Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Book Review: 'Devdas' by S.C. Chattopadhyay

'Devdas' is a fiction novel originally written in Bengali by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and translated into English by Sreejata Guha. It was published in 1917, and is set in the same time frame. Over the years, the novel has gained the reputation of a classic.

The main protagonist, Devdas, is a boy born into a very rich Brahmin family from Bengal. His childhood is spent playing with Paro, the neighbours' daughter. Paro's family belongs to the caste of traders, and a marriage between her and Devdas is unlikely. Paro's mother does approach Devdas's mother with a proposal, but is bluntly refused. Paro is then arranged to be married to a rich widower in another village. She cannot imagine life without her Dev-da, and approaches him in the night to ask him to marry her. He is undetermined, but talks to his father about it. When he refuses, Devdas accepts his decision, leaving Paro heartbroken. She then marries the widower.

Devdas then realizes that what he truly wanted was Paro, but also that it was too late to do anything about it. He becomes an alcoholic, and tries to drown his pain and sorrow in alcohol. He meets Chandramukhi, a tawaif [see note below], in Calcutta, and is very repulsed by her because of her profession. She is very surprised by his eccentric behavior and immediately falls in love with him. Her love is almost devotional love, stongly reminiscent of the relationship Mirabai had with Krishna. She worships Devdas, and treats him like a deity. His acknowledgment of her presence is in itself a fulfilling experience for her.

The story explores the age-old dichotomy between social norms and human desires. 'Devdas' is, in essence, a social commentary - a reflection on the social norms of the day. Through the story of the unfulfilled love between Devdas and Paro, Sharat Chandra brings out the adverse impact that class hierarchy and social behavioral norms have on people's natural desires, and chain them to a life of sacrifice and suffering. Had Devdas and Paro belonged to the same caste, they could have been happily married. Had Chandramukhi not been a tawaif, she could have married Devdas. These social boundaries are not trespassed by any of the characters, and that leads them to lives of sorrow, even though it saves them from ridicule.

'Devdas' is a beautiful novel - unfulfilled love at its very best. The characters are very life-like, very believable, and each one of them has their own charms and fallacies. In a sense, Sharat Chandra has retold the story of Lord Krishna, Radha and Mirabai through Devdas, setting it into the modern scenario and leading it to its logical conclusion based on the character traits of  Devdas, Paro and Chandramukhi, and the prevailing social norms of the time.

Devdas is not a likeable character - not only is he an alcoholic, but he seems to hold himself in high regard by virtue of being a Brahmin, and consequently treats Chandramukhi very badly. He is violent, and hits Paro whenever he sees fit. He is generally unsure of himself, and does not understand his own love for Paro until too late. Paro is an average rural girl, good looking, and completely in love with Devdas since her childhood days. She cannot think of anyone but him as her lover and best friend, but never crosses the line of decency in her attempt to marry him. Chandramukhi is a woman who loves Devdas simply because she has never seen anyone like him. He is full of spite for her, and doesn't even talk to her when sober. She adores him, and he is no less than a god for her. Devdas is uncertain who he loves more - Paro or Chandramukhi. Both dominate his thoughts at different times. But he is never truly able to fulfil his love for either one, and wastes away his life - even though he appears to have it all.

The story is very believable - except perhaps some of the actions of Chandramukhi which
seem a tad too far-fetched. For instance, she rents a room in Calcutta and keeps looking out the window day in and day out, expecting to see Devdas (and eventually does see him after a couple of months). At any rate, the novel achieves its purpose - it gets the reader to think about the contradictory relationship that social norms and human desires have, the reasons for this relationship, and what a person should do in case of a dilemma between the two. Sharat Chandra depicts social bindings as adverse restrictions on individuals, showing that adhering to them will lead to no fulfillment in life.

Note: tawaif was a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia, particularly during the era of the Mughal Empire. The tawaifs excelled and contributed to music, dance (mujra), theater, film, and the Urdu literary tradition,  were considered an authority on etiquette. While sex was often incidental, it was not guaranteed contractually (source: Wikipedia).

'Tawaif' is often also used interchangeably with 'prostitute', and is most likely the sense in which it is used to describe Chandramukhi.

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