The Raja's New Clothes: Redressing Ravana in Meghanadavadha Kavya
Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) stated quite candidly:
People here grumble that the sympathy of the Poet in Meghanad is with the Raksasas. And that is the real truth. I despise Ram and his rabble, but the idea of Ravan elevates and kindles my imagination; he was a grand fellow.
This confession—really more a proud declaration—appears in a letter to Raj Narain Bose during the period when Dutt was writing his magnum opus, MeghanadavadhaKavya (The slaying of Meghanada), a poem retelling in nine cantos an episode from the Ramayana , composed in Bengali and published in 1861. Unlike more traditional Rims tales, the poem begins in medias res and focuses on Ravana's son Meghanada, telling of his third and final fight in defense of the raksasa clan, his demise, and his obsequies. If one analyzes Dutt's characters closely, one finds that the main protagonists—Rama, Laksmana, and Ravana—are consonant with those characters as found in the most widely known Bengali Ramayana , composed in the fifteenth century by Krttivasa. Likewise, the events are fundamentally those narrated in one portion of Krttivasa's Ramayana : Ravana's two sons, Virabahu and Meghanada, are slain, the latter by Laksmana; Ravana slays Laksmana; Laksmana, with help of a special herb procured by Hanuman, is revived. Nothing in MeghanadavadhaKavya leads the reader to assume any other conclusion than that Ravana will eventually die at the hands of Rama, as happens in the Ramayana . But despite Dutt's rather remarkable adherence to traditional characterizations and events (remarkable, given his declared contempt for Rama and his rabble), his poem engenders in the reader a response vastly different from that produced by the more traditional Rama story. Nirad C. Chaudhuri may have put it most succinctly:
We regarded the war between Rama and Ravana, described in the Ramayana , as another round in the eternal struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. We took Rama as the champion of good and the Demon King Ravana as the champion of evil, and delighted in the episode of Hanumana the Monkey burning Lanka, the golden city of Ravana. But Dutt would be shocking and perplexing us by his all too manifest sympathy for the Demon King, by his glorification of the whole tribe of demons, and his sly attempts to show Rama and his monkey followers in a poor light. . .. He had read Homer and was very fond of him, and it was the Homeric association which was making him represent a war which to us was as much a struggle between opposites and irreconcilables as a war between rivals and equals. When we were thinking of demons and of gods (for Rama was a god, and incarnation of Vishnu himself), Dutt was thinking of the Trojans and the Achaeans. Ravana was to him another Priam, Ravana's son Meghanad a second Hector, and Ravana's city, which to us was the Citadel of Evil, was to Dutt a second Holy Troy.
If both the characterizations and the events in Dutt's poem correspond, by and large, to the Ramayana's core story, how did Dutt manage to "shock" and "perplex" people such as Chaudhuri? Other readers, moreover, take an even more extreme position and conclude that Dutt did not render Rama and Ravana as equals (as is the case with the Iliad's arch foes, Achilles and Hector) but reversed their conventional roles altogether, fashioning Ravana as the hero—the epitome of the sympathetic and respected raja, beloved by his subjects, as well as a devoted brother, husband, and father. How can a work that purports to have as its template a rather predictable story skew the reader's perception of its protagonists so effectively? The answer is complex, for the talented and skillful Dutt employed various literary strategies to accomplish his ends. Elsewhere I have discussed how Dutt used similes to subvert the reader's preconceptions about the traditional epic tale by consistently aligning the raksasas with various heroes of Hindu Indian literature. By the process of elimination Rama and Laksmana, the nominal heroes of the Ramayana , become associated with the opposers of these heroic exemplars. In what follows, I extend my earlier argument, moving from the level of simile to that of storytelling, and argue that Dutt's epic poem tells not one tale but four tales simultaneously, with the three subordinate stories—three of the most prominent tales in Bengali Hinduism—running counter to and subtly undermining the dominant Rama story. As this essay's title suggests, at one level MeghanadavadhaKavya is a tale about the invisible, almost subliminal, cloaking of Ravana in the finery of heroism, while "Ram and his rabble" go about stripped of their traditional garb of glory. But first a bit of background for those unfamiliar with Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Bengal of the nineteenth century. And like Dutt's opus, we begin at a beginning, but not necessarily the beginning.
Background: Multiple Traditions
In 1816 a group of the leading Indian residents of Calcutta established Hindoo College, which opened its doors to Hindu students the following year, expressly "to instruct the sons of the Hindoos in the European and Asiatic languages and sciences." Hindoo College proved to be the intellectual incubator for an amorphous group known as Young Bengal—youths eager to assimilate new and progressive ideas as well as to denounce what they viewed as superstitious, obscurant practices among their fellow Hindus. Starting in 1833, when he was nine years old, Dutt attended the junior department of this college. He had been born in a village in Jessore district (now in Bangladesh) into a fairly well-to-do Hindu family. Dutt's father commanded Persian, still the official language of British India's judicial system, and was employed in Calcutta's law courts. It was to Calcutta that the senior Dutt brought young Madhusudan for his education.
Even outside institutions of formal education, there was at this time considerable enthusiasm for English and for knowledge of all kinds. Various periodicals helped satisfy this need, as did a number of societies. One of these, the Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge, came into being in 1838 with a membership of around 150 of Calcutta's educated elite, including one "Modoosooden" [Madhusudan] Dutt. With such a supportive environment at Hindoo College and within the upper echelons of society (epitomized by the Society), it is not surprising that Madhusudan Dutt began his literary career writing in the English language. English, after all, was the language of the literature he had been taught to respect, the literature for which he had cultivated a taste. As his letters to a classmate make clear, he dearly loved English literature and wanted fiercely to become a writer in English. Boldly he sent off some of his poetry to a couple of British journals, identifying himself to the editor of Bentley's Miscellany , London, in this way:
I am a Hindu—a native of Bengal—and study English at the Hindu College in Calcutta. I am now in my eighteenth year,—"a child"—to use the language of a poet of your land, Cowley, "in learning but not in age."
Of his fantasies there can be no doubt, as a letter to his friend Gour Dass Bysack reveals:
I am reading Tom Moore's Life of my favourite Byron—a splendid book upon my word! Oh! how should I like to see you write my "Life" if I happen to be a great poet—which I am almost sure I shall be, if I can go to England.
In 1843, the year after he wrote the above letters, Dutt went even further in his acceptance of things Occidental: he embraced Christianity, in the face of very strong opposition from his father. As a Christian, Dutt could no longer attend Hindoo College and so transferred to Bishop's College, where his cur-
riculum included Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. At the start of 1848, he left Bengal suddenly, going south to Madras, where he secured employment as a schoolteacher and married, within his profession, the daughter of a Scottish indigo planter. Early on during his sojourn in Madras, the first signs appear of a shift in aspirations from that of becoming a noted poet in English to that of devoting his creative energies to writing in his mother tongue, Bengali.
A year after he arrived in Madras, Dutt published "The Captive Ladle," a very Byronic tale (the epigram for the first canto came from "The Giaour") in two cantos of well-modulated octosyllabic verse. One reviewer—J. E. D. Bethune, then president of the Council of Education, whose opinion Dutt personally sought—advised Dutt to give up writing in English and put his talents to work on Bengali literature. Wrote Bethune to Dutt's friend Bysack, who concurred and passed the advice on to Dutt:
He might employ his time to better advantage than in writing English poetry. As an occasional exercise and proof of his proficiency in the language, such specimens may be allowed. But he could render far greater service to his country and have a better chance of achieving a lasting reputation for himself, if he will employ the taste and talents, which he has cultivated by the study of English, in improving the standard and adding to the stock of the poems of his own language, if poetry, at all events, he must write.
Bethune went on to say that from what he could gather, the best examples of Bengali verse were "defiled by grossness and indecency." He suggested that a gifted poet would do well to elevate the tastes of his countrymen by writing original literature of quality in Bengali, or by translating. Dutt's biographer points out that such counsel was not reserved for Dutt alone but offered by Bethune to the assembled students of Krishnagar College. Given Bethune's stance, it seems safe to assume that he was not simply judging literary merit in the case of "The Captive Ladie." (The piece is actually quite effective poetry.) Rather, he wanted to encourage the writing of Bengali literature, not just good literature per se. It should be noted, moreover, that the following year Bethune was among the founders of the Vernacular Literature Society.
Bysack rephrased parts of that letter and then encouraged Dutt to heed Bethune's words:
His advice is the best you can adopt. It is an advice that I have always given you and will din into your ears all my life. . .. We do not want another Byron or another Shelley in English; what we lack is a Byron or a Shelley in Bengali literature.
The precise impact of Bethune's and Bysack's advice cannot be known with certainty. In an off-cited letter to Bysack a month later, Dutt boasted of a nearly impossible daily regimen of language study: "Here is my routine; 6
to 8 Hebrew, 8 to 12 school, 12-2 Greek, 2-5 Telegu and Sanskrit, 5-7 Latin, 7-10 English." He added that "I devote several hours daily in Tamil" and concluded, with rhetorical panache: "Am I not preparing for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers?"
Earlier that year, though, even before Bethune's unexpected, unenthusiastic reception of "The Captive Ladie," the first signs of Dutt's impending conversion to his mother tongue for creative writing had already shown themselves, well before "The Captive Ladie" had even been published. He wrote Bysack, asking him to send from Calcutta two books. The books requested were the Bengali re-creations (not really translations) of India's Sanskrit epics and were among the first books printed in Bengali, published from the Baptist missionaries' press at Serampore. The stories and characters from these two epics, known to Dutt from childhood, provided about half the raw material for what he would write in Bengali, including Meghanadavadha Kavya .
In 1856, at the age of thirty-two, Dutt returned to Calcutta. Between 1858 and 1862, when he finally got an opportunity to go to England (to study law), Dutt wrote and published in Bengali five plays, three narrative poems, and a substantial collection of lyrics organized around the Radha-Krsna theme. Along with all this, he found time to translate three plays from Bengali into English.
By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the original ideals of the Young Bengal group—an earnest, enlightened quest for knowledge coupled with a rejection of what they viewed as demeaning superstition—had been misinterpreted by some to mean aping the British and flouting social norms. In particular, patronizing dancing girls, meat-eating, and the drinking of alcohol (taboo among devout Hindus), along with speaking a modicum of English, came to symbolize for some their "enlightenment." Quite otherwise was Dutt's embrace of things Occidental. He had a good liberal education, was a practiced writer (although much of that practice had been in English), and had drunk deeply from European and Indian literature. Of a fellow writer Dutt wrote in 1860:
Byron, Moore and Scott form the highest Heaven of poetry in his estimation. I wish he would travel further. He would then find what "hills peep o'er hills"—what "Alps on Alps arise!" As for me, I never read any poetry except that of Valmiki, Homer, Vyasa, Virgil, Kalidas, Dante (in translation), Tasso (Do) and Milton. These kavikulaguru [master poets] ought to make a fellow a first rate poet—if Nature has been gracious to him.
There was little or no doubt in his mind that in his case Nature had indeed been kind. And by the end of the 1850s he felt himself prepared "for the great object of embellishing the tongue of my fathers." The pattern—of beginning one's literary life writing in English and then switching to one's mother
tongue—was not an uncommon one. R. Parthasarathy, himself an Indian poet who also writes in English (not his mother tongue), refers to Dutt as "the paradigm of the Indian poet writing in English . . . torn by the tensions of this 'double tradition.'" But it was in Bengali that Dutt made his lasting literary contributions, foremost among them Meghanadavadha Kavya .
The Text: Epic Departures
To reiterate, Meghanadavadha Kavya tells of the third and decisive encounter between Ravana's son and Rama's forces, wherein Meghanada is slain by Rama's brother Laksmana. In the first of his nine cantos, Dutt introduces us to Ravana and Meghanada on the day prior to the slaying; at the epic's conclusion, Ravana performs Meghanada's obsequies, a scene that dramatically unifies Dutt's narrative while also foreshadowing the closure of the Ramayana's larger conflict, Rama and Ravana's battle over Sita. The reader can assume that events following Meghanada's demise will largely correspond to those found in the traditional Ramayana , since Dutt's narrative throughout has conformed in essence to that epic. But Rama's story is merely the warp, if you will, of Dutt's poem; three other tales form the woof of this Ramayana fabric, interweaving with Rama's tale to create texture and, most importantly, to subvert the main narrative's purport—the aggrandizement of Rama.
Complex narrative structuring was by no means introduced into Indian literature by Dutt. Sanskrit boasts a type of multisemic narrative which, if read one way, tells a certain tale (of Krsna, for instance) and, read another way, tells a different story (of Rama, for example). The two—or more—tales are simultaneously present in the same text, but, depending on choices the reader makes, one or the other story becomes manifest. Sanskrit, by its very nature, allows for ambiguous reading, and certain poets exploited that ambiguity for artistic effect. Owing to euphonic assimilation (sandhi ), word boundaries can become difficult to discern. A string of phonemes can be variously divided to produce diverse words; different parsings of a sentence can thus produce diverse readings. On the simplest level, to take an example from the Ramayana itself, we have the mantra-like utterance by Ratnakara, a thief who, thanks to the purifying nature of a spell, becomes Valmiki, devotee of Rama and author of the Ramayana . A penitent Ratnakara is directed to chant the name of Rama, but he demurs, claiming he is too vile a sinner. So Ratnakara is instructed to speak the word mara , meaning dead. By chanting mara mara continuously—maramaramara—Ratnakara does in fact say Rama's name, by virtue of the contiguity of the two phonemes ra and ma . Divide the phonemes one way and one gets "dead"; divide them another way and Rama springs to life.
In his survey of Sanskrit literature, A. B. Keith mentions somewhat more
sophisticated examples. In a poem entitled the Raghavapandaviya "we are told simultaneously the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata ," while another work, the Rasikaranjana , "read one way, gives an erotic poem, in another, a eulogy of asceticism." And yet a third narrative, the Raghavapandaviyayadaviya , narrates the tales of Rama, of Nala, and of the Bhagavata Purana simultaneously, using the same phonemes in the same order.
Written Bengali, in which word boundaries are more recognizable and permanent, does not lend itself as readily as Sanskrit to such linguistic virtuosity. Though individual words may, apropos of kavya or poetic literature, have more than one meaning, whole sentences or paragraphs cannot be construed to contain certain words in one reading and different words in another. Nevertheless, in the tradition of his Sanskrit poetic forefathers, Dutt creates in Meghanadavadha Kavya a multistory narrative. On the denotative level, it is simply an episode out of the Ramayana , but read another way, primarily through its similes, Meghanadavadha Kavya dons the clothing of Krsna to tell Krsna's tale. Read even differently, Dutt's poem alludes to the Mahabharata and its internecine struggle between Kurus and Pandavas. And read from yet one more perspective, the fabric of Meghanadavadha Kavya glitters with the myth of Durga and her annual autumnal visit to Bengal, when Bengali Hindus celebrate Durga Puja [worship], the grandest public festival of the Hindu year.
All the subsidiary interwoven stories are present in one and the same reading of Meghanadavadha Kavya , albeit in far less narrative detail than Rama's story, just as the threads in fine cloth can be discerned but tend to blend into the total design. Because all are manifest and thus not only can but must be read and apprehended simultaneously, each tale affects the reader's understanding of all the other tales. As one reads of Meghanada's demise and Rama's impending victory—a joyous event for any Hindu—one also reads the more dolorous tale of Krsna, who grew up in bucolic Vraja, delighting the cowherd maidens, but who then had to leave, never to return. The conflation of characters, in this case Krsna and Meghanada, serves to confuse the reader's response: is the reader made uncomfortable by the departure of Krsna or by the death of Meghanada? The resulting subversion of the main story by a secondary tale leads at least some readers, as Chaudhuri attests, to react with shock and perplexity. Have the raksasas been glorified beyond what they are in more traditional Ramayanas ? Well, no, not directly. Has Rama been shown in a poor light? Not exactly. These characters are precisely what they have always been. But Dutt's submerged tale of Krsna has complicated matters for the reader. In similar fashion, as one reads the episode drawn from the Ramayana , one is also presented with a vignette from the Mahabharata as well as the mythic tale of Durga, each bittersweet stories, each in its own way countering the emotional impact of Meghanadavadha Kavya's main story line.
Let us examine the three substrata stories more closely. The tale of Krsna is told entirely through similes, all of which compare him with Meghanada. These similes are drawn from two periods in his life. According to his hagiography, Krsna was born in Mathura (also called Madhupura) but taken immediately after his birth to Vraja (Gokula) to escape the wrath of King Kamsa, his uncle. In Vraja, by the banks of the Yamuna, Krsna grows up to become the lover of the gopis , the local cowherds' wives, Radha chief among them. There comes a time, however, when the idyll must end. Krsna leaves Vraja and returns to Mathura, there to slay his wicked uncle. That done, he moves on to the city of Dvaraka. But for Bengali Vaisnavas, it is the time Krsna spent in Vraja with his gopi lovers that is most cherished.
Dutt's Krsna similes are by no means randomly scattered throughout his poem. In the first half of Meghanadavadha Kavya , while Meghanada is still living with his fellow raksasas , the Krsna similes refer to Vraja in the happy days when the deity resided there. Early in the first canto, for example, a passage describing Ravana's sumptuous court runs: "Constant spring breezes delicately wafted scents, gaily/transporting waves of chirping, ah yes! enchanting as the/flute's melodic undulations in the pleasure groves of/ Gokula." Toward the end of the same canto, we find Meghanada, first compared to the moon (lord of night) and then to Krsna (the herdsman). at ease. He has defeated Rama in open warfare not once but twice and assumes, reasonably enough, that the raksasas have won the war.
That best of champions dallied with
the maids of shapely bodies, just as the lord of night sports
with Daksa's daughters, or, O Yamuna, daughter of the
sun, as the herdsman danced beneath kadamba trees, flute to
lips, sporting with the cowherds' wives upon your splendid banks! (1.648-53)
Alerted to the danger facing his father (for Rama is not dead as the raksasas suppose), Meghanada leaves his wife behind in that country retreat and returns to the walled city and his father's court. We see in the opening lines of canto 3 that young Pramila—who is likened to Radha, the maid of Vraja—does not react to the separation from her beloved husband with equanimity.
In Pramoda Park wept Pramila, youthful Danava
daughter, pining for her absent husband. That tearful moonfaced
one paced incessantly about the flower garden
like the maid of Vraja, ah, when she, in Vraja's flower
groves, failed to find her yellow-dad Krsna standing beneath
kadamba trees with flute to lips. That lovelorn lady would
from time to time go inside her home, then out, just like a
pigeon, inconsolable in her empty pigeon house.
Donning warrior's garb, Pramila marches with her legion of women (a borrowing by Dutt from the Asvamedhaparva of the Bengali Mahabharata )
through Rama's ranks—Rama grants her passage—and rejoins her husband in the walled city. Then in canto 5, Meghanada is awakened by doves on the morning of the day he is to do battle once again. He wakes Pramila, kissing her closed eyelids: "Startled, that woman rose in haste—as do the cowherds' wives/at the flute's mellifluous sounds" (5.387-88). Later that same morning he leaves Pramila, who watches him walk away from her for, unbeknownst to her, the last time.
Wiping her eyes, that chaste wife departed—as cowherds' wives,
about to lose their lover, bid farewell to Madhava
on Yamuna's shores, then empty-hearted return to their
own empty homes—so, weeping still, she entered her abode. (5.604-7)
Just as Krsna (Madhava) left pleasant Vraja to slay the evil Kamsa, so Meghanada leaves, intending to slay Rama. Neither one will return. Krsna goes to Dvaraka; Meghanada dies. The remaining two Krsna similes are set during the time after Krsna has gone away.
Meghanada is slain in canto 6. Though at that moment his death is known only to Laksmana and Vibhisana, it affects the three individuals emotionally closest to him: his father's crown falls to the ground; his wife's right eye flutters, an inauspicious sign; and his mother faints. "And," adds Dutt, "asleep in mothers' laps, babies cried/a sorrowful wail as Vraja children cried when precious/Syama [Krsna] darkened Vraja, leaving there for Madhupura"(6.638-41). It is not until the ninth and final canto that another Krsna simile occurs, once more depicting Vraja after Krsna's departure. As the funeral cortege for Meghanada files out of the walled city of Lanka toward the sea, "that city, now emptied, grew dark like Gokula devoid of Syama" (9.308-9). Again, the Krsna woof, created here with similes, is woven into the Ramayana story. If the two tales typically evoked the same audience response, then the anticipated reaction would simply be intensified. But in this case, the traditional audience responses are discordant: sadness at the loss of Krsna; glee over Rama's triumph.
Similar subversion of the expected reader response to Rama's victory is fostered by the Mahabharata woof. The Mahabharata is a compendium of stories, a far more eclectic text than the Ramayana ; the many Mahabharata similes in Meghanadavadha Kavya are drawn from diverse episodes. One set of these similes, however, focuses on the specific tale of the ignominious slaughter of the Pandavas' sons by Asvatthaman. This particular episode takes place at the end of the war, after the outcome is clear. Although both sides have sustained heavy losses, the five Pandavas have won. The Kaurava Duryodhana, the great enemy of the Pandavas, lies dying, his hip broken. At this point Asvatthaman, a cohort of Duryodhana's, decides to slip into the Pandava camp and slay the five Pandava warriors out of spite. Under cover of darkness, Asvatthaman and his accomplices proceed to the victors' bivouac, at the gate of which stands the god Siva, as Sthanu (a veritable
pillar). Asvatthaman manages to get by Siva and penetrate the enemies' camp. Once inside, he kills those he takes to be the senior Pandavas but who are in fact their five young sons. Pleased with himself, Asvatthaman hastens to tell the senior Kaurava, Duryodhana, what he has done.
The first canto of Meghanadavadha Kavya contains a reference to the encampment of the Pandavas, couched in a series of similes describing Ravana's grand court. "Before its doors/paced the guard, a redoubtable figure, like god Rudra [Siva]/trident clutched, before the Pandavas' encampment's gateway" (1.53-55). This same Mahabharata episode is alluded to again in canto 5 when Laksmana, preparing to slay Meghanada, must first proceed to the Candi temple situated in a nearby forest. As he approaches, his way is blocked by a huge Siva, whom he must pass in order to enter the woods. Laksmana circumvents Siva and overcomes several other obstacles in his path before successfully reaching the temple. It is there that Laksmana is granted the boon of invisibility for the following day so that he may enter the raksasas ' walled city undetected. Just as Asvatthaman had first to bypass Siva before entering the Pandavas' camp under cover of darkness in order to slay what turned out to be their sons, so Laksmana must get past Siva, then penetrate under the cloak of invisibility the raksasas ' stronghold to slay Ravana's son Meghanada.
In the very next canto, Laksmana does slip into the raksasas ' city and kill Meghanada. As Laksmana and his accomplice flee the walled city, Dutt describes their action with a combination of two similes, one natural, the other based on the same episode from the Mahabharata :
The two left hurriedly, just as a hunter, when he slays
the young of a tigress in her absence, flees for his life
with wind's speed, panting breathlessly, lest that ferocious beast
should suddenly attack, wild with grief at finding her cubs
lifeless! or, as champion Asvatthaman, son of Drona,
having killed five sleeping boys inside the Pandava camp
in dead of night, departed going with the quickness of
a heart's desire, giddy from the thrill and fear, to where lay
Kuru monarch Duryodhana, his thigh broken in the
And like Asvatthaman, who ran to tell Duryodhana what he had done, Laksmana runs to Rama to bring him news of the slaying. Here again, two tales simultaneously told, one from the Mahabharata and the other from the Ramayana , produce contrary effects: delight when Laksmana slays Meghanada; disgust at Asvatthaman's heinous act. Small wonder the reader is perplexed.
Yet a third tale is woven into Meghanadavadha Kavya , that concerning goddess Durga's annual puja . According to myth, on the sixth day of the waxing
moon of the autumn month of Asvin, Durga arrives at her natal home, there to stay until the tenth day, when she must return to her husband Siva's home on Mount Kailasa. Her short visit is the occasion for Bengal's greatest public Hindu festival, the Durga Puja, during which she is worshiped in the form of the ten-armed goddess who slays Mahisasura, the buffalo demon. On that tenth day, called the vijaya (victorious) tenth, she as the victorious one is bid farewell for another year as she leaves to rejoin her spouse. Durga's departure is, as departures tend to be, a somewhat bittersweet affair, for although she wants to return to her husband's side, she is sad to leave her parents and friends. Her mythic parents, Menaka and Himalaya, are loath to let their daughter go. The eighteenth-century Bengali poet Ram Prasad Sen, a devotee of the mother goddess in all her sundry manifestations, sang eloquently and passionately of the plight of Menaka (or any mother), who had to say goodbye to her daughter for yet another year. Those songs, called vijaya songs, were no doubt sung in Dutt's time and can still be heard today. Dutt captures this bittersweetness, setting an unexpected tone for his poem in the very first canto when he describes Laksmi—she who must leave Lanka—with a simile drawn from the Durga Puja. Laksmi is the goddess of good fortune; as Rajalaksmi, she is the raja's luck or fortune. Lanka's grandeur (a feature common to all Ramayanas , not just Dutt's) attests to the presence of good fortune in Ravana's realm, but with the advent of Rama, Laksmi must soon leave Lanka.
With face averted, moon-faced Indira [Laksmi] sat
glumly—as sat Uma [Durga] of the moonlike countenance, cheeks
cradled in her palms, when the tenth day of the waxing moon
of Durga Puja dawned, with pangs of separation at
her home in Gaur [Bengal].
In one way or another both the warp and woof of Meghanadavadha Kavya narrate departures and death. Krsna left Vraja. The Pandavas won the war but lost their sons and kinsmen. Every year, on the tenth day of the waxing moon of Asvin, Durga must depart. And Meghanada is slain. The first three are attended by sorrow; the fourth should be a cause for joy, were it not for the subversion wrought by the other three.
In the concluding canto, Dutt again accentuates the Durga Puja theme. As the cortege exits the city gates, Pramila's horse is led riderless while Meghanada's war chariot goes empty:
Out came the chariots moving slowly, among them that
best of chariots, rich-hued, lightning's sparkle on its wheels,
flags, the colors found in Indra's bow, on its pinnacles—
but this day it was devoid of splendor, like the empty
splendor of an idol's frame without its lifelike painted
image, at the end of an immersion ceremony.
On the tenth lunar day of the Durga Puja the iconic representation of the goddess, in all her ten-armed splendor, slaying the buffalo demon is immersed in the Ganges. It is then that the life-force of the deity, which entered the idol several days before and has been present throughout the celebrations, leaves and travels back to Mount Kailasa. The images are made from straw tied around bamboo frames; the straw is covered with clay, which when dry is painted, and the image meticulously clothed to represent the supreme goddess. When such an icon is immersed in the river, the clay eventually washes away, leaving a stick and straw figure exposed. Just so appears Meghanada's chariot without its vital warrior.
When the funeral procession reaches the seashore, a pyre is built of fragrant sandalwood, onto which is placed Meghanada's corpse. Pramila mounts the pyre and sits at her dead husband's feet—the decorated pyre being likened to the goddess's altar during Durga Puja (9.375-76). From Mount Kailasa Siva now commands Agni, god of fire, to transport the couple to him: like Durga after the immersion of her icon, Meghanada and Pramila will travel directly to Siva. Dutt invites—nay, forces—his reader to feel toward Meghanada and Pramila what they feel toward Durga on the day of her departure. The loss of a traditional enemy becomes, by the subversive power of Durga's tale, a cause for lamentation.
When the funeral fire is finally out, the raksasas purify the site with Ganges water and erect there a temple. To wash away some of the pollution which attends death, they then bathe in the sea. Dutt concludes his epic poem as follows:
After bathing in waters of the sea, those raksasas
now headed back toward Lanka, wet still with water of their
grief—it was as if they had immersed the image of the
goddess on the lunar tenth day of the Durga Puja;
then Lanka wept in sorrow seven days and seven nights.
The Durga Puja similes in the first and final cantos not only lend symmetry to Meghanadavadha Kavya but also, more than any of the other tales, presage Ravana's death. In Bengal, it is the Durga Puja that Hindus celebrate during the waxing Asvin moon, coming to an end on the tenth of that month, the victorious tenth. In some parts of India, however, the Ram Lila, a reenacting of Rama's divine play is performed in that season, culminating on the very same tenth of Asvin with the slaying of Ravana by Rama. Thus, the Durga Puja similes in Dutt's text not only relate in part the tale of Durga's annual leaving but also imply the story of Rama's victory over Ravana, for Durga's and Rama's tale occur simultaneously in mythic time. If the substratum story, Durga's tale and her departure, effect a bittersweet response, then the elation at Rama's triumph—when the two tales are perforce read together—cannot but be vitiated. That was unquestionably Dutt's intent, for, as we
recall, he had declared his dislike for Rama and his admiration for Rama's foe. But dislike Rama or not, Dutt kept his Rama character true to the Ramayana tradition, preferring to let his similes and simultaneously told secondary tales complicate his reader's response.
The Reception: Mixed Blessings
Different audiences received Meghanadavadha Kavya differently, though in general it met with approbation and congratulations. Dutt himself, no disinterested judge, tells us through his letters that his poem was gaining acceptance almost daily.
The poem is rising into splendid popularity. Some say it is better than Milton—but that is all bosh—nothing can be better than Milton; many say it licks Kalidasa; I have no objection to that. I don't think it impossible to equal Virgil, Kalidasa and Tasso. Though glorious, still they are mortal poets; Milton is divine.
Many Hindu Ladies, I understand, are reading the book and crying over it. You ought to put your wife in the way of reading the verse.
Even before the entire work had been published (cantos I through 5 appeared first), a man of letters of the day and patron of the arts, Kali Prosanna Singh, understood the importance of Dutt's accomplishment and felt it essential that Dutt should be honored. This was done under the aegis of the Vidyotsahini Sabha (Society for Those Eager for Knowledge), one of various private organizations formed during the nineteenth century by educated Bengalis in Calcutta. Singh's letter of invitation to a small circle of guests read in part:
Intending to present Mr. Michael M. S. Dutt with a silver trifle as a mite of encouragement for having introduced with success the Blank verse into our language, I have been advised to call a meeting of those who might take a lively interest in the matter.
Following the ceremony, Dutt wrote to Raj Narain Bose:
You will be pleased to hear that not very long ago the Vidyotsahini Sabha—and the President Kali Prosanna Singh of Jorasanko, presented me with a splendid silver claret jug. There was a great meeting and an address in Bengali. Probably you have read both address and reply in the vernacular papers.
On the whole the book is doing well. It has roused curiosity. Your friend Babu Debendra Nath Tagore [Rabindranath's father], I hear, is quite taken up with it. S— told me the other day that he (Babu D.) is of opinion that few Hindu authors can "stand near this man," meaning your fat friend of No. 6 Lower Chitpur Road [where Dutt resided], and "that his imagination goes as far as imagination can go."
And still later, writing to the same friend:
Talking about Blank-Verse, you must allow me to give you a jolly little anecdote. Some days ago I had occasion to go to the Chinabazar. I saw a man seated in a shop and deeply poring over Meghanad. I stepped in and asked him what he was reading. He said in very good English—
"I am reading a new poem, Sir!" "A poem? I said, "I thought that there was no poetry in your language." He replied—"Why, Sir, here is poetry that would make any nation proud."
I have not yet heard a single line in Meghanad's disfavour. The great Jotindra has only said that he is sorry poor Lakshman is represented as killing Indrojit in cold blood and when unarmed. But I am sure the poem has many faults. What human production has not?
Jotindra Mohan Tagore's reservation aside, few if any readers (and it should be noted that "readers" implies the educated elite who could in fact read this erudite work) took umbrage at Dutt's iconoclasm. As Pramathanath Bisi, a contemporary literary scholar, tells us:
Disgust toward "Ram and his rabble," the sparking of one's imagination at the idea of Ravana and Meghanada—these attitudes were not peculiar to Dutt. Many of his contemporaries had the very same feelings. What was native seemed despicable; what was English, grand and glorious. Such was the general temperament. . . . Dutt cast Ravana's character as representative of the English-educated segment of society.
We may not choose to accept all of Bisi's statement at face value, but history forces us to conclude that Dutt's attitudes were indeed not peculiar to him alone. Meghanadavadha Kavya did not go unappreciated: by the time Dutt died in 1873, his epic poem had gone through six editions.
Four years after Dutt's death, Romesh Chunder Dutt (not a relative), one of the most respected intellectuals of the day, wrote in his The Literature of Bengal :
Nothing in the entire range of the Bengali literature can approach the sublimity of the Meghanad Badh Kabya which is a masterpiece of epic poetry. The reader who can feel, and appreciate the sublime, will rise from a study of this great work with mixed sensations of veneration and awe with which few poets can inspire him, and will candidly pronounce the bold author to be indeed a genius of a very high order, second only to the highest and greatest that have ever lived, like Vyasa, Valmiki or Kalidasa, Homer, Dante or Shakespear.
As might be expected, however, over the years not everyone has been enamored with Meghanadavadha Kavya . Rabindranath Tagore, born the year it came out, was one of Dutt's harshest critics. Dutt's "epic" was an epic
(mahakavya ) in name only, he declared. Tagore found nothing elevating or elevated about Dutt's characters or in his depiction of the events. There was no immortality, as he put it, in any of the protagonists, not even in Meghanada himself; none of these characters, he contended, would live with us forever. Tagore published those opinions when he was twenty-one. Later, in his reminiscences, he recanted:
Earlier, with the audacity that accompanies youth, I had penned a scathing critique of Meghanadavadha Kavya . Just as the juice of green mangos is sour—green criticism is acerbic. When other abilities are wanting, the ability to poke and scratch becomes accentuated. I too had scratched at this immortal poem in an effort to find some easy way to achieve my own immortality.
But despite the retraction, Tagore never accepted Dutt fully. Edward Thompson, Tagore's English biographer, quotes Tagore as follows:
"He was nothing of a Bengali scholar," said Rabindranath once, when we were discussing the Meghanadbadh; "he just got a dictionary and looked out all the sounding words. He had great power over words. But his style has not been repeated. It isn't Bengali."
Whether something is or is not the genuine article, whether it is "really Bengali," has been for some time a criterion by which Bengali critics judge the artistic accomplishments of their fellow artists. Pramatha Chaudhuri, colleague of Tagore and editor of one of the most prestigious and avant-garde journals from the early decades of this century, Sabuja Patra (Green leaves), wrote in the initial issue of that magazine:
Since the seeds of thought borne by winds from the Occident cannot take root firmly in our local soil, they either wither away or turn parasitic. It follows, then, that Meghanadavadha Kavya is the bloom of a parasite. And though, like the orchid, its design is exquisite and its hue glorious, it is utterly devoid of any fragrance.
But what Pramatha Chaudhuri looked upon as suspect has since come to be recognized as the normal state of affairs. As our colleague A. K. Ramanujan, a man of many literatures, has commented:
After the nineteenth century, no significant Indian writer lacks any of the three traditions: the regional mother tongue, the pan-Indian (Sanskritic, and in the case of Urdu and Kashmiri, the Perso-Arabic as well), and the Western (mostly English). Poetic, not necessarily scholarly, assimilation of all these three resources in various individual ways seems indispensable.
Perhaps Dutt was just a bit ahead of his time.
Attacked by Tagore and Pramatha Chaudhuri as un-Bengali, Dutt's poem has also been praised for—of all things—being in line with international communism. Since in Meghanadavadha Kavya Rama is more man than in-
carnation of Visnu, Bengali Marxists lauded Dutt, in their underground publication Marksavadi (The Marxist), for debunking religion and the gods.
Though now, like Milton's Paradise Lost , read more as part of a university curriculum, as the first great modern work of Bengali literature, than as a best-seller, there was a day when Meghanadavadha Kavya qualified as required reading for the educated Bengali-speaking public at large, the sine qua non of the cultured Bengali. Of Dutt's standing in Bengali literature, an assessment by Nirad C. Chaudhuri, though made some four decades ago, still applies today. "In addition to his historical importance," wrote Chaudhuri, "the absolute value of his poetry is also generally undisputed; only his reputation, like that of every great writer, has had its ebbs as well as tides, its ups and downs; and his most modern Bengali critics have tried to be as clever at his expense as the modern detractors of Milton." Also generally undisputed has been the conclusion that Dutt's raksasa raja is decked out in some very regal new clothes. That this conclusion has been so widely accepted proves how deceiving appearances can be, for Ravana, in truth, wears no new attire. Instead, the master poet has slyly—to borrow Chaudhuri's term—woven his central Ramayna episode so as to suggest heroic raiment for Ravana rather than for Rama. Clothed in cunning finery, Meghanadavadha Kavya presents a deceptive exterior. The raja—redressed though he may be—wears no new clothes, even though the reader sees what in fact is not there.