Sarat Chatterji’s ‘Shesh Prashna’
BY KALIPADA MUKHERJEE
Dr. Sarat Chandra Chatterji’s1 novels are all the rage even now; yet some of these have come in for much adverse criticism from the orthodox section of our critics. His Shesh Prashna (The Last Question) has quite recently been parodied and cartooned in Shesh Shraddha (the Last Funeral Ceremony). That it created a sensation when published is due to the fact that in it the renowned novelist is alleged to have assailed all the highly cherished traditions of the Hindus, religious and social, and specially that of marriage and the fidelity of married love. The ideas are, it has been said, borrowed from western writers; and these have been expressed through characters specially created to give vent to them. This desire of the writer to expose the hollowness of everything held sacred, and the poignancy of his attack, have eclipsed his powers as an artist and have vitiated his style with an affectation and a mannerism from which it is wholly free in some of his best-known novels.
We shall see whether these charges are well-founded; and so we give a resume of the beginning of the story and a description of the characters, for readers who are not familiar with the novel.
The story opens at Agra where many Bengali families live, some settled for generations, others still in rented houses. Many tourists come and go; nobody takes any notice of them. But now came a man with his accomplished daughter Monorama, a full-blown beauty, who created a sensation in the city. Ashutosh Gupta was immensely rich. He came with a large retinue and filled every nook and corner of an old manor at an extremity of the city. The Bengali residents were impressed not so much with the wealth of Ashu Babu or the beauty and attainments of Monorama, as with the fine traits of Ashu Babu: his manners did not in any way smack of superciliousness.
Ashu Babu went of himself to all, introduced himself as their common guest, who had come to Agra to recover his health. Monorama introduced herself to the women and pleased all. Then followed a round of festivities and musical evenings for a week. Ashu Babu’s car was all along at the service of the invited guests. Nobody questioned whether their host was a Hindu or a Brahmo; but all could understand that Ashu Babu was not orthodox and was free from all narrowness.
Prof. Abinash Babu’s house was a favourite resort of all the Bengali Professors of Agra College. On a holiday, when they were all enjoying chess there, in came Ashu Babu with his daughter and invited them to a musical soiree and supper in his house. He invited all the women too.
The musical party brings into the story Shibanath Babu, a great singer with an enthralling voice, who was once a Professor of Agra College. But, he had been compelled to resign his post through the machinations of his Bengali Colleagues. Ashu Babu had discovered him in the train on his way to Agra from Tundla, and invited him to sing at the party. When he said that he had engaged a great singer, the Professors felt greatly interested; and when they were taken into Ashu Babu’s drawing-room, they saw before them a man slightly black in complexion, but handsome beyond measure, straight-limbed and faultless in features. One is startled directly one sees him. He was about thirty-two, but appeared much younger. He was talking with Monorama, seated on a front sofa.
The Professors were all appreciative of the songs of Shibanath Babu; but his great enemy was Akshoy Babu, Professor of History, who always rubbed men up the wrong Way. He was a hard, practical man and had the reputation of being a purist who deemed it a weakness to appreciate music. He looked upon himself as the custodian of the morals of all around him. He began to decry the singer and at once asserted that the song was not at all lively.
The song that Shibanath sang was really marvelous; it was sung with a full soul, and in accordance with the musical canons prevailing in India. All remained silent; only the old musician Amir Khan said: "I have never heard such a song." Monorama herself had practised music from infancy, was skilful in singing, and had heard many excellent songs. But she never knew that one’s heart vibrates in sympathy with a song, that a song can strike a chord in all hearts! She had never heard such a glorious voice: she was, so to say, thrilled to death. Her great eyes filled with tears, and she left the room only to hide them.
Abinash Babu said: "Shibanath is not easily persuaded to sing; but we have heard him sing before now. He has infinitely improved within a year or so. That’s matchless." Haren Babu agreed, and Ashu Babu was overjoyed. But Akshoy Babu, against all opposition, broke out into a fury of language, and said that he deemed it his duty to divulge everything regarding Shibanath, as he had returned to Agra and was associating intimately with a gentleman’s family of which Miss Monorama was a member.
In the conversation that followed, Akshoy Babu exposed Shibanath, and let all know how he had deprived the widow and children of his friend of their rightful share in his friend’s business in stone, and also how he had married Kamal for her beauty, after putting away his first wife, who, to his mind, had already grown old at about thirty, owing to continued illness.
KAMAL, THE HEROINE
A week had passed: and it had been raining for two days. Ashu Babu was in his arm-chair; his daughter came in dressed for the usual evening drive. Monorama alone went out. When she returned she found to her surprise Shibanath Babu talking with her father. Shibanath stood up, paid his respects to her and asked how far she had driven that day. She made no reply, simply bent her head a little, and in great derision turned back. She asked her father how he liked the story he had been reading.
She had a great aversion for Shibanath from the day she learnt that he was a rake and a drunkard. She openly told her father that she did not like his entertaining a guest who was a profligate, though an artist of a high order. Shibanath, who heard everything from another room, suddenly begged to be allowed to go out, though it was raining at the time. Ashu Babu only said: "How can you go out in the rain?" Shibanath replied: "Let it rain. It is not much." He suddenly turned round and addressing Monorama said:
"What I have heard by chance, is due to my good fortune and misfortune too. You need not be shamefaced; I am used to this sort of rebuke. Yet, I know that though you said those words regarding me, you did not intend to do so in my hearing. You are certainly not so cruel as that."
He told Ashu Babu that he had no secret motive in frequenting his house, as was supposed by the Professors. If he liked his songs, he would only be too glad to entertain him at his own house if he would care to go there. With this he went out before father and daughter could give any reply.
Ashu Babu ordered the servant to take away the tea that had been made for Shibanath. He began pacing the room, when he caught sight of someone standing under a tree. The next moment he found that a woman too was standing there. He told his servant to see who they were, and to call in both of them.
In came the woman, all fragrant youth and beauty, the rainwater dripping from her black tresses down her rosy cheeks. Both father and daughter looked at her face in infinite surprise. Ashu Babu, though not a poet, could know that it was beauty like hers which had been compared appropriately by ancient poets to lotuses washed with dew. He could not make out how these two persons, Shibanath and Kamal, so unique in grace and charm, had found each other and been blessed with union. Thus did Kamal make her first appearance, to be the most engaging and interesting character in the novel. (P. 23, Chapter III.)
The first conversation between Kamal and Ashu Babu and others begins in Chap. V. The occasion is a visit to the Tajmahal. The time is afternoon. Ashu Babu, Monorama, and his prospective son-in-law Ajit, all had come; all the Professors, though they had seen the Taj ad nauseam, had assembled in the adjoining garden. Monorama said:
"That won’t do, father; you must accompany me. Half the glory of the Taj will remain hidden from my eyes, if I do not see it through yours. Nobody knows the real nature of the thing; most people know only what is superficial."
Abinash who knew how genuine Ashu Babu’s love for his dead wife was, understood the meaning of the words. Now, suddenly, Shibanath and his wife Kamal came upon them by the east of the Taj. Ashu Babu cried out: "When did you come, Shibanath Babu? Please come this way."
Both came forward. By way of introduction, Ashu Babu said: "She is Shibanath Babu’s wife. I do not as yet know your name, madam."
She said: "My name is Kamal, sir. But, please do not show me so much respect in your addressing me."
"Kamal, is this the first time that you are seeing the Taj?"
"Then you must be fortunate; but Ajit is more fortunate still, as he will see this most wonderful thing now. But light is fading fast, You must make haste, Ajit."
"Well, Kamal, how did the Taj strike you?" asked Ashu Babu.
"It seemed really marvelous."
But before their eyes was a living wonder–the wonder of Kamal’s beauty casting into the shade even the Taj.
Monorama would not see the Taj except with her father, And Kamal asked, "Why?" She asked Ashu Babu, "Are you an aesthete? Do you know all the canons of aesthetics?"
Ashu Babu, in great joy, replied:
"I know nothing, Far from being a specialist, I do not know even the rudiments of aesthetics. I do not see the Taj from the point of view of aesthetics, Kamal. I see Emperor Shah Jehan–I see his boundless pain permeating the marble through and through. I see his devoted love for his wife, the love that has brought into existence this poem in marble and made him immortal."
Kamal scanned his face and said:
"But, I have heard he had many other Begums, The Emperor loved Mamtaj just as he loved some others. His love for her may have been greater, but I cannot call that love ‘devoted,’ He had nothing like that in him,"
This cruel and unexpected remark startled all, Neither Ashu Babu nor anyone else present could find a reply, Kamal continued:
"The Emperor was a visionary, a poet; he combined his power, his wealth, and his patience to build a great object of beauty. Mamtaj was a mere pretext. He could have raised such a building on any occasion. It would make no difference if the occasion was a religious one or one of victory. This was not a gift of love, but one from the joyful heart of the Emperor. That should be sufficient for all of us."
Ashu Babu felt a pang in his heart. He nodded again and again, and said:
"That is not enough, Kamal; no, by no means. If what you say were true, then this great mausoleum would be left without any significance; Shah Jehan might have created an object of great beauty, but that would not have commanded the respect of man as it has done."
"If it could not, then it must be due to the foolishness of man. I do not mean that faith has no value, but the value that man has set upon it for ages, is not its due. It is neither a healthy nor a fine trait of mind that refuses to change its love, because of some one that it has once loved. …..Man cannot bear the blow aimed at his deep-rooted superstitions. But this is natural to me. I am all full of youth, in body as in mind: my mind has a life of its own. The day on which I shall know that it has lost the power to change, will be the day of its death."
In the next chapter, we find Abinash Babu pointing out Ashu Babu to Kamal and saying:
"Let us drop the topic of the Tajmahal now; but let us look at Ashu Babu. He was very rich, he had no lack of friends and relatives; but he could not even think that he could set anyone else on the pedestal on which he had set his wife. That was beyond his wildest imaginings. Tell me, how very high this ideal of love is."
"Ashu Babu once loved his wife. But that wife is now no more. He has nothing more to give her, nothing else to get from her. He can make her neither happy nor miserable. The object of love is gone forever; now, the idea that he had loved her once, alone lives. I cannot see what high ideal there is in thinking the past alone as true in utter disregard of the present."
Ashu Babu again felt the sting of her words and said:
"But this is the be-all of the widows of our country...their one last great possession. The husbands die, but, their memory alone keeps them on the path of purity and rectitude. Don’t you admit this?"
Kamal: No, I do not. Only a big name does not make anything really big. Rather say that this is the custom followed by the widows here,–say that people have cheated them all along by glorifying a falsehood as the truth. This I will not deny.
Abinash: Even if that were true, would you not impute purity to the lives of our widows?
Kamal laughed and said:
"This also is nothing but a high-sounding word. Self-control is a word which has been held in regard for long, and so much boosted that people bow down their heads, directly it is uttered. But I aver that in certain circumstances this also is nothing but an empty sound. I hesitate to regard as pure the self-evident idea of purity which is associated with the widows living with the memory of their husbands."
Abinash Babu looked blank for some time as he could not find a reply; and then said to Akshoy Babu, "What do you say to this?" Akshoy said to Kamal: "It seems you do not admit that two and two make four if it is not proved."
Kamal did not reply, nor did she feel angered, but just laughed. And though Akshoy Babu was wounded most of all, he also remained silent. Akshoy added: "Such ideas do not belong to civilised society, and are not current there." Kamal said: "I too do not forget that such ideas do not find favour in gentlemanly society." All remained silent for a while. Then Ashu Babu said: "One further question I ask you, Kamal. I do not like to talk on purity or impurity. But what do you say of one who by nature cannot go out of his path? I cannot even imagine how to place anyone in the void left by the mother of Moni."
Kamal: But you have grown old, Ashu Babu.
Ashu Babu: I admit that I am old; but I was not so at the time. But I could not even think of this then.
Kamal: Even then you had grown old–though not in body, in mind certainly. There are some who are born with senile minds. Under the dominion of that mind their perverted youth remains for ever bent down with shame. The senile mind thinks it to be composure, peace, and the essence of man’s wisdom.
All thought that they should give a sharp retort; they felt greatly perturbed over this shameless hymn sung in praise of rampant youth. But they were at sixes and sevens about the matter, and had lost the power of thinking clearly. Then Ashu Babu asked: "What sort of mind do you call old, Kamal? Let me compare mine with your description of it and see whether mine is truly so."
Kamal: I call that the old age of the mind that looks only to, and likes to live complacently in, the past and gives up all hope in the future. The present is dead and meaningless to it, the past is everything, its joy as well as its sorrow, its only capital which it spends as long as it remains on earth.
Ashu Babu smiled and said: "In time, I shall certainly compare and see."
The above conversations give a picture of the mind of Kamal, the revolutionary. She remains such to the end of the novel.
Towards the end of Chapter V, we find that the spell of Kamal’s beauty was upon Ajit at first sight, as he was gazing at her alluring loveliness with eyes full of fire, and Monorama was trying to divert his attention from it, asking him to accompany her to see the Taj. Kamal tells the unvarnished tale of her life to Ajit on page 101. Her mother was for the first time married to a Baidya; but owing to some evil rumour, her husband had to take her to a tea plantation in Assam. But within a few months, he died of fever. Kamal was born three years after this, in the house of the European Manager of the tea plantation. She was thus the off-spring of an European father and a Bengali mother. She learnt the job of a nurse while there. She was married to an Assamese Christian who died very soon. Her father too died shortly afterwards. An uncle of Shibanath was the Head Clerk there. He had no wife: so he gave Kamal’s mother shelter. Kamal also had to live in his house, and became used to only one meal a day.
Kamal’s father was a Christian, but she had no faith in any so-called religion. Freedom was as the breath of her nostrils. She felt greatly relieved when she married Shibanath according to the Shaiva form of marriage which did not make their marriage indissoluble. So, when after she had companioned him with her beauty for some time, her husband left her without her knowledge, she did not complain, nor did she rise in repugnance against him, as she thought that what was quite natural had come. She knew from the beginning that her husband had been cultivating Monorama ever since he began entertaining her father with his songs. But she herself had been eagerly desiring to win Ajit Babu. She once forced him to a long joy-drive on a lonely road, at night, sitting beside Ajit who was himself driving, simply because she could then enjoy a talk with him. She did not think that danger looms in the offing when man and maid meet and talk together without any chaperonage. She never, on principle, deviated from the course of life she had chalked out for herself. For ten days, as we read on page 323, she lived with an old acquaintance, an Anglo-Indian Railway Official at Tundla, who had not long ago become a widower. She looked upon pleasure as everything in life; and believed only in wedlock that is based on love and not on any sacrament.
From chapters XII and XIV, we know how keen Kamal’s self-respect was. Deserted by her husband, she lived by herself, in a small way. She had learnt knitting as a means of keeping herself in case of necessity. She declined the indirect help offered her by Ajit. She did not like to live on anyone’s mercy. She told Ajit frankly that she could have accepted his help, if he had requested her as a friend to do so.
Towards the end we find that, even after her desertion by her husband, Kamal goes to nurse him, not out of love but out of pity. She reminded him of his faulty ways of life and did not allow her scamp of a husband to call her his wife any more, though he tried to mend matters. On page 374, Kamal analyses the character of Shibanath while talking with Ashu Babu, thus:
"From the day I understood his character well, I gave up all remorse, all compunction. My heart has been at ease since that day. Shibanath is an artist, an aesthete. Love everlasting is an obstacle in the way of the artists, an obstruction to their nature, an impediment in the way of their life. This this what I meant to say before the Taj. Women are merely pretexts: for, really artists are in love with themselves. Their short-lived play goes on when they divide their selves into two: then, when the play is over, music becomes variegated in their throats. For, otherwise, their throats would not be so sweet, would certainly dry up. I am sure he has not cheated Moni; she herself has been charmed by him. The colours that blow against clouds at gloaming are short-lived: yet, who can say that those borrowed colours have no truth in them?"
Ashu Babu passed his youth as a student in England. He was a Barrister, a Doctor of Laws, as his daughter says on page 69. He was a great landowner too. And this was why he never practised as a lawyer. His wife was a pious and saintly character, a chaste Hindu wife, whose memory of devotion and love he cherished to the end of his days. After her death he never married, his chief concern being his only child Monorama who was his daughter, companion and friend. But this daughter, being misguided by Shibanath Babu, eloped with him, to Ashu Babu’s utter regret and remorse. He felt it very keenly; and when his daughter begged him to bless their union, his rage knew no bounds. He felt greatly humiliated and wept bitter tears at her sad lot; yet, at once decided to disinherit her. But Kamal intervened, and advised him not to take such an extreme step. He told her of the dark future of his daughter, when she also might be deserted by Shibanath. But Kamal said that in that case also, there would be no cause for unhappiness, as Monorama would be greatly profited by experience. Ashu Babu instituted a comparison between love-marriages and marriages that are arranged by parents. He showed that love-marriages also break up leading to divorce; but the Hindu marriage is never-ending, indissoluble. But Kamal still upheld love-marriages; she would like to see her paradise lost: she would live with its sweet memory and a sea of pain beside it. She referred to emancipation in Europe with regard to the release of children from the power of the pater familias, and said that if wives are some day released, they would be released by men like him. At last Ashu Babu forgave his daughter and blessed her that she might find herself through suffering, and resigned her to God. But he decided to go away to England and visit once more the scenes of his youth, and see his old friends whom he had promised to see again.
He had known previously, as it appears on page 368, that the widow Nilima had fallen in love with him. But he could not return her love, as he was passionately devoted to the memory of his departed wife. He admitted to Kamal that he had known by then that the love of husband and wife is only one side of love, which has other sides also. And he respected the love of Nilima for him. He said that he had never doubted that devoted love was not the true ideal of man, He did not doubt the love of Nilima; but for him it was only as true as his own rejection of it, He was sorry the love of Nilima was misplaced. He thought that her future life would be unbearable to her, as she had erred so grievously, But Kamala was yet optimistic about her; and thought she might yet love somebody else and be happy, though Ashu Babu could not believe in any such thing for a woman like Nilima. She said: "At least, it is not impossible. Did you ever think of any such thing in your own life? Do you pray that she should spend the rest of her life in fruitless disappointment, only with the memory of what she did not and could never hope to get?"
This made Ashu Babu pale. He said: "No; I do not.’ After a pause he continued:
"But, you cannot understand my meaning, Kamal. Our angles of vision, our views of life and truth are diametrically opposed. Those who regard this life as the end cannot but drink up the last drop of water for slaking their thirst. But we who believe in re-birth, who have eternity to wait for, do not see the necessity of sucking happiness like an orange,"
Yet, Kamal said:
"But I have no patience to wait for a future life, in the hope of visionary gains, with folded palms at the doors of Providence. The life which is easily understood is the only true one, the only great one for me...."
Later on, on page 375, we find Kamal saying to Ashu Babu:
"Rather, please leave this blessing for Moni, that she may find herself through misery. What is evanescent will drop off; and then she may realise her true self, I should like to add that marriage must be reckoned as only one among many other events in the world. From that day has begun the greatest tragedy in the lives of women, on which you have taken marriage to be the be-all of a woman’s existence. My last request is that you should save your daughter from the shackles of that falsehood." 2
(To be Concluded)
1The Dacca University has recently conferred a Doctorate on him.
2On page 278, we hear Kamal saying to Ajit, "Marriage is durable; but it is lacking in joy." She had previously, on page 273. said to him, "Come along with me, please, to the other room. You need not fear me. I do not belong to the class of women who look upon themselves as objects of men’s enjoyment."