The figure of Bankimchandra Chatterjee, author of fourteen novels, strides over Bengali – and Indian – literature like a colossus. And yet a book that receives relatively little attention even now is the very first novel he wrote which, interestingly, was not in Bengali but in English.

Like that other great Bengali writer Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim began writing in English before switching over to his “mother tongue.” Rajmohan’s Wife, first published in serialised form in 1864, is widely regarded as being the first Indian novel written in English. This slim 125-page book is set in feudal, rural Bengal and contains within its pages all the elements of a potboiler – burglaries, abductions, betrayals, legal intrigues, and illicit love.

The perfect man

The story revolves around three families in the village of Radhaganj on the banks of the Madhumati river (an area that is now in Bangladesh.) The first two are those of the Ghose cousins – Mathur and Madhav – who belong to a zamindari background and could not be more different from one another. The third is that of Rajmohan, who is Madhav’s employee and whose wife, Matangini, is Madhav’s sister-in-law.

One night, Matangini overhears a group of dacoits talking to her husband as they plot a burglary in Madhav’s house. Their mission is to steal not only his valuables but also the will which is responsible for providing Madhav with the estate he owns. The burglary, orchestrated by a mysterious employer, will destroy Madhav and his wife. Matangini decides to make a treacherous hike across the woods in the dead of night to warn them, thus risking both her reputation and life.

Bankim, who was among the first people to graduate from Calcutta University (in 1858), may well have modelled the “hero”, Madhav Ghose, on himself. Madhav is a handsome young man, newly returned from Calcutta. In one scene, he reclines on a sofa with a number of English books scattered around him. His erudition and progressive ways set him apart from the rest of the characters. He is also more honourable than any of the other men.

In fact, he’s completely beyond reproach and – perhaps somewhat frustratingly for us – never does anything wrong. No wonder his young wife, Hemangini, is happily married, unlike her unfortunate sister.

The beautiful (and blue-eyed!) Matangini on the other hand is trapped in an unhappy marriage with the cruel and unscrupulous Rajmohan. She nurses a broken heart because of her doomed love for someone else – a secret that no one knows of except her confidante, the maid Kanak. Through her (and the other women) Bankim reveals some of the injustices prevalent then against women, especially those from orthodox upper-caste families.

Matangini, who is known only as someone’s wife in the title, is miserable from the start not only because she is in love with someone else but also because of her husband’s controlling, abusive ways. He forbids her to step out of the house even to go to the well to fetch water, something his sister is allowed to do freely, and threatens to beat her the one time she disobeys.

The spirited woman

Throughout the book we catch glimpses – that now seem quite outdated – of the strict boundaries within which women were expected to live their lives. They could not own property, but, instead, lived as pensioners on their husbands’ estates when widowed.

Meeting a man alone for any reason was frowned upon. The female characters quickly draw their saris over their faces in the presence of men other than their husbands. The young Hemangini shyly retreats from the room her husband is in whenever someone else appears.

And yet, Matangini is not a submissive woman. She is spirited, courageous, and, as the novel progresses, even defiant. She has agency even though, ultimately, her own desires may remain unfulfilled. Her role in this book foreshadows those of Bankim’s more famous heroines in his later novels. It suggests that he was already contemplating the “woman question” through his fiction. As the narrator reminds us in a chapter heading, “Some women are the equals of some men.” And in a situation as complicated and fraught with peril as this one, they would have to be.

The serial mystery

The history of the publication of this book is quite interesting. The novel was first published in serial form in an English-language periodical called Indian Field. The periodical became defunct soon after, however, and Rajmohan’s Wife was forgotten during the author’s lifetime.

Several years after his death, editor and archivist Brajendra Nath Banerjee serendipitously discovered lost copies of Indian Field with all the serialised chapters except the first three. He also discovered that Bankim had begun later in his life to write a Bengali version of the same novel.

Banerjee translated the first three chapters from that fragment into English and thus produced the complete novel which was published in 1935. I should add here I found the tone to be quite different from the fourth chapter onwards, when the writing becomes a lot more authoritative.

In any case, one of the requirements for a serialised novel is that the chapters end on cliffhangers, keeping readers in suspense until they get the next instalment. Rajmohan’s Wife does exactly this. It is, in short, a page-turner. Will Matangini get to her sister’s house on time? Will Rajmohan discover her betrayal? Will the dacoits get hold of Madhav’s will? Who are they actually working for? Whom is Matangini secretly in love with?

Even though the answers to some of these questions may seem obvious, that does not spoil the fun. I found myself quite engrossed as I was reading. Chapter titles like “Midnight Plotting” add to the drama. It’s full of the elements of a Gothic mystery, such as old houses with hidden rooms, sudden loud shrieks, occasional fainting spells, and of course dark, stormy nights. Most of the dramatic events – unlike the domestic quarrels – take place on tempestuous nights when flashes of lightning, pouring rain and very timely crashes of thunder make everything more suspenseful.

The book clearly has some melodramatic moments. And yet, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The descriptions of mat-walled houses with their mud floors and earthen lamps transported me back to the zamindari houses of Bengal with their courtyards and “ondormohols” (including separate sleeping apartments for each wife.)

Other aspects of the setting, such as people’s attire and the rural landscape, are also described in meticulous detail and lyrical, if slightly overwrought, prose. Whether it’s the “overspreading boughs of a large tamarind” or the vast mango groves on the riverbank, the atmospheric setting is both evocative and at times suitably sinister.

The humorous touch

Sometimes the prose is too flowery and sounds a bit archaic, but instead of being annoying the effect is amusing. Bankim uses tongue-in-cheek humour to give us a satirical look at life in upper-caste Bengali households back in the day.

In one scene Madhav tries to find his aunt but instead finds himself in the midst of household chores being performed by numerous maids. The narrator, who often addresses the reader directly in the book, describes the scene in a way that makes it both bewildering for Madhav and delightful for us. Upon seeing him, the woman cutting fish or “the destroyer of the finny tribe,” musters up enough courage to resume her task, while “she of the broomstick threw away the formidable weapon as if stung by an adder.”

Elsewhere we are informed that Madhur Ghose “had the good fortune or misfortune of being blessed or incommoded by double ties of matrimony.” Such ironic comments keep the story light despite the darker elements. The humour is maintained in the exaggerated descriptions that some of the chapter headings come with, such as this one: “Between Rival Chambers: Containing a dissertation on connubial warfare – A siege and a dubious capitulation.” I confess I may have found some of the more serious sections hilarious too, but that is part of the book’s charm when you read it now.

The book ends with a Conclusion that summarises somewhat abruptly – and amusingly – what happened to everyone, almost as if Bankim ran out of time. As one literary scholar has suggested, perhaps he had turned all his attention to Durgeshnandini, his first Bengali novel, which was to be published the very next year.

But Bankim’s storytelling skills are already apparent in this, his first, novel. As a harbinger of all that was to come later in his work, it’s a significant work. But I recommend reading it for itself, for pure entertainment, preferably on a night when the rain is clattering on your windows and the wind is howling outside, threatening to knock all the books off your bottom shelf.