svabhâva is he not doing violence to others’ svabhâva, Atin’s or Ela’s? That seems to be an issue in Châr Adhyây. Apropos this, here is another excerpt: ‘Do you love Atin?’ Ela kept quiet. ‘If he ever causes us danger, will you be able to kill him?’ ‘It is so improbable for him that I may not mind saying yes.’ ‘In case it is probable?’ ‘In spite of what I say, do I really know myself?’ ‘You have to know. You have to prepare yourself imagining terrifying eventualities everyday.’ ‘I am certain you were wrong in choosing me.’ ‘I am certain I was not.’ ‘Mastermashay, I beg you, please release Atin.’ ‘Who am I to release?

He is caught in his own resolution. His conflict will never cease, his sensitivity will go on getting hurt. Yet, every moment his self-respect will drag him on, till the end.’ ‘Do you never go wrong in reading human nature?’ ‘I do. There are many who have two strands in their nature (svabhâb). These two strands are dissimilar. Yet both are true. Such persons too misunderstand themselves and go wrong.’ (pp. 479-480)

NO one would doubt Indranath’s perspicacity, yet no one would also doubt his will to use Atin’s svabhâva to fulfil his own svabhâva-ordained karma to which alone he has the right, not to whose fruits. Svabhâva occurs in Gîtâ, 18, especially, in œlokas 41-44 where it is defined in terms of the karmas enjoined on the four varnas respectively, finally culminating in shloka-s 47 and 60. Let me quote 47 that sums up Gîtâ’s position on this concept: úreyân svadharmo vigunnah paradharmât svanushxitât/svabhâvaniyataJ karma kurvannâpnoti kilvisham (Even ill-done svadharma is better than well-done paradharma; no sin accrues in doing svabhâva-ordained karma—obviously echoing 3.35: úreyân … svanusxitât / svadharme nidhanaJ œreyah paradharmo bhayâvahah? [… / even dying in doing svadharma is good; paradharma is terrible]). Of course, Gîtâ’s svabhâva (=svadharma) is grounded on varnnâúrama, though in a society bereft of varnâúrama it may take on a wider meaning, the inner self or nature, calling, vocation. Indranath is no ringmaster, but he is dedicated to a greater cause that cannot do without Ela and Atin. Indranath has all the personality to persuade them and win over any doubts that may be lurking in them, even if for the time being.

There are moments when he seems to be a bit like Gîtâ’s Krishna to Ela-Atin’s Arjuna. But the Kurukshetra that he is conjuring up is far from the dharmakshetra it is to be. Can the ‘cause’ attest dharma or does it have an a-dharma built into it? Ghare-Bâire posits Nikhilesh against Sandip’s svadeúî, no less a patriot but not carried away by the passion of the moment, a personification as it were of what Rabindranath meant by Âtmaúakti. To be sure, Indranath is no Sandip, he is too bright for that. Nor is he pitted against a Nikhilesh to prove him wrong. He is a revolutionary per se, of the underground variety, though not entirely functional without Kanai Gupta’s pragmatic sense and feel for the terrain. As hinted above, not much happens in Châr Adhyây except revolution eating up its own children. Of course, in revolution’s context such eating is a minor event. What matters if Ela is liquidated, and by Atin who too is ripe for liquidation? Is it not proof that revolution is greater than love, which in other words is revolution’s waste? Not love alone, but humanity too can be revolution’s waste. ‘The lie that by killing a country’s soul its life can be sustained is going round the world today in many places,’ says Atin. (p. 504) Reading Châr Adhyây is to a large extent listening to Atin and Ela’s perceptions told one another. At one point Atin tells Ela how he has been pained to see noble-minded exemplary youths gradually succumb to inhumanity, without regard to the revolutionaries’ self-respect and hauteur. His last confession could have come from the 1970s: Look, I have fallen to the last limits (let us not merely source it back to Brahmabandhab Upadhyay).

The other day our band looted a lonely widow’s house. Manmatha knew her by village connection—it was he who had sent word to us and led the way. She recognised him in spite of the mask he was wearing and said: Manu my child, how could you do this? After that the band could not let the old woman live. It is through these hands of mine that that contaminated money signifying our loss of goodness has reached its target to fulfil our country’s good. And with that money I broke my fast. Finally I am branded a thief, I have touched the stolen loot and partook of it. (p. 512) It could have come from more recent times as well. Yet, this is not vandalism, this is wiping away one human for a greater cause, an ideal. We may be straightaway reminded of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov who felt that killing one old woman for the good of a hundred youths was fully justified. And that was the beginning of his ‘punishment’. And that would further remind us of the revolutionary violence a la Stavrogin and Shatov-Kirilov.

The moot question is perhaps that of ends and means: can means be utterly independent of ends; in other words, can good ends justify bad means, or more, can bad means not contaminate good ends? Of course, Gandhi will ask us to keep our conscience awake as the constant guide to our action, no matter what ideal we are cherishing and what utopia we are trying to establish. • I recall an evening at a Kolkata crematorium in 1970. We had gone to cremate a famous elder. There was a wait. Suddenly, standing in the waiting hall I discovered scores of names written in red on the walls around with the pledge that they would not be forgotten hinting at possible political vindication. All are annals now, but could the ideal that took them away afford such a huge waste? They were not a faceless crowd, not numbers like ‘thousand eighty-four’, but individuals. Visiting the Cellular Jail at Port Blair some years later and standing respectfully before those glorious names of the incarcerated inscribed on the central marble, the red splatter of the Kolkata crematorium flitted across my mind.

I beg to be excused for this personal note, but memory doesn’t listen to you and images often make a montage without your asking. When Sombhu Mitra staged Châr Adhyây in 1951, what impelled him? Was he merely putting Rabindranath on the modern board, or also recording a reaction to post-P. C. Joshi Left-wing communism of B.T. Randive’s? Surely in 1997 in his Hindi film on Châr Adhyây Kumar Shahani of the Pune Institute fame was trying to come to terms with some historical experience: was it the ‘terror’ that had already taken root in the Punjab and Kashmir? The world today is rent apart by ‘terror’ that is fast taking the proportions of a mushroom cloud, yet a ‘terror’ that has an ideal somewhere in the background. The pseudo-Hobbesean idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ is too mocking an argument. It is not ‘mere anarchy let loose’, but the fallout of violence once triggered by an ideal, maybe even now distantly triggered. Its waste is massive, not simply in its victims but in its ever-increasing human instruments. The fidayeen cannot be a casual recruit, a volunteer without choice, but a suicide answering an idealist call.

We shudder at the double waste. A certain righteousness reigns over the ideal. Thomas Mann’s dialogue between the frenzied cleric Savonarola and the liberal bourgeois hero of the Italian ‘Renaissance’ Lorenzo di Medici in Fiorenza (1906), amply illustrates that. So does Tagore’s Gora and Binoy’s dialogue in a different context pending Gora’s transformation. Tagore has an earlier play called Mâlinî (1896) where this comes through Kshemajkar’s allegiance to Sanatan Dharma and his friend Supriya’s growing attraction to Buddhism. In view of the enormous waste laid today that is eventually traceable to some ideal, what would Gandhi have done? Fast unto death? And Tagore? Write a sequel to Châr Adhyây? Reading Gandhi’s autobiography and the Gandhi-Tagore correspondence4 one would perhaps be persuaded to that assumption, though it is most likely that his ‘unto death’ would be foiled by a human bomb. And Rabindranath’s ‘sequel’ will produce ten times the critique the original had to go through, and perhaps from many more quarters. Tagore’s famous song—‘jadi tor dâk shune keu nâ âse, tabe eklâ chalo re’ (‘if none joins you at your call, then go ahead by yourself’)—would not only be addressed to Gandhi but would also be self-addressed.

Today’s civil society that feels hemmed in on all sides would do well to go back to them again and again. Even though they had respectful difference on a number of things, on one thing they wholeheartedly agreed: the human spirit will survive all wasteful blindness. Châr Adhyây was Tagore’s last novel. It came out in 1934, the year of my birth. Hence perhaps this licence, violating all critical modicum and putting together a personal essay, for which I beg forgiveness of whoever reads it.

(Acknowledgements: Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, Sourin Bhattacharya, Moinak Biswas, Pranab Biswas, Amlan Datta, Swapan Majumdar, and Rajiv Gandhi University where it was initially presented at a conference in 2007)

REFERENCES 1. Rabîndra-Rachanâbalî (Collected Works of Rabindranath Tagore), Vol. 8 (Kolkata: Government of West Bengal, 1986), p. 514, trans. Julius J. Lipner, in Brahmabandhab Upadhyay: The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 379.

2. Ibid. Subsequent translations including those from the Gîtâ are mine.

3. See Surya Sen, ‘Bijayâ’, reproduced. In Bhâßâbandhan, Vol. 4, No. 11 (November 2006), pp. 5-7.

4. The Mahatma and the Poet, ed. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (New Delhi: National Book Trust, India, 1997).

Amiya Dev is former Vice-Chancellor, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal. He has edited the Science, Literature and Aesthetics, Volume XV, Part 3 of the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture.

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