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Bengal syndrome?

  • Published at 08:21 pm August 21st, 2015
Bengal syndrome?

We have a 20th century diagnosis for the psychological phenomenon of identification with, and positive feelings towards, captors; it is known as Stockholm Syndrome. The name derives from the way in which captives taken by bank robbers in Stockholm, in August 1973, and held hostage for six days, came to develop an emotional attachment to their captors, defending them even after their own release.

Hostages released in further cases have displayed similar behaviour; however, whilst in the 18th and 19th century many Bengalis were very evidently ready to resist their British rulers and suffer imprisonment and even death to do so, there were those who appeared to have developed similar characteristics of emotions to the Stockholm captives.

Certainly, there were many who happily and willingly benefitted through their engagement with the British; and others who, however resigned, simply accepted the rule, and made the best of it.

However, one 19th century Bengali, one of their most famous poets and dramatists, born in Jessore, seems to have manifested similar characteristics to those of the Swedes of Stockholm, over a century later.

Michael Madhusudan Dutt may well have been one of Bengal’s greatest poets, but the wish he manifested, even from youth, to become as British as his affluent Hindu birth could permit, appears to have fuelled much of his talent, but, in the end, probably left him a very disillusioned and disappointed man.

It is, perhaps, not hard to discern, in his early moves to Anglicise himself, to become “English,” at least in his own eyes, the budding of a vivid imagination, and levels of imaginative creative activity that was to flower into what was, certainly, one of the greatest literary talents ever seen in someone born in Bangladesh.

No doubt, admiring the lives and lifestyle of the British rulers, and, as we know, certainly, their rich literary traditions, it is not hard to imagine the adolescent Dutt, imagining himself as one of the apparently gilded literati and elite.

He was born in 1824, in the village of Sagordari, the son of a highly successful and wealthy Hindu lawyer from a Zamindar family. No doubt, in the spacious and graceful way of life in which he grew, there was time and opportunity for a youth, evidently, from an early age, to visualise and imagine the achievement of a way of life that was, in fact, both religiously, socially, and culturally alien to his own, but one to which he aspired.

It is probably even easier when we recognise his lifelong admiration for the works of the almost contemporary English poet, the, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Lord Byron, and the romanticism, and lyrical effulgence of both his work, and reputed lifestyle, qualities which inspire a youthful imagination.

His early exposure to English language and literature, which began in his childhood, was, probably, the root of his Anglophilia; but his move to Calcutta, like that of many social contemporaries, certainly developed it.

His teacher at Hindu College, Captain DL Richardson, himself a poet, certainly fanned the youthful passions. At the age of 19, Dutt took the first step towards fulfilling his dream, and converted, in the face of considerable family opposition, to Christianity. It was, perhaps, the first step, as he saw it in his imagination -- to realising, what reason might have told him was, in fact, an unrealisable dream -- to becoming English.

It was a step that alienated, irrevocably, from his family, and took him, inevitably, towards the regret that, by the end of his life, finally revealed that no matter how much his dramatic and poetic work was admired, in the end, late 19th century British, already, in India, becoming ever more racist, and in England, tolerant, but never totally accepting, would never take him, or his talent, completely to its heart.

His conversion to Christianity is generally recognised as a gesture, not merely to reject his religion, but also to refuse an arranged marriage his father was attempting to force on him. It meant, not simply an alienation from his family that endured for the rest of his life, but also that he had to leave Hindu College.

To evade further family attempts to reverse his decisions, he fled to Madras, where he quickly found, to his delight, and married, an orphan Scottish girl, Rebecca McTavish, with whom, over the next decade, he had four children.

Little seems to be known about his 10 years in Madras, and, certainly, little work in fulfilment of his unquestionable literary promise seems to have emerged. Perhaps he taught; certainly he would have found much of the lifestyle as English as anything else that might be found in India.

It is not, however, hard to imagine that English society in Madras should have given him clues to what he finally came to recognise: The colour of his skin would always exclude him from achieving fulfilment of his own vision of himself as an Englishman.

In 1854, literally abandoning his wife and children, it seems, following the death of his father, he returned to Calcutta. It is not hard to reflect that, to all appearances, his life in Madras may have been something of the somewhat Bohemian life of poets pictured, some half a century later by the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, in his famous opera La Boheme.

Taking a second wife, in 1856, with whom he was to have two children, he finally, in 1862, realised his continuing ambition to “become English,” travelling to London and being accepted to study law at Gray’s Inn, one of the four great Inns of Court.

It is clear that the Hindu community had not entirely rejected him. He found accommodation with a member of the great Tagore family, Rabindranath’s elder brother, Satyendranath Tagore, who was, at the time, in London, studying for the Indian Civil Service Exam, which, since 1853, had been open to native Indians.

Whilst, a year later, his wife joined him, he struggled with his finances, and, perhaps already recognising that London was not ever going to accept him as English, a perception heightened by his association with Tagore, aspiring to a previously English only employment, in the face of great uncertainty that was no doubt heightened by British attitudes to native Indians following the 1857 uprising.

At some point in the 1860s, it appears that, in order to relieve his continuing poverty, he moved, temporarily, to Paris. Yet another venture into Bohemianism, maybe.

Finally recognising that neither his racial origin nor his finances were ever going to enable him to realise his life-long dream, he returned to Calcutta.

It may well be significant that, amongst his literary work in Calcutta, he is believed to have been the translator of the controversial dramatist Deenabandhu Mitra’s famous play, portraying the plight of the workers in Indigo Plantations at the hands of their British masters. Perhaps, inevitably, his disillusionment turned, finally, unsurprisingly, to hatred?

His early death in 1873, at the age of 49, in Calcutta, seems to have passed largely unnoticed and unmarked. His demise was, perhaps, due, not only to his life-long adult struggle with poverty, but also an ever increasing alcoholism, both of which we may recognise from the lives of other great poets.

It was, indeed, 15 years before any monument marked his grave. But his contribution to the literary heritage of Bengali poetry and drama became increasingly acknowledged. Indeed, he was spoken of as one of the greatest ever figures in Bengali literature, and, indeed, as the greatest poet in the Bengali language until the advent of  Rabindranath Tagore.

Such delay in recognition was, of course, a fate, at the time, not uncommon amongst the 19th century artistic and literary giants, achieving recognition only after death.

Tagore, himself, was, at the time of Dutt’s death, a mere 12-year-old youth; but perhaps his early writing, from the age of eight, was, perhaps, inspired by his own elder brother’s increasingly famous literary giant of a friend? 


Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.