Devi Chaudhurani

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Devi Chaudhurani

Cover of the book
Author Bankim Chandra Chatterji
Original title দেবী চৌধুরানী
Country India
Language Bengali
Genre Novel (Nationalist)
Publication date
1884
Media type Print (Paperback)

Devi Chaudhurani (Bengali: দেবী চৌধুরানী) is a Bengali novel written by Bankim Chandra Chatterji and published in 1884. It was later translated to English by Subodh Chunder Mitter.[1] Following closely after Anandamath, Bankim Chandra renewed call for a resurgent India that fights against oppression of the British Empire with strength from within the common people, based on traditional Indian values of austerity, dedication and selflessness. It is another important novel in the history of Bengali and Indian literature. Since it fuelled the patriotic struggle for Indian independence from the British Empire, the novel was banned by the British. The ban was lifted later by the government of India after independence. In this novel, Bankim Chandra reinforced his belief that armed face-to-face conflict with the Royal Army is the only way to win independence.

Very importantly, Bankim Chandra saw the struggle being led by a woman, the protagonist, in a time when most women remained behind purdah and did not even show her face to men outside her immediate family. This was a tremendous inspiration to scores of women who gradually came out of their homes and actively joined the independence struggle in the decades to come. Some feminists sees the ending as a disappointment, however, because the protagonist prefers to build her home instead of continuing with the independence movement.

Plot summary[edit]

The very first line is a hilarious dialog — "Pi! O Pi! O Pipi! O Prafulla! O Porarmukhi (monkey-face)!" — where the middle-age mother of Prafulla (nickname Pipi) is looking for her 20-something daughter. They are a two-person family in a small village of Bengal, hardly making ends meet by doing odd jobs. Prafulla is married but is shunned by her wealthy father-in-law, Haraballabh, because of a spat between him and her father on the day of her wedding. By Hindu custom prevalent at that time, a girl, once married, could not be divorced or remarried. Heartbroken at the fate of his only child, her father died after a few years, leaving the family in penury.

As the story progresses, we get to know that Prafulla's mother still loves her very much, but endless misery and hunger leaves her often distraught and ill. She soon takes to bed and, in absence of medical care, dies. Prafulla's neighbors, more compassionate in death than in living, helps her cremate her mother. Grief-stricken Prafulla is given shelter by her neighbor. But she soon overhears that they are planning to sell her to a pimp. We learn that Prafulla is very beautiful, and the neighbor is expecting a good price.

Scared by the looming fate, Prafulla takes the drastic step to flee in the middle of the night to find the house of her in-laws whom she has never known, without any money, with knowledge of only the name of the village and name of her father-in-law. Benevolent people, surprised to see her traveling alone, help her on the way. This is consistent with the custom in Bengal that all unknown women were to be treated as one's own mother.

Now the neighbor is in a fix, as villagers know that Prafulla was in her custody. She frames a story that Prafulla's mother's ghost appeared at night and took her daughter away with her; she whispers it to her neighbor and warns her not to tell anyone. Obviously, very soon the entire village knew of the story. The superstitious ones believed it, and others who did not had hardly any concern for the orphan. The news also reached Haraballabh's house, who couldn't care less.

Much has changed in the house of Haraballabh since Prafulla's wedding. Haraballabh, adamant at making his point against Prafulla's father, got his son, Brajeswar (Braja), a single child, married twice more. (The British rule at that time permitted polygamy.) The second wife is Nayantara, and third wife is Sagarmani — they live at Haraballabh's at their rightful places. One day, a sobbing destitute girl arrives at the front porch but doesn't speak. A maid takes her to the ladies of the house who grant her temporary shelter. When they ask her where she is from, she doesn't answer. The ladies and maids from the neighboring houses troop in to see the newcomer, until one among them recognizes her as Prafulla. After much debate and disbelief, it's finally determined that she is indeed Prafulla.

Since a daughter-in-law has arrived — that, too, she has stepped in the house for the first time — she has to be greeted in style. As per her mother-in-law's orders, the maids clean her up, dress her in bridal saree, makeup and ornaments. Her mother-in-law receives her with all the traditional ritual and fanfare. Funnily, as per custom then, a mother-in-law is supposed to find a fault with the bride. She looks at Prafulla, sighs and says, "Way too beautiful." Obviously, she has taken a liking to Prafulla. Nayantara, who comes from a wealthy family but lacks beauty, is cross at her. She is afraid that Prafulla may get the enviable position of the eldest daughter-in-law. Sagarmani (Sagar), young, pretty and childishly playful, comes from a well-to-do family, though not so wealthy as of Nayantara's, likes Prafulla as a playmate.

Prafulla is taken to her bridal bed in the night, and Braja is trying to make small talk, overwhelmed by her beauty. Sagar locks them in, after silently showing them the lock and key. Bankim Chandra takes a bold step of describing a kiss between Braja and Prafulla, apologizing profusely to the readers for "offending" their sensibilities. It also turns out that Braja is very much afraid of his dictatorial father, which was again a common thing.

The next day when her husband is at lunch, Braja's mother, while fanning her husband as per custom, informs him about Prafulla. Haraballabh is taken aback at first, but then orders that she be thrown out, turning down repeated requests from Braja's mother to allow Prafulla to stay. Disappointed, she then asks a question that will come back to haunt Haraballabh later in the plot, "How will she make ends meet?" — an implicit request for an allowance for the poor young woman. Haraballabh nonchalantly replies, "Let her be a thief or a dacoit." Prafulla, in anticipation that things will come to this, had requested her mother-in-law previously to ask this question. But her mother-in-law never had the heart of relaying that reply back to Prafulla. It was Nayantara who happily took the initiative to do that.

Prafulla leaves everything behind, including the expensive dresses and ornaments. She keeps only the ring that Braja had given her previous night. She wanders from place to place, then enters the jungle in the suicidal hope that some wild animal will kill her. But, deep in the jungle, she comes across a clearing where stood a two-storied palatial house, next to a clear pond, empty and desolate. She strolls into the house to find a dying old man, gasping for his last drop of water. She quickly fetches some water from the pond. The old man, in his dying breath, gives her secret location of his treasure buried in a ground-floor room.

Next morning, Prafulla digs up the place, and finds large brass vessels full of gold coins. She takes one coin and sets out looking for a way to the nearest village to buy some grocery, but she loses her way in the jungle. All of a sudden, a tall handsome Brahmin comes out of nowhere to block her way. In a baritone voice, the man demands her identity and purpose. On learning that Prafulla wants to buy grocery, he reveals that he indeed has a store if she has money. Prafulla shows him the gold coin. "It's too much," the man says, "Do you have small change?" Prafulla says, "No. Gold coins only." The man, looking at her poor appearance, says in surprise and disbelief, "All gold coins?" Then the man reveals that he is Bhabani Pathak.

Prafulla is shocked, she trembles in fear, for Bhabani Pathak is the most powerful dacoit of all. Bhabani takes her to his store, lets her pick whatever she wants, but refuses to take the coin. "I don't have enough change," he says, "Come back anytime to take whatever you need, pay me when you owe me the price of a gold coin." He even arranges for a porter from among his men, and accompanies Prafulla back to the house.

Now comes a defining moment of the story. Bhabani looks at the hoard of coins, surprised. He then tells Prafulla, "I won't touch your money, but I have to ask you this. You are now very very wealthy. What do you intend to do with all this money?" Prafulla says she has no idea. Bhabani tells her, "There are two ways from here - you can either spend this money for good of the people, or you can spend this for your own enjoyment." Prafulla tries to fathom the gravity of the question - she asks, "What if I want it all for myself?" Bhabani replies, "Then I'll have to escort you out of this jungle, for your presence will ruin many men from my group. But also consider this, the money will be gone one day, so will be your youth and beauty. And with it, the men will be gone as well." Prafulla says, "What if I spend it for people?" Bhabani says, "Then that is even harder path." She now understands, and unhesitatingly, chooses ascetism over materialism. Bankim Chandra here reaffirms his faith in Indian value system.

Bhabani is very pleased, but he also tells her that she needs to learn a lot and have to undergo a rigorous education course for five years. For these five years, she has to trust & obey Bhabani completely, cannot meet anyone unless Bhabani sanctions it, cannot go out of the jungle. She readily agrees. On learning that Prafulla is illiterate (women illiteracy was a common social malady in India at that time), Bhabani tells her that her education will begin there.

Bhabani arranges for two soulmates for her — two young woman of her age — Diba and Nishi. Diba (The Day) is very fair and very learned, while Nishi (The Night) is very dark, skilled, and illiterate. Prafulla learns everything from her alphabets to maths, philosophy, politics, music, dance from Diba and from the steady stream of teachers whom Bhabani appointed. Prafulla always kept behind purdah while in front of male teachers, till one day Bhabani told her she has to learn martial arts. She tonsures her head and learns freehand fighting, weapons and military tactics from male instructors.

Bhabani tells Prafulla of the oppression of the British. Here Bankim Chandra describes British tyranny in such graphic terms that was never written before. Bhabani tells how British carry out tortures on poor farmers and their women. "She is stripped in public and raped. She is tied up, naked, to a pole in the open, whipped, her breasts chopped off, insects inserted into her private parts."

Bhabani subjects Prafulla to another learning as well. In one year, Prafulla spent in comfort like in a well-to-do family. In another year, she lived as a queen, treated and pampered royally including everything from her bed, to her clothes to her food. In another year, she lived as a mendicant, slept on floor, wore coarse clothes, survived on meager diets. Prafulla smilingly took it all, and preferred the ascetic life.

However, Prafulla never revealed to Bhabani that she is married.

At the end, Prafulla emerges as a leader of people, a queen yet a saint, almost a goddess in her air, benevolence and wrath. Hence Bhabani calls her "Devi Chaudhurani" — The Goddess Queen.

With Bhabani as her minister and adviser, Devi claims right over a vast area of southern Bengal. She holds moving royal courts at regular schedules and places, which are well known to people of the land, but kept secret from the British. In these courts, Devi appears dressed as a queen, wearing jewels, seated on a throne, Diba and Nishi fanning her from both sides. She listens to the problems of the people, delivers justice, helps the poor with money. Such courts are also recruiting grounds for Bhabani building up an army of Barkandaz — Queen's Guards. The guards are led by Bhabani's right hand - Rangalal. Devi warns tyrant lords to stop their repression and attacks them if they don't pay heed, but she also avoids bloodbath as much as she can. Soon she builds a reputation that is fearsome to the lords, ray of hope to the people, serious headache for the British. Royal Army combs the jungles and rivers in search of her, but Bhabani's spies are always one step ahead, and the Queen's Guards know the jungles much better.

In a strange twist of destiny, Prafulla has now become a dacoit, just as Haraballabh asked her to be.

Many years pass by. Haraballabh ends up losing money in bad investments and is now in the risk of defaulting on the whopping tax on his estate that the British extract. If he does not pay up by sunset of a particular day, he will lose his estate instantly. And Devi gets the news.

Frantic, Haraballabh sends Braja for help from first Nayantara's and then Sagarmani's fathers, but they both refuse to help. A disappointed Braja is in Sagar's room at her father's house, preparing to leave. Sagar pleads with him to stay, but Braja has lost his cool and badmouths her father. Upset herself, Sagar screams, "If I am my father's daughter, then, then, ..." She searches for words, when someone from behind prompted her, "you will massage my feet." Sagar, in a fit a rage, repeats it verbatim. Giving foot massage to wife was considered ignominious and effeminate. Naturally, such a challenge enrages Braja even more, and he storms out. Sagar cries a lot, and only after some amount of time, it occurs to her to find out who prompted her. And it turns out that it was Devi herself. Sagar is surprised to know that her playmate Prafulla is now the all-powerful Devi. Devi assures Sagar of getting her revenge and outlines a plan.

A word is secretly sent to Braja that Devi is willing to loan him the money and is instructed to meet her at her yacht at a particular place and time in night. Braja is now desperate to save the estate and readily agrees. When he arrives at the place, the guards take him inside the yacht, which is extraordinarily decorated, fit for an empress. Behind silk curtains, reclining on inches thick cushions, is Devi. She is dressed as a queen but is wearing a veil. She asks Braja to sit down and starts asking questions. He wonders why she is intentionally speaking in a hoarse voice. After managing to scare him enough, Devi demands that he massages her feet. He hesitates but the loan from Devi is the only ray of hope for him, so he agrees. Devi sticks out her legs through the curtain. When Braja starts massaging, she giggles and laughs out loud. He is now even more surprised. He cried, 'Sagar!' and opened up the curtain to see that it's actually Sagar who has been talking to him all the time! Sagar's sweet revenge has finally been fulfilled.

Sagar now reveals to Braja how she ended up in Devi's yacht, but without revealing Devi's true identity. He is only too happy to get the money. Devi sets the condition that the loan has to be paid back after 3 months, at a particular place and time. Braja gratefully accepts the condition.

Haraballabh is stunned when Braja tells him the money has been arranged. He also reveals how and where the loan has to be paid off.

As the loan due date approaches, Braja repeatedly pleads to his father to give him the money so that he can personally pay it off. Haraballabh listens to it all, but has other plans. A day before the loan, Haraballabh goes to the Royal Army headquarters and gives them the location of Devi. The British, ever suspicious of natives, demand that he accompanies the army. Haraballabh now has no choice but to accede.

On the other hand, Braja is apologetic that he could not keep his word, and sets off for Devi's place in the hope of pleading for some more time.

It was a night of full moon. At the given location on a jungle river, Devi is on the roof of her yacht, intently playing an instrument called Veena. The yacht is dark, save for a few lights. The place is desolate except for Diba and Nishi. Not even her guards can be seen anywhere. Presently, Rangalal, the leader of the guards, appears out of the jungle and requests to meet Devi. In the conversation, Rangalal informs Devi that a large British troop contingent is headed this way for arresting her. It turns out that Devi already knows that, she intends to surrender and hence had sent the her guards away on a different purpose. She is now angry that Bhabani Pathak is coming back with the guards to save her.

The Royal Army and Queen's Guards reach the yacht's location at almost the same time and the battle begins. It seems that Devi has chosen her location well: It was a shallow river, with deep jungles on either side, difficult for a traditional troop deployment. The Royal Army soldiers has to wade it through, which places the Guards at an advantage as they are much more adept to fighting in such conditions. Devi is unhappy about grim prospect of potentially large loss of lives. Notably, she counts potential losses on both sides to determine that so many deaths are unnecessary. She is standing on the roof, watching the battle, when she notices a spot of dark clouds gathering at the horizon. She smiles and asks Rangalal to carry a retreat message to Bhabani with the assurance that she is not going to surrender. She then goes inside. Bhabani looks at the cloud when Rangalal reaches him with the message, and understands Devi's plan.

On Devi's orders, Diba now brings out Braja, who had arrived much earlier and was kept in a room, sticks a white flag in his hand, and asks him to wave it from the roof of the yacht. Braja is surprised to see a battle raging around, and starts waving the flag. The fighting stops as per protocol. Rangalal was not expecting it; he comes back to the yacht and challenges Braja. It turns out that Braja was unaware of the white-flag protocol, but refuses to step down. Rangalal snatches and throws away the flag. But the fighting does not resume, as Queen's Guards have started melting away into the forest.

Royal Army surrounds the yacht, and the Major boards it with a few soldiers. A few rowers sit on the decks quietly, offering no resistance. Only three women and two men are found in the yacht — they all are quietly waiting for him in the royal room. Major is stunned by the opulence, but is unable to determine who the Devi is, as all of them were in simple clothes. Devi suggests in a meek voice that he should get his detective. Major likes the idea and sends for the detective. The "detective" is Haraballabh, who has never seen Devi up close, and does not know her true identity. But Haraballabh is afraid to admit that and makes quite a mess of it after he arrives at the yacht. The Major, frustrated, determines Diba to be the Devi as she was wearing a more expensive cloth. In the meantime, the dark clouds have now covered the entire sky and the wind has started to blow.

And the storm hits. Here the Royal Army turns out to be merely occupants of Bengal, without an understanding of the people or the environment. The ferocious tropical storm and blinding rain take them by surprise. The sailors were quietly waiting for this moment. In an instant, they loosen the sails and cut the anchoring ropes. The yacht spins out of control, sending the people inside head over heels. Haraballabh ends up in the lap of Nishi, Major in the lap of Diba and Braja in the lap of Rangalal. Only Devi was anticipating this moment and has managed to balance herself.

The sailors are too familiar with the abilities of the yacht and has handled such storms many times before. They adroitly steer it and use the full blast of the storm to complete effect. The Royal Army protection ring has shattered and the soldiers fall apart in disarray. The yacht runs over the rest of them and swiftly vanishes into the maze-like branches and tributaries of the river.

When the men and women in the room recover, they are surrounded by a group of Queen's Guards who were quietly waiting disguised as sailors. In a single brilliant move, Devi has won the battle, captured the enemy leader, secured both her husband and father-in-law, and managed to do it with minimum loss of lives. The Major and other soldiers captured along with him are kept locked in. Devi now reveals her true identity to Braja and Haraballabh. Haraballabh asks Devi, "Why did you become a dacoit?" Devi, true to her education in Indian values, does not confront her father-in-law. Instead, she asks for forgiveness and pleads him to take her back as his daughter-in-law. Haraballabh is too scared to spurn her.

The Royal Army soldiers are released unharmed near a village, and Braja and Haraballabh are released in another location. Devi also gives them money for their travel. Devi meets Bhabani Pathak and hands over the responsibility of carrying the freedom movement forward.

Back in Haraballabh's house, a fake fourth marriage of Braja is arranged, and Prafulla is welcomed again. She kept such a long veil that neighbours could not see her face.

In the last scene, Sagar is asking Prafulla at Haraballabh's house, "Can a queen become a mere daughter-in-law, an obedient wife, and a simple home maker?" Prafulla replies, "Yes, she can. That's where a woman truly finds her fulfilment. This is a station that is more difficult than being a queen or an ascetic."

Commentary[edit]

In this novel, Bankim Chandra emerged as a writer who is increasingly comfortable with weaving a complex story, and looked at all aspects of a novel. He wove together fun, family drama, a deep knowledge of local customs, with his message for independence from British. Unlike Anandamath, he put together an alternate government in place, led by an ideal leader, steeped in Indian values, directly supported by the people.

Very importantly, Bankim Chandra boldly portrayed the struggle being led by a woman, the protagonist, in a time when most women remained behind purdah and did not even show her face to men apart from her husband and siblings. He used the allegory of actual historical figures of valiant queens across India who had ably led their kingdoms and fought on battlefields. This was a tremendous inspiration to scores of women who gradually came out of their homes and actively joined the independence struggle in the decades to come. Some feminists see the ending as a disappointment however, because the protagonist preferred to build her home instead of continuing with the independence movement, and even asserted that to be the only fulfilment of a woman.[2]

Still Bankim Chandra's achievement was great and he knew that for his story to be accepted by the conservative society around him, he has to make compromises. That compromise may well had been his own view, being a neo-conservative advocating changes to the society but none too drastic.[3] In a complimentary way, he thought a woman's job of keeping a home together is more difficult than the challenges of the outside world. Women all across India in the next decades successfully handled their homes and still actively participated in the freedom struggle.

Interestingly, Bankim Chandra saw the need to defeat the Royal Army, but did not call for total destruction. He saw the conflict being waged with honor and compassion. Also, many of the Royal Army foot soldiers were Indians, and he possibly understood that such militant approach will be self-destructive. In the actual history of Indian independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi confronted the British with the weapon of nonviolence, and he condemned armed militancy and terrorist tactics adopted by some freedom fighters like Khudiram Bose and Surya Sen.[4]

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was later adapted into a film, Debi Chowdhurani in 1974, directed by Dinen Gupta, starring Suchitra Sen in the lead role, with Ranjit Mullick as Brajeswar, Kali Banerjee as Haraballabh, Basanta Chowdhury as Bhabani Pathak.

In Satyajit Ray's 1966 movie Nayak, the plot involves a storyline where the protagonist gets snubbed by a senior actor while enacting Devi Chaudhurani. The protagonist was playing the role of Braja and the senior actor was playing the role of Haraballabh.

Further reading[edit]

The figures of Bhabani Pathak and Debi Chaudhurani were historical figures as found from British records, but very little else was known about them. Bankim Chandra used this lack of information to full advantage to his imagination as an author.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Devi Chaudhurani translated to English by Subodh Chunder Mitter
  2. ^ Ray, Sangeeta (2000). En-gendering India: woman and nation in colonial and postcolonial narratives. India: Duke University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-8223-2453-9 (hardback) Check |isbn= value (help). , Chapter 1: Gender and Nation: Woman Warriors in Chatterjee's Devi Chaudhurani and Anandamath
  3. ^ Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra (2009). Lipner, Julius J., ed. Debi Chaudhurani, Or The Wife Who Came Home. India: Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0-19-538836-7 (hardback) Check |isbn= value (help). 
  4. ^ Charkha, gun, a common link, by Manini Chatterjee