As good as new

Published : Apr 20, 2007 00:00 IST

One hundred and fifty years after it was written, the Assamese play "Ramnabami-Natak" is still refreshingly daring.

HOW did the smaller nationalities of India outside the Presidency provinces negotiate their relationship with the new order represented by the colonial masters as, through chance and circumstance, they first came into contact with them and eventually were conquered and subjugated by the new order? How did they contend with, resist and eventually come to terms, sullenly, willingly or apathetically, with the new order, including the new value systems, very broadly the dominant ideology of a materially advanced colonial power, that was to impinge on every aspect of their lives, on their future as much as on their past?

It is not as if such questions are not relevant in respect of those already conquered who, despite a much longer exposure to the colonial regime, were still in the process of negotiating this relationship. However, by and large, those value systems representing modernity, or westernisation, in the broadest sense of the term, without a countervailing unqualified rejection of the inheritance of the past, had come to be accepted as providing greater material opportunities than the feudal ideologies they were supplanting. For instance, persons who never had any exposure to English education and were indeed hostile to the firang, having for generations been educated in traditional institutions like the Sanskrit tols and the Islamic madrassas, were quick to grasp opportunities that the brave new world of English education opened up in areas of secular knowledge such as the liberal arts and the sciences. Macaulay's children may now be seen in retrospect, perhaps legitimately, as the earliest native auxiliaries of the imperial civil and military administration, but recruitment to these forces at that historical point was seen as, and indeed was, a liberating moment. For the marginal nationalities outside the Presidency provinces, the defeat of the old kingdoms and the conquest of their territories, that is, the destruction of the old feudal order and their own enslavement, also opened up similar opportunities of this new enlightenment.

A further problem is that the relationship between the empire and its later acquisitions was extremely varied, allowing for considerable variations in the kind of control exercised by the conquered and the latitude, within limits, allowed to the conquered. For instance, following the defeat of the Burmese (Myanmarese) invasion of Assam and the signing of the treaty of Yandabo in February 1826, the British annexed the kingdom of Assam, while in the case of the kingdoms of Manipur, Cachar and Jaintia, also invaded by Burma, Britain adopted the policy of rendition with the presence of a British resident to look after British interests - a policy Britain had followed in the case of the kingdom of Mysore where, following the defeat of Tipu Sultan in the fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1799), the old feudal order was restored.

The reasons for such different approaches had little to do with the promotion of modernity or with feudalism. Empire building was a profit-making project; destruction of the old order or promotion of modernist values was incidental and was always linked to this profit motive, that is, whichever approach facilitated the accumulation of profits and surpluses was used. The kingdom of Mysore did not at that point hold the kind of promises that Assam, where tea had been discovered, held. Thus, the competing pulls of the benefits of modernisation through annexation as against restoration of the old feudal order.

The life and career of Gunabhiram Barua (1837-94), the author of the Assamese play Ramnabami-Natak, as indeed the story presented in the play, illustrate some of the contradictory aspects of the colonial encounter in Assam. Gunabhiram, born into what the editor of the volume describes as a "re-invented Brahmin family", had an unusual inheritance, being part of the second-generation progeny of one Lakshminarayan Brahmachari, who had travelled from his native "Dravida country" to Assam seeking a fortune as so many before him had done. His arrival in Assam coincided with the chaotic times of the reign of Gaurinath Singha - a period of "sharp decline of the Ahom kingdom" (Maheswar Neog) - who was to bring "ruin to the kingdom" (S.K. Bhuyan). He secured the position of a duwariya baruwa (customs officer) at Hadira Chowky on the kingdom's western border, the transit point for all the trade between Assam and Bengal, one of the most important and lucrative of the kingdom's customs posts.

The man from Dravida country thrived, and by the time he died, Lakshminarayan, who had apparently abandoned his own family in his native land, had become the head of "a prosperous and educated Assamese family" comprising six boys and a girl, all stray and abandoned Brahmin children adopted by him into his own gotra (clan) at different times. The twice born were thus doubly twice born, which probably explains the editor's description of Gunabhiram, the son of one of these adopted sons, as a "reinvented Brahmin".

Inasmuch as the scholarly introduction to this volume situates Gunabhiram's personality, career and work in their social and historical context, one looks forward to a future work by this scholar (or any other) that would tell us more about this fascinating and mysterious stranger from distant parts, who not merely made Assam his home, attained a high (and lucrative) office and amassed a fortune but also raised a progeny of talented and distinguished children and grandchildren, some of whose children and grandchildren in turn distinguished themselves outside Assam, in a kind of reverse traffic.

Ramnabami-Natak, a tragic love story whose central characters are Ramachandra, a young man, and Nabami, a young widow, is remarkable for its modern and sophisticated sensibility; its robust openness and boldness in dealing with themes relating to marriage; sexual love inside and outside formal marriage; the crushing and soul-destroying oppression and denial of life enforced on widows; women's education and their reading habits; and the glimpses it provides into an economy that was getting monetised, its social and intellectual recreations, indeed, the whole secular universe of 19th century Assam at a time of clash and convergence between old and new ideas and under the impact of the liberating and enslaving features of colonialism in theory and practice. Even now, a century and a half after it was written, the play is refreshingly daring.

The story is simple. The play opens with the wailing of the parents and neighbours of Nabami, who has recently lost her young husband to cholera. "If this misfortune had happened after a child or two had been born to her, things would have been different," wails a friend and companion of Nabami, even while attributing the tragedy to the influence of the stars.

Ramachandra, a neighbour who had been away at his uncle's place, is feeling distraught and restless; he does not know why. His friend and companion, Kamdev, wise in the ways of the world, explains the causes and workings of this malady as well as the remedy - which is that Ramachandra needs a wife. Ramachandra indignantly rejects this explanation with a standard, adolescent tirade against women and sexuality, which does not deceive his friend at all. Corresponding conversations take place between Nabami and her two friends, Jayanti, who is married, and Urvashi, who is widowed. Jayanti diagnoses her friend's restlessness (in Nabami's words, "I am not keeping well ever since I started having my periods") as due to the fact that "the poor girl had not had the chance to go to her husband even once".

They take a walk in the garden where Nabami is annoyed by a bumblebee buzzing too close to her mouth. Then follow these remarkable exchanges, one of several such:

Urvashi: Oh, he mistakes you for a freshly opened lotus!

Jayanti: My friend is right. You are indeed like a blossoming flower. None has ever tasted your honey!

Nabami: What about yourself?

Jayanti (laughing): The likes of us have no honey now. It has all turned to molasses. But if an experienced one sucks well, he can extract some honey yet! Still, it would be honey in a diluted form! Not like yours. Someone with middling experience can suck molasses out of us, a novice will only get treacle, but a totally inexperienced one will get nothing.

There follow more such passages of double entendre, exuding sexuality and banter, as they run into Ramachandra, who turns out to be Jayanti's brother-in-law (her husband's cousin, in kinship terms a younger brother with whom an elder sister-in-law enjoys what social anthropologists describe as "joking relationship", thus allowing Jayanti to play the role that she does), resting under a tree. Pretending not to be aware of each other, Ramachandra and Nabami stealthily examine each other and like what they see. Ramachandra guesses, by the absence of ornamental accoutrement, that Nabami is probably a widow.

As for the girl, her feelings find the clearest expression in this soliloquy:

"How will I be able to meet this man and fulfil my desire of saying a few words to him? Am I not a widow? They say I should not look at any man. Yet, why so? It is true that I am a widow, but I cannot disobey God's law by denying myself the pleasures of the senses. Isn't my present condition proof enough of that fact? So it is not wrong to desire the company of a man. A husband is someone with whom one can fulfil the main purpose of marriage. For me this man could be that husband. ... Some shastras may say that a woman cannot take another husband if the first one dies. So what? What is a shastra? There can be no shastra above God's law."

God's law, as perceived and explained by the author, is simply the law of nature. This comes out clearly in Act Three, Scene Four, where, with the assistance of Jayanti, who helps in arranging an assignation in her own bedchamber, the two lovers finally find themselves in each other and consummate their love.

Nabami: Oh the pleasures of consummation! Cursed be those who want to deny us that pleasure!

This is how Jayanti teases her friend the following morning (Scene Five):

Jayanti: How are you, sakhi?

Nabami (eyes cast down shyly): As you can see...

Jayanti: How now! So dishevelled in one night! Your hair all untied, the smoothness of your face gone, your eyes so swollen! How long did you stay awake last night?

The tragic denouement is violent and brutal and follows as naturally and inevitably as in a morality play. Nabami gets pregnant. This causes scandal. The mahajan, a religious instructor who is also some kind of a keeper of morals, threatens to ostracise her family unless the father, Shibakanta, pays a fine of Rs.500. Overcome with grief but with no feeling of guilt ("I am certain I have done no wrong"), Nabami stabs herself to death with the knife that Ramachandra had given her to pare beetle nut with. Jayanti follows suit, and Ramachandra hangs himself, with this last cry: "Oh, my dharma, be my witness! All this is the result of cruel social customs. Oh my beloved Nabami! Oh God!"

Scared of being implicated as one who caused the tragedy and chastened by a vision he had in a dream of the sage Parasar, who in his smriti had proclaimed that it was permissible for widows to marry, and of Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, who had supported and propagated widow marriage, the mahajan now announces that "Nabami was a chaste woman".

The play ends with an epilogue, in the form of a chant, whose theme is the legitimacy and the shastric sanction that widow marriages have, that what seemed as a striking departure from convention and deviation into modernity was indeed rooted in tradition. Again, the desires of the flesh are seen as part of the law of nature, which is no different from divinely ordained law.

If God did not approve of the pleasures of marriage for widows, then why does a woman's body naturally desire physical gratification even after the death of her husband? Those desires being so natural to her find expression in a hundred different ways.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this perspective is that while it is clearly inspired by the author's acceptance of the Brahmo Dharma and the writings of Vidyasagar, the specificities of this approach significantly differ from that of Vidyasagar. For the Bengali reformer, widow remarriage was desirable to save widows from temptation and exploitation by unscrupulous elements. Gunabhiram, however, sees widow marriage as a necessity in order to fulfil the natural urges of women forced to be single. Its most radical perspective is that carnal love outside the framework of a conventional marriage was no sin. The emphasis is equally on carnality and love.

This remarkable play was written 150 years ago when the author, all of 20 years of age, was travelling to Guwahati from Calcutta by steamer, a journey that took about 16 days, on summons from a senior kinsman who wanted him to return to get married to a bride who had been chosen for him. Gunabhiram, who by then had become mentally committed to the Brahmo Dharma, was reluctant to enter into a union that would entail Brahminic rituals. Further, under the influence of this new thought he had been nurturing hopes of entering into a marriage with a widow. These ideas clearly influenced the theme of the play he wrote during that journey.

However, having little choice in the matter, he got married to Brajasundari Devi, who, as he recalls in the Preface to the play, was a good companion who loved and cherished him. On the death of Brajasundari, he formally accepted the Brahmo faith and got married a second time, in 1870, to Bishnupriya Devi, a friend's widow who had two children by her first marriage, fulfilling the idea he had cherished at the age of 20 and had tried to propagate in the play, putting his money where his mouth was, as it were. This wife bore him four children, a daughter Swarnalata and four sons. On his retirement, he settled down in Calcutta, and on his death he left a legacy of Rs.50,000, a substantial fortune in those days. A truly complete human being.

The editor and publisher of the volume deserve our thanks and gratitude for making available this remarkable play in its first English translation, even though it appears over 130 years after its first publication in book form, and supplementing it with a detailed scholarly introduction situating the themes explored by the play in their social and historical milieu, which this review has attempted to summarise.

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