Betrayed By Hope. A Play on the Life of Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal. Harper and Collins. New Delhi. 2020.
Betrayed By Hope is a slim volume consisting of a single play that seeks to investigate the follies of Michael Madhusudan Dutta. While Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Sarat Chandra are widely known outside the world of the Bengali reading public, Michael Madhusudan Dutta is not so familiar. Hence the efforts by Ms Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal at presenting Michael, as he is better referred to through a modern-day researcher on this poet. The researcher, who apparently starts from Michael’s genius gets increasingly disillusioned as she delves into his life where the impulsive nature of the man, his bigamy, neglect of his first wife and children born of her, his constant debt and eventual penury and refusal to mend his ways which makes the protagonist of the play construe his genius as delusional. The words of the protagonist in the play reminds me of the heaps of criticisms against Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU, as to why he continued to study at an age when he should be working and earning to run his family. The play, also, through the protagonist has a similar position on Michael. Such are the mentalities of the everyday middle class who struggles to maintain a semblance of dignified living by engaging with his labour in the world of production and because of the drudgery and yet compulsions of everyday life develop a deep contempt for those who are the idealists and engaged in works of the higher order. In other words, these are the very words of Narendra Modi when he coins the term Andolanjivi for idealists who work towards the creation of culture and ideals for the society. Thus, I sense a whiff of right-wing snigger at Michael.
There is yet another aspect to this story and which is that of late there has been a rather perverted attention towards the Bengalis and Bengali culture. Notwithstanding the angst of a group of Bengalis who in various kinds of outfits are resisting the imposition of Hindi and the flood of Hindi speaking immigrants into Bengal, grabbing land, jobs and property and the public spaces, there is yet another kind of appropriation of the Bengali culture by the high and mighty. It is out of the latter trend that Arnab Goswami and Smriti Irani speak Bangla and they must have made enormous efforts to learn it, Modi dresses up as Tagore, Amit Shah squats on Tagore’s seat which no Bengali dare touch, companies from across India want to have Seminars in Kolkata and so on. Here the moneyed are nw using their economic power to appropriate the Bengali culture and squeeze the Bengali out of its ownership. The appropriation of the Bengali culture is not very unlike the greed of the Bihari taxiwallah to buy land in Bengal, of the BJP to use the instrument of the NRC to throw Bengalis out of India, of Bibek Debroy’s inane comparison of Bengal’s economy to that of Bangladesh. These are designs to take Bengal away together with its land, language and culture and throw the Bengalis out bereft of all that they ever held. The future that the BJP and the right wing thinks for Bengal is not any different from what the Indians have been doing to its indigenous people for ages. The play Betrayed By Hope, is also an effort in that direction. Hence it is nothing short of being a sinister ploy to break the spine of the Bengali culture, which undoubtedly inheres in the persona and works of Michael Madhusudan Dutta.
Michael Madhusudan was born an upper caste Hindu and lived as the only child of his doting parents. He lived in the times of Derozio, times that Raja Rammohan Roy had ushered in with his nearly single-handed vision of a future for Bengal. Loosely known as the age of the Renaissance and social reform, there emerged a forward-looking thought on integrating the Bengali culture which was overwhelmingly Hindu to the ideals of the West. By “west” the social reformers meant the secular and liberal ideals of Europe and not Christianity because Rammohan, who was the originator of secular thought in India, was deeply critical of Christianity for its refusal to step out of its religious moorings into the secular world. The Hindu College admitted Hindu and Muslim students but refused to admit Christians because they could not be adequately secularized. Michael’s conversion to Christianity was thus strange; it shows us that Michael was not comfortable living in a secular space, he needed Gods and as was the mood of times, One God. The Brahmo Samaj under Maharshi Debendranath transformed itself into a fully religious outfit where a Formless Absolute was worshipped, which Michael may have found too abstract and esoteric. He was full blooded and needed concrete stuff; he may have chosen Christianity for its innate Idolatry, namely in the Persona of Jesus. There was no question of becoming a Muslim for that kind of conversion was mainly for singers and performers who wanted to belong to powerful coteries dominated by Muslim artists. Islam as a religion became almost invisible in the public space after the Mughals and while it was still identified as the faith of the rulers and culture of the Nizams, no one ever thought of it as a religion anymore and with the Mughal Empire on its way to a natural demise, Islam no longer existed in the cognition of the Indians and least of all the Bengalis. So, for Michael, Christianity it had to be. He was called Madhusudan; Michael was what he called himself as a Christian.
Michael must be understood as seeking the past glory from the first principles and not following Rammohan and the Brahmos. Medieval tales of honour and bravado, gore and courage endeared him more than a world of ideas only. However, Michael also represented an emerging trend in Bengal and which was to get more physical with one’s participation in the creation of a new culture. Sati was a culture of the body, the masochism and the suicide and so would be the onset of Agniyug of Bengal terrorism with Khudiram Bose in 1911 and between this period was Michael Madhusudan, with the same self-destructive energies towards martyrdom. It was in this spirit that he wrote his tome to Ravana. Meghnadbadh Kavya is his version of the Ramayana where Ravana is the hero and Ram is a conqueror, who wins through trickery and treachery. In Ram, he sees a Robert Clive, who captured Bengal through conspiracy with a ramshackle and rikety army of monkeys. Being a zamindar of Bengal, he aligned his sympathies with Ravana, a guy who was defending his territory and honour, much like the Bengali zamindar, a class to which he belonged. Michael was indeed impulsive in which he did not always attend to the fact that Ravana kidnapped Sita. If we conceptualize Michael’s age as one where modernity was trying to force medieval thoughts down, then Michael was yet to emerge fully into modernity. Despite his western clothes and demeanour, he remained essentially medieval, hooked on to stories of valour without the right values and the reason he clung to Christianity and to Ravana’s prowess were both because of his medieval thoughts. Therefore, initially the Bengali elite used to the high ground of idealism found Michael’s works as out of place. However, the sheer power of his poetry, the grandeur of his language and the vividness of imageries soon won the Bengalis over. Michael was a rage as a genre unto his own. But to bring about this genre, his own brand of the Bengali culture he had to struggle, mostly all by himself. That was his mission and not a personal ambition; he was betrayed not by hope but by his circumstances.
If one must read Michael then one must read him in the same way as one reads Raja Rammohan Roy; both trying to create a whole new sense of future for the Bengali culture by connecting deep into its past, by collecting memories and myths, paring some and repatriating others, both were lonesome in their missions, attacked in their life time and neither buckled under pressure because they were carrying within them inspirations transcendental to the world they lived in. Both were regarded as heretics in their respective families, and both were disowned and disinherited. Yet, Rammohan was fortunate to have inherited his father’s fortunes while Michael was deprived of his, partly by law and partly by his relatives. Rammohan had wealth to pursue his mission, Michael lived off borrowed wealth. Yet, Michael had no qualms about his debts because he had a huge sense of entitlement because of what he was supposed to have inherited and hence his net worth was he not to be deprived and because he was aware that so unmatched were his talents that Bengal owed a debt to him. To judge this genius with the morals of the mediocre is certainly a travesty that the authors seem to have committed.