As a young student trying to understand the first chapter of ‘Anandamath’ in her Bengali literature course book, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s writings were a source of fear and awe. One of the very first men in India to write novels, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, had an undeniable impact as a literary figure during the Bengal Renaissance. He was also the first writer to modernise Bengali fiction — he made the language more accessible to the contemporary masses, even if it does seem more Sanskritized and difficult as compared to the colloquial Bengali we speak today.
Once I overcame the fear of reading Bankim Chandra’s novels and could satisfactorily understand his heavy writing, I realised that his works were indeed epic. They are fantastical stories weaving together history, adventure, thrill, suspense, action, and perhaps most importantly, romance.
Most of the major works of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay feature women characters as protagonists and further as the heroines of the story. From the dacoit leader Devi Chaudhurani to the brave bride Kapalkundala — and hence, on the week of his birth anniversary, it is worth revisiting some of the women protagonists written by Bankim Chandra.
In his historical adventure novel ‘Durgeshnandini’, Bankim Chandra introduces a love triangle between Jagat Singh, Tilottoma, and Ayesha. Although Ayesha falls in love with Jagat Singh, she realises that a Rajput prince could never marry her, and she helps him and Tilottoma escape from her father’s clutches and get married. Interestingly, Ayesha’s selfless and kind nature is contrasted with that of her father, the rebel Pathan leader Katlu Khan. In what could be understood as a stereotypical portrayal of Muslim rulers, Ayesha has to save Tilottoma from being violated by her father as well.
‘Devi Chaudhurani’ sees the mild-mannered Prafulla who turns into the fierce and revered leader of the dacoits under the guidance of Bhabani Pathak. The novel starts with Prafulla being denied entry to her husband’s home by her father-in-law. After her mother dies, Prafulla is lost and does not know where to turn till she comes across fierce dacoit Bhabani Pathak. Pathak takes her under his tutelage and teaches her how to fight till she becomes a menace to the British soldiers themselves.
Keeping with the strong anti-colonial theme of the novel, Devi Chadhurani and her band of dacoits manage to defeat the British soldiers and even rescue her husband and father-in-law! However, the novel ends in a very contradictory manner as Prafulla gets married to her husband once again under a new identity. Thus, readers see the novel about a fearsome woman dacoit leader end with her blissfully married to her husband (along with his two other wives) and happily doing her domestic chores.
For a feminist reader in the 21st century, the novel ends in a decidedly non-feminist fashion as we would rather appreciate a Prafulla who keeps terrorising the British soldiers till old age. However, keeping with his own times, Bankim Chandra turns Devi Chaudhurani back into Prafulla and gives her a happy ending in the form of a reunion with her husband. Perhaps, this ending might reinforce the fact that Prafulla never seems to have a remarkable or strong personality that stands out in the novel. Rather, it is her tutor Bhabani Pathak who stands out due to his ascetic-like attitude and strict discipline while training Prafulla to become a dacoit, regardless of her gender or sex.
In contrast to some of his other novels like ‘Rajsingha’ or ‘Durgeshnandini’, the novel ‘Indira’ is not an epic, historical tale. ‘Indira’ follows the eponymous protagonist whose journey to her husband’s home for the first time faces an abrupt halt as they are robbed by dacoits in the woods. Indira does not know her husband’s address or village and is guided by kind strangers (none of whom seem to harm her or cause any malice) until she reaches Kolkata and is hired as a cook in an elite family. The rest of the story is one of domestic harmony, some well-intentioned conflicts and a daring step taken by Indira as the author discovers an ingenious way to restore her to her husband.
Since Indira had gotten married to her husband as a child, both husband and wife could not recognise each other. In order to prove her real identity to her husband and also ensure that he does not discard her doubting her chastity, Indira first goes to him and willingly takes up the position of his mistress — thereby securing his love and affection. It is only with time that her husband realises that his mistress is none other than his wife, and they happily live together.
Although Bankim had restored Indira’s ascertained patriarchial reputation and dignity through the convenience of marital bonds, the decision to pretend to be her husband’s lover was not a step that many contemporary heroines took. The novel also shines because of its portrayal of the ‘andarmahal’ or the inner quarters of an elite household that the women controlled.
The affectionate friendship between Indira and her employer Shubhashini stands out, as do their free (and often ribald) jokes and heartfelt conversations — that almost make the reader wonder how a man could write them. These two young women are also seen resisting the conventions and rules laid down by the old cook or the mother-in-law in their own quiet ways.
‘Kapalkundala’ is another novel named after its woman protagonist. Kapalkundala is the foster daughter of a tantric sage who saves a young man named Nabakumar from being sacrificed by her father. Here again, it is the heroine who bravely saves the hero from ill fate through her cunning and spontaneous action. Nabakumar falls in love with the woman who saved him, marries her and renames her as Mrinmoyee. However, Kapalkundala could never live up to her new fate as Mrinmoyee as she started to feel stifled by the contemporary norms and conventions of an urban, elite household — something she never had to face as a free spirit in the woods.
In addition to that, her father and Nabakumar’s first wife manipulate Nabakumar into thinking that she is unfaithful to him, and that causes him to lose his trust in Kapalkundala and her love. Even though he realises his mistake and begs for forgiveness, the novel ends on a seemingly tragic note as Kapalkundala drowns herself in the sea. While her drowning can be seen as a sad end to her life, critics have argued that this was also Kapalkundala’s own way of escaping the contemporary world that was not ready to accept her spirit and her boundless existence.
Any article about Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novels or his woman protagonists would remain incomplete without a critical discussion of ‘Anandamath’ — where the nation itself becomes a woman and a mother.
Inspired by the stories of Sannyasi rebellion in the Bengal province, ‘Anandamath’ is about a sect of militant ascetics who set out to fight with the common enemy — the prevalent Muslim rulers of Bengal. The first chapter starts with a clear and distressing recollection of the Bengal famine of 1770 that affected around three crore people in the region. After the famine, crime has taken over the region, and the rates of taxation are higher than ever.
In such a scenario, husband and wife Mahendra and Kalyani are separated from each other while travelling toward the city. Both are rescued by Bhabananda, who brings them to his abode or ‘math’ and reveals the ideals of his militant sect. In a clearly evocative scene where the nation becomes equated with Hindu goddesses, Bhabananda presents three idols to Mahendra.
The first is an idol of Jagaddhatri, who symbolises what the ‘mother’ or the nation used to be — rich, fertile, and beautiful. Next, Mahendra sees the idol of a fierce Kali, who is dark, unadorned, and naked. The idol of Kali represented what the nation had become because of the tyrannical rule of the Muslims, and only with the brave actions of her devotees could the nation turn into the third idol of goddess Durga.
Goddess Durga is chosen as the future as she is the perfect amalgamation of a warrior and a mother — she nurtures her children but also protects them from harm. In ‘Anandamath’, the threat of harm is presented by the Muslims, reflecting the author’s own biases and prejudices. Thus, the rallying cry of ‘Bande Mataram’ is not just a war cry to defend the nation but is left open to appropriation by communal Hindu nationalistic forces as well.
As opposed to Kalyani, who is portrayed to be weak, the novel also has another heroine named Shanti. Shanti was abandoned by her husband, who left to join the sect. However, she follows her husband and joins the sect by pretending to be a boy. She learns to fight alongside her husband and, at the end of the novel, accepts the life of an ascetic — a distinct trait compared to Bankim’s other married protagonists.
Even though all of Bankim Chandra’s heroines are stunningly beautiful (his flowery prose describes their beauty in great detail), they are all multi-layered and nuanced characters with their own journeys and, more importantly, adventures. The stories are entertaining as well as complex depictions of womanhood at a time in Bengal when women were confined to their homes all their lives.
Featured image source: Times Of India