Somen Chanda (1920-42), the young communist writer, was barely twenty-two when he was killed in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) by nationalist-chauvinists who had turned into admirers of Fascism. His Life, creative aspirations and tragic death made him an icon of his times, and his assassination was the immediate provocation for the mobilization of a militant anti-fascist writers' and artists' movement in India. While some of his best stories portray with great sensitivity the sordidness, degeneracy and boredom of the dispossessed middle class in Bengal, there are others that provide rare insights into the frustrations of the rural poor. 'The woman's point of view,' according to the editor of this volume, 'while sees reality from its stark underside, becomes a fictional tool for exposure' in several stories in this collection.
Malini Bhattacharya, the editor, is professor of English and Director of the School of Women's Studies at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, and a former communist member of Parliament.
In the short span of his life, stretching over twenty-two years (1920-42), Somen Chanda wrote a few dozens of short stories and the first part of a novel. This is all his claim to literary fame. Some of these were written when Somen was still in his teens, and as such are uneven in quality. In spite of his early maturity as a creative artist, it has to be admitted that the promise he showed was largely unfulfilled.
Yet, like John Cornford in the 1930s or Safdar Hashmi in more recent times, Somen remains a figure whose life, creative aspirations and tragic death made him an icon of his times, representing the interpenetration of personal with national history. At a time when the anti-imperialist struggle in India was about to enter a stage of intense and widespread participation by peasants, workers, students, youth and a section of the armed forces, Somen, a young boy from an urban middle class family, joined the Communist movement and was entrusted on the one hand with developing the cultural movement and on the other with the task of organizing the railway workers. He was deeply stirred by the international antifascist movement and endorsed the understanding of the Communist Party of India that the anti-imperialist struggle could not be seen in separation from the worldwide struggle against Fascism. It was while following this faith that he met his death in the hands of a nationalist-chauvinist mob.
But these specific socio-political circumstances that find their reverberations in the Bengali fiction of the time and the experiments in realism, which went into the development of a great author like Manik Bandyopadhyay in the 1930s, also opened up new creative spaces for younger contemporaries like Somen Chanda. Somen's prose, at its best, bears the distinctive marks of such experimental efforts to make it the medium of a critical intelligence which can probe the depths of contemporary lower middle class life in Bengal with all its mundane triviality. The problem of the realistic artists of this generation was to develop the fictional possibilities of such 'trivia' by revealing the crucial conflict of historical forces in the changes going on in the life of these classes. According to Lukacs such insight requires a 'ruthlessness towards their own subjective world-picture' which is the 'hallmark of all great realists' (Studies in European Realism,1972, p.ll). Somen, for all his youthful idealism, shows some of this 'ruthlessness' towards his subjective requirements from literature, a ruthlessness which indeed is the other side of his compassion for the supposedly 'trivial' which earlier literary conventions failed to see as the fit subject for fiction.
This collection of short stories by Somen Chanda attempts to demonstrate, through the problematic medium of translation, the expressive power that a language may acquire at a juncture when possibilities are opened up for experiments in realism. Somen's short stories were produced in the context of a specific time which we need to have some acquaintance with in order to understand them; the semi-Sanskritized (sadhu) verb forms that he often (but not always) uses in his stories, have gone out of practice a long time back. But it is the way in which the young Somen weaves these older forms into the rhythm of realism that constitutes the abiding interest of his stories for us.
It may be recalled that Nikhil Bharat Pragati Lekhak Sangha or All India Progressive Writers' Association was established in 1936, in response to the rapidly changing international scenario. The achievements of the Soviet Union, the rise of Fascism in Spain and Italy and accelerated anti-imperialist activities in the colonies provided the context for closer association of writers and artists with these political developments. Adopting Dimitrov's 'United Front' thesis, the Indian Communists sought to build up a broad forum of anti-imperialist, anti-fascist forces in their own country. While they provided the motive force behind the association of progressive writers, many writers who had nothing to do with Communist ideology became active members of the organization in the late thirties. Munshi Premchand, the great writer in Urdu and Hindi, was the president at the first conference of PWA, and eminent writers like Sarojini Naidu, Sumitranandan Panth, Sajjad Jahir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz attended it. In the very next year the All India Committee of the League Against Fascism and War was formed with Rabindranath Tagore as its president, and many of the members of PWA also became involved in the latter organization. The British Government suspected PWA to be a product of the strategy of the Communist International to spread Communistic ideas and to gain converts, but the inspiration of PWA had spread so widely among prominent progressive intellectuals that it could not be crushed. The Communists thus played a crucial role in organizing large sections of Indian intellectuals on a secular, humanist, anti-feudal platform to respond to the catastrophe of human civilization that Fascism represented.
After the war began in 1939, the Communist Party was banned in India, many of the party activists were clapped in jail and the activities of the PWA declined partly because of repressive Government measures. However in 1941 after the Soviet Union was attacked by the Nazi forces, after a long internal debate, the Communist Party adopted the People's War line, which gave them the opportunity once again to work openly. While earlier they had refused to have anything to do with the war efforts, seen as an internecine conflict among imperialists, now the primary objective was seen to be the defeat of the Fascists, who had attacked the Soviet Union. The efforts of the Allies to the extent that they were directed against the Fascists, were not to be disrupted. However, this was seen as a contingency which did not imply rejection of the anti-imperialist struggle. Rather, the People's War line asserted that in the long run the anti-fascist struggle would strengthen the anti-imperialist one. This, however, created a polarization in the Freedom Movement which grew in the months following Somen's death. In the light of the great popular outburst of anti-British passions in the Quit India struggle of August 1942, and the strong sentiments among the Bengali educated middle class in support of the Indian National Army, backed by Japanese troops, the People's War line put the Communists in a difficult position. The danger of being branded as collaborationists was there. Subsequently, the Communist Party itself admitted self-critically that because of weaknesses in the People's War strategy, imperialist oppression was not withstood as forcefully as it should have been. But where the Communists were able to address the problems of the people created by imperialist oppression, while carrying out anti-fascist campaign at the ideological level, their support base increased immensely. It also cannot be denied that the anti-fascist trend in the freedom struggle supported by Communists like Somen Chanda provided a pull in the direction of humanism, secularism, rationality at this crucial phase of the anti-British struggle when reactionary nationalist-chauvinist or communalist forces were threatening to take it over entirely. Somen's interventions, both political and creative, show such efforts. Such danger, in fact, was there, and has been noted by almost all historians in recent years. One manifestation of it was in the rapid growth of Hindu nationalism and Muslim nationalism and was to be found in the frequency and intensity of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. This was still largely confined to urban areas, but was also beginning to spill over in rural parts. But in this period, this nationalist chauvinism also infected some of the political groups which professed to have 'leftist' or 'socialist' leanings. The Congress Socialist Party, which took a leading role in the 1942 movement, and the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which contained some remnants of secret societies engaged in armed struggle against the British, openly proclaimed their admiration for the German and Japanese powers who were considered to be friends, since they were in enmity with the British. Nationalism, in these cases, took the form of rabid anti-communism, and sometimes, as in some parts of Bengal, developed a communal bias. The brutal killing of Somen at the hands of these nationalist chauvinists on 8 March 1942 proved to be the turning-point after which the broad forum of progressive intellectuals was revived under the name of Anti-Fascist Writers' and Artists' Association. While the People's War line may have caused some dilution in the Communist stand against imperialism, the progressive secular components of the freedom struggle were strengthened by the anti-fascist movement at the ideological level.
Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh) was one of the main centres of cultural as well as political movements in undivided Bengal. At the time when Somen was just eighteen, Communists were organizing themselves in Dhaka under the leadership of Satish Pakrasi (1893-1973) who had started his career as an armed activist of the Anusilan group against the British. While serving a sentence at the Andaman Prison, like many others, he was converted to Communist ideology, and after release, chose Dhaka as the centre of his activities. Somen lived close to the unexposed Communist Party office in Dhaka which ran under the cover of a library and book club. Somen had opted out of student life even before this, because of ill health, to some extent, but he was a voracious reader. It was perhaps this love for books which brought him to 'Pragati Pathagar', and soon, he came under the influence of Satish Pakrasi.
Somen became a member of the Communist Party only in 1941, a year before his death. But the association which started in 1938 was to prove crucial to his development as a writer. It expanded his horizons, made him aware of international events, and gave him a deeper perspective into the social and political changes going on around him. Not only did he acquaint himself with the available texts of Marx and Lenin, but deeply moved by the anti-fascist struggle in Spain, he also immersed himself in the writings of Ralph Fox and Christopher Caudwell who had joined the International Brigade and laid down their lives in the Spanish Civil War. In the writings of Caudwell and Fox, in particular, he found insights into the politics of literature and culture which must have been important for him as an engage writer himself.
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