Chandrabati: Tragic love in old Bengal
|Gaura Nitai the other night.|
I generally have secondary reading material lying around, stuff that is meant more for entertainment and distraction than anything else. Nevertheless, I generally speaking keep an open mind and betwixt and between I also don't mind cross-fertilizing my brain with books that often fall into my hands serendipitously. Bizarre as that may seem.
I remember once when I was living in Nabadwip and I was invited to a small village on the Katwa-Burdwan medium-gauge line. It was not a particularly prosperous village. I had several friends on that line, including Shambhu Narayan Ghoshal, one of the most colorful personalities in the Vaishnava world I ever met. Srikhanda and Jajigram are on that line, close to Katwa, but these villages were further.
The bhakta who invited me was once an ordinary man, but then he cured a couple of people in the village -- brahmins, and he wasn't one -- of leprosy, by chanting the Holy Name. Then he had become a pakka Vaishnava, even though he was not a deeply learned person. Nevertheless, when I came to his village, I happened to be reading a novel by Tara Shankar, one of West Bengal's most famous writers. He could not quite believe it, "Apnar mon anya-dike jay na? Bhoy korchen na? You aren't afraid your mind will get diverted from God?"
I remember how much insight I was getting into the real world of modern life in Calcutta through that book. But the reading of the novel itself grew out of a necessity to situate myself in this world, this palimpsest of a world -- India -- of which I was clutching to one part, which had become for me the central core of that world. And just like one thing cannot exist without its setting, I needed to at least see a little of that surrounding backdrop to understand that central core. One without the other seemed like a point adrift in space.
Once I was on the train from Howrah to Nabadwip, and in one of the early stations, a young hawker selling muri-masla was giving his spiel, "I have a B.Sc. and I can't get a job, so here I am, your over-qualified muri-masla guy!"
Tara Shankar described a similar young graduate whose life consisted of studying general knowledge questions so he could compete in mass public examinations, where a hundred thousand people like himself aspired for five or ten jobs. In one dramatic scene, after unsuccessfully undergoing one more humiliation of the sort, he berates a well-dressed young, gainful-employed man and starts asking him pointless questions of general knowledge, "What is the capital of Burkina Faso? Who wrote Cry the Beloved Country? What is the average temperature of Outer Mongolia? You don't know? Why do you have a job and I not?" That was Bengal in the economic doldrums of the 60s.
India is the context of bhakti, and India is legion. So bhakti in India has thousands of reference points. Our little corner of bhakti has three centers, and each of those is a world unto itself -- Nabadwip, Puri and Braj. And those three worlds are nestled within other worlds, each a snapshot of manifestations of the one human story. And within which is situated my story. The "Krishna-East" story of my life, if you like.
* * * * *
The two books I read are complementary and yet quite different. One takes place in the pre-British time in Mymensingh district on the north central part of Bangla Desh. The other is about Draupadi, but I will talk about that one later.
The first is Śāṅkh Sindūr (written in Hindi, शांख सिन्दूर) by Ramanath Tripathi, and translated into English as "Conch-Bangles and Vermilion." Unfortunately, I read this in the rather inadequate English translation. An attestation on the back cover acclaims it as "one of the greatest post-Independence Hindi novels."
The book was written in 1973, not long after the war of East Pakistan, which was characterized by genocidal anti-Hindu pogroms in Bangla Desh, perpetrated mostly by the West Pakistani soldiers, who automatically considered all Hindus part of the rebel side. They slaughtered them mercilessly, causing a mass exodus to India in the north and west, which ultimately led Indira Gandhi to intervene by declaring war. The tremendous tectonic shifts set in motion by Indian independence once again sent tremors through the world in new waves of horror, and once again with Muslims taking a leading role in the butchery.
When I first came to India in 1975, the residual traces on West Bengal -- Nabadwip is just fifty kilometers from the Bangla Desh border -- were very much in evidence, in the train stations and wherever else the refugees gathered, including our Iskcon temple.
Though "Conch Bangles" has no immediate relation to the times in which it was written, it is not hard to detect the trauma of the Bangla Desh independence struggle infusing the creative urge that produced it. Tripathi is a Hindu from the Doab heartland. His main life's work has been to retell the stories of the Rāmāyaṇa, which has appeared in a multitude of reincarnations in the vernaculars of India. It is probably by doing research on the Rāmāyaṇa that he came across Chandrabati's story in the first place, for she was the first woman to write the story of Sita and Rama in Bengal.
Chandrabati's story had become the stuff of legend, sung in ballads and especially given a full account in Nayanchand's Candrabatīra Carita. It is thus to be expected that there will be Muslim villains. Nevertheless, if Tripathi is to be believed, he created more Muslim characters for his novel in order to show some nuance to the village society of rural Bengal in the 17th century -- rather than just the faceless, nameless, dreaded Kazi -- nevertheless, General Tikka Khan, the Butcher of Bangla Desh, has his doppelganger in this story.
Her dates are uncertain, but it seems that the pre-British period (i.e. 17th century) is most likely. 16th seems I'll have to get myself a copy in the original Bengali and check it out.
The real reason I got interested in this story is because it is a tragic love story; but one that reflects a sad reality, another chapter in Hindu-Muslim relations. Tripathi, like every author, has played with the themes to make the story his own, perhaps making unreliable historical assumptions, but on the whole there is an air of authenticity to the writing, sparse novella style though it may be, and the ambience that he creates.
Chandrabati's father was Vanshi Das Bhattacharji, a wandering minstrel, a brahmin who sang Manasā Maṅgala, stories about the snake goddess, Manasā. In a country where death by snakebite is a common occurrence, a goddess who rules the snakes is one you want on your side. The maṅgala genre of songs served as both entertainment and religious proselytization. Moreover, Chandrabati wrote one pālā, i.e., the telling of stories through song, about how Vanshi Das converted a bloodthirsty dacoit, Kenaram, with his glorifications of the goddess Manasā.
|Kali Ghat school, 19th century.|
But Jayachandra lives some distance away, and he is also getting lustier by the day. One day, he is sitting in a tree near the women's bathing ghat and there sees a beautiful girl with her wet sari glued to her body, her breasts exposed. And he starts to also woo her with poems written on palm leaves left for her at the ghat. Sometimes he would play a flute from a hidden spot, awakening her curiosity, but stopping before she could discover him.
What he does not realize at first is that the girl, Ashamani, is Muslim. But, in Tripathi's version (apparently the original characterizes her as "the daughter of the Kazi"), she is the daughter of a Muslim, Fakir Chand, whose grandfather was born a Brahmin but forcibly converted. The man is barely a Muslim at all, and the doctrines he espouses sound more like those of the Bauls, who have both Hindu and Muslim manifestations. He plays the ektara and makes fun of religious fanaticism and the narrowness of vision of both Muslims and Hindus, though his sympathies lie with the more gentle Hindu people.
Ashamani's cousin Abdullah works for the Kazi as a kind of religious enforcer. He has "real Muslim blood"; his Bengali is mixed with more Persian and Arabic. He terrorizes Hindus and Muslims alike. The orthodox Muslims are wary of people like Ashamani's father, and on guard against any behaviors that are not according to the Sharia. There is a running joke that South Asian Muslims decide their behavioral rules by first finding out what Hindus do, and then do the opposite. But it has been a recurring feature of Islamic history in this part of the world, to first convert and then gradually enforce a tightening of social discipline.
Fakir Chand says to his nephew, ""
Abdullah and his gang are forever setting fire to villages, raping and pillaging and so on, for whatever apostasies they can find or imagine: Muslims who along with the Koran listen to stories of Sita and Rama, who sing songs of Hindu-Muslim unity.
One day, Abdullah finds one of Jayachandra's poems to Ashamani and takes the opportunity to forcibly convert him to Islam and make him marry the girl. And, in a great dramatic flourish, this happens on the very day that Jayachandra was to be wed to Chandra. The humiliation is so great that even though other suitors immediately come forth willing to take her as their wife, Chandra decides to remain unmarried and dedicate herself to writing her "woman's" Rāmāyaṇa.
Jayachandra on the other hand, finds himself in a predicament where his personal culture and education as a brahmin are all despised and held in contempt in his new surroundings... except for his father-in-law, who is also an afficionado of Meghadūta and Gīta-govinda. But they are a kind of tenuous and fearful underground, constantly wary of being discovered. In the circumstances, Jayachandra's relationship with Ashamani quickly starts to sour. She is attracted to her powerful and cruel cousin and Jaya even suspects her of sleeping with him. Eventually, the situation becomes so desperate for him that he begins writing to Chandrabati. Not because he expects to be able to ever repair what has been broken, but only to ask forgiveness for his foolish error.
I mistook a venomous snake for a garland
and I draped it round my neck.
I drank poison, mistaking it for nectar.
I took the haunted sheora tree for holy basil,
I worshiped it. In air and water I only find poison.
Only once I crave to see your charming eyes,
to hear your honey voice. Only once to wash
your delicate red feet with my tears.
One last time I wish to see you, after which
I can leave the world in peace.
He goes to Chandrabati's village, but as a pure Hindu she refuses to meet with him, for he is now tainted and untouchable, though she hears his message as he speaks from outside the walls of the temple where she is writing her book. In hopeless despair, Jayachandra drowns himself in the Phuleshwari River. Chandra, too, as she is washing the temple to purify it of the Muslim's touch, faints and in her grief gives up the ghost. Amongst her possessions are found the conch bangles that Jayachandra had sent her on the day they were to be married, as well as the three manuscripts, including the unfinished Rāmāyaṇa.
The flute-playing of a lusty boy while girls are bathing is a recognizable trope for anyone who knows anything about Krishna. Although Tripathi describes the exchange of poetry and Jayachandra's wooing of both Chandrabati and Ashamani in sweet romantic terms, we know the former relation is pure, the latter one of lust. But the social situation is such, worse even than that of feuding Montagues and Capulets, that even the slightest error is fatal. Once the line has been crossed and one ceases to be a Hindu, there is no going back. It is easy to become a Muslim, impossible to escape being one. It is impossible to become a Hindu, and once it is gone, it is impossible to recover. "Flowers, once used, cannot be offered to the deity."
One Muslim asks Vanshidas about how he could become a Hindu again, and he is told that the only way is to become a Vaishnava, a "Pirali Brahmin." I had never heard this term before. The story that Tripathi tells is exactly that of Subuddhi Raya as told in Chaitanya Charitamrita, though the Wikipedia article does not make reference to that incident. So eventually, he goes to Vrindavan to become free of the social bondage of his community, and when things deteriorate further, Ashamani also decides to follow him.
Tripathi tells the story well, though it is written without elaborate description. It is evocative of the Bengal of green rice fields, clear rivers, cow dung and bamboo villages nestled amongst mango trees, and a Hinduism that is characterized as a romantic and poetic culture. But this idyllic natural world is simultaneously and incommodiously juxtaposed to the dangers of bandits like Kenaram and fanatics like Abdullah, both equally merciless and capricious. Burning villages and floating corpses seem to be a recurring nightmare in the midst of Bengal's beautiful panoramas.
In response to Abdullah's reprimand when he hears him singing a Baul song, Fakir Chand says,
Look, son, this is the land of Bengal, not Arabia. Here we have palm trees, but also areca and plantain, jackfruit and hijala too. Coconut trees raise their heads, topped by garlands of juice filled nuts. We have fragrant flowered mango trees filled with cooing koils. Here the earth is juicy, and so are the ideas. Here there are neither barren deserts nor a life philosophy thirsty for blood and water. Like our sweet fruits, our religions and creeds are also sweet. If the Koran is popular, then so is the Purana. If we have Allahji, so too we have Ramaji.Abdullah calls him senile and reminds him that his protection is the thin line that keeps at bay the threat of repercussions.
As with all tragic love stories, Fate is the ruler. But here, at least, Jayachandra is the architect of his own misfortune: Lust is the villain. But the moral is that there really is no forgiveness for infidelity in the quest for pure love. There is only one Radha, and she will -- in fact -- only give Krishna one second chance.
And the perilous condition of Hindus in Bangla Desh continues unabated: "Do Hindus have a future in Bangal Desh? See also on this blog, The Ahimsa Heritage and More thoughts on Islam and Bangla Desh,