Frames per Second: Remember Derozio, enfant terrible of Bengali Renaissance

Almost halfway through Utpal Dutt-directed Bengali film Jhor (1979), poet and teacher Henry Louise Vivian Derozio (Ujjwal Sengupta) — the enfant terrible of the 19th century “Bengali Renaissance” — surveys his students, their arms in slings and their heads bandaged, after a fight with a mob of orthodox Hindus. He reprimands his students for their provocative actions: “So how did it help social welfare by throwing cow bones at Brahmin houses?” The incident he refers to took place on 23 August 1831, when Derozio’s students from Hindu College, now Presidency University, perpetrated yet another outrage in the tumultuous social sphere of Calcutta (Kolkata).

A group of students had gathered the previous evening at the house of their friend Krishnamohan Bandyopadhyay, in his absence, to eat beef curry and rotis. After finishing their meal, they got on the roof of their house and threw the bones into a neighbouring house, shouting: “Look! Look! Cow’s bones!” The entire neighbourhood chased the boys as they took to their heels. As a consequence of this outrage, Krishnamohan was expelled from his Brahmin home and converted to Christianity. The film takes poetic liberty and shows Derozio still as a teacher of the college when the incident occurs, but he had already been sacked a few months earlier.

In Freedom and Beef Steaks, Rosinka Chaudhuri provides a detailed description of this incident, and writes: “Freedom and beef were tied together in opposition to social and political orthodoxy from this moment onward in popular imagination, never to lose the stigma of their association with one another through the century that followed.” Provocative performances of Derozians — as the young group was called — was partly responsible for this. Historian Sibnath Shastri recollects some of the other actions of this group in his landmark Ramtanu Lahiri O Tathkalin Bangasamaj (1904): “On seeing Brahmins with shaved heads on the road, the boys would cry out: ‘We eat beef! We eat beef!’”

Most readers of this column would be familiar with Derozio’s sonnet “My country! in thy day of glory past”, which has long been a part of school syllabi. But, a brief introduction cannot be harmful. The epitaph on his grave at the South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata reads: “Here lies DEROZIO, precursor of the age of reasoning, great teacher of the century. Great rational and first of the patriot-poets, who like ancient Socrates inspired a generation of students to be rational, international and deep lovers of the muse. He died for humanity.” At the museum on the ground of floor of Presidency University hangs a large reproduction of his portrait, and that of his student, mathematician Radhanath Sikdar, credited with calculating the height of Mount Everest.

This posthumous celebration, however, barely acknowledges the turmoil he sparked during his brief career at Hindu College. He joined it in 1826 — when he was barely 17 years old — at a salary of Rs 150 per month, and soon gathered around him a group of students whom he instructed in the philosophy of David Hume and Tom Paine, and the poetry of the British Romantics. Soon enough, however, he was accused of corrupting students by encouraging them to become atheists and sacked from his job. He continued with journalism and writing poetry, but died suddenly in 1831, having contracted cholera.

Dutt’s film, Jhor (which means “storm”), takes several liberties — like the one pointed above — but does capture the poetic truth of the moment. A couple of scenes after the one I discussed earlier, Derozio himself is attacked by goons in the pay of the orthodox Hindu camp. He is hit on the head by a rock. On returning home, his sister Amelia (Sagarika Adhikari) and mother (Indrani Mukhopadhyay) administer first aid and tie a bandage. Together, both the scenes reminded me of students of our universities who have been under attack since nationwide protests broke out against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act early last month.

We may recollect the incidents briefly here. On the night of December 15, 2019, armed police entered the campuses of Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh), and assaulted students, reportedly in a bid to control protests. After initially denying that they had opened fire on the students, the police were compelled to acknowledge it in the face of overwhelming evidence. At least one student at Jamia lost his eyesight and several in AMU had their limbs amputated as a result of the violence.

On January 5, 2020, at least 50 armed people — associated, according to news reports, with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — attacked students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Aishe Ghosh, the president of JNU Students Union, sustained injuries on her head and had her arm fractured. And, this Wednesday (January 15), students of Viswa Bharati University in West Bengal — a central university which was established by Rabindranath Tagore — were beaten up, allegedly by ABVP activists. The ABVP is affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindutva parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

As some news reports have pointed out, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who is also BJP president, on January 7 — barely days after violence on the JNU campus — raised the spectre of the “tukde-tukde gang”, a coinage by Hindutva groups to originally refer to some students of the university after the 2016 unrest. Without referring to January 5 incidents, Shah repeatedly spoke of the “tukde-tukde gang”, and said: “Shouldn’t students who raised anti-India slogans be put behind bars?” Since then, however, a Right to Information application filed seeking the origins of the “tukde-tukde gang” has put government officials in a spot, The Economic Times reported on January 15.

In the film, the orthodox Hindu group, led by Radhakanta Deb (played by Dutt himself) declares a war on Derozio. “[He] is such a demon that we’ll have to adopt any measure, any conspiracy or any crime to finish him,” says Dewan Ramkamal Sen (Satya Bandyopadhyay). Agreeing to support this, Radhakanta says: “My hands will not shake while committing any crime.” One of the key tools this group uses is “fake news” to discredit Derozio. Some claim his students went to Kalighat — the famous temple in south Kolkata — and greeted the resident deity with “Good morning Ma’am!” “You believe this nonsense?” asks an incredulous Radhakanta. “It’s printed in the newspapers!” others reply.

Historian Shastri also recorded the sustained disinformation campaign against Derozio in his book: “In the city, there was a poor Brahmin called Brindaban Ghoshal (He makes a brief appearance in the film). Every morning he would bathe in the Ganga and then go to the houses of the rich and influential, and report on Derozio and his students. He would go about saying that Derozio tells the boys there is no god, no religion, there is no need to obey one’s parents, no harm in incest, that Dakhinaranjan (one of the students) will marry Derozio’s sister.” One can measure the power of this campaign from the fact that Dutt’s film incorporates two of these — the allegation of Derozio’s sanction of incest and the love affair between Dakhinaranjan and Amelia. The second is a major plot point.

Dutt, who also wrote the script, works in an elaborate symbolism with datura, a common intoxicant in early 19th century Calcutta. He sets up a dichotomy between Derozio as the rationalist and his opponents as irrational. In the opening scene, Derozio introduces his students to David Hume, with this quote: “Whatever comes to you in the guise of truth, that inquire into with all diligence out of the respect due to truth.” (I have not been able to find the source.) On the other hand, when Dakhinaranjan (Kaushik Bandyopadhyay) and Saraswati (Sumitra Mukhopadhyay) — a Brahmin woman Derozio’s students save from sati — move away from Derozio’s influence and are implicated in the conspiracy against him, they are shown to be under the influence of datura.

I would like to argue that this dichotomy is a false one — the conspiracy against Derozio is not a function of madness but of cold calculation, provoked by the fear of loss of privilege of upper caste, upper class Hindu men. (Some experts argue this is also the fuel of Hindutva.) Referring to Raja Rammohun Roy, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, and Christian missionaries, Dewan Ramkamal Sen says: “The foundations of Hindu religion are shaken.” French existentialist Albert Camus, in The Rebel, meditates on the changed nature of crime and justice: “Our criminals are no longer helpless children… they have the perfect alibi: philosophy.” The attacks on the students of Derozio and Hindu College then and our universities now is a product of such belligerent philosophy. It is not madness but a perverse form of reason.

The writer’s novel, Ritual, will be out in February. The details of Derozio’s life and career have been sourced from Rosinka Chaudhuri’s Derozio, Poet of India (2008)

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