“What humbugs we are, who pretend to live for Beauty, and never see the Dawn!”
Logan Pearsall Smith.
Since his inception, man has lived in the realm of Nature, as ‘subaltern elements’ encircled and interacted with, only to be heavily influenced by this cosmic environment – for he reflects in himself those functions arising from the slightest oscillations occurring in nature. However, he has largely converted nature’s wealth into means of the cultural and economic life of the society to flourish his own progress, rendering cauterized concern for the wounds inflicted on the very being of the Green and her children. On the plane of historical development, man has exploited Nature, seeing her as an inferior entity completely alienated from him and hence, the source of the tangible con-citation of the human existence and development. While Nature contrasts with human society and the outer world contrasts with the individual, the outer world includes both nature and human society. Thus, the relation between Man and Nature is actually one between human society and nature, and not between an individual and one’s outer world. This Nature, that is indivisible from human societies, has been forced to witness her son draw the singular demarcation between him and her and replace the loving bond with a destructive one in successive stages of their relationship, as he walked in the drunken stupor of progress, development, and betterment. Needless to say, as the Man-Nature relationship got complex, it had its more complicated repercussions in the inner relationships of human societies. Yes, Karma is a Bitch!
The novel in question – Aranyak (English: of the Forest) – is a 19th century modern Bengali novel (first published serially in the monthly journal Prabasi, and subsequently as a book in 1976) by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhaya who had for his literary genre – ‘Nature’ and the symbiotic essence in the relationship shared by mankind with its forces. His major works, like Pather Panchali and Ichchamati, reflect the true philosophy of Bengali Romanticism, for they contain detailed descriptions of nature, and the non self-conscious, but poetic, portrayal of flora and fauna in places of wilderness that form the backdrop of the novels. The characters in the novel, either in their physical or mental being, are intricately intermingled with the beauty of the Greens and as such take a backseat in importance in the respective storylines. His oeuvres are the major reflections of a social milieu, seeped deep into a caste-stratified culture, the commencement of encroachment of modern societies into ‘raw’ rural ones, and the refined dynamics of the British Raj in India. What’s most discerning in his narratives is that they capture Mother Nature, her conservationist, and destructor in one uni-linear vignette. Relationships are sensitively portrayed in the narrative, with the author subtly exploring the microscopic nuances contained therein.
Given the novel was written in the years 1937 – 1939, during his arduous years in North Bihar, when he was in charge of the Bhagalpur estates of the wealthy proprietor, Khelatchandra Ghosh – it possibly possesses a biographical tint and can be treated as a first hand, albeit fictitious, account of the rural society in the margins of the forested lands of Azamabad, Fulkia, and Lobtulia. The thematic focus is the lower classes who are exclusively dependent on the forest resources for subsistence and the different ways in which the dependents and the destroyer from outside interact with this benevolent being of the wild. Influenced by the natural beauty and sympathy for the pitiful plight of the disadvantaged and dispossessed, Bandopadhaya takes up his quill to pen down these tragic ‘mortals’ who would otherwise have gone unnoticed in the waves of time and treachery. On 12 February 1928, it has been recorded in his diary –
‘I shall write something about the lives around the jungle … the poverty, simplicity of these people, this virile and active life, the picture of this dense forest in the pitch darkness of the evening – a novel on forests – it will have the stories of loneliness, stories of trees and plants …’
And thus the creation of this timeless masterpiece!
Out of the huge array of characters that intermingle to play out the magic of Aranyak, I have singled out three major ones, whose thoughts and actions effectively fit the charade that Man and Nature have so long been bowing. The protagonist, Satyacharan; his associate, Jugal Prasad; and a secondary character, Raju Paanre – are the ones who vividly play out this sacred relationship, though other characters like Raja Dobru Panna, Bhanumati, Manchi, Kunta, Rashbehari Singh, and Nandalal Ojha are effectively employed to sustain the motif of this extraordinary tale. The most poignant feature of this story is that the central character of the story is the forest itself, that reinforces its own gravity in its perpetually captivating beauty and in the lives of the forest people at every point.
The novel articulates the emotional odyssey of Satyacharan in the dichotomy of urban and jungle lives. Sent to Bhagalpur as an estate manager, whose sole concern is to oversee deforestation and provide the perturbed population with land for resettlement, he sees the drama unfold and gives a candid opinion of the same through his urban lenses, that gradually tune into visualizing the less sophisticated; he indeed forms the bridge between the urban convolution and the rural wilderness. At the beginning of the novel, as his Calcutta lifestyle revolts against this necessary exile, he is seen condemning every aspect of the wild, being hostile to the cursed place, deeming it unfit for mankind. Nevertheless, in the ensuing battle between his urban predisposition and admiration for nature, the latter takes the upper hand, so much so that when he leaves the place, he laments the separation, fearing that he now can’t survive in the bustle of congested city life. Sadly, he remains the ‘outsider’ throughout the novel however he attempts to wield himself in the primitiveness of the jungle and take part in its alluring theatrics. He recognizes his love and even embraces this obsession with nature, but in his mind, he is aware that he is the ‘foreigner’ who can neither engross nor see the possibility of a jungle life. Despite the amenability, the constitution of his very being clashes with the laws of the forest. He harbours an unfathomable respect for Mother Nature, yet he is forced to supervise her very destruction and the dislocation of her ‘clients’ against his better judgment. He sympathizes with the dislocated tribals and the locals dependant on the resources of the forest, as they are provided with meagre compensation against their ‘greatest loss’, but he is unable to remedy the ill, for he is himself the stringed puppet who is posed as the instrument of ravager of the Green. The depth of the inlay of the very ‘consciousness of the outsider’ is demonstrated at the end of the novel, when Satyacharan professes the desire to marry the tribal chief’s daughter, Bhanumati (with whom he falls in love in the story) but materializes the impossibility of the desire when it trickles into his mind – ‘If I can marry Bhanumati and build a happy nest for us here, Bhanu will speak out of some imaginative giant and I will be her listener … but that is a dream and that dream can never be true’. The metaphor used is extremely provocative – Bhanumati and the forest share the frame of an unfulfilled desire in his mind: people beloved of him, but with whom he cannot be!
The manner in which Satyacharan begins to perceives nature and vice versa is the metaphorical way in which the modern man perceives the environment, simply as a source of resource generation and surplus extraction, to fulfil the fundamental tenets of survival. The environment or Nature, per se, is a weak object of subjugation, exploitation, and callous devastation. To him, the people of the wild are the uncivilized savages, not meant for association but to be mercilessly prevailed upon to advance the civilized interests. Then, the term ‘civilization’ comes across as slippery in the entire novel, because the tribals display a more ‘civilized’ approach of humanized well-being towards their natural benefactress than their enlightened counterparts! In the fabled flow, as the earthly magnificence animates his imagination, he turns from pro – destructor to a lover of Nature – gaining the much privileged peek into the life of the wild – despite remaining a passive sympathizer to the widespread destruction of the Green cosmos and the trailing human misery. He becomes the mouthpiece of those ‘conservationists’ who are in favour of environmental conservation though they can’t do so, as they are trammelled by the obstructing rationality of seductive progress. Like Satyacharan, we readers are the outsiders, who cannot blend in with the lifestyle of the primitive spectrum of floral multitude, nor refrain from being a privy to its downfall. We have to stand, wistfully (and hypocritically!), as introspective commiserates who feel guilty upon violating the ‘soul and body’ of the sanctimonious Earth:
‘Ai sochchondo prokritir leelabhumi amar hatei bienoshto hoiache, boner debota sejonyo amaaye kokhono khoma koriben na jaani … Digantaleen Mahalikharuper pahar o Mohonpuri aronyoneer udyeshe dur hoite nomoshkar korilam … heay aronyer adim debota, khoma korio amake…’
[(TRANS.) ‘This sacred ground had met with its destruction in these hands of mine, for which I know the God of the woods will never forgive me! … Addressing the endless Mahalikharup hill and the Mohanpuri forest, I dipped an apologetic gesture with folded hands, praying, ‘O divine Lord of the Forest! May you find it in your heart to forgive me…’]
Interestingly, Satyacharan’s observations of Nature convey to the readers the multi-faceted ‘kind and reckless’ character of Nature herself! He sees the forest provide inspiration for the substandard, lyrical insight of Venkateshwar Prasad, for which he appreciates the latter’s poetic attempts, without enjoying the verses. He is sensitive to the fact that the forest protects the dignified Kunta and her son against the social disgrace of mendicancy, by providing for their livelihood. He makes a significant observation about the forest fires, uniquely describing the ‘dangerous’ beauty of the scene in a glamorized manner–
‘… Dekhilam prochur dhumer saate ranga agnishikha loklok koriya bohudur akashe uthitheche … joto dur drishti jaye ghono neel borno dhumrashi o agnisheekha ar chotpote shobdo’.
[(TRANS.) ‘I watched the glaring serpentine flames rise up to the sky, with much pomp … as far as the eyes could trace sight, it was all heavy blue fumes, wild ambers and cracking noises’.]
– and in an unpronounced manner, praises this dabaanal (veldfire) as Nature’s rage at her destruction and her desperate attempt at liberation from the fatal clutches of the superior beast. The benevolent forest brings out its dark savagery in this phenomenon, mirroring the brutal soul of man who doesn’t batter an eyelid to strike an axe at the very heart of Nature. The author incisively juxtaposes the image of the murderous fires against the motherly one – wherein the forest invites people to drink from her Horn of Cornucopia – to personalize Nature as a being equivalent to humans, possessing similar temperaments and ‘conduct’. However, Satyacharan does recognize the benefits of deforestation and land reclamation, as well – he mentions how the redistributed lands of deforested areas will serve to release the tribal Manchi and her husband Naxedi from their vagabond lifestyle and save Kunta from the perils of starvation and poverty.
The second character of concern is Jugal Prasad, a mystic character in the story, whose sole aim is to beautify and afforest the forest at all costs, till his death. Treating the forested land of Lobtulia as a macroscopic garden over which he possesses the monopoly of embellishment, he collects exotic species of flora from the homes of the rich or faraway hills and plants them in the under-bush. He is that selfless nature lover who invests time and money on trees that he’ll never see flourish and reap its fruits. He is Satyacharan’s soul-partner in his romantic adventures to Saraswati kund or Jungle Mahal, for he strikes his master as the virtuoso who hears the unceasing melodies of Nature and appreciates her in all her glorious hues.
The third one is Raju Paanre, a poor and religious tribal who resides in the vicinity of the forest, only to philosophize about nature and dream that the Lord of the Forest will, one day, descend from his heavenly abode on earth to prevent the deforestation of the place. He is Jugal Prasad’s fellow conservationist and is lacking in financial concerns – he is content to live a life of hardship, even if he has the resources for an improved lifestyle. He suffices on the wild grains of Chinese grass that he procures from the forest, despite possessing sufficient land for cultivation, for he doesn’t have the heart to deforest it!
Aranyak was written at the height of British colonization in India, but there are meagre references in the novel of forest departments, guards, or even reserved forests. It can be assumed that the colonial tentacles remained obstructed by the dense layers of forested alienation and this fact made way for the Zamindari system of exploitation of both tribals and forest resources. Bandopadhaya himself might have witnessed the passage of the major colonial Forest Acts (of 1865, 1878, 1901, 1914, 1920, 1927) which marked the genesis of the problems of encroachment, deforestation, and degradation that lay in the process of expanding state control over forests and alienation of forest-dwelling communities; a trend initiated by the British and continued with vigor by the state in independent India. The book is the honest storytelling of the rhetoric of conservation, ‘environmental protection’, and sustainable development that was being generated in the colonial project to lay the foundation for state forest management. It was also at this time that the exploitation of the Indian tribals assumed a ‘higher’ authority – namely that of the state: tribal managed ‘private’ forests were either taken over permanently or were put on lease by the colonial administration, impoverishing the dependents by cutting their access to rich resources, which had hitherto been utilized sustainably. The novel speaks not the plight of a congregated tribe (like the Kalrayan hill tribes of Salem and Baramahal region in India), but of a diverse rural community, nurturing diverse interests, and conjoined to the end to the local forest in one way or another.
The readers get a fascinating glimpse of the world of an early 20th-century forest – its people, crafts, and sensuality and at the close, we, like Satyacharan, regret its annihilation. Bandopadhaya leaves us, matricidal, with gory hands smeared with the blood of Mother Nature and till today, the cologne is too enticing to be laundered off even when we say – in a mumble or a cry – ‘Out, damned spot! Out I say!’
- Aranyak (2010 Edition) – Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhaya.
- Wikipedia Article – Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.
- Wikipedia Article – Aranyak.
- Man in the Realm of Nature – A. Spirkin.
- On the relationship between Man and Nature – Huang Nan-Sheng & Zhao Guangwu.