The Travels and Travails of a Bengali: Reading Sanjib Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Palamau’
By Stella Chitralekha Biswas
This paper attempts to revisit one of the earliest and most significant contributions towards the rich oeuvre of Bengali travelogues made by Sanjib Chandra Chattopadhyay through his work Palamau (first published serially in Bangadarshan from December, 1880 to March, 1883). Distinct in style and structure from the other forms of travel narratives or writings about expeditions, missions or enterprises that were proliferating in Bengal since the late nineteenth century, Chattopadhyay’s work emerges as a fine example of Romantic travel literature which blends the elements of both fact and fiction to recount the travel experiences of the narrator in the hilly region of Palamau, located in Jharkhand. Chattopadhyay does not merely document the places and the cultures of people he encounters on his many adventures in an ethnographic manner but extends his creativity to project his own personal experiences, reactions and responses towards the diversity of life around him. Dwelling on the intersectional possibilities of the travelogue and the memoir forms of writing, Palamau evolves to be unique in its own right, exploring the nuances of both physical and mental travel. Coupled with this were the significant yet subtle discourses on race, colonization, gender, socio-cultural hierarchy and other pertinent issues embedded within the narrative. Thus, I read Chattopadhyay’s travelogue as not just limited to the generic demands of secular travel writing but transcending itself to imbibe the Romantic spirit of speculating upon Nature, beauty, memory, imagination and self-actualization.
Secular travel writing has been a major part of Bengali literature since the late nineteenth century when the race towards colonial modernity had opened up new avenues of exploration, both spatial and imaginary. Travel narratives by men predominantly and later by a few women who had the opportunity of travelling or migrating abroad with their kin have been documented as an extremely popular genre with a steady market demand and readership in both the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The early years of the nineteenth century had already witnessed a massive imperial interest in mapping and charting unknown territories through not just cartographic and related expedition activities but also through the proliferation of travel literature which sought to reinstate a consolidated sense of British masculinity and hegemony. Bengali periodical writings from the mid nineteenth century onwards in magazines, journals, etc. were naturally influenced by the thrill and excitement of adventure and travel abroad in exotic, unfamiliar lands. Coupled with this was an increasing conscious urge to fashion a sense of the ‘modern’ native self as well as the impulse to forge a cohesive sense of identity and nationalism. Most of these existing records relate to the travels of Bengalis to the West, as Supriya Chaudhuri states in her article “Indian Travel Writing”, “personally shaped by the modern sense of a self in movement as they engage with the problematics of modernity itself, developing contrasted models of Indian nationalism” (168). However, gradually from the beginning of the twentieth century, the interest of the travelers appears to have shifted towards an exploration of Asia and the territorial interiors of India in particular, with a newly imagined sense of cultural and political solidarity. Apart from these patriotic and nationalist moorings, there were probably very few forays into the realm of Romantic travel writings. With the arrival of intellectuals like Sanjib Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore to the scene, the notion of travel for the sake of pleasure, excitement and Romantic curiosity was perhaps broached seriously for the first time in the realm of Bengali travel writings. However, these writings were also not shorn of the negotiations between the colonized, native subject on the one hand, and the ideas of modernity, development, civilizational progress and freedom on the other.
While considering travel writings from a historical perspective, it is indeed necessary to look at the important developments that took place in the modes of travel in nineteenth century Bengal. While roads and waterways were the only options open to travellers initially, the establishment of the railways for the first time in Bengal in 1854 between Howrah and Hooghly greatly revolutionized not only travel but the entire gamut of Bengali socio-cultural life. The gradual expansion of links between the city and the rural or suburban interiors boosted the advancement of various socio-economic prospects and egged the growth of secular leisure travel all the more, though within a highly gendered framework of understanding modernity and mobility. However, the idea of Romantic travel entails the choice of a peculiar and yet common mode of locomotion within the laps of Nature, that which lay beyond the grasp of the colonial project of modernity. Walking or dawdling happened to be one of the most common means of travel for the young, penniless Romantics of Europe, a trope which seems to have particularly interested Bengali Romantic travel writers as well. Sanjib Chandra Chattopdhyay’s travelogue, Palamau dwells upon this idea of leisurely Romantic travel in a hilly, wilderness-clad location which was perhaps yet to be ravished by the imperialist mechanisms of control. The virgin topography of Palamau, with its indigenous tribal inhabitants opens up a niche for the narrator to negotiate with the binaries of civilized and uncivilized, progress and stagnation, the metropole and the margin, etc. His Romantic philosophizing on the exotic natural beauty of Palamau and anthropological take while enunciating the customs, traditions and lives of the Kol community are manifest with these colonial and cultural broodings, typical of every native subject in the nineteenth century.
Like a Child into the Wild
“We are all children of our landscape” – Lawrence Durrell
The Foreword to Palamau composed by the then editors of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Brajendranath Bandyopdhyay and Sajanikanta Das who brought out the complete work as a single compilation in 1944, cites a certain section from the text in which Chattopadhyay had described in fascinatingly lucid terms the untainted innocence of a few roadside children he met on the way to his destination. The significance of this anecdote lies in the way it highlights the writer’s own childlike, genial disposition that enabled him to keenly observe and render in words the incorruptibility of the disposition of poor, vagrant dwellers. This childlike wonder, curiosity and simplicity coupled with the observational power of a seasoned artist and the humanist visions of a thinker are what go on to mould Chattopadhyay as the writer of this Romantic travelogue. In fact, throughout the course of his narrative, he keeps harping on the binaries of old age and youth, constantly trying to negotiate between the attributional merits of the two and colour his perspectives accordingly. The novelty of looking at the natural world through the inquisitive eyes of a child, appreciating its beauty without the burden of adult presumptions or experiential knowledge is what the writer champions throughout his work. He perceives this as a radical departure from the existing patterns of thinking, meaning-making and negotiating with the diversity of socio-cultural experience. The graciousness and aesthetic sensibility from which he derives this Romantic consciousness of a world completely unknown to him lends ingenuity and a rare charm to his work. This preoccupation with a childlike mental disposition continues as a definite strain as the narrator also undertakes a mental journey into his past, foraying into the wistful lanes of memory while maintaining a consciously vivacious stance. At times, it appears as if he might have transcended to become one with this enlivening spirit which marks his literary expression, envisioning his own childlike relationship with the natural world which moulds his personality. Nature is the canvas for the nurturing of his imaginative and aesthetic sensibilities, the locus of culture and the site of crucial socio-hierarchical negotiation.
“Bonyera bone shundor, shishura matrikrore” (Savages are as beautiful in the wilderness as infants in their mothers’ laps) stated Chattopadhyay in one of the chapters of this work. This much-celebrated line underlines the basic ideological assumptions of the writer when he sets forth on his Romantic quest into a landscape which he visualizes as marvellous, exotic and uncharacteristically hospitable towards his disposition. On the one hand, he imagines his relationship with Nature as that of a child with his mother, beautifully imagining a conventional construct to highlight the source of sublimity, beauty and cultural significance. However, on the other hand, the powerful discursive stance which he adopts while envisioning his relationship with Palamau and its tribal inhabitants inevitably ushers in the idea of a dialectical relationship between the metropole and the margin. As echoed in Subho Basu’s argument in his article “The Dialectics of Resistance: Colonial Geography, Bengali Literati and the Racial Mapping of Indian Identity”, Chattopadhyay here seems to be evoking a similar method of reassessing his own sense of a native, ‘modern’ self, hailing from the center of culture or the metropole and the perceived ‘otherness’ of the Kol community whom he locates within an imagined marginal space, beyond the demands of cultural progress or civilizational development. It is important to note the spatial markers of his journey, starting at Raniganj and gradually traversing through rural locations like Barakar and Hazaribagh and finally ending at the destination point of Palamau in the Chotanagpur plateau area of Jharkhand. It is also interesting that throughout the course of his journey his mode of transport keeps changing as if in tune with the geographical backdrop and its cultural significance ‒ from the ride on a mail-van belonging to the Inland Transit Company, he switches on to a ride on a palanquin and finally to the ultimate choice of a Romantic traveler, leisure-walking. The deliberately crafted distancing between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ has been achieved through a careful manoeuvring of the ideas on race, modernity, primitiveness, socio-cultural hierarchy and colonial subjectivity. The problematics of this negotiation between a proclaimed childlike narratorial deportment and the underlying tensions surrounding cultural and racial aspirations posit Chattopadhyay’s travelogue as unique within the colonial understanding of travel writing.
Palamau and Its People
Chattopadhyay’s anthropological take on describing the details of the lives of the Kol community against the idyllic backdrop of hill-clad, forested Palamau remains interesting for several reasons. He harbours an earnest desire within himself to not just gain ethnographic knowledge about a culture whose multiple folds were gradually unfurling in front of his eyes but there is also a deeply-ingrained Romantic appreciation of the untainted beauty of a place not yet encroached by the onslaught of colonial exigencies. One might argue that a certain degree of paternalization can be detected in the manner in which the narrator describes the practices and customs of the Kols, naturally owing to his perception of their ‘savage’, indigenous status in juxtaposition to his position as a ‘modern’ traveller with agency and an assumedly superior sense of rationality. In fact, there are certain instances within the text when he emphatically isolates his identity and hierarchical status above these group of people whom he views as a homogenous entity and who are, in a sense, subservient to him. It is very telling that he wants to be addressed as ‘Khan Bahadur’ by the indigenous Kol people whom he perceives at the receiving end of his favours in the form of employment as his servants and bearers or other economic prospects. On other occasions, he wishes to blend into their culture by actively participating in their rituals of dance, marriage processions and so on. While the entire Kol community maintains a vivid distance from this perceivably superior ‘Saheb’, there are situations in which the narrator undertakes flights of fancy while voluntarily trying to adapt to and identify with certain nuances of their culture. He is such a keen observer of the customs and practices of these indigenous people that he never fails to pen down every little detail that he presumes extremely significant in their lives. His elaborate descriptions of the drinking habits of the Kol men and women; their community dance rituals after sunset in the light of fires; their lengthy courtship rituals culminating in marital unions; their liquor-making practices from the flowers of the Madhudrum trees, etc. ‒ all of these present a vivid picture of the vibrant, animated lives of an indigenous, self-sustained community. Chattopadhyay does not simply maintain a passive, objective stance while painting the picture of the Kol community but rather passionately and often even empathetically gets involved with the whole process, thereby also reflecting upon his own self and his relationship with the natural world around him.
It is rather interesting that the narrator, time and again, expresses his admiration for the exotic beauty of the Kol women whom he imaginatively identifies with the abstract concept of the ‘eternal feminine’. Their youthful virility, charm, the grace of their half-naked bodies, their habits and virtues are starkly juxtaposed to their male counterparts who appear to the narrator’s eyes as withered, haggardly and lacking in vitality. He chooses to direct his gaze more at these women going about their routine chores and indulgences in their pastimes, which implicitly brings in the contending notions of masculinities between that of the ‘cultivated’ native and the ‘barbaric’ indigenous native. A particular incident which the narrator recounts bring this issue directly to the fore when he, along with a group of men from the Kol community, set out on an expedition to kill a man-eating tiger. The anxieties surrounding the performance of ‘civilized’ masculinity, with the display of sheer courage and pragmatism, appear to be bearing down upon the ‘Saheb’ who is almost idolized by the ‘noble savage’ and his ‘uncivilized’ masculinity. This also explains why the narrator looks at the entire landscape of Palamau through a feminized, Romanticized lens. The flora and the fauna of the abundant wilderness hold a very feminine appeal to his sensual perceptions and he imagines himself as a solitary, Romantic dawdler exploring a virgin, unravished and unfamiliar landscape. Nature opens up a niche for not just self-reflection and Romantic philosophizing but enables him to implicitly negotiate with the discursive notions on race, civilization, culture, modernity, native identity, etc. Despite being a subject caught up in the modernizing machinery of the colonial powers, Chattopadhyay’s Romantic vision has a redeeming quality about it because it does not envisage the overpowering of the Kol legacy with any civilizing mission on the part of the British. He does bring in a reference to the Asuras, another indigenous group residing in the jungles of Palamau, commenting upon their proneness to extinction. However, he also critiques the civilizing missions of the hegemonic powers which he sees as robbing the indigenous communities of their very essence and uniqueness. Thus, on the one hand, while he is self-conscious about his own position as a ‘cultured’ native from the metropole (the seat of colonial power), on the other hand, he is also aware of its deterring influence on the indigeneity of certain groups. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chattopadhyay acknowledges the cultural significance, legacy and authority of the tribal inhabitants of the primeval forests of Palamau, the knowledge of which he aspires to gain through his travels.
Palamau, as a narrative, incorporates within itself the intersectional possibilities of both the memoir and the travelogue forms of writing. The narrator undertakes not just a literal, physical journey by various modes of locomotion into the heart of a Romantic wilderness, but also embarks on a mental journey into the past when he sets down to recount his experiences. The problematic interplay of memory, reminiscence and the actual temporal framework of the events add to the introspective nature of the work. It opens up new generic possibilities for the narrator to deal with certain contending issues as he retrospectively assesses his experiences of youth from the vantage point of his mature years. The skillful blend of his past youthful exuberance at Palamau and his present wizened, more informed outlook upon his experience has an almost Wordsworthian resonance in underlining the communion he has achieved with Nature. Nature evolves to become a transcendental source of nurturing his Romantic insight for pondering upon the deeper levels of existence. The aesthetics of the picturesque landscape of Palamau has enabled him to undertake a metaphorical journey into self-actualization and fashion his own socio-ethnic sense of identity. The subtext of negotiating with the complex concepts of masculinity, race, hierarchy, modernity and civilization also remains palpably embedded within Chattopadhyay’s narrative. Thus, Palamau exists as a legacy of the colonial Bengali man engaging with travel and its associated discursive travails, desperately trying to constitute an idea of the self within the larger imaginary of the nation while also attempting to synthesize it with his own Romantic perceptions.
Stella Chitralekha Biswas is currently registered as a Doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at the Central University of Gujarat. Her research interests include studies pertaining to colonial Bengal, sexuality archives, prostitution discourses, gender studies, juvenile literature, pedagogy, speculative fiction, etc.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.