The award-winning author of The Mendicant Prince gets candid with Dhaka Courier
There are many eminent and prolific writers in the entire Indian subcontinent, especially in different states of India, who love and admire the greater Bengal as a collective unit in history. The history of this area fascinates the world with so many aspects and elements: its enchanting literature and culture, the significant periods and the tales surrounding many of Bengal's prominent rulers, and most importantly - the rulers themselves. The partition of the Indian subcontinent and the greater Bengal surely has detached many from their own motherland and directed the migrants to adopt a new home with new rituals and culture, and then there are some prolific litterateurs who kept their identity unharmed.
World-famous Indian writer Aruna Chakravarti has been one of the names representing the above-mentioned category of literary pioneers, known for her critically acclaimed bestsellers narrating the interesting incidents of Bengal through her unique style of storytelling. The principal of a prestigious women's college at Delhi University for ten years, she is a renowned academic, creative writer, and translator with 17 published books on record. With her maiden novel, 'The Inheritors' - she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. A recipient of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award, along with others, she is well known for her own works, and an extensive repertoire of translations that include the works of Tagore. Among the various awards she has received are Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, and Sarat Puraskar. Her books have been published by Penguin Random House and HarperCollins.
A recurring and well-admired face in the past editions of Dhaka Lit Fest, Aruna Chakrabarti visited Bangladesh in recent times to join this year's DLF, to participate in two sessions. Literary enthusiasts were enthralled with her narrative on writing historic accounts in her signature semi-fictional style. In a candid session with Dhaka Courier and associated with prominent writer-reviewer Raana Haider during her recent visit in the country, Aruna Chakravarti shared how she came up with the interesting story of the Bhawal Sanyasi case. Before jumping into the source of her inspiration, let's dive into the actual incident first.
'The Mendicant Prince', thoroughly researched and analyzed during the historic and challenging lockdown periods of the Covid-19 pandemic, was published in 2022. With a new twist to the much talked about incident of the Bhawal Sanyasi case in the province now known as Bangladesh and one of the longest cases ever fought during the British Raj, Professor Aruna Chakravarti, while maintaining factual accuracy, rewrites the history through her unique semi-fictional approach by giving a voice to the women of the era who were neither strongly addressed, nor written about before. Published by Pan Macmillan India, the book has been the centerpiece of interest for history enthusiasts as it revisits the tale of Ramendranarayan Roy aka the Mejo Kumar, the second Prince of Bhawal who was sent to Darjeeling for treatment but died there and was cremated there under mysterious circumstances before returning years later as a wandering ascetic with partial amnesia. Identified by his subjects and some of his family members, he became the center of attention once again - years after his notorious lifestyle which gifted him the illness. The infamous court struggled to restore him to his position as the head of state, despite the wishes of his wife, Mejo Rani, who opposed that claim and insisted the man was an impersonator. 16 years after the District Court of Dhaka began hearing the case, the Privy Council in London issued a ruling in 1946, confirming the claimant as the Raja of Bhawal. The history is familiar to many due to its narrative portrayal in different formats of literature such as some other books and a number of films. To Aruna Chakravarti, however - the story came differently.
"In 1946, the Privy Council declared the Sanyasi who came and claimed to be the 'Prince' was not an imposter. I heard the story in 1951 and that kind of stayed with me, for years and years, decades and decades. And of course, I have been reminded of it in between, and some films have been made on the incident including 'Sanyasi Raja' (1975), and 'Ek Je Chhilo Raja' (2018). So I watched these films, but never thought about writing about the incident."
"What happened was that I have some friends, who are distant relatives of the Bhawals. So they started insisting that I should consider writing on this, as I have then written three fictional family histories, and even the maiden one was on my own family ('The Inheritors', 2004). The rest of the two were 'Jorasanko' (2013) and 'Daughters of Jorasanko' (2016)."
Explaining her growing interest further, Chakravarti continued: "The Bhawal stories are very interesting family stories - because they were about the members of the family, so they (my friends) told me that you should write about these, we will supply you with a lot of materials - though I did not get much. Yet I cheered and kept insisting they share whatever they can track down from their memory lanes - but I could not really get much out of it. Then I started reading - I started reading books, and a lot of articles that have appeared in Bangladeshi journals and newspapers, searched the web, and finally, was able to gather a handful of facts. Partha Chatterjee's book 'A Princely Impostor?' was also a great help for me in this project."
Just as the famous quote says "With great power comes great responsibilities" - the thought that ran through her head was: "The facts are all here and people know about it." Now that I have those facts, even while I was connecting those facts. What could I possibly write that would be different? Why am I retelling the tales once more? I should at least try a little harder and also think - should I tell the story through the voices of different people, rather than one linear narrative?"
"So that is why, I thought that yes, that is a possibility. I realized there is no point in writing just a few factual stories because everyone knows them already, so let's make it semi-fictional and let me see it, the whole episode, through the eyes of the women who were obviously impacted by this event but about whom nothing is ever written at all except that they are someone's wives. So I thought of giving it a new point of view and then I thought that would be an interesting fact. All my works are gender-centric, even when I translate identity-based works, which have women at the center for women's issues being the center. So then I thought, this would work in both ways - it would side-channel my own feelings and thoughts about women and their issues and dilemmas in a certain way, and also it would help the story get different perspectives and become more complex."
When asked about her maiden fiction 'The Inheritors', DC asked if this was also historical fiction. "Yes, you can call it a biographical fiction because it is about the family, my own parental family, my ancestors and their stories," Aruna Chakravarti said; "And that was also more about the women - the lives they lived during those times, being the wives to the kind of people that they were. My ancestors - in fact, one of the questions that were asked me once, was how difficult is it to write about your ancestors? Because obviously, you don't want to say everything. So how do you decide what to say and what not? So my answer was, see my ancestors were extremely poor - they lived in a small village in 24 Parganas, and they were Sanskrit Pandits, the scholars of Sanskrit. And it was a long line of scholars - the founder of the family was an eminent Sanskrit scholar called Sri Krishna Tarka Panchanan - at that time no degrees were given but only titles, like 'Tarka Panchanan', 'Tarka Ratna', 'Bidya Rotno', etc. So this Sri Krishna Tarka Panchanan was his neighbour and his (Tarka Panchanan) son, his grandson - it was a long line of Sanskrit scholars. They were very poor, they were very deprived, and they were often also humiliated because of their poverty and lack of material possessions - but they were proud of their education, scholarships, etc. For them, education was everything. So I said that I am proud of my lineage - and I don't have anything to hide. So this is all about 'The Inheritors', my first book."
"After that came 'Jorasanko', again - a very iconic family, so glamorous and literate with so many personalities, but under these, I found a lot of darkness. I found the women lived very very difficult lives. Their problem was complicated as well, as they all came from rather poorer families and they were Brahmins as well, and then there were spiritual Brahmins, and they could not find their own status. So they brought girls from very poor families and all - those cute little girls - literally children - would come from small and obscured villages and suddenly they are in the huge mansions, and they completely got to be disoriented, almost practically disoriented. Another problem was that Debendranath believed in educating women, so he insisted on his daughters and daughters-in-law receiving education. But he was a man of many contradictions - on one hand, he wanted to educate women, on the other hand, he wanted to keep them confined. So that would have been so difficult for the women to accept. If you get brought up in a mindless way, you do not expect anything - but once you are educated and again get pushed back, then things can get different. So there were all those difficulties and dilemmas which these women suffered, which I wanted to explore. So this was more than a historical novel, rather I would say it was more of a biographical novel or a bio fiction."
When asked about her overall interest in Bengal based on her body of works and whether it is particularly the history of Bengal or the women of Bengal, she said, "I have never lived in Bengal. I was born in Delhi, my parents moved to Delhi in the 1930s prior to independence. However, my father believed that independence was around the corner and the children, the first generation of independent India who would be the first doctors-lawyers-academics and so on - needed a very good ground in English, as it would obviously be used as the main language. So we were sent to public schools, convents, etc. This is how English became my first language. That being said, both of my parents were influenced by the Bengal Renaissance and its aftermath, and they were passionately involved with Bengal. They felt that they should know their roots. So we were taught the fundamentals of Bangla; we were encouraged to read lots of books, taught Rabindra Sangeet, and told about all the great aspects and achievements of Bengal - so we ended up having a kind of dual identity. One was our cosmopolitan Indian identity, on the other hand - a strong Bengali identity was also cultivated. I have not read Bangla in any institutions but through books, and through the process, Bengal became more important than India to me, through my love of reading, history, music, architecture, literature, and so on. That is why I began my writing with translation, then I pursued creative writing."
"About the women of Bengal, my curiosity was about women as their description, their voices, and stories were missing in the stories that we were told. I always thought, weren't their great women in history? I then read and discovered many many great women who contributed a lot to society and developed it. Eventually, I had to narrow down my focus, which ended up with Tagore women."
"My translations of Rabindranath Tagore or Sunil actually helped my creative writing in Bangla. I just recently visited the Joydebpur palace but I frequently visited Bangladesh for the Dhaka Lit Fest over the years, never really staying more than 5-6 days. However, I read a lot of Bangla and Bangladesh. The book of author Prafulla Roy on refugee life, such as 'Keya Patar Nauko' and there are four books by this writer, all are amazing examples of refugee literature."
Concluding the conversation besides mentioning several of the cultural ties between states like Lucknow and West Bengal and Bangladesh, as well as religious and cultural ties between the people in the subcontinent - Aruna Chakravarti said that her love for Bengal is deeply rooted. "I have a very emotional and imaginative journey with Bangladesh - not because of my living here, but through the readings, the literature, the culture."
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