It is exactly a hundred years since Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas was published. He was arguably the most influential pan-Indian writer we have ever had. Nowadays, few writers can claim so wide an audience, and perhaps that nationalist historical moment is over. It is films that have inherited this pan-regional mantle.

But again, few films have been loved and reproduced by every generation, in every language, and with every new generation star-couple, as much as the tragic tale of the melancholic, love-ravaged Devdas. Few figures have burrowed more deeply and persistently into a certain cultural psyche.

Devdas has been translated early into virtually every Indian language. Indeed, it was Chattopadhyay’s oeuvre (more than those of the other two figures of that hallowed trinity – Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay) that kindled the novel in many Indian languages. Devdas is a modern novelette – it is not a dastan, or an attempt to re-write a traditional form in a modern way, in the manner of the many retellings of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Arabian Nights, etcetera. The hero is tragic but not in the sense of dying in battle. Rather, the masculinity represented is the very opposite of the conventional muscular, action-oriented hero.

Drowning in self-pity

The appeal of Devdas is partly in its passivity, the luxury of an infinitely narcissistic self-pity. He is rarely the action hero, but, rather, one who absorbs the actions of Others (fate, lovers, family). Compare the agency of the traditional hero – not just the old tales of gods fighting demons, but even the sanyasi warriors of Bankim Chandra’s Anand Math. Indeed, in Devdas, there seems to be a change from the traditional fidelity to a larger cause (divine or royal or national) to the erotics of a betrayal by all those Others, a betrayal that often results in the embrace of death.

Consider how the novel ends:

If you ever happen to come across a hapless, unruly rogue like Devdas, please pray for his soul. Pray that, whatever happens, he shouldn’t meet the kind of unfortunate death that Devdas did. Death is inevitable, but at the final moment at least one loving touch should brush one’s brow; one caring, yearning face should bid goodbye for ever – a man should die with a glimpse of at least one teardrop shed in his memory. 

Devdas is eventually seen as an unfortunate creature, deserving of compassion.

At odds with history

This is odd in literary terms, but is even odder if one looks at the historical moment. The prevailing sentiment in 1917 was very much one of serious and high-minded nationalism. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was rising on the horizon, and at the other end of the spectrum (comprising those who believed in violence) there were many brave revolutionaries, such as those of the Ghadar movement. There were substantial anti-caste movements in the West and the South too.

In blithe contrast to all this, Devdas seems to be soaked in decadence and depravity, alcohol and polyamory:

“One more face, pure and innocent, floated into his consciousness – it was Chandramukhi’s. He had spurned her all his life – she had led a life of sin, he had thought. Today, when her face took pride of place beside his mother’s, his tears flowed like never before. He’d never see her again…But still, he must visit Paro. He had promised to see her one last time.”

It is not as if Chattopadhyay did not write novels about revolutionary characters (Pather Dabi, translated as Right of Way, among others) for which he got into trouble with the British government. But it is Devdas for which he is most fondly remembered. The appeal of Devdas is the appeal to emotion, to the uncompromising innocence of childhood, to sentimentality (albeit crafted), to a sense of life built on awarapan and openness, rather than a life lived in pursuit of an abstract and elusive social justice. Perhaps readers in that period, too, like in any other, wanted a break from overly pietistic, self-righteous nationalist ventures.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The continued reception to Devdas over the first half of the 20th century (including its many film versions), may also be partly a reaction to Gandhian puritanism. Though there are enough misogynous moments in Devdas, the character is most genuinely attracted to women who are themselves on the margins of cheerful domesticity.

Chattopadhyay is at pains to show that Devdas was not a hedonist like his friend Chunilal and had never visited a mehfil with a courtesan before. Devdas is repeatedly “repulsed” by the 24-year-old Chandramukhi, and unnecessarily humiliates her. But Chandramukhi cannot resist the initial attraction, and wants him back.

In so many of Chattopadhyay’s novels (most famously Srikanta) this is the structure – male arrogance is rewarded by female interest. The only redeeming quality, relative to his fellow male writers of the time, is that the female character is often a socially-derided figure (most typically the courtesan, or public woman). And because Devdas is so luckless himself, he can hardly play the traditional role of either the censuring father, or the suave nawabi lover. In this milieu, Chattopadhyay is able to infuse some tenderness and mutuality into the relationship.

The sheer alcoholic degradation of Devdas’s existence allows a different ethic to emerge. This ethic is not that of the nationalist leader leading the masses. Instead, it is of the greater strength of the courtesan who can actually help someone like the wealthy landlord. Devdas’ ethic lies in the fact that though he has the power that socially prominent families are accorded, he is unable to bear the cruelty towards others (such as Paro, his childhood lover) that such filial power demands.

What one can still learn from the novel are the ideals of those who can no longer bear their rural zamindari with all its attendant caste and social iniquities. Devdas’s self-absorbed, sumptuous notions of love is certainly detached from purely high-minded notions of citizenship. But it did expand the consciousness of gender and romantic love even if incompletely and confusedly.

Devdas’s “effeminacy” is the kind of masculinity that is sometimes more attractive owing to its open evocation of emotion, its sensitivity to the trapped status of the domestic wife or the public woman. Love, rather than Gandhian spirituality or Nehruvian citizenship, may do more to expose the claustropobia of gender-roles, male and female.