From this year IIPM has introduced an award in the name of Rabindranath Tagore to mark his 150th birth anniversary. For writing in the mother tongue of Tagore, this award goes to Sri Ramapada Chaudhuri for his classic novel—Banpalashir Padabali.
Ramapada Chaudhuri is the author of more than 100 short stories and about 50 novels . He has received a number of literary awards and honours. Some of them are –The Rabindra Puroskar of the West Bengal Govt, Sahitya Academi Award, Jagattarini Gold Medal of the University of Calcutta , and the honour for the highest literary achievement , the D.Litt,Honoris Causa from the University of Burdwan .
But to date, many readers of literature, especially those who are not familiar with the Bengali language and its literature, have not yet read this novel, though his short stories have been translated into English and have found a wider readership. One of his novels too has been translated into English.
Banpalashir Padabali is a stunningly vibrant and intensely human work that serves to reaffirm his reputation as a master story-teller in the Bengali language.
In the very first decade after the Independence of India, the old way of life and society began to show cracks and began to yield to the new order, and it is this breakdown of the old order and the rise of a new order that forms the backdrop of the story of a typical village in Bengal. The writer has put the story within a time frame. It starts with the return of Girijaprasad- a son of the soil, who had been serving as the headmaster of a school in the town of Deoghar. After retirement he came back to the village with his wife, younger son and two daughters in the hope of finding shelter and solace in his roots. But after coming back, he realizes through his daily interactions and petty clashes that there is a gap between him and the villagers, even with his younger brother and childhood friends. His financial, cultural and social status has created a distance which cannot be bridged and it becomes very difficult for him to continue living in the village any more. He realizes that he and his family had imperceptibly become misfits . So even before spending the second Durga Puja he leaves the village with a heavy heart to live with his elder son who had been doing well in the railway services and residing in a railway colony.
Within this time frame of Girijaprasad’s return to the village and leaving the village, we find numerous characters like Attama, Kalimohan,Abanimohan,Girindra Prasad, his wife Mohanpurer bou (named such as she had come from mohanpur) Tiya, war veteran,crutch –bearing Dr. Abinash, childhood friend Banshi, Gopen morol ,Gosain didi, canvasser Damu Pal, Renudi, Ranga Bou, Udas, Padmo, Lakshimani, BDO Prabhakar, field labourer Nale Bauri, etc. These characters – some prominent, some not so prominent have been woven into the body of the novel with such ease that it lends the novel a rich texture naturally.
Although all these characters are active within this time frame if one of them is to be marked as a central character then it has to be Attama. There was a time when the railway line had not come up to Katwa which was later to become the nearest rail station of Banpalashi, when ordinary people traveled in camel driven carts and the affluent in palanquins and horses, when men married more than once for dowry. The life of today is in contrast to that life .Now if you own more than 25 acres of land your excess land will become state property ,now the Hindu Marriage Act has been passed by which men cannot marry more than once while the wife is alive, now the high tension cables of DVC are carrying electricity to the remote towns and villages but not yet to Banpalashi. Now a cluster of villages form a Block and the BDOs are seen driving through the villages in Govt.jeeps ostensibly to improve the life of the village community. If we compare these two different worlds - the past and the present, then we find that Attama’s life is moving to and fro with the regularity of a swinging pendulum.
All the events of this epic novel center around the life of Attama – a symbol of eternity who was born here, got married here and was destined to die here. She is the link between the apparently unconnected , diverse and unique events that had taken place even before Girijaprasad’s return to the village and of course during his stay as well. It is pertinent to mention here that Attama speaks in a voice that embodies age-old wisdom in the form of idioms and rhymes.
Her own life story is also unique. Today’s readers of the novel might find her way of upholding the archaic rural values at the cost of her personal happiness a little absurd and meaningless. When Girijaprasad came to live in the village Attama had secretly requested him to bury her body in Calcutta beside her husband’s grave. Naturally the reader gets curious to know the truth behind this strange request. The writer discloses the mystery bit by bit. Her husband Brajamohan, the younger son of an orthodox Brahmin family, had gone to Calcutta to acquire a modern education. Out of his love for his wife, Ashtabhuja, and the influence of modern thought, he refuses to marry a second time for dowry and for this he is condemned by his family and his village. In disgust he embraces Christianity and asks his wife to accompany him to Calcutta. But in order to uphold the honour of her husband’s family and the elder brother-in-law Kalimohan, she refused to comply. She spends her life in her husband’s family albeit without her husband. In course of time Ashtabhuja became everyone’s Attama. In her later years, from time to time she feels the urge to be buried by the side of her husband . It was this wish that she had expressed to Girijaprasad two years back when Girijaprasad had returned to the village. But when Girijaprasad comes to bid farewell to Attama before leaving the village again, she expresses her last wish to him that she wants to breathe her last and be cremated here by the riverside.
At the beginning of the story we find Girijaprasad – once regarded as the worthy son of the village of Banpalashi—returning to his roots. He has successfully worked as a headmaster in a school in Deoghar town. The people of the village guess that he must have amassed a lot of money. Hence they look forward eagerly to his return. But his brother Girindra and his wife Mohanpurer bou harboured an anxiety in their minds because all this time they had been enjoying the ancestral property . Now with the return of Girija prasad the situation was about to change . Girijaprasad would naturally claim his share of the property.
It is interesting that she has always been referred to as Mohanpurer bou i.e a girl from Mohanpur who got married to Girindra of Banpalashi. Apart from being the wife of Girindra there was no need for her to have a personal identity . Hence the author did not feel it necessary to mention her name .
At first Girijaprasad and his wife Nivanani shared the same kitchen with Girindra and his wife as members of a traditional joint family. But gradually some of the urban habits and ways of Nivanani and her daughters, Bimala and Kamala, met with the disapproval of Mohanpurer bou as well as many of the villagers. On the other hand Girin felt that Girija was paying less than he should for the joint household expenses in spite of his affluence and as such began to harbour a resentment against his elder brother. Simultaneously, Nivanani detected a lot of narrowness characteristic of a village society and personal selfishness in the behaviour of Mohanpurer bou. At first they began to have their tea separately . Then they separated their kitchen and finally they put up a wall between their portions and partitioned the house.
In the meantime, when the villagers realised that Girijaprasad had not brought a lot of money with him, they too distanced themselves from him. As a result, Girijaprasad and his family gradually became estranged from the life around him and thus the primary purpose of returning to his roots lost its meaning.
The family discord took an ugly turn when Girindra secretly negotiated with Prabhakar’s parents and fixed a match between his daughter Tiya and Prabhakar while it was common knowledge that Bimala and Prabhakar were having an affair. But just a few days before the marriage, Mohanpurer bou with the eternal mother’s instinct noticed the pained expression in Bimala’s face and uncovered the fact that Bimala and Prabhakar were in love. Realising that Tiya will not be happy if this marriage took place she had the broadness of heart to give Bimala in marriage to Prabhakar using all the clothes and ornaments she had kept for her own daughter without a second thought. But it was neither a deliberate nor a conscious act on her part. It came naturally and spontaneously from within her heart . It was just another trait in her character which till now had not surfaced. It came out naturally in response to the changed situation.
It should be mentioned here that the issue of the social evil of dowry appears in the novel time and again. While Girija was a student, he had often participated in dowry debates. But apart from referring to the ban on dowry despite which the evil practice continued in the society with vengeance, the author has given only an impartial account of this evil practice, refraining from taking sides.
The space and scope of the village of Banpalashi was limited; its population was also small. But the variety of the characters gave the village of Banpalashi a grater depth and dimension. If we look at their expectations from Girijaprasad, we will be able to get a glimpse of the diversity of the characters. Pankhe of the Chatterji family wants Girijaprasad to start a library in the village; Gopen morol (village headman) wants Girija to perform the Durga Puja with more pomp and splendour; Nitya Mullik’s demand is that Girija improve the condition of the roads and bridges so that during the monsoon the villagers get some relief. BDO Prabhakar, on the other hand, wants Girija to take the lead in founding a school in the village. The varied expectations of these characters reveal their individual mindsets.
Apart from the above mentioned characters belonging to the middle class, there are other characters who belong to a lower strata of society. Banshi, his childhood friend, Banshi’s son Udas, Udas’ wife Lakshimani , Padmo etc are vividly portrayed by the author.
We meet Padmo for the first time when one night she rushes to Dr. Abinash’s place . Her father had been fatally wounded and profusely bleeding and the doctor had to attend to him immediately. Normally the doctor would not be available at such odd hours . But because of the repeated and desperate requests, he agreed to go. After the doctor had dressed the wound and stopped the bleeding from an ugly cut in his neck, he wanted to know how that had happened. He was dumbfounded when Padmo told him that she herself had hit her father with a sharp chopper. Padmo’s father Panchu Kotal was the resident of an adjoining village. Being deprived of his land there by the tricks of the landlord, he left his own village and landed in Banpalashi in search of a new life with his daughter. Soon Padmo began to attract a lot of attention and became the talk of the village. At first tongues wagged about her relationship with Dr. Abinash. But one day she left the village with Udas. Udas is another noteworthy character . He did not want to follow his father’s profession of farming land . He wanted to become a bus driver in order to be able to travel to newer places. When Gopen the village headman rebuked him for not realizing the importance of land farming Udas questioned him why then he had sent his own son to the town to get college education. While learning to drive in order to get the driving license he had developed a contempt for middle class people, particularly Girijaprasad but when he did become a licensed driver, his attitude changed and he became a different man. At the end of the novel when Girijaprasad boarded his bus to leave the village, he behaved with great reverence towards Girijaprasad.
The author has masterfully and with deep insight unfolded the process of change in a person with changing situation. No one in the novel has a fixed or stereotypical behavior pattern. There are many layers and shades to each character. There are many hidden faces behind the face we can see with our naked eye. As Udas –son of an agricultural labor has taken bus driving as a profession, Damu Pal also had first become a canvasser and then opened a store in the district town. Banshi had already left the village even before Girijaprasad to canvas for the political parties in the imminent elections by singing self composed songs. There was a time when Banshi enjoyed singing his own songs with gay abandon. But now he is paid to sing only commissioned songs. Abanimohan –another of Girijaprasad’s childhood friends who was written off by the headmaster of the school was doing well in life and settled in the city. Whenever he visited the village he was given respectful welcome by the villagers . This novel shows people leaving the village -- revealing the bankruptcy of the old social order and also the erosion of a value system.
Banpalashi is not any particular village. It is symbolic of the life of villages of West Bengal undergoing a similar change during post–Independence India and the first two Five Year plans . That is why, apart from the main characters, there are stray references to incidents and people for giving reality to village life. To quote an example we find a newly married couple passing through Banpalashi on their way to another village. They are totally unconnected with the main story . But while passing they are stopped by the village women who offer sweets to them, put vermillion on the bride and wish them a happy married life. This depiction is significant as it reveals the culture and practice of the village community. Towards the end of the novel we find the same bride returning from the other end as a widow going back to her parental village. The pathos of the situation is heart-rending . Similarly the aged wife of Nale Bauri left her aged husband for another aged person Paran Bauri simply because Nale used to eat up whatever she cooked .As a result she had to starve . Now because of her age she could not bear the hunger anymore. With the flow of time the way of life and the society underwent significant changes reflected in the character of the people. In some the change was more than in others. People like Abanimohan, Damu Pal,Udash Kotal had left the village in search of newer means of earning where as people like doctor Abinash and BDO Prabhakar had turned towards the village.
Among the indigenous inhabitants of the village, Attama had undergone the least change. In her youth she had placed the honour and prestige of the family to which she got married above her personal happiness and fulfillment. This had remained in the centre of her belief system even during her old age. Swayed by a momentary weakness or sentimentality, she had once wanted to be buried like her husband who had taken up the Christian faith in Calcutta. But she had by and large remained constant in her loyalty to her in-laws’ family true to the age-old tradition of Banpalashi. Again almost throughout the novel Mohanpurer bou appears as an ordinary, petty and typical village woman. She often fights with her husband on non-issues; vehemently guards her family interests; dislikes the modern way of living followed by Girija’s wife and daughters and is jealous of the hassle-free and easy life of her sister-in-law. Yet this ordinary woman rose to an extraordinary height by giving Bimala in marriage to Prabhakar when she realised that a great love existed between the two.
Among the other villagers Udas had undergone the maximum change. He discarded his family occupation, his village, and his wife. He went to the town, became a bus driver and started living together with Padmo. He remained true to all his dreams. In Gopen Morol , Nitya mullick, Pankhe Chatterjee and even in Girin the value system had eroded. Thus the value system of those who had stayed back in the village underwent a change. They began to judge the people on the basis of their monetary strength. Dr. Abinash had been impressed at the outset by the donations given by the landowners and businessmen for the improvement of the village .But later, he discovers other ulterior motives behind their philanthropic exterior.
There is no doubt that the complex and conflicting stories of Banpalashir Padabali create a lot of confusion. There are also single illuminating events which stand out and attract our attention . These multi-layered and multi-coloured events and characters have been arranged together faithfully to create a deep and expansive human mosaic charged with great creative power by Ramapada Chaudhuri. The deep insight with which he has written this novel is rare even in world literature.