If the middle class Bilgungsburgertum of present day India has a single Werther like figure- a doomed Romantic hero- then that hero is Devdas. Yet, unlike Werther, Devdas shows no affinity with Bildung- except in its comprador aspect of addiction to railway travel and (as satirised by Michael Madhushdhan Dutt in 'Ekei ki bale Sabhyta?') foreign liquor- indeed, Devdas can not be said to posess any character- other than that of an oafish overgrown village urchin- or any particular aesthetic or spiritual sensibility let alone political consciousness. Yet, while others abide our question- Devdas is immortal, generation after generation we Indians rediscover him and remake him in our image. Why? What is the story of Devdas? Reduced to its essentials, it is that of a rich man's son who can't marry Paro, his childhood sweetheart, because her family accept bride price while his exact dowry. Bear in mind, in Bengal at that period, Society had far less coercive power than it does today in some parts of the sub-continent- or even amongst the diaspora- where 'honour killings' are rife and Moms merrily threaten to commit suicide and Dads boisterously pretend to have heart attacks at the merest suggestion that their progeny might have ideas of their own regarding their bodies' bestowal. The fact is, as Sharat well knew, young lovers could defy convention eloping to Calcutta or Burma and live happily- & often more prosperously than if they'd remained as parasites on the joint family patrimony. Indeed, as Niradh Chaudhir records, even in the '20's and '30's there were young men so lost to shame as to come down to Calcutta to set up home quite openly with their own mothers-in-law! What makes Devdas's unheroic, Hamlet like, indecision even more puzzling is that Paro comes to him in the middle of the night to signal her willingness to elope with him- or even be kept as a sort of concubine!- but Devdas has not the courage to break with his family on this issue and sends her back. She then gets married to an even wealthier landlord- a widower with grown up children- at which point Devdas turns into a drunkard. The Maharaja of Cooch Behar, who had fallen in love with an English Music Hall star but was prevented from marrying her by his family, chose to quite deliberately drink himself to death a few years before the first publication of Devdas in 1917. In his case there was an actual, rather than purely sentimental impediment to be reckoned with- viz. the British Political Agent who would have elevated a cadet branch of the family to his throne- to the further ruination of his subjects- if he had persisted in his romance. In any case, I believe, Sarat wrote 'Devdas' almost twenty years previously, when his disgust with his mother's ultra-conservative (anti-Brahmo) joint family was at its height. Since Sarat was not himself a drunkard, and what's more soon developed a progressive outlook and political consciousness, we must conclude that Devdas's drunkeness has neither the aristocratic eclat of the Cooch Behari Raja- whose family were probably the most Anglicised- & certaily the most glamorous- amongst the Royals- nor is it the Nihilistic Neutron bomb of the disillusioned or Dalit poet- but rather it is merely a narrative device, a cover, to introduce the character of Chandramukhi- the dancing girl, the tart with a heart- who in caring for the doomed drunkard repents her way of life and returns to respectability.
Why is Chandramukhi important? Well, it is to give a Hindu twist to what might otherwise appear to be a debased version of the Hubb al Udhri romance where the hero- like Qais 'Majnun' keeps faith with the beloved Society prevents him from marrying- and, as in other narratives from that tradition- dies on the path to the beloved's house. A settled feature in Hindu romanticism is the presence of not one but two love interests for the hero. This is because Hinduism ultimately came to admit the inferiority of conventional piety and sittlichkeitas a soteriological path as against the complete rejection of orthodoxy, notions of 'shame' and 'decency', and ultimately even of sanity along the reckless & hysterical trajectory of a doomed obsessive love which by valorising only the haecceity of the beloved- or any trace thereof- seems, on the face of it, an outright rejection of the Monism taught by Vedanta. Doctrinally, the Hindus had to support this notion becasue they are committed to pluralism- the notion that there are many paths to the Lord. But, from the Western point of view, whereas the Hubb al Udhri tradition can be seen as admirable because it upholds the monogamous fidelity celebrated by their own Church (the bride of Christ- with no co-wives or divorce permitted!)- the Hindu notion of the nayak (hero) having two love interest seems nothing more than an amoral celebration of gallantry & sensuality. Sarat's genius is to get around this problem by subtracting the erotic element and turning the prostitute Chandramukhi into a self-abnegating provider of purely maternal care & concern. Thus- bearing in mind the Agamani genre which describes the day to day domestic give-and-take between the Mother Goddess Uma & her Mother Menaka- Paro's and Chandramukhi's loves become the mirror of each other- the girlish, self-willed & ultimately transgressive element in Paro's love set against the foil of Chandramukhi's sublimated, metanoiac, and
ultimately wholly beneficient love. Wider
reading of Sarat's works helps us to catch the underlying ideological dimension or dhvani. Chandramukhi's care of Devdas should be understood as like the unconditional maternal love shown by the wronged sister-in-law in the joint family to the undisciplined rogue who beats her (vide Mamlar Phal) or the love of the prostitute for the neighbour's son in Amar Prem- in other words, by exhibiting the metanoiac potential of Society's 'insulted & injured' and by insisting that only this sort of bottom up Tikkun can repair the Social ethos, Sarat demonstrates that he is not lacking in political consciousness nor peddling escapist fiction based on some foreign model. On the contrary, he is renewing, adding apoorvata to, the milliena old Indian tradition of (vide my, 'Reflections on Valmiki's breath blinded mirror') showing how the vatsalya of all beings to all beings- irrespective of false notions re. caste and 'morality'- is itself the foundation and supreme
type of Ram Rajya. forthcoming picturization of another Sarat masterpiece.