One of the greatest novelists of India who gave the people the sacred ‘mantra’- ‘Vande Mataram.’ The Bengali Novel practically began with him. He also wrote philosophical works, which stimulated independent thinking.
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was born on 27th June 1838 in the village Knathalpara of the 24 Paraganas District of Bengal. He belonged to a family of Brahmins. The family was well known for the performance of yangas (sacrifices). Bankim Chandra’s father Yadav Chandra Chattopadhyaya was in government service. In the very year of his son’s birth he went to Midnapur as Deputy Collector. Bankim Chandra’s mother was a pious, good and affectionate lady. The word ‘Bankim Chandra’ means in Bengali ‘the moon on the second day of the bright fortnight’. The moon in the bright half of the month grows and fills out day by day. Bankim Chandra’s parents probably wished that the honor of their family should grow from strength to strength through this child, and therefore called him Bankim Chandra. Bankim Chandra’s education began in Midnapur. Even as a boy he was exceptionally brilliant. He learnt the entire alphabet in one day. Elders wondered at this marvel. For a long time Bankim Chandra’s intelligence was the talk of the town. Whenever they came across a very intelligent student, teachers of Midnapur would exclaim, “Ah, there is another Bankim Chandra in the making”.
Bankim Chandra finished his early education at Midnapur. He joined the Mahasin College at Hoogly and studied there for six years. Even there he was known for his brilliance. His teachers were all admiration for his intelligence. With the greatest ease Bankim Chandra passed his examinations in the first class and won many prizes. He was not very enthusiastic about sports. But he was not a student who was glued to his textbooks. Much of his leisure was spent in reading books other than his texts. He was very much interested in the study of Sanskrit. He would read and understand Sanskrit books on his own. He was struck by the beauty of that language. Bankim Chandra’s study of Sanskrit stood him in good stead. Later when he wrote books in Bengali this background of Sanskrit was of great help to him. There was no set rule for his study of books. It was enough that a particular book attracted his attention. He would pore over it for hours on end in some corner of the college library. He used to spend most of the academic year in this way, reading books other than his texts. And as the examinations drew near he would race through the texts. But it made no difference for, as usual, he would pass in the first class, and win prizes. And then again he would keep away from texts.
In 1856 he joined the Presidency College in Calcutta. The next Year, in 1857, soldiers of the Indian army rose in mutiny; the mutiny was bid to gain freedom. Calcutta was all confusion during this time. But Bankim Chandra’s studies went on as usual. He sat for the B.A. Examination along with eleven candidates. Both Bankim Chandra and his friend Yadunath Bose passed. The Lieutenant Governor of Calcutta appointed Bankim Chandra as Deputy Collector in the same year. We may recall that his father Yadav Chandra had also rendered service as Deputy Collector. According to his father’s wishes Bankim Chandra accepted the appointment. He was then twenty years old. Having developed an interest in the study of Law he got through effortlessly in the B.L. Degree examination, too.
Bankim Chandra was appointed Deputy Magistrate. He was in Government service for thirty-two years and retired in 1891. He was a very conscientious worker. Most of his officers were Englishmen. They were a proud lot for they were the ruling power of this country. Bankim Chandra never submitted to their proud, unjust or stubborn behavior. He worked hard and with integrity. Yet he never got the high position that he so much deserved! Bankim Chandra would never sacrifice justice or self-respect. The arrogance of the white men never frightened him. When he was a Deputy Magistrate there was a superior officer named Munro, who was the Commissioner (the head of the province). Bankim Chandra met Munro near Eden Garden once. A British officer in those days expected any subordinate Indian official to show him respects by bowing modestly before him. But Bankim Chandra just walked past Munro. Munro was enraged. He transferred Bankim Chandra to a different place. There were many such incidents during his service. His self respecting behavior angered the British officer. As a result he was often transferred from place to place and much harassed.
His official career was full of such troubles. There were also some unhappy incidents in his personal life. Bankim Chandra was married when he was only eleven and his wife was five years old! Within a year or two of his appointment as a Deputy Collector at Jessore he lost his wife. Bankim Chandra was only twenty two then. The death of his young and beautiful wife made him very unhappy. After some time he married again. His second wife was Rajlakshmi Devi. They had three daughters but no son. Bankim Chandra’s youngest daughter Utpala kumari is said to have committed suicide. When he was in Jessore, Bankim Chandra met a person by name Dinabandhu Mitra. He was a renowned Bengali dramatist of the time. They became close friends. Bankim Chandra dedicated his ‘Anandamath’ to the memory of his dead friend Dinabandhu Mitra.
In due course Bankim Chandra emerged as a great writer in Bengali. He wrote novels and poems. He wrote articles, which stimulated impartial thinking. He became well known outside Bengal too. His novels have been translated into many Indian languages.
Bankim Chandra first wrote poems. Then he wrote a novel in English. But after this he began to write novels in Bengali. He wrote while still in service. Because of constant pinpricks he grew weary of service. He felt that government service curbed his freedom and challenged his self respect. So he asked for permission to retire, though he was only fifty three years old. But his superior officers were displeased with him. So they would not even allow him to retire. When a new Lieutenant Governor, Charles Eliot by name, was posted, Bankim Chandra approached him. He told him that he wished to write books and needed leisure. “I would like to retire. Please allow me to do so,” he requested Eliot. He agreed. At last Bankim Chandra was free. He was retired on a pension of four hundred rupees a month. When Bankim Chandra retired he was eager to write many books. But he was not able to devote many years to writing on a large scale. His health soon declined and he died in 1894 when he was only fifty six.
Bankim Chandra was a very refined person. Rabindranath Tagore, the world famous poet of India, has related an incident about Bankim Chandra. There was a gathering. People were talking in groups. One of them was reading Sanskrit verses composed by him. Bankim was standing nearby. The subject of the composition was patriotism. As the poet read, he made a remark making fun of Indians in poverty. When Bankim heard the remark he covered his face and left the place at once. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, one of the great sons of India, and Bankim Chandra were acquaintances. The word ‘Bankim’ also means ‘that which is bent’. Sri Ramakrishna once jokingly asked Bankim Chandra, “What is it that has bent you?” “The kick of the Englishman’s shoe,” Bankim replied. Sri Ramakrishna was acquainted with Bankim Chandra’s historical novels, too. When Swami Vivekananda was still known as Narendranath, Sri Ramakrishna had sent him to Bankim Chandra.
Bankim Chandra had founded a journal called ‘Vangadarshan’. ‘Anandamath’ appeared in installments in this monthly journal. In 1882 it appeared in book form. Soon the copies were sold out and the book was reprinted. During Bankim Chandra’s lifetime alone, in ten years ‘Anandamatha’ was reprinted five times. Readers found reading a Bankim Chandra’s novel an altogether knew kind of experience. The people of Bengal were fascinated by his novels. When the novels were translated into other Indian languages they delighted the new readers too. Bankim is regarded as one of Bengal’s treasures; this was because of his novels. Bankim Chandra had give thought to the question of a writer’s style. A novelist tells a story. How should he write? His language must be the language of the people – language they can understand; he must write as they speak, thought Bankim Chandra. He wrote in that manner. Though his language was close to the spoken form of his day, it was attractive. The Bengali language acquired a new dignity because of his writings.
Bankim wrote fifteen novels in all. ‘Durgeshanandhini’,’Kapalkundala,”Mrinalini,’ ‘Chandrashekar’ and ‘Rajsingha’ are well known for their interesting stories. ‘Anandamatha’, ‘Devi Chowdhurani’ and ‘Seethararn’ are based on the history of our land. Bankim was a keen observer of the life of the people around him; and he used to reflect deeply on what was right and what was wrong in the social life of his day. ‘Vishavriksha’, ‘Indira’, ‘Yugalanguriya’, ‘Radharani’, ‘Rajani’, and ‘Krishna kanter Will’ – these reflect the good and the bad in society.
Undoubtedly Bankim Chandra’s most famous novel is ‘Anandamatha.’ But he wrote several other novels which delighted the readers. One of them is ‘Durgeshanandini’. As was said earlier, Bankim wrote novels about the people around him. One such novel was ‘Vishavriksha’. This was Bankim’s first social novel. ‘Vishavriksha’ means the poisonous tree. The tree of poison of this novel represents the anger and the desire for comfort found in every man. This tree grows within anybody. If the mind is firm the tree cannot grow there. It grows when the mind is weak. Several of his novels like ‘Kapalkundala’ and ‘Devi Choudhurani’ have been very popular.
Bankim Chandra struck a new path in the realm of novels. Until then a novel was generally a cock and bull story, full of unbelievable incidents. ‘Durgeshanandini’ broke this tradition. It began a new trend. The story by itself was very interesting. At the same time it was about persons like us – good persons and bad persons, short tempered persons and patient persons. Moreover what happened to the characters, who prospered and who suffered was no longer the most important thing to the reader. He began to ask himself: why did this happen this way? Who was right? Who was wrong?’ People no longer read novels just to kill time. In addition to entertainment the novels taught people to think objectively.
The other notable contribution by Bankim Chandra is, of course, ‘Vande Mataram.’ It became the sacred battle cry of freedom fighters. It became such a source of inspiration that the British officers were enraged at the very mention of this. People were sent to prison just because they sung this song. ‘Vande Mataram’ has an honored place in independent India. It keeps bright in the hearts of the people the ideal of dedication to our country.
Bankim Chandra’s novels made him famous. But he has also written excellent books which are not novels. ‘Krishna Charitra’, ‘Dharmatattva’ (Philosophy of Religion), ‘Devatattva’ (Principle of Divinity) and a commentary on ‘Srimadbhagavadgeetha’ are some of his other books. He wrote articles on Hinduism both in English and in Bengali. He had deeply studied choice books in English.
Bankim Chandra worked in the field of journalism too. Those were the days of few journals. He felt that there was need for a journal offering variety of reading material. The periodical should, of course, publish stories and novels, but it should publish articles on modern science; it should also include articles, which stimulate thinking. So in April 1872 he brought out the first issue of ‘Vangadarshan’. In the very first issue of ‘Vangadarshan’ Bankim wrote: “I have no ill feeling towards either English or Englishmen…….. It is very good to study English as much as possible (but) pure silver is better than gilt brass. A true Bengali is better than one who poses as an Englishman ……. Bengal will not progress as long as educated people and scholars do not express themselves in Bengali.”
Thus one of the aims of Bankim was to interest people in science and in the problems of the progress of their society and their country. It was a time when educated Indians spoke only English instead of their own language. So Bankim Chandra wanted to foster the love of the Bengali language in the educated Bengalis, and to make them share their knowledge with others through their language. This was his second aim.
Rabindranath Tagore has said that ‘Vangadarshan’ was like the first rains of the month of Ashadhr. This month of the Indian calendar falls in June-July. Its first rains bring a new liveliness to nature. ‘Vangadarshan’ created such a liveliness in Bengal. People eagerly looked forward to its issues. Besides, ‘Vangadarshan’ made possible the publication of numerous stories, poems, novels, plays and articles of criticism; it also paved the way for later journals.