About The Book:
Bengal in the last decades of nineteenth century and the early decades of the next was a cauldron of change. A Weakening old order symbolized by feudal regalia was giving way bringing in its wake sweeping social, material and cultural transformation. Caught in the midst of these changes is the house of the Chowdhurys. Through the eyes of the narrator, Bhutnath, whose life is inextricably linked with the Chowdhury household and his extraordinary relationship with the youngest lady of the house, the novel not only tells us the story of its gradual decline but also the disintegration of a feudal system. And a profound statement on life and its destiny. In a finely evoked translation from the original Bangla, Sahib Bibi Golam brings to a wider readership a classic of modern Indian literature.
Bimal Mitra (1912-1991) emerged as one of the foremost Bangla novelist of the post Second World War period. Extremely popular, Bimal Mitra was also a prolific writer with over five hundred short stories and a hundred novels to his credit. His other major works include Begum Mary Biswas, Kori Diye Kinlam, Ekak Deshak Shatak, Pati Param Guru, Ami and Raja Badal.
About The Author:
Subhash Chandra Sarker is a distinguished journalist, editor and translator. Besides several stories and poems from Bangla, he has also translated the love lyrics of Vidyapathi from Maithili and late poet 'Dinkar' from Hindi.
Sucharita Sarker, a post graduate in English literature, is a well known translator.
I still remember vividly the enthusiasm with which the Bengali reading-public greeted the novel Saheb Bibi Golam which began to be serialised in the popular Bengali weekly Desli in the early 1950s. I, then an undergraduate student, used to wait for the next issue of Desli with great expectation and every instalment of the narrative used to bring fresh joy. Nearly fifty years have passed since it was published as a book. The initial excitement caused by the novel, however, has partly thinned down, but the power that made it so gripping has not diminished at all. As I read the novel again I discover new meanings and new dimensions of thought. During the last fifty years, the taste and judgment of the reading-public have undergone significant changes, new trends have emerged in the history of the novel all over the world, old narrative techniques have been replaced by new and exciting ways of narration, yet the novel of Bimal Mitra has been assured a permanent place in the history of modern Bengali novel. This has been translated into several Indian languages. And atleast twice, has it been made into popular film, thus presenting it before a larger audience every time assuring its inner power.
When this novel began to appear in Desh, Bimal Mitra, then a young man was hardly known outside a small group. Saheb Bibi Golam (Lords, Ladies and Commoners - names/of three sets of playing-cards representing three types of characters represented in the novel) made him will known almost overnight. It was not easy for a yow1g writer to make room for himself in the literary arena of Bengal at that time. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay of Pather Panchali fame died only few years before the publication of Saheb Bibi Golam; Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay and Manik Bandyopadhyay, the other two immortals of Bengali literature, were still there, experimenting with themes and forms and exploring into new areas of experience. Bimal Mitra had to carve out his place among the great. He was quite conscious of the constraints before him; he worked out his strategy very thoughtfully. The first thing that he developed very consciously was a style of narration which avoided all kinds of rhetorical flourishes. His was an extremely informal style, simple and colloquial, at times pedestrian, free from all traces of embellishment. His prose does not have the lyricism of Bibhutibhushan or the subtle symbolic quality of Manik and certainly not the grand epical majesty of Tarashankar. He tells the story in a familiar style in a prose that is bare and clear. In other words he avoided deliberately all temptations to employ any kind of rhetoric to captivate his audience. It is remarkable considering the theme he chose for his novel.
Saheb Bibi Golam is a historical novel-in the wide sense of the term. Its location is Calcutta, not the Calcutta of the present time, but of the nineteenth century. The kind of historical novels with which the readers are generally familiar have their location in distant past associated with some grand historical events and their geography is characterised by palaces and fortresses and ruins all exuding wonder and excitement. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who introduced historical novels in Bengali, created a model for this genre which was followed by all his successors. The time of the action of Durgeshnandini, the first Bengali novel of Bankim Chandra is during the reign of Akbar. The time of Kapal Kundala is during the reign of Jahangir. Ananda Math and Chandra Shekar are located in the eighteenth century, sufficiently far away from the readers to create the magic of the past. The tradition of Bankim was followed by all Indian writers in the late nineteenth century when the historical novel grew in abundance. Despite its extreme popularity, the historical novel exhausted its possibilities in the twentieth century Bengal. The genre did not attract Bengali novelists anymore. Tagore wrote a historical novel in his young days which failed to attract attention. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, the most popular novelist of the century, never thought of writing a historical novel. He worked within the confines of the familiar and the contemporary. Other major novelists, the three Bandyopadhyays in particular, also did not take much interest in history. Bibhutibhushan's last novel Ichamati, however, is a story of a quiet village life on the bank of the river Ichamati, in the mid-nineteenth-century. But it does not have the expected ingredients of a historical novel-the battle, the political intrigue, change of for- tunes of royalty, display of passion etc. The employment of the Time past does not make it necessarily different from any other narrative of the Time present: it is the story of a village which remained more or less unchanged like the river on which it stands. One can, of course, call it a historical novel with a difference: it narrates the history of a place that remains free and unscathed from the changes of time; it is a story of the common man, not of the heroes celebrated in history. Bimal Mitra differed both from the classical model of historical novel introduced by Bankim Chandra as well as of the model created by Bibhutibhushan.
The choice of the place as well as the time of Saheb Bibi Golam is both daring and remarkable. Calcutta does not have the glamour of medieval cities like Delhi or Agra, not to speak of the ancient cities like Varanasi and Madurai: it is indeed in the words of Kipling, 'chance-directed, chance erected.' But Bimal Mitra has used with great dexterity the basic materials of the history of the development of this British made city into his narrative: the growth and consolidation of a leisured community who prospered under the patronage of the new ruler, who earned enormously and squandered extravagantly, and who also declined slowly but inevitably. The city itself becomes a living space in the narrative: from a conglomeration of a few non-descript villages, it grew into an enormous trade-centre, a cosmopolitan space drawing people from nearby villages and towns for economic opportunities, Not only did it become a new economic Mecca attracting people in search of fortune, it also became the nerve-centre of the new cultural awakening, generally known as 'the Bengal Renaissance'. Bimal Mitra has brought out this history with a studied casual tone, never allowing the 'big' events of social and political life to take priority over the usual and the common. There is an unending procession of characters representing various professions of urban life along with the old occupations associated with the lingering feudal structure. Among these characters, each one of them faithful to life, are the Sahebs, the aristocrats, and their unfortunate wives (the Bibis) and their employees, the golams. The metaphor of the playing cards appear to be most appropriate indicating as they do the fluctuating fortunes of individuals, as much as the stable power- relation in human society symbolising the relationship between man and man.
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