A review of The Persecuted by Krishna Mohana Banerjea

Reviewed by Ketaki Datta

The Persecuted
by Krishna Mohana Banerjea
Ed. Paromita Sengupta
Shambhabi Imprint
Kolkata, 2018, 270 pages, Rs.250

The Persecuted, the first English drama, is not just introduced to us by the editor Paromita Sengupta, Assistant Professor of English at Shovarani Memorial Girls’ College, Howrah, West Bengal. Sengupta’s introduction to the play is elaborate, befitting and exploratory. Reverend Krishna Mohana Banerjea was humiliated just when he embraced Christianity , coming under the direct influence of Derozio and the Young Bengal. Dr. Paromita Sengupta, the editor, has rightly placed the play in its context, time-frame and societal background and reasoned for its cogence in the-then society and its relevance in modern day theatre-history. Freedom of expression, freedom of taste, freedom of living one’s own life in one’s own terms are an individual’s birthright. If these are intervened, an upheaval in the society is an obvious and natural outcome. And this is where the play has its beginning and this is exactly where we find striking similarities with Michael Mahusudan Dutt’s “ Ekei ki Bale Sabhyata?” and Kylas Chandra Dutt’s “Scenes in Calcutta”. Kylas Chandra Dutt’s “Scenes in Calcutta” is no play, but in both the aforesaid writings the harsh criticism of the youths , coming under the influence of anglicized ways of life through college education, comes to the fore and serves as grist to the mill.

Sengupta provides the right context for The Persecuted, and questions why it has not been accorded the proper attention so far which it might have deserved:

The Persecuted is a fascinating text for the use it makes of the English language, the handling of the dramatic mode, its attitude to Hindu Samaj and social reform. However, it would be wrong to say that that is all the relevance that this first English language drama by an Indian has. We can hardly agree with M.K. Naik when he says, ‘a somewhat crude presentation of the conflict in the mind of a sensitive Bengali youth’ [Naik 98]. It is certainly a text that cannot be ignored. (123)

In fact, when the youths of Bengal were coming up to manifest their own ideas, their own set of values, quite liberally, rather intrepidly and independently, the conservative Hindoo society was at loggerheads with these young brats. And, as a result, they turned arrogant and cocked a snook at the reprimands and serious threats that came their way from their intolerant, reactionary elders. This constant clash with the old-world societal values and the new set of ideals often resulted in the ostracism of the youth, and consequently, conversion to Christianity— the religion of liberalism and liberty, according to the young generation. The continual oppression of the young minds resulted in an inordinate desire to prove their individuality through an open revolt against meaningless rituals in the name of religion and nonsensical food-habits in reverence to the religion [Hinduism] itself.

The Persecuted is considered as one of the plays in vogue in those times. Yet, it is a play which is also mostly autobiographical. Westernization of the Hindu youths, both intellectually and mentally, was often considered as a sharp deviation from the norms set by a Hindoo society to be practised and revered.

The text of the play along with the introduction are the chief attractions of this volume. The editor, however, claims that she has not interfered with the text, originally written in 1831. She has taken a small liberty in italicizing certain ‘indigenous’ words, with a purpose, she admits.
Let us now concentrate upon the play itself. The interesting fact about the drama is that, there is a constant clash between the ideals of the young generation who fight against all sorts of superstitions and parochialism and the old staunch believers of rituals and conservative Hinduism. Mohadeb, an orthodox Hindu [Hindoo] cannot accept his son, Bany Lall, following Anglicized ways of life, which include, beef-eating and drinking alcohol. The Brahmins [Bramins] like Turkolunkar, Bydhabagis converse about their sundry ways of hoodwinking the commoners, taking them for a ride on futile issues. Bydhabagis comments upon the credulous nature of his disciples. Being a Bramin is an advantage which he can cash in on at any moment he wishes to. By uttering “ Baboo Assyrbad” [the word for blessing by Bramins] , he can return home with “pockets full”. (163) Turkolankar takes pride in the fact that his sishos [disciples] look upon his visit to their house “ as that of a god; although it exhausts their purse.” (164)  Thus, a picture of the-then society ruled by these deceptive, hypocritical men has perfectly been etched by Krishna Mohana Banerjea.

The servants of the well-to-do men were critical of the lifestyle of the baboo’s sons. And, in case of Mohadeb’s son, Bany Lall, it proved to be of no exception at all. Mohadeb’s young servant hardly fumbles in fear as he utters, “ Our Kurta[head of the family] spends hours and hours after devotion; my young master[ Bany Lall] – ha! what does he—eats beef in his room!”[Banerjea: 155] And Mohadeb along with his close allies cannot come to terms with this growing fad of the young populace, influenced mostly by the genius young man, Henry Vivien Derozio. The old value system gets a severe jolt while the new, liberal one tries to carve a niche, replacing the former, gradually. But for that, the young ones had to sacrifice a lot, some were even turned out by their parents! In fact, Mohadeb finally decides to sever all ties with his son , who has begun to cock a snook at the traditions of his own culture and ethos of his own religion. People like Kamdeb, Bhyrub and the ilk were there to be vocal about the “new” direction the youths of those times seemed to take. In his feeble command on the foreign tongue, Kamdeb used to vociferate: “ Yesh; the billans down cars our religion. Boys not obeys ould man; They not drinkes Bramun Takoorsh feet wash water. We must excommunicashian them.” (193)

These influential meddling fellows had immense power to make Mohadeb excommunicate his son, Bany Lall, on account of having beef and being smart enough to give up following all rituals of Hindoo religion, blindly. All the old men took this as baby steps towards their“ Hindoo reformation.” The play concludes with Bany Lall’s assuring words to the progressive youths of the times:

Let us friends thus go on….Let us prove ourselves dutiful sons of our country by our actions and exertions. Now, let us see what strength can ignorance and bigotry bring into the field. Let us mark how feeble is prejudice when rational beings attack it with prudence. Perseverence, and Prudence be our motto and let us hold out our position in spite [of] all difficulties and all dangers that may fall into our way. (231)

Conflict, protest and strong will are the bedrocks of the-then society of the youths, popularly called, Young Bengal.  Paromita Sengupta’s “Editorial Notes on the Text” as well as “Bibliography” help us understand the text better and stir our desire to know the life and times of the protagonist, Bany Lall, and like-minded youths thoroughly. It is a must read for every Bengalee, nay Indian, who would love to trace the history of the times, seemingly past and lost in the abyss of time.

About the reviewer: Dr. Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English at Bidhannagar Govt. College, Salt Lake City, Kolkata. She is a reviewer, poet, novelist, translator and editor.