Most Bengali intellectuals are a little wary of tackling Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's "Anandmath". They know that they cannot ignore it. But they know that it is a problematic novel. It is not surprising then that the task has been undertaken by Julius J Lipern, who has grown up in Kolkata, and who is now at the University of Cambridge. He has done a new translation of "Anandmath" (published by the Oxford University Press), something which has not been done for more than half century, and provided a lengthy and interesting introduction, as well as copious notes for the novel, which is actually a novella, at the end of the book.
It is interesting to note that the song, "Vande Mataram", which became popular first during the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and after that during the Freedom Struggle, was known much more than the novel. Apparently, Mahatma Gandhi was moved by the song, and he happened to read the novel in which it occurs only in 1936. The song became problematic when the All India Muslim League objected to it in 1937 because the reference to "Mother" as a poetic expression of India was construed as an idolatrous reference. The an-iconic Muslim advocates tried to build a legitimate argument against it. But at the same time, Congress was grappling with the issue as well. Nehru prepared a note, endorsed by Rabindranath Tagore, that the first two stanzas of the song could serve as the anthem, because the second half contained references to the many-armed goddess Durga.
On the last day of the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who was the president of the assembly, gave a ruling from the chair that "Vande Mataram" will be a national song, and Tagore's "Jana Gana Mana" will be the national anthem. Nehru has ingeniously made a case for "Jana Gana Mana" that it has been set to music, and a tune is very important in a national anthem.
Predictably, the Hindu right-wing politicians, first the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), and 29 years later, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tried to capitalise on the controversy to make a point against Muslim objections.
It is, however, acknowledged all over that ""Vande Mataram" is a stirring song. And Lipern says that it was not set to a martial tune. And that in the novel, it is sung by a key character in a reflective, even nostalgic, mode.
The problem with the novel is that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee makes the local Bengali Muslim rulers responsible for the victory of the English in the province, and hence very critical of their decadent ways. There is no doubt that Bankin is a Hindu conservative. But it does not necessarily mean that he was against all Muslims and against Islam. Lipern points out that the reference to 70 crore peole of the Bengal province in the song is a clear acceptance of the 50 per cent Bengali Muslims.
But Lipern fails to make a clear case for the novel, the song and Bankim. The truth is that, like any other creative writer, Bankim reached out to emotive religious symbolism in the novel. There is nothing strange or reactionary about it though it may appear so to the self-consciously secular crowd.
It would be instructive to draw a parallel with Altaf Husain Hali's "Musaddas", which speaks of the present decadence and past glory of Muslims, and exhorts them to rise and retrieve the past glory. But it will be argued that Hali did not have anything negative to say about Hindus as did Bankim against the Muslim rulers of Bengal in the novel. But we have pointed out that Bankim was criticising the decadent Bengali nawabs who could not resist the English.
The more important question to be asked is whether "Anandamath" is an important or a great novel. It can be argued that it is not a great novel, and that its importance is exaggerated. Even in the Bankim corpus, it may not figure as an important novel.
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