Title : Defining Nationhood-Some Self Reflexive questions
Subtitle: On Indian Independence day-2016-Part 1-Discussions of “Tripoli Reading Group”
‘All they did was collect the revenue; they took no responsibility for overseeing the lives and property of the Bengalis . . . People could die of starvation but the collection of revenue did not stop”
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
( The Ananda Monastery OR The Abbey of Bliss)
As part of reflection on the Indian Independence day, we went through some novels which shaped Indian identity and concept of Nationhood.
A SELF REFLEXIVE QUESTION- WHAT IS INDIA(N)?
A self-reflexive question: ‘What is India(n)?’ This was to become a question with chronological, metaphysical, religious, personal, political, aesthetic, historical, and geographical dimensions and in the most significant works of fiction, India emerges not just as theme or imaginative object, however, but also as a point of debate, reflection, and contestation.
We used the framework of two works of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, to see the way Indian nationhood came to be defined. In the context of Libya, some participants observed the parallels between the brotherhoods which helped define the Libyan nation.
Timothy Brennan writes- ‘Nations, then, are imaginary constructs that depend for their existence on an apparatus of cultural fictions in which imaginative literature plays a decisive role.’
Many of the more general reasons offered for this congruence are arguably applicable to the Indian context as well:
1-the rise of industrial and urban modernity
2-transformations in agrarian life,
3-the mass production enabled by printing presses,
4-and the concomitant rise of a literate middle class.
LITERATURE AS FRAMEWORK FOR DISCUSSION
The Reading Group initial discussion on two works by Bankim- Rajmohan’s wife and Anandamath
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s (or Chattopadhyaya’s) Rajmohan’sWife , undertakes to delineate the contours of village life with a particular interest in women’s lives; the inevitable chapter headed ‘A Visit to the Zenana’ devotes itself, with no little prurience, to elaborate descriptions of
women going about their noisy business, their bodies in free and sensual movement.
Elsewhere, elaborate architectural descriptions of inner and outer household spaces converge with the evocation of a Gothic atmosphere as the reader is invited to ‘ascend in our company
through a flight of dark and narrow stairs of solid brickwork to the upper story of the andarmahal’, the women’s quarters.
Written in the manner of a Gothic novel and serialized in 1864 in the short-lived weekly, Indian Field, Rajmohan’s Wife is both a tragic romance and a study of an unhappy marriage. It tells of the dutiful but passionate Matangini whose father marries her to the venal and jealous Rajmohan although she is in love with Madhav, who, meanwhile, marries her sister. When she discovers a plot against Madhav, in which Rajmohan is involved, Matangini risks her husband’s wrath
and her own life in a night-time journey to the former’s house to inform him about impending danger. After a series of mishaps, including Matangini’s incarceration, the British administration intervenes to foil the plot and Rajmohan commits suicide. Matangini returns to her father and dies an early death.
- Wealth, migration and Nationhood
New wealth generated by changes in property law, English education, and migration
to the city had generated a new urban culture which was very different from agrarian life.
This framework can be used to see life in some nations which are forming, and re-forming in the wake of the Arab spring, and the ongoing civil strife.
Balkans –Slav readers could relate to the changes in their countries following the Fall of the Berlin wall, the civil strife in Former Yugoslavia, to the present times in countries like Ukraine, the dispute with Russia over Crimea.
ANANDAMATH- SACRED NATIONHOOD
In 1882, Bankim Chatterjee published Anandamath (literally, ‘The Ananda Monastery’), translated into several English editions as The Abbey of Bliss and more recently as The Sacred Brotherhood.
Where Rajmohan’s Wife had been an attempt to write a domestic novel within a largely realist framework, Anandamath returns to the mode of fictional history, imagining a rebellion against tyrannical rule but at a careful historical and allegorical distance.
Bankim’s novel came up with a visual delineation of India that would become iconic:
. . . ‘an enchanting image, more beautiful and glorious than Lakshmi or
. . . ‘Who is she?’
‘Who is this Mother?’
The monk answered: ‘She whose Children we are.
Anandamath is set about a hundred years before the time of its writing during a famine in 1770 when ‘Bengal had not yet fallen under British sway’ and the region of Birbhum is under the venal and incompetent Muslim ruler, Mir Jafar, who is, however, backed by British forces .
In the forest a band of mendicants, the monastic Santans or ‘Children’, have foresworn conjugal and domestic life until they have freed their Mother from bondage. They include Mahendra, who joins the Santans after giving up his starving family for dead, and Jibananda who has left behind a wife, Shanti, who eventually secretly joins the order dressed as a man.
After various twists and turns, the Santans lead a massive uprising against the Muslim ruler which, however, also involves a battle with British forces. By the end, Muslim rule ‘is destroyed but Hindu rule has not been established . . . the English remain powerful in Calcutta’
It is decided that the time is not yet ripe to overthrow the English and that this must happen in the fullness of time when Hindus have revitalized themselves
The contrived and often melodramatic turns of plot in this novel are less interesting than its powerful delineation of militant self assertion in the name of nation. Bankim’s rebels fight in the name of a Hindu Mother-Nation ‘to uproot Muslims completely because they are the enemies of our Lord’.
The rallying anthem of the Santans, ‘Bande Mataram’ or ‘Worship the Motherland’, written by Bankim and inserted into the narrative by him, is still India’s ‘national song’ and is to this day touted by Hindu nationalists as a more genuinely ‘Indian’ alternative to the existing national ‘anthem’, ‘Jana Gana Mana’, written by Rabindranath Tagore in a self-consciously secular spirit incorporating a diversity into a unity.
- The Women Question
The second half of the nineteenth century saw social and religious reform movements aimed at ‘regenerating’ religion and community. Controversies and debates emerged around these to which, predictably, the ‘woman question’ became central. Various reformist organizations such as the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj took on issues such as the living conditions of widows, child marriage, and female education.
This framework can be used to see the evolution of concept of nationhood in any part of the world, and how the woman question can be a central way of defining family, community, nation.
2-Nationhood versus Humanity
These self reflexive questions were used by different nationalities to try to come up with answers for their particular contexts
This concept of Nationhood leads one to the question of Humanity. In Tagore’s novel- Ghaire Bhaire (Home and Outside) the character Nikhil’s humanism holds that there is a contradiction in ‘the worship of God by hating other countries in which He is
equally manifest’; he refuses accordingly to ‘permit the evil which is
within me to be exaggerated into an image of my country”
This concept and other nuances which come out in Tagore’s novel will be discussed in next blog