‘The child was born seven months and ten days after conception. Stifling in the secret recess of his mother’s womb, the little mass forged ahead, before his time, from darkness to light’
It is with these lines that the acclaimed Bengali novel ‘Sei Somay’ by Sunil Gangopadhyay begins. I read the translated version ‘Those Days’ published by Penguin a few days ago.
The novel is set in the mid-19th century, a time when the leaders of the Bengal Renaissance- Keshab Chandra Sen, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Deenabandhu Mitra, etc. were either in their formative years or had just arrived on the scene. Society at this time was at its lowest. Baseless superstition and religion had gripped all sections of society like a tumour. The rich Hindu men, while keeping up their public appearance of piety intact in the day, indulged in wine and women throughout the night. The poor in the urban areas were at the mercy of the rich, who they only received if their caste was acceptable. The ryots from the villages were suffering from the blow of Permanent Settlement and were forced to grow indigo, which ruined their fields.
The women, however, had the worst lives. In a time where feminism and equality were as unapproachable as homosexuality had been in the early 20th century, women were dishonoured, exploited, and worst of all, indoctrinated that it was their destiny to live such woeful and wretched lives. This was the time of polygyny, of child marriage, a time where women were not allowed to be educated beyond a certain level, a time where little girls, no older than eight years became widows and spent the entirety of their lives closed away from the joys of life.
The British, held in high regard by the natives at that time, for they had established the prestigious Hindu College which churned out half-educated clerks every year but provided employment to the natives, gave lengthy speeches about reform, but shrank away at the thought of funding any reform activity.
There was, however, a small section in the society, that comprised both the British and natives, who aimed at true reform, who aimed at bettering the lives of women, at educating them. They comprised Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, John English Bethune, followers of Derozio, and many more. There was also the newly emerging Brahmo Samaj- a committee formed by Debendranth Thakur, which for a majority of time stood on the borderline of being an extension of Hinduism, until its champion Keshab Chandra Sen stood up.
The book is remarkable in many ways. Right from the start, I felt a humane connection with this book. There was something about it that enamoured me, and for the first time in many months, made me emotionally connect with the written material. I felt this connection while I was reading, and felt confident I would figure it out when I finished. Yet, though it has been many hours since I read the conclusive last page, I am still in the dark. Perhaps it is the language, which is simple and easy to comprehend, but has in its subtext, complex emotions. Perhaps it is the characters, of whom I have often heard from my grandfather, and feel a connection with. I feel like this connection can’t be boiled down to a single aspect, because there are so many. The book, holistically, is special to me.
The book has no overarching plot. It deals with many characters and families from this era- some true, some invented, some who existed in real life, but all fitting the mantle of members of the dystopian Bengal, and in a way, the land we would go on to call India. The plot, broken into two volumes each being about 230 pages long, describes in gruelling detail the gradual onset of the Bengal Renaissance, the backlash it suffered, and how it would go on to impact the country in ways hitherto unknown.
An optimist would recognize the book as one detailing the past, and how human society has recovered. It is, however, a warning. By depicting the Social Darwinist society of the past, Sunil Gangopadhyay warned future generations of the lows society can sink to, and how it is their responsibility to uphold humanity. That responsibility falls on us, Gen Z now. In times of increasing dissent and violence, is it really a stretch for society to go back to its older ways unless kept in check? The answer eludes me.
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