Except the serious readers of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938), most of his admirers are possibly oblivious to a vital fact related to his literary achievements. The year 2017 marks the centenary of publication of three of the writer's widely read fictions including the most popular one 'Devdas'. The two others are Srikanta (part-1) and 'Charitraheen'.
Of the three novels, 'Devdas' has long been recognised as one of the few most popularly acclaimed novels in South Asian literature, not to speak of its stellar position in the genre of Bangla fictions. Throughout its 100-year dominance in the sub-continental field of novels, 'Devdas' has never stopped enjoying its status as a literary phenomenon. Perhaps few works of literature are fortunate enough to have been endowed with such a distinction. Coming to the spell which 'Devdas' has cast on readers, one feels tempted to call the slim novel a manifestation of the romantic psyche of Bengal's youths. In the last one hundred years, the socio-cultural mores and thought pattern of Benglaee young men and women have undergone series of metamorphoses. Yet the core inner recesses of the mind and behavioural trends appear to remain unchanged. The romantic passion of a male youth for a female one, and vice versa, is awash with the same greenness as in the earlier times. So are the communication gaps, occasional lack of reciprocity and the equal pressure of both attraction and feigned indifference in an emotional relationship.
Among a lot of features, the most notable one that has made 'Devdas' distinctive is the craze that has been sparked by its linear tale involving the male protagonist and Parvati, the heroine. Both are neighbours in a village, with Devdas leading a happy-go-lucky life, and love-bitten Parvati dying for Dev. That her pent-up emotion was just an infatuation dawns on her quite belatedly, when she was about to be married off. In the same way, to his utter surprise Devdas realises that he has been in love with Parvati without his being aware. By that time, the repeatedly rebuffed, and now hardened and down-to-earth, heroine was seen busy managing her large family, comprising her husband and the grown-up children from his earlier wife. The story also spins around Chandramukhi, a major female character, a courtesan, in fact a commercial seductress living in an ill-reputed area of Kolkata. She provides a psychological shelter of sorts to Devdas, now hooked on alcohol, after he is spurned by Parvati, married off to an elderly landlord of her father's age.
Like almost all of Saratchandra's over one hundred books, Devdas has been translated into all major languages of the sub-continent. The same applies to 'Srikanta', `Charitraheen', 'Grihadaha' and 'Pother Daabi', the last being a political thriller set in the then Rangoon in today's Myanmar. Except the poets Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, few writers in the region had the luck to remain aglow with this honour until today. What's amazing, the wide readership of Saratchandra still shows no sign of waning. A great volume of credit for this goes to the movie versions of the writer's popular novels. It had not taken long for innovative directors to exploit the dramatic potential of 'Devdas' to make successful movies out of it. From the silent film era in the 1920s through the following ninety-five years, the sub-continental filmdom has witnessed around 20 full-length movies made on its story. In the countries of today's South Asia, its film versions were made in all the major languages. The most prominent of them is the Pramothesh Barua-Jamuna Barua starrer made in Bangla and Assamese. However, the movie version credited with breaking all past records in terms audience approval was the lavishly made colour 'Devdas' in Hindi directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Its cast included superstars Shahrookh Khan (Devdas), Aishwaria Rai (Parvati) and Madhuri Dixit (Chandramukhi). The film eked out its place among the all-time box-office hits in the Indian cinema. Like with Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', an experimental movie was also made on 'Devdas' in 2010.
In spite of the unprecedented popularity of 'Devdas', thanks to its emotion-soaked story, the novel also witnessed the growth of a sizeable section of detractors. Most of the academic and conventional critics came down hard on the novel's sentimentalised narrative and background. Many pointed out the absurd mental make-up of the main characters. However, the excellent story-telling technique of Saratchandra has been pointed out while discussing the characters. Over the decades, the popular novelist has been credited with his keen observation of Bengal's rural life, with its age-old traditional set-up. He had a special fascination for examining the ties between close family members. Few other novelists before him and in the later times had put so much emphasis on the family ambience and its broader spheres. Being basically a love story, 'Devdas' could save itself from being termed a tear-jerking family drama. But it does moisten eyes, taking lots of readers on to the verge of sobbing.
When it comes to sentimentality and dramatic plot developments, Saratchandra's tale of Devdas-Parvati outshines his other fictions. Devdas literally is chockablock with expressed and suppressed emotional feelings. Compared to it, the locales of the 4-part 'Srikanta' and 'Charitraheen' are relatively dispersed, and do not have much room for outpourings of emotion. They deal with the emotion of many characters, especially that of women. An autobiographical fiction, 'Srikanta' is the tale of a freedom-loving footloose youth, who loves to move places and does not get involved with any emotional ties. A Good Samaritan lives within him. This very rare virtue leads him to helping others in distress. Taking root in any place or occupation is thus anathema to him. Women also enter his life. At different ages, all of them discover in Srikanta a youth whom they cannot do away with. The ties are much beyond the ones of romantic nature. Yet in their happiness and woes, they cannot remain detached from Srikanta's evergreen presence. He keeps inspiring them in their downbeat times. In some respects, the character, however, resembles that of Devdas except the latter's indulgence in contrition and the self-destructive lifestyle for which his unsteady ego is blamed by a section of critics.
Like the author Saratchandra himself, Srikanta loves to remain unfettered, keeps carefully away from being entangled in suffocating romantic bonds. Another popular Sarat fiction, 'Charitraheen', presents a gripping tale of four women of different ages.
Every one of them has a unique story and series of experiences, their being socially dubbed morally fallen or 'characterless'. Upon undergoing various degrees of social injustice, they come out absolved of their ill repute. Different from Saratchandra's many other popular novels, discerning readers find in the novel a new form of character study. Uniqueness of the form also distinguishes 'Charitraheen'.
In spite of the immense popularity enjoyed by Saratchandra, his fictions have continued to provoke harsh criticism by a section of highbrow literary critics. This trend has gone on for the last one hundred years. The main attack levelled against the author comprises the simplistic study of characters and the excessively imposed twist of events. Criticism like this is not unusual for celebrated authors. Even Bankimchandra and Rabindranath were not spared of these attacks. The fact that is worth noting is overwhelming popularity, along with its hazards, cannot undermine the greatness of an author. Despite the classification of the novels by Saratchandra as pulp fictions, a lot of them have stood the test of time. Few writers are fortunate enough to have their books celebrate centenary of their publications retaining their triumphant accessibility for later-time readers. On this count, Saratchandra belongs to the class of misjudged authors.
It may not be surprising if 'Devdas' is one day recognised as being capable of exerting a social influence through its message of selfless love. In these times of rampant immorality, the emotional fidelity of Parvati, Devdas or Chandramukhi can leave a healing effect on society. They still symbolise the ethereal power to celebrate unblemished love. At the same time, Saratchandra is fast emerging as a gifted artist portraying women's composure. Parvati doesn't break down upon hearing about the sad death of Devdas; although many readers do.