Restless waters of the Ichamati

A couple of weeks ago I started to read the Bengali novel “Restless waters of the Ichhamati” by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. I made slow progress to start with, overwhelmed by the number of characters and special vocabulary. But the more I got into the novel, the more impressed I became.

The main topic is the indigo revolt in Bengal (ca 1859). Less well known than the Indian rebellion a couple of years earlier, the production of indigo, used as blue dye in the European textile industry, caused very considerable hardship to the local population, forced to grow indigo on their land instead of foodstuffs. Bandyopadhyay describes the process of how the British entrepreneur chose and measured up the land for indigo (land they didn’t own), backed up by local thugs, who didn’t hesitate to wound or even kill those who resisted (and burnt down houses). The planting of indigo was not a voluntary process neither was it profitable for the farmers. The farmers were lent money to plant indigo but at very high rates of interest, making it practically impossible for them or their inheriting children to ever escape the financial control of the lenders.

In 1859, a revolt broke out and the farmers refused to plant more indigo, much of the action taking place in what is now Bangla Desh. Tactics varied from place to place – in some places, violence was used against the entrepreneurs and their henchmen, in other places, the protests were more peaceful. And I am convinced that atrocities were committed against the farmers in this process but the scale of the protests made the customary resort to repression less effective. I’ve seen speculation that the fact that the struggle was aimed at the entrepreneurs and not against governmental forces played a part in its relative success.

I should like to know more about this and especially how the struggle in the indigo revolt related to the the suppression of the sepoy rebellion. This was the period when rule by the East India Company was replaced by ultimate control by the British government, probably a form of government preferred by large English companies in, for example, the textile industry, which needed laws to protect their access to sources and to brake (and reverse) Indian development rather than simple protection of the framework for pre-imperialist exploitation through trade of goods produced in India.  

In my reading of Bandyopadhyay’s novel, the indigo revolt is present but it feels somewhat off stage. It seems to come to an end not as a result of successful struggle but in response to the invention of synthetic indigo by German scientists at a fraction of the price for which it could be produced in India.

From the little I have read of Bengali history, this telescopes development. That was indeed the coup de grace for exploitation by the indigo companies but I believe (tentatively) that some years elapsed between the break out of the indigo revolt and the collapse of the Bengali indigo industry. In between, there was a government commission which examined conditions in the indigo industry and (according to the source on the net) drew some conclusions unfavourable to the entrepreneurs on the unsustainability of their exploitation (I have associations here with the history of the crofters in the Outer Hebrides after the First World War). I am suspicious of happy endings, of history served with honey, and want to know more about what actually happened during this period.

The greatness of Bandyopadhyay’s novel is not just  his social realism but his cast of characters reflecting rural Bengali society as it was at that time and his description of the attitudes of the people, the complicated rules affecting relations between castes and above all village women, whose behaviour was not just regulated before marriage. I haven’t read as much Balzac as I would like but that was my association.

Bandyopadhyay’s name is derived from Sanskrit meaning (I believe) friend of the teacher. It is also referred to as  Banerjee. I thought that this abbreviation was the work of the Brits but (as far as I understand) it is common among the Bengali themselves. In fact, Bandyopadhyay is not as fearsome to pronounce as it looks, if you remember that  the first “y” is not clearly pronounced but affects the quality of the preceding “d” and that the “h” after the second d indicates aspiration.

I am going to read this novel again and also to make myself a reading list on the nineteenth century history of Bengal.

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