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Understanding the Prophet and Patriot


Amiya P. Sen

THE MONK AS MAN: THE UNKNOWN LIFE OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA
By Sankar
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2011, pp. 238, Rs.299.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 3 March 2012

The work under review is a translation of a hugely popular work, originally written in Bengali, by the well known novelist, Mani Sankar Mukherji (alias, Sankar). Achena Ajana Vivekananda, first published in 2003, is a book that I have always wanted to read but somehow could not in all these years. Ironically enough, reading the work in English translation makes this urge even stronger. Apparently, Mukherji's treatment of his subject occurs within a narrative framework and employs cultural idioms that are hard to replicate outside Bengal and the Bengali language. With his literary imagination and impressive narrative skills, our author might have attempted an adaptation (and not so much a literal translation) or better still, a historical novel of the kind that has been quite successfully produced by other contemporary Bengali novelists, as for instance, Sunil Gangopadhyay. Having said this, I must hasten to add that this is more a personal feeling than objective analysis and does not take away from the persistent and probing research that has gone into the making of this deeply sensitive book. Mukherji provides us with such information on Swami Vivekananda as was hitherto either unknown or else ignored. We learn, for instance, of his discomfiture with his younger brother, Mahendranath Dutta, who, apparently, could not be trusted with dutifully and devotedly attending to the basic needs of his family. As the eldest son, Vivekananda remained particularly anxious in respect of his widowed mother (Bhuvaneswari Devi) who suffered a radical change of fortune. Monthly expenses in the Dutta family, which, at one time, went beyond the incredibly high figure of Rs. 1000/-,sank to a level where most family members remained half-fed or forced to starve. That apart, for the better part of her life, this poor but spirited lady had to fight partition suits brought against her by close family members. I did not also know that by the closing years of his life, the Swami himself had lost the use of his right eye on account of acute diabetes or that he remained incorrigibly child-like in his fondness for certain culinary delicacies: tea, hot pepper, cold desserts or the perennial puffing on the cigar. Judging by this work, Vivekananda would have been only the second Indian to arouse phrenological curiosity in the West after Rammohun Roy. Uniquely, Mukherji also brings out the irritable and overbearing side to Vivekananda's personality that could be harsh and ...


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