In the last couple of decades publishers have shown an interest in bringing out historically significant early English-language works like Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Rajmohan’s Wife (1865), the first novel in English by an Indian, and Din Muhammad’s The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1794), the first text composed in English by an Indian. While The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteen-Century Journey through India was published by the University of California Press in 1997, OUP India published it in 2000 as The First Author in English: Dean Mahomet (1759-1851) in India, Ireland, and England. Rajmohan’s Wife was reprinted by the now defunct publishing house Ravi Dayal in 2005, Rupa in 2008, and Penguin India in 2009. OUP India also published Krupabai Satthianadhan’s Saguna: The First Autobiographical Novel in English by an Indian Woman (1887-8) and Kamala: The Story of a Hindu Child-Wife (1894) in 1998. To this list we should add Toru Dutt’s The Diary of Mademoiselle D’Arvers, originally written in French, which appeared as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2009. However, in an age where classic reprints seem to form an important part of the backlists of major publishers, it’s surprising that the contemporary reader cannot buy a print edition of Lal Behari Day’s Govinda Samanta: Or the History of a Bengal Raiyat. Day’s novel was published in 1874 by Macmillan and Co, London. It was well-received (one of its admirers was Charles Darwin) and reprinted several times under the title Bengal Peasant Life. This makes Govinda Samanta the first successful novel in English by an Indian author. But it has a greater claim to fame – it is the first subaltern novel in Indian literature, a precursor to such works as Fakir Mohan Senapati’s Chha Mana Atha Guntha, Premchand’s Godaan and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable and Coolie.
Day (1824-94) was born in Sona Palasi, a village about hundred miles west of Calcutta. In Recollections of My School-Days he describes his father as a petty ‘bill and stock broker’ who worked in Calcutta but could not read or write English. Day’s early schooling was in his village pathshala. But his father, knowing that in colonial Bengal ‘for gaining a decent livelihood, a knowledge English language was absolutely necessary’, brought him to Calcutta and admitted him, in 1834, to Alexander Duff’s General Assembly’s Institution. Education in Duff’s school (later called the Free Church Institution) was free but Duff was a zealous missionary whose aim was to convert Hindu boys. Day’s father had a counterplan: ‘he did not intend to make of me a learned man, but to give me so much knowledge of English as would enable me to obtain a decent situation… and … long before I was able to understand Lectures on Christianity, he would withdraw me from the Institution, and put me into an Office.’ (Day also mentions that his father was ‘a staunch fatalist’ who believed ‘that what was written on one’s forehead must be fulfilled, all precautions notwithstanding.’) Though his father died in 1837, Day, a brilliant student, was able to continue his education, thanks to a relative who provided him with food and shelter. In his memoirs, Day mentions his indebtedness to the missionary teachers who helped to form his mind and character. We should perhaps single out Dr Thomas Smith who advised him to write plain English: ‘Strike out those sentences which you think the finest.’ The Christian orientation of his education led Day to convert; he was baptized on 2 July, 1843. In 1855 he was ordained to the office of the holy ministry of the Free Church Presbytery of Calcutta. Though Day belonged to the new Church founded by Duff, he attempted, 1846 onwards, to form a national church for Indians, ‘so as to include in its communion a great variety of opinions.’ Duff left the Mission due to poor pay and took up teaching first at Berhampore School and then at the Hooghly College.
Govinda Samanta narrates the life and struggles of its eponymous character who is born into a poor, low caste tenant farmer’s family in (present day) Bardhaman district. A reference to the last sati in the region before Lord William Bentinck banned the practice (on December 4, 1829) helps us date Govinda Samanta’s birth to (roughly) 1821. In the Preface, Day says that in 1871 Baboo Joy Kissen Mookerjea, a zamindar, offered a prize of £50 for the best novel, to be written either in Bengali or in English, illustrating the ‘Social and domestic Life of the Rural Population and Working Classes of Bengal.’ Govinda Samanta was written for this contest (which it won). In writing the novel Day may appear to be fulfilling Macaulay’s dream of forming ‘a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern.’ In the Introduction to her Early Novels in India, Meenakshi Mukherjee quotes the followings lines from the opening pages of Govinda Samanta:
You are not to expect anything marvelous or wonderful in this little book. My great Indian predecessors…Valmiki, Vyas, and the compilers of the Puranas, have treated of kings with ten heads and twenty arms; of a monkey carrying the sun in his arm-pit…of being man above and fish below, or with the body of a man and the head of an elephant; of sages, with truly profound stomachs, who drank up the waters of the oceans in one sip.
She comments that ‘the vehemence of Lal Bihari (sic) Day’s rejection of the tropes of puranic narrative tales almost matches Thomas Babington Macaulay’s contempt for what passed for knowledge in India.’ But we must give due weight to the next part of the paragraph (not quoted by Mukherjee):
And some of my European predecessors, like Swift and Rabelais, have spoken of men whose pockets were capacious enough to hold a whole nation of diminutive human beings; and of giants, under whose tongue a whole army, with its park of artillery, its pontoon bridges, its commissariat stores, its ambulance, its field post, its field telegraph, might take shelter from the pouring rain and the pitiless storm, and bivouac with security under its fleshy canopy. Such marvels, my reader, you are not to expect in this unpretending volume. The age of marvels has gone by; giants do not pay now-a-days; scepticism is the order of the day; and the veriest stripling, whose throat is still full of his mother’s milk, says to his father, when a story is told him: ‘Papa, is it true?’
Day remarks about giving us a true to life account, and not a fable like those composed by writers in the past (Valmiki or Vyas or, for that matter, Swift or Rabelais) stress his adoption of a new genre (the novel) and a new approach to literature (later to be known as realism).
In fact, Govinda Samanta is one of the first instances of India writing back. Day imitates writers like Henry Fielding, whose bill-of-fare in Tom Jones he follows, and clearly has faith in the benevolence of British rule. (There is no reference to 1857.) But the imitative nature of the novel changes as Day comes into his own. The mood of the novel too darkens. Criticism of the social and economic changes that were occurring as a result of colonialism is implicit in the novel’s depiction of the rapaciousness of the indigo planters and the fall into absolute poverty of its protagonist. Though Day was (or became) a bhadralok, his empathy with his subaltern subject is unmistakable (despite being a convert and pastor). The success of Day’s novel may help us rethink such issues as Meenakshi Mukherjee’s speculative statement that ‘non-literary questions regarding the publication, distribution and marketing of a literary product on the local, national or global market’ may have led to Bankim’s turn from English ‘to the mother tongue before he could gain national recognition, while in the late twentieth century one would expect the process to be reversed.’
Day was far more successful than Bankim in rendering the Bengali ethos in the English language. (Rajmohan’s Wife has rightly been described by Salman Rushdie as a ‘dud’.) Though the first three chapters of Rajmohan’s Wife are lost, there have been as many as three reprints, all based on a 1935 reconstruction of the missing chapters. It’s a pity that no one has thought of reprinting Govinda Samanta even though the novel has the potential to enliven our classroom discussions of Indian Writing in English. Govinda Samanta is of course available for download on the internet; also available are facsimile reprints from Kessinger Publishing and Nabu Press. You can read the novel here but there must still be readers like me who find digitized and scanned versions unsatisfactory. I believe a market exists for a properly introduced print edition of Govinda Samanta and have unsuccessfully approached several major publishers to bring out one. My own copy of Govinda Samata is an 1884 Macmillan edition bought from a secondhand bookshop and once the property of a library in New Zealand. It’s a prized possession. And yet if someone were to bring out an ‘enriched’ edition (with notes and a competent introduction) I would snap it up.