The Allegory of Rajmohan's Wife: National Culture and Colonialism in Asia's First English Novel
By reprinting Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Rajmohan’s Wife, Ravi Dayal has made available an important 19th century text for renewed consideration, if not reinterpretation. Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, the editor of the reprint, in her Foreword and Afterword, highlights several important areas for debate and discussion. Of these, the most important ones are the implications and consequences of writing in English as opposed to Bangla; the “realistic” mode of representation used in the novel; and the entire question of “Woman” in the nineteenth century. The text is, as Mukherjee says, “a potent site for discussing crucial questions about language, culture, colonization, and representation.” While this is true, Mukherjee does not provide a framework within which these issues that she identifies may be read productively if problematically.
I believe the latter is possible if the novel is read as a sort of national allegory. Frederic Jameson, it may be recalled, claimed that:
All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel. (69).
I would not like to engage with Aijaz Ahmad’s incisive and relentless interrogation of “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness” (see Chapter 3 of In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures), except to say that we would do well to question binary oppositions between the so called “First” and “Third” world, not to speak of singular and reductive ways of theorising their literatures. But, having accepted that national allegories are common to both Western, canonical and other postcolonial literatures, I think it would be useful to see if Rajmohan’s Wife can be read in this manner.
Indeed, it is not at all unusual to read Bankim as one of the creators of Indian nationalism, who used devises such as allegory and personification extensively to convey his ideas. Sri Aurobindo made such an interpretation in the essays that he wrote as early as 1894, the year of Bankim’s death, in Indu Prakash, arguing that what Bankim was trying to create was nothing short of “a language, a literature and a nation” (“Our Hope in the Future”: 102). That Anandamath (1882), despite Bankim’s additions of pro-British statements in the second edition of 1883, inspired generations of Indian freedom fighters. Both a national song and a battle cry, it influenced generations of revolutionaries as well as moderates. In a later essay, “Rishi Bankim Chandra,” Sri Aurobindo, writing in a nationalist newspaper also called Bande Mataram, said that Bankim in his later works “will rank among the Makers of Modern India” (345). Sri Aurobindo claimed that Bankim not only fashioned a new language which could “combine the strength, dignity or soft beauty of Sanskrit with the nerve and vigour of the vernacular,” (345), but, what was more important, practically invented “the religion of patriotism” (346). Bankim was able to do this by giving the country “the vision of our Mother”:
It is not till the Motherland reveals herself to the eye of the mind as something more than a stretch of earth or a mass of individuals, it is not till she takes shape as a great Divine and Maternal Power in a form of beauty that … the patriotism that works miracles and saves a doomed nation is born. To some men is given to have that vision and reveal it to others. It was thirty-two years ago that Bankim wrote his great song and a few listened; but in a sudden moment of awakening … and in a fated moment somebody sang Bande Mataram. The Mantra had been given in a singe day a whole people had been converted to the religion of patriotism. The Mother had revealed herself. … A great nation which has had that vision can never again bend its neck in subjection to the yoke of a conqueror. (“Rishi Bankim Chandra” 347)
Sri Aurobindo’s panegyric written in the heady days of his revolutionary activism is not exaggerated. For decades, several martyrs to the cause of India’s freedom went to the gallows with the cry “Bande Mataram” on their lips. The novel Anandamath was itself translated into all the major Indian languages and widely circulated for decades after Bankim’s death. One indication of its impact is the fact that there are seven different translations of the book in Hindi alone (Bose 125).
I would like to suggest that though the pronounced nationalism of Anandamath belongs to a later phase in Bankim’s career, it’s beginnings may be found in Rajmohan’s Wife. This is because Bankim’s larger project was nothing short of the task of imagining a nation into existence through his fictional and non-fictional writings. Consciously or unconsciously, that is what he strove to accomplish. As Sudipto Kaviraj puts it:
An imaginary community can only have an imaginary history. The actual history of Hindus and Indians could, by definition, never capture what was wanted of it, a history of mobilized action. Only a fictional history can show such reconstructed Hindus or Indians, putting men of the future inside events of the past. That is why the task wanted of this historical discourse could never be accomplished by a discourse of facts, but by a discourse of truth, or poetry, of the imagination. (131)
It is only in the “mythic discourse” of novels that such a task can be accomplished. Kaviraj calls this discourse of Bankim’s “imaginary history,” after Bhudev Mukhopadhyay’s famous phrase “Swapnalabdha Bharatvarser Itihas,” the title of an influential essay. The phrase is felicitous because of its multiple semantic possibilities: not only does it mean the more obvious history of India as revealed or obtained in a dream, but it also suggests that the Bharatvarsha or India that it refers to is itself revealed or obtained in a dream—and therefore imaginary.
There are many other reasons to tempt us to read Rajmohan’s Wife as an imaginary history of modern India. For long, Rajmohan’s Wife has been considered the first Indian English novel. Subhendu Kumar Mund’s contrary claim that Panchkouree Khan’s The Revelations of an Orderly, possibly first published in Benares Recorder in 1846 and later reprinted in London by James Madden in 1849 is the first Indian English novel (9) cannot be taken seriously. By no stretch of imagination can this be called a novel. This text is, moreover, as yet not widely available. It has not, therefore, even partially robbed Rajmohan’s Wife of the glamour attached to initiatory texts. By setting itself up as a sort of originary exemplar of a certain cultural encounter, the novel seems to promise much. However, the only exemplary value that most critics have derived from it is to regard it as a “false start,” the road that should not have been taken. Sunil Kumar Banerji’s and Kaviraj’s books on Bankim don’t even mention the book. Mukherjee, in addition, cites Sri Aurobindo, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Sisir Kumar Das, and Jogesh Chandra Bagal in support of such a view and also shows how Bankim himself advised Romesh Chandra Dutt to write in Bangla (151-154). Mukherjee argues that though Bankim accepted English as a valid medium for political and polemical writings, the mother tongue was the preferred language of imaginative literature. The parallel with Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the first modern Bangla poet, is too obvious to ignore. In the latter’s case, the repudiation of English was not just more categorical, but more moving and pathetic (see Mukherjee 151). All this evidence supposedly goes to show that the only thing that Rajmohan’s Wife exemplifies is a wrong cultural turn, which Bankim himself rectified when he switched to Bangla with Durgeshnandini two years later.
It is not my purpose to oppose the “false start” view merely on grounds that a hundred years later, Indians have proved that they can write complex and satisfying novels in English. In fact, I would argue just the opposite: that however “good” or “successful” these English novels are, they can’t accomplish what novels written in Bangla, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and so on, do. The kind of Indian experience that can be represented in English is different from what is available in other Indian languages. That Bankim was well aware of these limitations is obvious; therefore his switching to Bangla was not just accidental or fortuitous, but deliberate and felicitous both aesthetically and politically. And yet, I think Rajmohan’s Wife cannot be dismissed merely as a false start. It is much more than an indirect commentary on the limitations of writing a novel about India in English. What the novel actually offers is a way of mapping the Indian society of that period on a complex grid of ideological, political, social, and cultural coordinates. The novel accomplishes this through richly textured negotiation of cultural choices for a newly emergent society, which for the sake of convenience, we may call modern India. In other words, it is my contention that Rajmohan’s Wife is really an allegory of modern India, of the kind of society that can rise out of the debris of an older, broken social order and of the new, albeit stunted, possibilities available to it under colonialism. The novel shows both the glimmer of hope and a more realistic closure of options towards the end.
In order to read the novel in this manner, we shall have to agree that each character is much more than the portrayal or representation of an individual. That the characters are individuals cannot be disputed, but for the kind of reading that I have in mind, their typical and collective features will be more important. Viewed in this light, the characters become embodiments of social conditions and ideological configurations. They are not merely individual moral agents, but carriers of larger socio-cultural thematic baggage. Such a reading will not seem implausible when we bear in mind that the latter half of the 19th century was a period of intense cultural reformation during which nothing short of what Frantz Fanon called a national culture was to emerge. As Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth:
A national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence. (188).
For Fanon, this struggle for the creation of a national culture mobilizes what is the best and most energetic in a society:
It is the fight for national existence which sets culture moving and opens to it the doors of creation. Later on it is the nation which will ensure the conditions and framework necessary to culture. The nation gathers together the various indispensable elements necessary for the creation of a culture, those elements which alone can give it credibility, validity, life and creative power. (197)
That much of Bankim’s life and certainly most of his writing was employed in the creation of such a national culture is now hard to dispute. To read Rajmohan’s Wife as a part of this larger project is therefore to accept an invitation that the author and his texts so clearly extend to us.
At the heart of such a culturalist-allegorical reading of the novel is, of course, Matangini, the heroine of Rajmohan’s Wife. We see her first in opening pages of the novel as an eighteen-year old “perfect flower of beauty”:
The dainty limbs of the woman of eighteen were not burdened with such an abundance of ornaments, nor did her speech betray any trace of the East Bengal accent, which clearly showed that this perfect flower of beauty was no daughter of the banks of the Madhumati, but was born and brought up on the Bhagirathi in some place near the capital.. Some sorrow of deep anxiety had dimmed the lustre of her fair complexion. Yet her bloom was as full of charm as that of the land-lotus half-scorched and half-radiant under the noonday sun. Her long locks were tied up in a careless knot on her shoulder; but some loose tresses had thrown away that bondage and were straying over her forehead and cheeks. Her faultlessly drawn arched eyebrows were quivering with bashfulness under a full and wide forehead. The eyes were often only half-seen under their drooping lids. But when they were raised for a glance, lightening seemed to play in a summer cloud. Yet even those keen glances charged with the fire of youth betrayed anxiety. The small lips indicated the sorrow nursed in her heart. The beauty of her figure and limbs had been greatly spoilt by her physical or mental suffering. Yet no sculptor had ever created anything nearly as perfect as the form half revealed by the neat sari she wore. (3)
This carefully drawn portrait is a unique contribution of the traditional and the radically new. As Ganeswar Mishra shows, it uses several elements from both classical and folk forms. For instance, the heroine is always shown with a companion who serves to highlight the former’s beauty; besides, several of the images used are taken from long-standing literary conventions (10). But Bankim’s dissatisfaction with literary conventions was well known: “It is characteristic of the Sanskrit school that they seldom venture an original composition” (Mishra 5). The description of Matangini may be typcial in certain respects, but her actions are not. She’s an entirely new kind of heroine, someone who is not timid and weak, but strong and spirited. She carries the plot forward with her own kinetic energy and though thwarted, does not end up entirely defeated.
Matangini, I contend, is not just Rajmohan’s wife, but the “spirit” or personification of modern India itself. This is an emergent, hesitant, yet strong-willed and attractive India. It is not the India of villages or the old India of feudal times. This India has been born near the capital, Calcutta, and is full of new possibilities. But, this beautiful and powerfully drawn image of India is also shown as burdened by sorrow and anxiety. It is neither free nor happy, but its energies and powers are under the control of an unworthy husband. No wonder, the very first chapter begins with a temptation and a transgression. Matangini, who has been forbidden from going to fetch water from the river, is cajoled by Kanak into doing so. Matangini, thus, crosses the threshold, thereby exposing herself to Madhav, her brother-in-law, and setting the plot in motion. What Malashri Lal called “the law of the threshold,” thus, seems to operate in the very first Indian English novel. Once Matangini has stepped “over the bar,” she can never return to her “designated first world” but must make the “irretrievable choice of making the other world [her] permanent home” (Lal 12). The defining features of modern India are thus its energy, its adventurousness, its unwillingness to be confined by tradition, and its desire to break free. The restlessness, vitality, charm, and drive of an emerging society are thus embodied in Matangini.
The next chapter is symmetrical to the first in that it introduces us to two male characters, one of whom is clearly a foil to the other. The older man, Mathur, is crude, vulgar, and corpulent. Tall, stout, dark, “he had something positively unattractive about him” (7). Almost bald, his fat body oozes out of his Dacca muslin shirt; he has a gold amulet, a gold chain, gold studs on his shirt, and wears rings on all the fingers of his hands. This is the picture of a corrupt and unscrupulous man, the villain of the novel. He is described as “an exceedingly apt scholar in the science of chicane, fraud and torture” (17). It is not surprising that it is he who wishes to steal the will from Madhav and who later imprisons Matangini in his cellar, “determined to gratify at once both revenge and lust” (119).
The other man, the hero of the novel, is Madhav, “a remarkably handsome young man of about twenty-two” (8). Madhav is from Calcutta, an English educated, progressive zamindar, in total contrast to Mathur. What Madhav lacks, though, is Matangini’s energy and vitality: “His clear placid complexion had turned a little dull either through want of exercise or too much comfort” (8). We will remember that Mathur’s complexion has been described as “dull and dark” (7) earlier. Thus, both men are dull, a quality which signifies tamas or lethargy, ignorance, sloth. Matangini, in contrast, is full of lustrous power and charm. Clearly, the shakti or the energy that both men wish to possess, she is seen as the person who can give value, meaning, and direction to the lives of these indolent men. Both Mathur and Madhav represent different kinds of social privilege and prestige. Bankim is implying that unless the privileged are yoked in the service of society, they lack direction or purpose. Their lives are wasted in idle self-indulgence, or worse, in wickedness and fraud. Yet, Bankim is quick to contrast the attitudes of the two cousins to Matangini. While Mathur regards her merely as a sexual object, a potential conquest, Madhav admonishes him against prattling about “a respectable woman passing along the road” (10). Sexual mores are thus of great importance in the novel; the chaste, the respectable, the self-regulating are seen as virtuous, while those who are sexually predatory or transgressive are not forgiven. This is in keeping with Bankim’s larger view of Dharma (see Haldar 55-58), but also creates a tension between the desired and the forbidden.
It is clear that Matangini is the object of desire; whoever wins her affection will be the real winner in the novel. The struggle is for modern India—to whom will it belong? The contenders are not just the asuric or demonic Mathur and the daivic or angelic Madhav, but the man who is her husband, Rajmohan. The latter is described as “the very image of Death” (12) when he is first seen in the novel. By now, we already know that the marriage is a failure. It is, in fact, clear through the novel that the two do not seem to have any sexual relations, though Rajmohan is the very embodiment of jealousy. Rajmohan is shown as a cruel, brutish man of enormous strength but of a warped moral sense. In chapter three he shouts at his wife, “I’ll kick you to death” (13). His utter lack of consideration for Matangini is one aspect of his personality; the other is that he is willing to rob is own benefactor. Perhaps, it is that ingratitude that decisively turns Matangini away from him.
Rajmohan is frequently angry and abusive with Matangini; there is a deep frustration in him in not being able to possess what by right is his. He is the unhappy husband who chafes bitterly at not being worthy of his wife’s acceptance. But the real question is who or what does Rajmohan represent? We have seen that Mathur and Madhav respectively stand for the reactionary and the progressive elites who are vying for the control of the emerging nation. If so, then what of Rajmohan? I would argue that Rajmohan stands for the lumpenised proletariat under colonialism, alienated from its own people and country. Thus, Rajmohan’s alienation from Matangini is symbolic of proletariat being unable to “man” the nation, so to speak. Impoverished and brutalised, the underclass cannot shepherd the delicate and precious blossom of the new nation in the making. The struggle for/of the nation is often a struggle between the colonial and the national elites, with the national proletariat sidelined totally. Yet, for the struggle to bear fruit, the proletariat needs to line up behind the worthy elite in the latter’s attempt to overthrow imperial rule. In this novel, the elite is symbolically split into the worthy and the unworthy, while the proletariat is seen to be criminalised, brutish, and alienated. Matangini is the spirit of the nation, a type of “Mother India,” whom Bankim deified so eloquently and popularly in “Bande Mataram,” in Anandamath.
Bangshibadan Ghose, the progenitor of clan to which Mathur and Madhav belong is a menial servant to begin with. His rise signifies the destruction of the old order of pre-colonial India and the rise of an intermediate class under colonial rule. The manner of Bangshibadan’s elevation is typical of Bankim’s narrative strategy. When the zaminder dies, his young wife, Karunamayee, takes the servant as her lover. Again, the woman becomes the embodiment of power and wealth; by attaining Karunamayee, Bangshibadan comes to possess the fortune, which is now in contention. The split in the elite that I mentioned earlier is evident in the contrary dispositions of two of Bangshibadan’s sons. Ramakanta, the elder son, is industrious and hardworking, but closed to English education and modernity. His son, Mathur, thus comes to represent a corrupt and dying tradition. The other son, Ramkanai, though indolent and extravagant, educates his son Madhav in Calcutta. What is implied is that the rightful heir to the “e/state” that is India ought to be someone who combines the industry of Ramakanta and the education of Madhav; only such a person can be the worthy partner of Matangini and “husband” the modern nation. The third son, Rajgopal, dying childless, has bequeathed his property to Madhav, the worthier of his two nephews. It is this will, which legalises the bequeath, that Mathur is after. If Matangini represents the future of India, Ramgopal’s will represents its past. Who should inherit the legacy of the past and direct the future of the country—this is the question at the heart of the novel. Madhav’s offer to help Rajmohan is yet another instance of the responsible elite trying to fulfil its duties to the underclass, but in this case, it is Rajmohan who rejects Madhav’s offer. Matangini intervenes to insure that the past does not entirely miscarry. She saves Madhav, but cannot consummate her love for him. The ideal combination of the past, present, and future is not to be. But though the experiment fails, it does highlight some choices before the nation.
At the end of the book, after many adventures, Madhav is saved, Mathur hangs himself, and Matangini is banished. Tara, Mathur’s faithful and long suffering first wife, plays an important role in saving Matangini. She represents the best of residual culture, those vestiges that though soon to be eclipsed, will serve a constructive role in the building of the new world. Matangini, whose boldness makes her risk her life to save her love, Madhav, is, however not rewarded at the end of the book. She is sent back to her father’s house and the novelist tells us that “she died an early death” (126). The energy of the new India that she represents cannot find fruition in this novel. Her union with Madhav is impossible, though both personally and ideologically they constitute the basis of the new India that is to come. That is, for Bankim, India’s destiny is to be shaped by the new English-educated elite, but somehow this cannot be affected easily. There are insurmountable barriers to this project of refashioning India. Perhaps, the real hitch was the hidden but dominant and all pervasive colonial presence. India’s modernization was not smooth, but badly distorted. There is no easy or happy end in sight to Matangini’s problems.
What is interesting is that in this novel, the colonial power is seen as benign. The “shrewd and restlessly active Irishman” who is the Magistrate, ensures that justice is done, that Mathur cannot escape by bribing the police. British rule is thus seen as paternalistic and providential, an interlude when India can recover her strength. Justice, equity, impartiality, and peace—both colonial authorities and their Indian collaborators often cited these supposed features of British rule in justifying the Raj—are, apparently, endorsed in this novel as characteristic of British rule. What we therefore see is a complex picture of colonialism in which though the colonial authority is not directly criticised, the heroine, Matangini, cannot find the means to fulfil her self. Her love is thwarted, her aspirations crushed, her life threatened. What is more, she is imprisoned and almost raped. In the end, her survival against all odds is itself almost a miracle. But Matangini’s life is not a success. She does not get what she deserves. Her courage, fearlessness, loyalty, in fact, her loveliness, is itself wasted.
That Bankim personally confronted this dilemma is clear in an essay such as “Bharatbarsher Svdhinata Ebang Paradhinata” (India’s Independence and Dependence):
All work of governance is now in the hands of the Englishmen—we are unable to do anything on our own because we are dependent on others. Because of this we are not learning how to protect our country and how to govern our country—our national qualities are not getting any scope for their fulfilment. Hence it must be agreed that in this respect dependence is an impediment to progress. But we are learning European literature and science. If we were not dependent on a European nation, we would not have been fortunate enough to enjoy this bliss. So on the one had our dependence has been harmful to us and on the other hand we are making progress. (Quoted in Haldar 100)
Bankim, then, found himself in an impossible situation, somewhat like Matangini. Just as Matangini and Madhav –and many other pairs of doomed lovers in Bankim—suffer from two forms of contradictory desire, so does Bankim, in his attitude to the Raj. It is this contradictory consciousness that Kaviraj has called “unhappy.” On the one hand is the “socially sanctified” form of desire within marriage, but, on the other hand, is the more powerful, “socially unsanctified form of passion … that threatens the mapping and the whole architecture of the social world” (Kaviraj 6). In Bankim’s own thinking they correspond, respectively, to the politically sanctioned approval of British rule and the prohibited desire to be emancipated from it.
I have been suggesting that the tragedy of Matangini, a tragedy of unfulfilled potential, frustrated love, and self-sacrificing heroism is also, allegorically, the tragedy of a newly emergent India. This India, whose possession is fiercely contested by forces of tradition, modernity, and colonialism is, in the end, a broken if not defeated India. It is an India that is beset and oppressed from all sides, an India whose coming into its own is frustrated. Perhaps, at a more propitious time, the combination of forces required to guide its destiny might emerge; as far as the novel is concerned, this possibility is postponed. Matangini’s transgressions are thus only partially successful. The dream of creating a new society from the remnants of a decaying older order is thus a failed experiment in this novel. Like Hester Prynne, Matangini will have to wait for an other time and space before she or someone like her can live happily with her chosen mate. In the meanwhile, her struggle and sacrifice do leave a mark on society.
In Rajmohan’s Wife, Bankim was trying not just discover the right formula to write a successful novel but also the right formula to create a new India. The project of inscribing a new India continues in many other novels and novelists throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora (1909), for example, we find the seeds of a new society in the union of Gora and Suchorita on the one hand, and of Binoy and Lolita on the other. With the guidance of Anandamoyi and Poresh babu, the younger generation is offered a fresh opportunity to refashion a new world. In Rajmohan’s Wife, however, Matangini’s efforts are not rewarded with success. Yet, her survival is in itself a kind of partial success. There is hope for India, but the experiment to recreate the nation will have to be conducted again, with different actors. It is not that Bankim did not write stories with happy unions between the heroes and heroines; but these tales lacked the power and dynamism of those novels, such as Rajmohan’s Wife, Durgeshnandini, Kapalakundala, Bishbriksha, Krishnakanter Will, and Rajasingha.
Before I end, I would like to return to the symbolic significance of Rajmohan’s Wife as the “first” Indian English novel. As in the murky beginnings of any genre, the commencement of Indian English fiction too is shrouded in mystery. Kylash Chunder Dutt’s A Journal of 48 Hours of the Year 1945 (1835), Shoshee Chunder Dutt’s The Republic of Orissa: Annals from the Pages of the Twentieth Century (1845), or Panchkouree Khan’s The Revelations of an Orderly (1849), are all very difficult to find. Toru Dutt’s Bianca or A Young Spanish Maiden (1878) is incomplete. Even Rajmohan’s Wife as we know it today is not entirely the book that Bankim wrote, but is a reprint of a reconstruction that Brajendra Nath Banerji published in 1935. The first three chapters of the novel, which was originally serialised in the weekly, Indian Field, are unavailable. What Banerji obtained is the complete text of the novel except the first three chapters. Banerji used Bankim’s Bangla translation of these missing chapters to translating them back into English. So the text that we have today is made up of three chapters that are an English translation of Bakim’s Bangla translation of the English original, plus the remaining chapters as Bankim had written them originally in English.
This inaccessibility of the “original” text is a part of the mystery of Rajmohan’s Wife. Just as we shall never know exactly what Bankim really wrote in the first three chapters, we shall also never be able fully to grasp the significance of this originary text. The text is thus an emblem not just of a false start or of failed experiment at the creation of a new India, but also, in a sense, of an unfinished project, both artistically and ideologically. It is not incomplete only in that it is unavailable in its original form; it is also incomplete in the sense that it’s completion is indicated elsewhere, in some other time or text. It’s real meaning can therefore only be conjectured at or reconstructed. This reconstitution of a lost or unavailable text is, however, not a fanciful or irresponsible exercise. For the serious student of Indian English literature, it is an attempt to reconnect with a period pregnant with possibilities, a moment of creation, when not just a genre but a nation was being invented. The infinite possibilities in that beginning need to be harnessed when we look at the numerous trajectories that emerged out of that initial churning. Rajmohan’s Wife, when read allegorically, illustrates one such possibility for both the genre and the nation. Tantalisingly evasive, the text nevertheless leaves a valuable trace, which we may construe as an attempt, or essay at both novel writing and nation building.
The importance of Rajmohan’s Wife only increases when we realise that it is probably not just the first English novel in India, but in all of Asia. Its dramatic location at the cusp of history only adds to its fascination. In Bankim’s slender work, not just a new India, but an emerging Asia seeks to find its voice in an alien tongue. In this effort, a spark shoots across the narrative sky in the form of a new beautiful, spirited, and romantic heroine, Matangini. There has been nothing like her in Asian fiction before. Created from an amalgam of classical, medieval, and European sources and a totally unprecedented imaginative leap into what might constitute a new female subjectivity, Matangini is a memorable character. In all of Indian English fiction, there are few women who have her capacity to move the narrative. She, moreover, embodies the hopes of an entire society struggling for selfhood and dignity. Her courage, independence, and passion are not just personal traits, but those of a nation in the making. This subtle superimposition of the national upon the personal is Bankim’s gift to his Indian English heirs. The trail of an epoch making novel like Midnight’s Children (1981) can thus be traced back to Bankim’s more modest trial as far back as 1864.
Though we may no longer subscribe to the idea that certain master narratives dominate human history and imagination, we can still appreciate the interconnectedness of stories, their multiple and entangled paths, their complex emergences and tangled endings. That the story of Rajmohan’s Wife is connected with other stories is what I have been trying to show. It would be reductive and self-defeating to see it as an isolated and unsuccessful attempt at writing in English or as a part of just one story, the story of Bangla vs. English as the medium of creative writing in India. Rajmohan’s Wife gains in value and interest when we see it as a part of the story of modern India itself. This is a story that is still being written; in that sense it is a work in progress, which is exactly how I’d like to see Rajmohan’s Wife too. As a work in progress, rather than a false start, it negotiates one path for India’s future growth and development. In this path, the English-educated elites of the country must lead India out of bondage and exploitation. While the Rajmohans and Mathurs must be defeated, Matangini must find her happiness with her natural mate, Madhav. However, the latter is not possible just yet; Matangini has therefore retreat to her paternal home. Like an idea ahead of its time, she must wait till she can gain what is her due. But not before she enjoys a brief but hard-earned rendezvous with her paramour and smoulders across the narrativescape of the novel with her disruptive power. Indeed, the novelty in Bankim’s novel is precisely the irruption, the explosion that Rajmohan’s wife—both the character and the story—causes in the narrative of modern India. Like a gash or a slash, the novel breaks the iterative horizons of a somnambulant subcontinent, leaving a teasing trace that later sprouts many new fictive offshoots.
Even at the risk of an anti-climactic conclusion, I must end with a disclaimer. My enthusiasm of Rajmohan’s Wife must not be misconstrued as an attempt to prove that it is a great novel or a highly significant literary work. On the contrary, it is a rather modest, even slight effort compared to Bankim’s mature masterpieces. Yet, I believe that it’s symbolic, metaphorical, and allegorical importance ought to be recognized. It is how we read this text, the sorts of concerns that we can bring to bear on it that makes it possible for us to see the role it played in the shaping of modern Indian culture. The text, when read against Bankim’s own project, and the larger project of imagining a nation, becomes luminous and productive in ways that are unavailable when we regard it either as a false start in the wrong language or an eminently forgettable, juvenile first novel.
I am grateful to Professor Meenakshi Mukherjee for taking the trouble to read through two drafts of this paper. Her comments were not only useful but saved me from one or two errors. I also thank my student Baidik Bhattacharya for reading this paper carefully and offering his useful responses.
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