Rabindranath Tagore was born in 1861. Thus, he was roughly Manmatha Nath Dutt’s contemporary. There is a 1964 film titled Charulata, directed by Satyajit Ray, which is based on a novella written by Tagore. In Bengali, the novella is titled Nashtanida, which translates to “Broken Nest”.

Nashtanida was written in 1901. Bhupati, one of the central characters, has independent means and does not need to work. He is interested in politics and the freedom movement and publishes a newspaper/magazine in English. His young wife, Charu, is neglected, though Bhupati does love her.

Bhupati’s brother-in-law, Umapati, is a lawyer, one who is not too successful. It is Umapati who encourages Bhupati to start the magazine and helps him run the magazine and the associated printing press. Since Charu is lonely and bored, Umapati’s wife, Mandakini, moves in as her companion. But she is too crass for Charu.

Bhupati’s cousin, Amal, studies in college and drops in often. A close relationship develops between Amal and Charu. Amal is a writer and also encourages Charu to write. Eventually, when Amal thinks the attachment has gone too far, he leaves with the intention to study in England. Charu is shattered. Realising the close relationship that had developed between Amal and Charu, Bhupati too is devastated. The nest is broken. This is the gist of the story.

Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata and Shailen Mukherjee as Bhupati in Charulata (1964) . Courtesy RD Bansal.

Let’s now turn to the relationship between Charu and Amal:

“Charu, befuddled, came up to the end of the inner apartments of the house and clapped a number of times to draw his attention, but nobody seemed to listen. Angered, frustrated, she tried to concentrate on a book written by Manmatha Dutta in her verandah […] Manmatha Dutta was a new author, whose style of writing was somewhat akin to Amal’s, therefore Amal consciously refrained from praising him, reading out instead some excerpts of his books to his sister-in-law with enough mockery in his voice. Charu, irritated, would snatch that book from him and throw it away in disdain […] Amal entered the verandah, and Charu pretended to read on, unnoticing, indifferent. Amal asked, ‘What are you reading so raptly?’ Watching her silence for some time, Amal lifted his head to her back, trying to read the name. ‘Manmatha Dutta’s Galaganda’ (Goitre)!’ he mocked.”

Non-Bengalis may not have read the novella, Bengalis will have. But, how many people notice the name Manmatha Dutta when they read it? This is fiction and fiction need have no resemblance to reality.

However, the depicted relationship between Amal and his sister-in-law is often asserted to have a basis in the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and his sister-in-law. Autobiographical elements creep in, sometimes through the subconscious. If this logic is accepted for the relationship between Tagore and his sister-in-law, why should Manmatha Dutta not have been a real person?

What was Charu’s full name? Most people will say Charulata, which is why the film has that name. That’s true. But if one reads the novella (in Bengali) carefully, one will find Tagore was a bit inconsistent in naming. Umapati is also Umapada and Charulata is also Charubala and to refresh our memory, Manmatha Nath Dutt’s wife was named Charubala. How many Manmatha Nath Duttas from the Hatkhola family were floating around? Was Manmatha Nath Dutt (W) also from Hatkhola? In that event, he was probably the Bhupati in Tagore’s novella.

Since it doesn’t make sense to quote from the Bengali edition, I will quote bits from Lopamudra Banerjee’s translation. This is how the novella begins.

Bhupati had inherited a lot of money and generous ancestral property, so it was quite natural if he didn’t bother to work at all […] He had founded an elite English newspaper and that was how he decided to cope with the boredom that his riches and time, which was endlessly at his disposal, brought to him. 

According to Subhas Chandra Bose’s autobiography, Kashinath Dutta’s son was Ganga Narayana Dutta. There is a Ganga Narayana Dutta Lane in the Beadon Street area. Ganga Narayana Dutta is said to have had two sisters and one brother, Gyanendra Nath Dutta. Might it be the case that the count is incomplete? As unsubstantiated speculation, might it be the case that Manmatha Nath Dutt (W) was Kashinath Dutta’s son? Might it be the case that father and son had roads named after each other in close proximity? Or, was Manmatha Nath Dutt Ganga Narayana Dutta’s son, with that count being incomplete?

The timelines fit for either possibility. The Dutta family and its descendants were all over the place in Calcutta and many localities and roads were named after them. The surname Dutta is spelt in different ways in English. However, for Manmatha Nath Dutt, let’s stick to the way he spelt it. Though descendants have traced branches of the family tree, some branches have still been left dangling, and the tree isn’t complete. Manmatha Nath Dutt could be part of one of those missing links.

Though there was indeed a close-knit group of around 3,000 people, given the interests of both Rabindranath Tagore and Manmatha Nath Dutt, it is unlikely that their paths would have crossed, unless they actually met. There was no particular reason for Rabindranath Tagore to read what Manmatha Nath Dutt had written. However, it was also perfectly possible for them to have known each other, and the Brahmo Samaj connection makes this possibility stronger.

One must remember the year when Tagore wrote the novella, Nashtanida, it was 1901. Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1846), was a zamindar with several estates in what is now Bangladesh and after Debendranath Tagore’s death, Rabindranath Tagore had to manage these. The estates in the eastern part of Bengal were in several districts. One of these districts was Pabna. Let us park this information. There will be a Manmatha Nath Dutt angle to Pabna as well.

Excerpted with permission from Manmatha Nath Dutt: Translator Extraordinaire, Bibek Debroy, Rupa Publications.