A Writer with a Social Purpose
Prof. K. VENKATA REDDY
THE PERIOD IMMEDIATELY preceding the attainment of independence was one of struggle, suffering and hope, and the period following it has witnessed unexpected trials and tribulations, but, in spite of them, valiant efforts have been made to create a new order. Bhabani Bhattacharya, who passed away in October, 1988, is one of the foremost among Indian writers who have dealt with these epoch-making events. In the death of Bhattacharya India has lost one of the best writers of fiction who was at once a realist and a visionary, an artist and a propagandist with his genuine concern for society, his passionate plea for the synthesis of modern and traditional values, and, above all, his positive affirmation of life.
Though born in the same decade of the twentieth century in which Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao were born, Bhabani Bhattacharya arrived rather late on the literary scene. Yet, he has caught up with his contemporaries and enriched Indian fiction in English and has earned for himself his rightful place as a world-class writer. A man of multitudinous interests, he has made his mark not only as a novelist but also as a translator, creative historian, biographer and as a short story writer.
Born on the 10th of November, 1906 in Bhagalpur (Bihar) to Promotho and Kiranbala Bhattacharya, Bhabani Bhattacharya belonged to a well-to-do and educated family. He had his schooling at Puri and joined Patna University for his undergraduate studies. After his Bachelor’s degree with Honours in English Literature in 1927, he left for England to study at the University of London. After taking his Ph.D. degree in History, he returned to India in December, 1934. His marriage with Salila Mukherji in 1935 proved to be a boon to his literary career. He became in 1950 Press Attache to the Embassy of India in America where he spent the rest of his life as an active creative writer. He was appointed a Visiting Professor in 1971 in the University of Hawaii where he wrote his last novel, A Dream in Hawaii.
Happily, Bhabani Bhattacharya was heir to the cultural riches of two worlds – East and West. As a writer, he was greatly influenced by Tagore and Gandhi as well as by Shakespeare and Steinbeck. If Bhattacharya’s deep interest in Gandhiji is evidenced in his book, Gandhi the Writer (1969), the profound impress of Gurudev on him is revealed indirectly in his novels and directly in his two translations of Tagore’s stories and articles The Golden Boat (1932) and Towards Universal Man (1961). Some of the other writers who had impact on him were Marx, Ibsen, Shaw, Whitman and Sinclair Lewis. Throughout his years in London, he was close to the Marxist group and became an active member of the Marxist-associated League Against Imperialism, among whose noted leaders was Jawaharlal Nehru.
We have in Bhabani Bhattacharya a sincere writer with a serious, social purpose. He declared:
I hold that a novel must have a social purpose. It must place before the reader something from the society’s point of view.
He openly disapproved of the purposeless art, and literature. He believes not in “Art for arts sake” but in “Art for life’s sake”. He promulgated:
Art must teach, but unobtrusively, by its vivid interpretation of life. Art must preach, but only by virtue of its being vehicle of truth. If that is propaganda, there is no need to eschew the word.
So, according to Bhattacharya an artist has every right to plead and to work for a better world provided his commitment to a cause does not impair the value of his art as art. His fictional theory and practice show his affinity with Mulk Raj Anand.
If Anand is a revolutionary social realist, Bhattacharya is a reformist social realist. His novels, naturally, deal with social, political, economic and religious problems of the country. His art being purposive, the novel in his hands becomes an instrument of social change. He has, however, succeeded in his attempt to bring about a harmonious fusion of his social concerns and artistic values.
Bhattacharya’s first novel, So Many Hungers (1947), originated from his profound response to the Indian situation in 1942-43 during which, he felt, the soul of India underwent a sudden development through a multi-dimensional experience. Set against the background of the Quit India movement and the Bengal famine, the novel deals with the theme of exploitation – political, economic and social. The “So Many Hungers” are those for political freedom, for money, for food, for sex and for human dignity. The novel deals with many things that are depressing, but still it is not a depressing book. On the one hand is the panorama of men and women emaciated by hunger and in rags, but on the other, we have glimpses into the hearts and souls of human beings and find therein abundant love, purity, strength and hope. The novel is a moving and impressive work of art.
Bhattacharya’s second novel, Music for Mohini (1952), is a forward-looking one in which the author dwells on certain sociological aspects of Indian life. It is the story of Mohini, “a city-bred, village-wed girl” and her adjustment to her new life-style. The novelist makes an attempt to connect our old Eastern view of life with the new Semi-Western outlook, an attempt to wed the “horoscope” with the “microscope”.
Bhattacharya’s third novel, He Who Rides a Tiger (1955) reverts to the theme, of the Bengal hungers. It tells the story of Kalo, a poor blacksmith, who, jailed for stealing a bunch of bananas, vows revenge on society. It highlights the growing protest in the country, the protest against economic exploitation and casteism. The dissociation of sensibility that has set in Music for Mohini is aggravated in He Who Rides a Tiger, and the strategy of fantasy that the author uses for riding the tiger of social purposiveness takes him nearer to R. K. Narayan’s The Guide.
Bhattacharya’s next novel, A Goddess Named Gold (1960), awakens the people to social, political and national responsibilities. Exploiting the techniques of allegory and symbolism, the novelist warns the people against profiteers and capitalists, amulets and magic formulas to solve social problems and suggests that only real acts of kindness and generosity can bring about the national good.
Shadow from Ladakh (1967), Bhattacharya’s fifth novel and winner pf the Sahitya Akademi award for 1967, is set against the background of the Chinese aggression against India in October, 1962. The novel allegorizes Bhattacharya’s final vision of the regeneration of India by describing the conflict between Gandhigram and Steeltown, symbolizing the opposing ideals of soul power versus armed power, asceticism versus full-blooded satisfaction of life’s urges, and village economy versus large scale industrialism. The novelist approves the use of modern technology for the well-being of individuals and society, yet without divorcing spiritual values.
In his last and most distinct novel, A Dream in Hawaii (1978), Bhattacharya extends his vision beyond the problems of India to the problems of the sick Western civilization of today. The novel analyses these problems by juxtaposing the values of spiritual India with those of the permissive society in America. Bhattacharya scores a fresh triumph in this novel by breaking new ground in structural vitality and striking a right balance of the sensuous and the sublime thereby investing it with a deeper philosophical, cultural and social significance.
Bhattacharya’s other writings, The Golden Boat and Towards Universal Man, which are collections of stories, essays or articles by Tagore translated into English, bear witness to his ability and skill as a translator. Indian Cavalcade (1948), a collection of episodes from Indian History, displays his descriptive power, vivid portrayal of character and dramatic ta1cnt. In Gandhi, the Writer we gain fresh insights into Gandhi as we view his character through a prism of views.
The most successful of Bhattacharya’s works, other than the novels, is Steel Hawk and Other Stories (1968), a collection of fifteen short stories. The stories show considerable variety of theme and tone ranging from light-hearted comedy to sombre tragedy, from nights of sheer fancy to the keen observation of facts and from a study of monkey’s mind to the exploration of the depths of the human soul.
To conclude, Bhabani Bhattacharya is a novelist with a highly developed social consciousness. With the exception of Mulk Raj Anand, he is the only Indian novelist writing in English who has made a conscious effort in artistically highlighting the problems of the poor, and in eradicating superstitions, blind beliefs, taboos and other unwholesome aspects of rural society. He has also artistically expressed his opposition to the exploitation in the name of religion and caste. He has successfully exposed in terms of fictional art the perpetration of cruelty and injustice on the rural masses. At the same time, he has taken every care to project a positive affirmation of life in everyone of his novels.
Bhattacharya’s achievement as a novelist lies not only in the choice and handling of themes, manipulation of plot, narrative technique and art of characterization but also in moulding the English language to suit his artistic purpose. He shaped the English language as a suitable medium to convey Indian sensibility by giving it a flavour of the soil, a touch of the vernacular and by making it distinctly Indian even if it has a foreign make.
Bhabani Bhattacharya, however, is more than an Indian writer of note. With his novels translated into as many as twenty-six foreign languages, he has already emerged as a world class novelist. The English editions of his novels have been published abroad and are being read throughout the English-speaking world. These translations are an ample proof of the universal appeal of Bhattacharya’s work. The main reason for this universal appeal lies in the archetypal motifs that Bhattacharya has objectified in his fiction. The most dominant of these motifs is the quest motif which lies at the centre of all great literatures.