As we observe the 75th death anniversary of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (15th September 1876 to 16th January 1938), he is a mythical figure like Valmiki or Ved Vyas rather than a novelist of popular fiction. The values he propagated, the outcomes he envisaged and the nuclear family which he anticipated as the obvious institutions built around bonds of love, respect, empathy and trust seems to have always been there. It is difficult for us to imagine times which were different when women were tortured and raped within families, betrayed and abandoned by lovers and often rendered shelterless or ended up invariably in brothels. True, there were times when Raja Rammohan Roy had almost been able to end the practice of widow burning and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar slowly convinced women to read and write, yet the institution of the family was at best a lose collection of people staying and reproducing under a roof. It was a kind of a shelter, an eating place for free and in fact, had little scope for care of the ill and the old, a far cry from what we take for granted.
Against this backdrop Sarat babu struggled to put forth his ideology of what the constitutive force of society should be. In no uncertain terms he asserted it would be women of every shade and hue, of every personality type with only one thing running through them and which was of empathy, forbearance, patience, and concern for everyone in the world. The binding element of a family, mutual bonds of affection, emotions of nurture and care and a site for care of the young and the old did not really exist at that point of time. These, were actually, in a systematic manner invented through Sarat Chandra’s efforts at fine tuning our sensibilities to the above mentioned emotions. These emotions, once established in the popular psyche made a major contribution towards the emergence of the family. The family would serve to absorb and provide for unconditionally and emerge as the unit of a society upon which the new nation would be based. Sarat Chandra helped produce a site, a concrete space and an institution, especially the modern nuclear family in which individuals could be honed as responsible members of the society.
The fountainhead of the new society, for Sarat Chandra was neither the high philosophy of Raja Rammohan Roy, nor the moral ideals of Swami Vivekananda though he admired the latter enormously. The point of departure from the Brahmos were that they spoke more about theology and far less about the emotions of the people, how what was right to the heart was absolutely right; kindness could only achieve justice and justice could only be attained through mercy; a direct attack on this Renascent order where the head and the heart were kept apart. A deeper reason could also be that his was a family of Brahmins who when displaced by the rise of Brahmo morality lost its clientele and was also not able to access the plum positions in colonial Bengal.
Neither Sarat Chandra nor his brother ever married; the latter became Swami Vedananda, a close aide of Swami Vivekananda. Sarat Chandra admired Vivekananda enormously and in fact the character of Indranath, in the novel Srikanto was penned after the charismatic Sanyasi. But where Sarat Chandra differed from Vivekananda was in the address of women. Vivekananda was uncomfortable with the nautch girls and often walked away in repulsion when he saw prostitutes. Sarat Chandra extolled these very women. He discovered kindness; irrespective of whether a woman was the Empress of her kingdom as Bijoya, or she was a leader of a movement as Bharati, or she be the naïve Kironmoyee or the liberal minded autonomous and yet loyal in love as Achala or the ever romantic Lalita, or the fallen woman, Chandramukhi and even the haughty Paro, women were always to ask men whether they had eaten well, or had a good night’s rest and never balked from providing shelter even to those who potentially might harm them. Indeed, Shoroshi refused to give up her lecherous husband to the police even when she had long abandoned him. And with such repetitions, uniformities and always drawing the same conclusion from every situation, Sarat Chandra developed a form for his novel; through this form he put forth his ideology and which was the foundational importance of the feminine as the basis for a civilized, forbearing, just and mutually cooperative society. Sarat Chandra’s politics lay in the stereotyping of women as kind and hence underscored the importance of placing the female principle at the heart of the society, as its constitutive force.
For most experts on the novelist and for the novelist himself, Devdas was among his worst compositions. Yet if anyone brings Sarat Chandra into his mythical status today, it is Devdas. Devdas in many ways forms the crux of Sarat Chandra. If we create a world in which women, irrespective of where they are located and irrespective of whom they are shower generosity and kindness upon extreme clemency the man at the receiving end can only become a Devdas, bereft of agency, shorn of his ego, rendered as if made of clay. The creation of Devdas shows how little Sarat Chandra cared what happened to the men, for he dreamt of a civilization to be wholly composed of feminine empathy. Few feminists would be able to match the levels of this doyen of the Bengal Renaissance.