Monday, 21 March 2016

An Indian for All Seasons (The many lives of R.C.Dutt) by Meenakshi Mukherjee

                      RC DUTT was  second Indian to get into Indian Civil Service(ICS).Meenakshi Mukherjee  calls him an Indian  for  all seasons": a novelist,administrator,scholar of Sanskrit,translator, Anglophone moderniser,,economist,political agitator,public figure, and also,basically ,as an individual , who enjoyed the company of his family and friends but was forced to spend a  great deal of his time alone"He took early retirement from  government service  in 1897 and  in the same year ,was offered a chair in Indian history by the University College , London.
                                In May , 1899,he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.He translated Rig Veda Samhita  from Sanskrit  into Bengali , knowing fully well that in the late nineteenth century, he was not supposed to translate such holy Sanskrit texts  because he was not a Brahman(But a Kayastha) by caste  Meenakshi writes extensively about Dutt's book "The Economic History of India" ,published in 1902,in which he claims that in 1750,India supplied nearly a quarter of the world's manufacturing output, and by 1900,it had declined to less than 2 per cent."After his retirement , Dutt wrote abridged English verse translations of Mahabharata and Ramayana.He wrote six novels in Bengali,two in English.In his  several essays published in Bangadarshan and Prachar,he argued that we need to know our history to understand who we are."No subject,not even poetry, had such a hold upon me as history"  said  Dutt in an essay he wrote in 1905.He had a frequent exchange of letters with his children.
              He became the President of Indian National Congress in  December ,1899 and presided over its session in Lucknow..He wrote  a literary history of Bengal.
About his postings ,he wrote to his brother:"They have treated me on the whole fairly, but not with any special favour.The doors of the Secretariat have been kept closed to me".
                                             He served Baroda state service  twice , first as Amatya(Finance Minister) and later , in June 1909, as Dewan(Prime Minister)."It is curious that he(Dutt) hardly ever complained of loneliness when he was in England, even though after 1898 , his family hardly ever joined him there", though he complained of loneliness  when he was in Baroda.He was nominated as a member of The Royal Commission on Decentralization(RDC) in November , 1907.His last assignment was as Dewan (Prime minister) of Baroda , which he joined in June , 1909.He died , while on this job, on 30th November,1909.
Dutt's life is marked by many contradictions ,in his attitudes to language(Bengali,English),to colonialism,to religion(Casteism) and to tradition.Meenakshi Mukherjee does not gloss over them.
"He agitated all his life against the injustices  of the British rule in India but proclaimed his loyalty to the Queen at the same time. . . . .Till the end of his life, he remained undecided whether his true vocation  was literature or politics." He turned to Bengali  for his novels, though he was himself  born into one of the most anglicized families of Calcutta.His historical novels  idealized the caste-based  values of Hindu society and glorified Sati and 3Jauhar, his daughters were married outside caste and linguistic boundaries.In the beginning of his career ,when he wrote The Peasantry of Bengal, he was a fierce critic of Lord Cornwallis's Permanent Settlement, on the ground that it  it allowed the landlords to oppress the farmers.27 years later,in his letters to Lord Curzon , he took exactly the opposite view"It is difficult to ignore this visible shift in R.C.Dutt's sympathy towards the landowning sector of Bengal society" writes Meenakshi.

"Biography is an impure genre, flanked on one side by the factual demands of history and on the other by the narrativity of fiction which gains in depth if there are glimpses of the private individual.Between these poles of expectation ., random traces of politics, sociology, philosophy, literary criticism, psychoanalysis,journalism and gossip , make their appearance".Meenakshi has been able to successfully meld these elements  in a manner  that made the man and the milieu come alive in an interactive way.
Meenakshi Mukherjee was a sound scholar of English literature and a Sahitya Akademi Award winner,passed away in Hyderabad on  Wednesday,September16,2009,at the age of 72.She was then travelling alone and was going to board an Indigo Airlines flight to Delhi.She fainted and collapsed at Gate 22 of the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport and was rushed to Apollo Medical Centre at the airport itself where she was declared dead.She was on her way to Delhi to release her new book, An Indian for All Seasons, a biography of famous historian  R.C. Dutt , published by Penguin India.The book was slated to be released on Thursday,September 17,2009.
              Meenakshi Mukherjee has brought out  a truth, through this biography which touched me to my depths.A civil servant  may be an Indian for all seasons  but  lives and dies in contradictions.That is the fate he or she chooses for himself or herself.This was true in the times of R.C.Dutt.This is true  even today(2016).A truly great book .I recommend that this book should be read by every  one  who is interested in the history  and contradictions  of civil service in India.