COINCIDING with the death centenary of Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848-1909) whose name is immediately associated with his four historical novels, particularly Maharashtra Jiban Prabhat (1878), the author of this book under review, famous for her literary and cultural criticisms and as former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, illuminates the remarkable journey (1848-1909) of the protagonist whose life embodies several aspects of colonial modernity and its negotiation with a rediscovered Indian past.
R.C. Dutt was one of the earliest writers to criticise the British system of taxation in India and to hold the government culpable for the frequent famines in the 19th century. He was also one of the earliest Indian members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), an exemplary officer who had, nevertheless, the courage to openly challenge unfair official policies. What was particularly amazing was that during his eventful career of a civil servant, he could find time to write essays in English on a wide range of subjects – anthropology, sociology, land reform, taxation and local self-government. His other major activity was translation not only from Sanskrit to English – an area in which Oriental scholars of Europe specialised – but also from Sanskrit to Bengali, which was rather a hazardous task because the Brahmin scholars of Bengal, keen to maintain their monopoly on Sanskrit texts, were unwilling to allow access to the common masses to what was considered ‘sacred literature’. This is because his translation of the Rig Veda Samhita into Bengali created a furore in the late 19th century, partly because he was not a Brahmin by caste and hence was not supposed to have the right to read Sanskrit texts, much less to translate them.
The book traces Dutt’s eventful life – from his running away to England at the age of 20, his life as a successful administrator and his taking early retirement from government service to join and become a nationalist leader and president of the Indian National Congress in 1899.
The author of this book seems to have conducted a deep research into the protagonist’s life to present a portrait of a man who till the end of his life “remained undecided whether his true vocation was literature or politics.”
(Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017.)