Before my mother bought me a copy of Sarat Shahitya Samagra (2003) one fateful summer back in high school, my exposure to Bangla literature had been limited to Feluda and whatever my textbooks offered. But the literature of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay opened a whole new world to me. As an angst ridden teenager, I was enticed by his grim and melodramatic storytelling but soon I began to appreciate the social commentary, the wit, and the subtle humour infused into his writing.
Sarat Chandra's stories dwell upon caste politics, feudal exploitation, religious dogmatism, child marriage, widows' rights, adultery, and more. His writing is rich in pathos; it is neither mild nor light-hearted. Likewise, one doesn't think of summer as a "mild" season. Not on this side of the world. Here in Bangladesh, summer is a season of extremes with a scorching sun and sweltering heat. Perhaps that is why I have come to associate summers with Sarat Chandra's writing.
He never shied away from addressing bigotry in society. Yet unlike contemporaries who also challenged the caste and religious orthodoxy, Sarat Chandra took a more relatable approach to highlighting class inequalities and the dichotomy between the Brahmin and Hindu communities. Equally awe-inspiring were his strong women characters, against whom his weak-willed, orthodox male protagonists almost always paled in comparison.
Just as Sarat Chandra made me cry during Devdas (1917), he inspired laughter with Nishikriti (1917), an entertaining tale about familial politics. Srikanta (1933), a semi-autobiographical novel regarded as his best work, portrayed a bohemian soul who transforms from a morally upright male chauvinist into a self-aware individual after meeting various strong women on his journeys. These stories aren't "breezy", nor the characters mere caricatures. They tend to be as idle as one likes to be on a warm summer day, but the feelings they evoke with their nuance and complexity are no less potent than the aftertaste of the hottest day of summer—difficult to forget.
I can still remember reading Parineeta (1914) that first summer I was introduced to Sarat Chandra and being shocked at how cowardly and selfish the male protagonist Shekhar was as compared to his Bollywood adaptation, whom I had watched and loved. This was my first experience with reading a romance hero so un-hero-like. Neither was he an anti-hero. I remember feeling frustrated and enraged. And yet I could not bring myself to hate Shekhar. I discovered for the first time that summer my preference for imperfect and raw characters over flawless ones. It was from Parineeta that I became aware of intricacies related to the caste system.
Even the secondary characters in Sarat Chandra's novels have an impactful presence. The domineering Bilash from Datta (1918)—a love story between a Hindu and a Brahmin—provoked in me the strongest urge to enter the pages and commit violence. Perhaps the blistering heat of the summer while I was reading the book played a part in heightening my annoyance. But it is the mastery of Sarat Chandra's storytelling that led me, by the end of the story, to an understanding of and muted respect for the character.
Sarat Chandra relied on the humane actions or lack thereof of his characters to create conflict. They invite suffering for themselves with their own cowardice, indecisiveness and obstinacy—all layered complexities—but the ease with which one can empathise with them is testament to the author's prowess.
While the social issues explored in his works are ever-relevant, there is also a sense of nostalgia brought by reading about a bygone era. The emotions his works invoke are timeless—perfect for a summer read.
Towrin Zaman is a research consultant who writes in her spare time.