Lured By Hope – Book Review

Though every biography is only an interpretation, the way the author interprets the character will not only present a scholarly work but also demonstrate the author’s skill to unfold a drama when you read it. This is what I felt when I read this wonderful biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Ghulam Murshid, translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, Lured by Hope: A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, New Delhi, Oxford, 2003.

What is more interesting is that the way it is translated by Ms. Gopa Majumdar makes the reader feel like it is not a translation. It forces the reader to identify with the character of the book. I felt this as I read the book and found it difficult to put down. If one has the time and interest, it can be read entirely in one stretch.

Like the author, I sympathize and get irritated with Madhu in how his romantic view of life ended in such a great tragedy. Particularly the way he died and was buried will move one’s heart as such a great poet of our country deserves a more noble death and a more dignified burial.1 But he reminds us of the insensibility of life; he ended up paying a heavy price for his romantic hope of life. It is true what the author says about him that, “His was such an extraordinary character that, during his lifetime, some hated him, some loved him, some even pitied him—but one could ignore or dismiss him.”(2)

Considering his temperament, one won’t be surprised the way life became complicated both for himself and others. “Seldom did he confide in anyone, or discuss anything, before plunging into action. Although he had a number of extraordinary qualities, even his admirers could not have called him judicious. His impulsive behaviour, throughout his life, led to complications….”(68). Also, “It seems that there were two sides to Madhu’s character. On the one hand he was loving, affectionate, fond of company, and certainly partial to sensual pleasures. On the other, at times the same man could become withdrawn, lonely, and isolated. This dichotomy continued throughout his life.” (124) This dichotomy pulled him two opposite directions:

The problem that Madhu had to grapple with all his life was a dichotomy of mind. He had a simple nature, but the manner in which he viewed life was far from simple. Although born and brought up in the East, his mind and intellect were shaped by Western values. Yet, even when he tried to embrace the West with all his heart, his natural ties with, and sympathy for, the East stopped him from becoming an integral part of the Western society. This eternal conflict in his mind never let him find peace. It was as if he was born to suffer by being driven in to two different directions. (159) (italics added)

Madhu was a product of his time, “…when society in Bengal was being rocked by major upheavals.” (210) Born to a wealthy family, he joined Hindu College and came under the influence of Captain David Lester Richardson (1801-65) who later joined as a teacher (and also a poet). He began to love Romantic poets like Byron. Opposing the “traditional practices, in virtually every sphere of life” (29), “the thought of marrying the woman of his own choice, and not one chosen by someone else, came to him only through his close studies of Western literature, and the lives of some of the English writes.”(32) Meanwhile his poems began to appear in magazines. Though his initial efforts to get his poems published in England failed, he was “convinced that in order to achieve greatness as a poet he had to go” (36) to England which “become almost an obsession” (38).

Due to some unknown reason, when his father sent him away from Calcutta to their village (Saardari), he found that his son “lived in a world of his own” (40), and decided to arrange his marriage. To escape from it, Madhu decided to become a Christian with the aim of going to England and “to fulfil his dream of becoming a poet. So conversion to Christianity appeared to be the best possible solution.” (46) Though his father tried to stop it, yet he was baptized and become ‘Michael’ on 9th February 1843.

As his conversion prevented him to continue his study in Hindu College (53-54), he decided to join Bishop College. Though initially hurt by his act, his father come forward to support his education so that he wouldn’t become a missionary, and with the hope that one day he will return back to the Hindu fold. But when this hope did not materialize, Rajnarayan Dutt stopped supporting his education (63).

Unable to complete his education, Madhu decided to become a missionary, which also failed. He went to Madras at the suggestion of his friend Charles Egbert Kennet who was from there and Michael managed to get a teaching job. He had a lot of financial struggle, working various jobs and writing poems and editing magazines. In Madras, he met his dream girl Rebecca, married, and had four children. But his marriage broke because of his extra marital relationship with Henrietta. Meanwhile as he received the news about the death of his father from his friend (his mother had already passed away), he returned to Calcutta leaving (literally deserting2) his wife and four children, as Rebecca refused to forgive him.

Though he returned to Calcutta with high hopes, he was unable to get good job and finally become a pioneer in writing blank verses and established himself as an undisputed Bengali poet. Meanwhile Henrietta joined him in Calcutta and they began to live together without marriage (Rebecca refused to give him divorce (109)3. However as he could not earn enough to have a lavish life, he decided to go to England and become a barrister. With lots of struggle, he finally managed to complete his study and returned to Calcutta as a barrister, leaving Henrietta and three children in France for the children’s education. However without proper income through his new profession and extravagant spending, he incurred heavy debt which forced him to sell all his ancestor property and try various kinds of jobs. Though Henrietta returned to Calcutta with the children, both become very sick due to an excessive drinking habit and finally faced a miserable death.4

What is more interesting is that this biography of Dutt helps one to get an understanding of the Bengal which

was being rocked by major upheavals. He did what others had never done before, by turning away from age-old customs. His father was also quite unorthodox in his own way. This new ‘awakening’, seen amongst the educated elite in Calcutta, came to be known as the Renaissance in Bengal, although it bore little resemblance to the Renaissance in Europe. Madhu was arguably one of the best examples of a Renaissance man; a true humanist… (210-11)

His conversion also throws lots of light on the way missions functioned in those days. To avert the accusation from both in India and Britain that missionaries are luring “poor, low-caste Hindus with promises of food and money to get them to convert”, they were very “proud of the fact that the son of a well-known lawyer and a brilliant student of Hindu College had come to them” (48) seeking conversion.5 But they never thought about Madhu’s real motive for seeking conversion. Even these so-called converts from high society were to succumb to the pressure and need to make a living by the charity of the mission in one way or the other.6 Most of those converts become full-time workers. We rarely come across any convert who remained a witness in the secular world while keeping his faith intact. Even Madhu made various failed attempts to become a missionary or get some other job in the church or mission. However his natural temperament and lack of any personal conviction in such mission work stopped him short of becoming a full-time worker.7

We also hear from mission sources that not only his conversion but also his desire to become a missionary had ulterior motives:

However, what {Alfred} Street {who taught in Bishop College} then went on to say suggests that Madhu had another motive for turning into a missionary; it was not just his devotion to Christianity. It seems this other motive had purely to do with the rift between his father and himself. Street quoted another instance to prove that simply the desire to spread the word of Christianity did not fill Mahdu’s heart. Although he could not help in the matter of starting a new mission in Mauritius….(64-65)

No matter how the author tries to convince us that Madhu was a devoted Christian, I wonder what kind of picture the author has in his mind about Christianity? The way Madhu reacted, responded and later lived his life presents the ‘Christianity’ to which he was ‘genuinely drawn’. The following points will demonstrate many inconsistencies:

…If he did not change his mind about becoming a missionary, was it right to take further help from his father? Rajnarayan Dutt, on the other hand, did not fail to renew his threat to cut him off totally if he did not do what was expected of him. Nevertheless, Madhu did not hesitate to stand by his own convictions. There was no question of backtracking and going back home, once more a Hindu. On the contrary, his devotion to Christianity, coupled with his desire to be independent, became so strong that he was no longer afraid to declare openly his intention of becoming a missionary. There was only one thing he could not give up—his love of worldly pleasures and creature comforts. Besides, he still thought of himself as not just different from, but better than others. It was impossible for him to accept that, despite his qualifications, he would be paid the same as other Indian missionaries, and less than British ones. For these reasons, he could not get a job in 1846, and had to stay on in Bishop’s College. Fortunately, a temporary truce was declared at the same time between his father and himself, although it is not known how far his mother’s tears were responsible for such an event….(65)

…As far as Madhu was concerned, at this stage there was no fear of being forced into marriage if he did choose to rejoin his family. Had he done so, he could have continued with his education without having to worry about a job. But he still refused to comply. This is a clear indication that if he remained a Christian and continued his association with the missionaries, it was not simply to avoid his father, but because he was genuinely drawn towards Christianity and thought as a religion it was better and superior than Hinduism. (66) (italics added)

Based on the kind of life Madhu lived, which almost resembles what the author talks about the Christian community of Calcutta, the reader must ask on what ground the author thinks that it is better and superior than Hinduism:

In the Christian community in Calcutta—consisting chiefly of British and Anglo-Indian people—there was no dearth of people whose conduct or lifestyle might have been seen as un-Christian. There were cheats, libertines, murderers, and rapists. Yet, when they died, not once did the church raise any objection to their burial. Even when Henrietta died, only four days before Madhu, no questions were asked, no appeals had to be made. Why, then, Dutt, a well-known man from a distinguished background? In their reminiscences, Christians like Prannath Biswas and Krishnamohan Bandyopadhyay said nothing that might answer this question. On the contrary, they tried to prove that Madhu had died with his faith in Christ unshaken. If that was the case, then the church’s reaction is even more puzzling. (207-208)

But when we make a genuine appraisal about Christianity as it was practiced and presented before the Indians, there is nothing to puzzle about. In order to parade their success among the so-called high and educated class, the missionaries ‘converted’ Madhu. Then knowing his clear motive, they considered initially to give him a job in the mission, but this failed due to his temperament. Considering his personal life, the way Madhu understood the core of the Bible is doubtful although he studied more than three years in the famous Bishop College of Calcutta, which he often used to claim some respect later in his life.8(90) The contemporary high society in Madhu’s time considered drinking and smoking as sign of rejecting traditional values.9

But how the author presents two sides of Madhu’s life (religious and secular) and tries to justify both at the cost of the other are questionable. For example, the author says that Mahdu never had an illicit relationship with another women. However, even after marrying Rebecca, though his friendship with Henrietta started as platonic, (107) it finally ended in an extramarital relationship with her.10 Later, apart from the financial difficulties when Henrietta was forced to join him at England, one of the other reason was about the rumours that he has a relationship with another woman.11 About this, the author says:

In his personal life so far, Madhu was, if anything, conservative in the matter of sex or liaisons with women. As time went by, a number of accusations were flung at him, but no one ever charged him of sexual misdemeanours. Although visiting brothels was a common practice in those days, even among the educated upper middle class, Madhu was wholly against the idea. In fact, he opposed the whole concept of sex without love (42) (italics added)

What I cannot understand is that based on the author’s interpretation of Madhu, a married man can have sex with another woman, provided he has true love for her? Strange concept! This is further proved when the author says that five of Madhu’s sonnets were ‘written with a woman in mind: nos. 13, 14, 26, 58 and 100 (175):

Out of these, 13 and 14 (jointly called Parichay: The First Meeting), no. 26 (called Kushume Keet: Canker in a Flower), and no. 58 (untitled) appear to be written for or about the same woman. He introduces himself to her in sonnet no. 13. Nos 14, 26, and 58 describe his love and their coming together. One may wonder who this woman was. Was she real or imaginary? Was she the same lady who had offered him financial help? That, however, does not seem likely for she was wealthy and well-bred….The unquestionable sincerity of these emotions also suggests that it is more than just a flight of fancy. In fact, this particular sonnet {58} is almost certainly indicative of an extramarital relationship between Mandu and another woman. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that although he was intimate with her, it was no grand passion that might have swept him off his feet. No one has been able to unearth the true identity of this woman…. (175-76) (italics added)

Considering that, ‘There was only one thing he could not give up—his love of worldly pleasures and creature comforts’ (65) proved further in his drinking habit, obsession with the luxurious life, and affairs with other women, I would question to what kind of Christianity was Madhu so deeply convicted? I wonder if this is the Christianity the author understood, or if it is superimposed through the life and experience of Madhu?

Being a Bengali, with natural and justifiable love for his mother tongue, the author has taken great pains to highlight Madhu’s contribution to Bengali literature. He has done a wonderful job presenting his life and works and I immensely benefitted from reading this book. In fact, I completed this book within two days as I was unable to keep it down. The style and translation make it easy to read in one sitting. However, the way he paints a picture about Christianity and Hinduism through the life of Madhu, although there are some truths, will raise many questions about his personal understanding of these two faiths. The author’s sincere research in unearthing so many new documents which were missed by other biographies on Madhu needs to be applauded. However his interpretation of Madhu’s conviction to Christianity and critical view of Hinduism will raise the question that in order to project Madhu as the best Bengali poet (which is true in every sense), does he make Christianity and Hinduism pay the cost for it?12 (147)

 

Notes

  1. The way he and Henrietta were doing their final battle, which was recorded by his close friend Gourdas will move one’s heart:

I shall never be able to forget the heartbreaking sight that met my eyes when I saw Madhu…He was laying in bed, gasping. Blood was oozing out of his mouth. His wife was lying on the floor, running a very high temperature. Madhu saw me enter the room and raised himself. Then he started crying. What was upsetting him most was that he could not take care of his wife. He was not concerned with his own pain and discomfort. What he told me was this: ‘afflictions in battalions’. I bent over his wife and felt her forehead and pulse. She pointed at her husband, sighed and broke into sobs. She said, ‘Don’t worry about me, look after him. I am not afraid of death’. {quoted by Jogindranath Basu} (204)

Note the heart-moving drama regarding Madhu’s burial:

…On 28 June, {1873} when Madhu was lying in his deathbed, all hope gone, {Rev.} Krishnamohan {Bandyopadhyay} arrived to get his final confession. It is not known what Madhu confessed. What is known is Madhu’s reply when both Krishnamohan and Chandranath {Bholanath} pointed out to him that there might be problems regarding his funeral and burial. According to Rev. Joseph Prannath Biswas, Pastor of Trinity Church, Calcutta, Madhu said: ‘I care not for man-made churches nor for anybody’s help. I am going to sleep in my Lord and He will hide me in His best resting place. Bury me wherever you like—at your door or under a tree; let none disturb my bones. Let green turf grow over my resting place on earth.’ (italics original) (206)

  1. “When Madhu left Madras, his youngest child, Michael James, was only ten months old….Neither the bonds of love, nor a sense of duty towards his children could make him go back. Thirteen years earlier, when he had left his home to become a Christian, he had shown a similar determination not to allow anything—not even love for his family—stand in his way. It was a special feature of Madhu’s character. (108)
  2. “She was never formally divorced. One reason for this could be that she wanted to make sure that Henrietta—who was responsible for Rebecca’s marriage breaking up—should never be albe to marry Madhu.” (109)
  3. “The attitude displayed by the Christians at this time was truly extraordinary in its indifference—or anger—towards someone who had just died a most tragic death…. Since Madhu had become a Christian, his Hindu friends could not arrange a Hindu funeral, either. His body continued to lie in the morgue. The following day, a Baptist priest came forward to help. About the same time, a senior chaplain of the Anglican Church, Rev. Peter John Jarbo, also offered to make arrangements for the funeral. He was the head priest of St James’ Church in Lower Circular Road. By risking the Lord Bishop’s displeasure, Jarbo displayed amazing courage; he clearly knew where his duty lay. (206-207)
  4. “…if he became a Christian, the British authorities and the entire Christian community would help and support him. He had noticed that if a member of a well-established and well-known family became a Christian, the missionaries treated that as a glorious example of their achievement….(45) … For this reason, every time they managed to find someone from a higher caste, they wanted wide publicity of their work. Madhu was one such ‘catch’….(48)
  5. “Every student in Bishop’s College, at that time, received a scholarship. None of them had to pay anything towards board and lodging, or tuition fees….If a student could pay the fees, there was no need to make any promises in advance about becoming a missionary….(57)
  6. “At one stage, he had refused to job of a catechist, although the salary he was offered then was eight rupees…. (75)
  7. “…the words he wrote on the copy of The Captive Ladie that he sent to British Museum from Madras. Under his own name he wrote by hand the words, of Bishop’s College, Calcutta. (italics original) (90)
  8. “…Rajnarayan Dutt smoking a hookah. When he finished, he passed its long pipe to hiss on. Madhu took it from his father, quite unperturbed, and began smoking with great relish. It is difficult to say how heavily such a scene would have been frowned on in the 1840s. Certainly, it was not customary for young men to smoke in the presence of someone older. When Gourdas {Basak} eventually found his tongue and asked Madhu to explain, Madhu told him that his father, unlike other guardians, did not care about such trivial matters….However, it is true that drinking, in those days, was not as uncommon as it is thought to be. Nor was it considered a deplorable vice. Many educated Bengalis drank, some because it was seen as being fashionable; and others because they thought they could break their ties with old conventions by drinking. It was seen as a sign of being progressive. In 1846, when he {Rajnarayan Basu, Madhu’s friend} became a Brahmo, he ate biscuits and drank alcohol as a symbolic gesture to indicate that he was forsaking old values and customs. (p.29) Eating biscuits was considered most improper by Hindus and they were made by either Muslims or Christians. Other well-known figures in Bengal also drank regularly, including Rammohan Roy who started the Brahmo movement, and Debendranath Tagore, who propagated Brahmoism with considerable spiritual zeal…. (29-30)
  9. “Presumably, when the ‘sympathy’ he was showing Henrietta gradually turned to something deeper—and there is no reason to believe that it was all entirely platonic—it did not affect his marriage. Madhu led, as it were, a ‘double’ life….” (107)
  10. “Over a period of time, certain rumours about Madhu had been afloat. It took a while for Madhu to realize what was happening; when he did, he wrote to Gourdas {Bssak} and {Ishwarchandra} Vidyasagar, begging them not to pay any attention to what they might hear. But nowhere in his letters was he specific about the precise nature of these rumours. Some thought Madhu had got involved with another woman. If this particular rumour had reached Henrietta’s ears, it was not surprising that she was alarmed. Besides, Madhu’s relatives were harassing her so much that, even without any worrying rumours about her husband, she would probably have decided to leave Calcutta. (161)
  11. “He was a Christian, the two women in his life were both half-English. Moreover, he had a deep regard for Western literature and culture. In The Anglo-Saxon and the Hindu, he wrote of how superior Western culture was to Hindu civilization….It was only when he went to Europe later in his life that he suffered an identity crisis, which made him look upon his motherland in a completely new light….What must be remembered is that Madhu was rejected not just by Hindus, but by Christians as well. At any rate, he was reminded by both Europeans and Eurasians that the colour of his skin made him different and less acceptable. Therefore, Madhu belonged to no religious or social group. He became a truly secular man, simply a member of the human race…. (147)