Monday, April 15, 2013

Gora (গোরা) by Shaibal Mitra- A book review

Having been initiated to history fairly late in my life, I was aware that the renaissance, that 19th century Bengal under colonial rule is said to have experienced, is not the only one of its kind to happen to Bengal. In the 16th century when Bengal was under sustained Afghan/Abyssinian/ Muslim /Arab rule; two  centuries since the time Lokkhon Sen of the great Sen dynasty escaped un-heroically under an Afghan attack to Srihotto, a spiritual movement (Bhakti Movement of the Bharati cult of the Vaishnavas) under the leadership of Sri Chaitanya spread its scope across modern day Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bangladesh. Its prime tenet was love and Krishna was the prime deity to be loved. The love for Krishna knew no caste, community, prosperity or creed. It was omnipresent among everybody and the message of love was transmitted through Songkirton (choir singing or chanting of slokas or songs) and Khol, Mridanga, Kortal (all percussion instruments). Bhakti movement spoke of a casteless society and attempted to create one by planning for a dharmya-rajyo ( a religio-theocratic state) to replace the rule of Sultan Hussein Shah, arguably the more-liberated among Muslim rulers of Bengal. The Brahminical rituals of varnasram (caste system) had alienated the majority population for a long time to the extent that education in vedas under the Brahmins was regarded by many as useless and large numbers of the lower caste Hindus were getting converted to Islam either under coercion or choice. Bhakti movement had stopped this religious migration and elevated the ethereal experience of love for Krishna among love for all human beings as the primary goal of mankind.

In the process, Sri Chaitanya spread a culture of politeness, humility, courtesy among his followers. This culture become more pronounced and hence reinforced when Sri Chaitanya became a hermit at the age of 24 and left Nabadwip for travel to further south. The cry for his return spread across the length and breadth of the kingdom (almost akin to the cry that we have heard even in the seventies about Subhas Chandra Bose , the revolutionary nationalist leader of India's first national army) and the people of all castes attempted to set in process the teachings of Bhakti movement of courtesy and love, politeness and humility as a means of remembering Sri Chaitanya. It is this culture and substitution of sanskrit slokas by Bengali lyrics, for easy-adaptation, that led to the creation of the Bengali identity right then in the 16th century.

Partha Chatterjee, sociologist and historian of international repute, indicated the same while writing the introduction of Gora by Shaibal Mitra . According to him, the author has cleverly used the technique of magical realism while writing this biography of Gora (Sri Chaitanya's nick name) where history exists symbiotically with mythology, legends, facts & imagination. But Partha Chatterjee feels that cleverer has been the author's style of narration, which written in the form of a script of a television mega-serial , caters to the entertainment needs of modern popular culture but is careful to deliver the main message, the role of Sri Chaitanya in creating a national identity for Bengalis.

The narration is so effortless that I managed to finish this 623 pages book in two main bursts of reading frenzy. The life of Gora right from his mysterious birth to his sparklingly fair ("gora" in Bengali means one who has fair skin) physical appearance and his education, marriages, renunciations, political mediations and overall his  perpetual-yearning for Krishna are intricately woven into a historical drama of epic proportions, in my humble opinion.

What intrigued me most, when I spontaneously picked this book of Mitra in the Kolkata Book fair held recently, was how a man known for his revolutionary, naxalite past and a strong proponent of hard realism could balance his judgment weaving, as Partha Chatterjee said, "magical realism" into a historical docu-dram of a spiritual movement that was held five hundred years back.

Mitra, who died a month after finishing Gora in Nov'11 at the age of 68, was also my Bengali teacher in Maulana Azad Collge during my plus-two stage. While teaching Debi Choudhurani by Bankim Chattopadhyay as part of the rapid-reader class, Mitra would often break into serious criticism of the medieval domestic rituals that were practiced among the landed gentry of the 18th-19th century. So how could he go further back into history and eagerly write on something as unreal as spiritualism?

But as I delved into the book and got lost among the meandering branches of the novel, I realised that more than a revolutionary or a teacher , Mitra was a great narrator and a scholar who had spent countless hours in digging out stories around Sri Chaitanya from all possible kind of sources.

I only hope that the modern-day sociologists would take note of Mitra's book and find historical verification of the liberation of Brahminical varnasram in Bengal as far back as in the 16th century. For the lay reader, this is a serious rapid-reader material of immense value from a holistic perspective of history of Bengal's first renaissance and for those , spiritually inclined, it reinforces the story of love and its various levels reaching the highest level of yearning for  Krishna's love.

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