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In a Heroic Vein

Radha Chakravarty

By Bankim Chandra Chatterji
Indialog Publications, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 238, Rs. 195.00


Ever since he arrived on the literary scene in the second half of the nineteenth century, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee has never been out of the news, for the right or wrong reasons. His critics accuse him of historical inaccuracy, cultural stereotyping, communal prejudice and romantic escapism. The lyrics of Vande Mataram continue to spark political controversy. Yet his place in the world of letters remains indisputable, and his defining role in the emergence of modern Indian literature is impossible to ignore. The recent spurt of new English translations of Bankim’s fiction reaffirms this centrality.   The Bankimchandra Omnibus Vol. 1 (Penguin India), Julius Lipner’s translation of Anandamath (OUP) and Gautam Chakravarty’s translation of Kapalkundala (The Book Review Literary Trust) were all published in 2005. These translations by diverse hands testify to Bankim’s continued popularity among readers, even those not versed in Bengali. They also demonstrate the range of interpretations to which Bankim’s works remain open, and the widely varying registers in which his texts may be translated. Brij Mohan Bhalla’s translation of Durgesh Nandini may be read as part of this trend, for it exhibits both the possibilities and potential pitfalls of re-presenting an older text to an audience that belongs to a different time, language and social milieu.   Durgesh Nandini created an instant impact when it first appeared in 1865. Romesh Chander Dutta declared: ‘it was as if a new light flashed all of a sudden across the firmament of Bengali Literature. . . Bengalis realized that a new era had begun, a new spirit had been born, new ideas and new fancies had appeared in literature with Bankim Chandra at the helm.’ Set in the times when Akbar was consolidating the Mughal empire while the Pathans fought to retain their dominance over Orissa, the novel has an intricate plot that intertwines several romantic adventures, spanning three generations. The ascetic Abhiramswami’s youthful promiscuity in the past generates complications that lend the plot much of its element of mystery. In the next generation, the hidden relationship of Bimala and Virendra Singh unfolds a story of passion, secrecy, pain and loyalty. These earlier narratives provide the background for the youthful romance of Jagat Singh, prince of Amber, and Tilottama, daughter of the chieftain of Mandaran. Woven into this tale of adventure, passion and intrigue are the lives of Usman, the valiant Pathan who becomes Jagat Singh’s alter ego, and ...

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