MICHAEL MADHUSUDAN DUTT
(Dismisses the Sutradhar with an impatient gesture and addresses the audience)
And so, dear friends, I begin this evening by invoking my beloved poet, the Right Honourable Lord Byron. My hero died young, when he was just thirty-six, from a fever contracted in Missolonghi while he was fighting the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. What a life it was, my friends! He loved, from his heart, both men and women, and was as profligate with his expenses as he was with his amour. How shall I greet my hero? With his poetry and the spirit of Parnassus.
MMD walks to the table to take a huge slug of cognac. Recites the following lines from Lord Byron.
She walks in beauty,
like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies...
MMD walks away from the desk and stands close to the edge of the stage. He smiles patronizingly at the Sutradhar and attempts to address the audience again. But the assertive Sutradhar won’t be dismissed so easily and looks at him directly.
Sir, Byron! Why Byron? Why don’t you consider your Bengali legacy? It’s utterly frustrating! The Young Bengal Movement had you in thrall even though its founder Henry Derozio wasn’t there when you enrolled at Hindu College. Social reform, protest – these things were in the air but you turned a blind eye. You turned to the Romantic poets in distant England. Why? What were you trying to escape?
(Cuts the Sutradhar short)
And now from a younger, more contemporary voice – yours truly, Madhusudan Dutt, that is myself, transporting the spirit of the Romantics to Calcutta with my poem, “The Upsori”.
A soft breeze from the Parijata bow’r
Play’d gaily in her raven curls that fell
Luxuriant wreathed with many a blooming flow’r
Cull’d from Sumero’s aromatic vale;
Her joyous bosom heav’d like stormy brine;
For charm’d by her song, heaven’s monarch high
Had wish’d to kiss the ruby lips’ loved shrine
Such siren strains of thrilling ecstasy!
The Sutradhar comes close to MMD on the stage, smiling and clapping her hands. She has liked what she has heard and waits for more. MMD clearly needs some prompting.
Come back to earth, Madhusudan sir! What a confused young man you were. But oh! So arrogant! Such a pretentious Anglophile! Then there was your Hindu family, orthodox, immersed in rituals. Those upper-class Hindus, secure in their privilege and position. And you – dreaming of a different sort of freedom, an escape.
(Turns to the audience)
All this exaggerated fuss about the great Bengali legacy – it gets to me sometimes. I suppose we must remember that MMD was born in undivided Bengal, the Bengal evoked by Rabindranath Tagore. But that old Bengal is no more, nor that devotion to the gods of literature. We are a divided legacy – Bangladeshi Bengalis, Indian Bengalis, London Bengalis and whatnot! Why am I calling him confused? I’m even more so, about my heritage, my history.
MMD pretends not to hear, walks back to the desk and sits on his chair.
(In a pompous voice)
How I longed to be in England, the country I had come to love through its literary masters. Milton and Byron spoke in my dreams, and I wanted to follow the paths they had traversed.
I sigh for Albion’s distant shore,
Its valleys green, its mountains high;
Tho’ friends, relations, I have none
In that far clime, yet, oh! I sigh
to cross the vast Atlantic wave
For glory, or a nameless grave!
MMD looks up at the audience, smiles and continues. The Sutradhar clutches her head in a gesture of helplessness. The spotlight shifts back to the Sutradhar. MMD exits stage for a costume change and returns.
Madhusudan, rash and impetuous as ever – it never struck him that he would not have to cross the Atlantic to travel from the Bay of Bengal to Albion’s distant shores! These Romantics!
What’s more, our moonstruck poet wrote rather long and dramatic letters too! Let us turn to the epistolary form and, from the poet’s letters, learn about his passion and glorious life, one that was also full of maddening challenges.
As if we have time-travelled, MMD is now about seventeen years old. In the next moments of the act, the spotlight shifts from the Sutradhar to MMD.
(Reading with boyish energy)
13 October 1841
My dear Gour,
I am sorry, really sorry to inform you, my dearest Gourdas, that a cause unheard of – an unthought-of, an undreamt-of cause – has disconcerted all the plans we formed the other day. A cousin of mine is ill, most dreadfully ill, in short in the last stage of illness: poor fellow! I am really affected by his suffering. Well: on the Bhasan day of the approaching Karthik Poojah; depend upon it; nothing earthly shall prevent us.
If you take any friend of yours with you that day (Monday next), mind it must be a liberal set of friends. Because I intend on that day, most noble Gour, to worship “Bacchus” with you, a pleasure which I have not yet enjoyed. I am sure you won’t disappoint me. On that day – on that eventful day – we shall have dinner from Mars and Stone. On the Budgerow, I will only take with me one friend – a man (I mean a youth) that is dying to be introduced to you.
He is my companion, my associate. From this you must judge his character. Write to me fully on this subject. Truly yours...
Spotlight on the Sutradhar. She shakes her head affectionately and smirks.
Dear Gour! Our poet was close, very close to Gourdas Bashak, his classmate at Hindu College and then a lifelong confidante. He shared an intense bond with Madhusudan, who in turn shared his impassioned thoughts on poetry as well as his desolation with the practical needs of living. Their lifelong fondness for each other is recorded in innumerable letters that cover a range of emotions. Bashak did not become a writer but a civil servant who played a role in the cultural history of Bengal. Here’s our poet writing one of those innumerable letters to his dearest Gour.
Gourdas Bashak appears like a shadow figure on the stage, dressed in a crisp dhuti-panjabi of the upper-class bhadralok Bengali.
He glances at MMD and slowly walks around him while the following letters are being read. They do not make eye contact except once, with a deep searching look.
Lights back on MMD. He reads out another letter.
7 August 1842
My dear Gour,
True, too true, my dearest Gour! The storm has at last hurled upon me! I am ordered to depart from home this very night for our country house. But Oh! Where shall I go? Had I had the power of opening my heart, I could then show you the state of my feelings! Language cannot paint them! To leave the friends, I love – particularly ONE – (imagine, who that “one” could be) my poor heart cannot but break! Well, may I exclaim in the language of a poet – Oh! Insupportable. Oh! Heavy grief! I wish I could see you. But oh! That cannot be! I am not allowed! Dear, dear, Gour! Dearest friend! Do not forget me!
If I do not start tonight, I shall see you tomorrow at the College. As I am to embark at Balliaghata, I shall once step into the College when I go there. Your Byron shall be sent tomorrow with the fatal letter to Mr Kerr. Farewell! I don’t know when I shall return from our country house. When you go to the Mechanic’s, give my compliments to Harris. “FAREWELL FOREVER”.
I remain as I have been, Dearest Gour, your ever obed’t and devoted, but unfortunate friend.
P.S. The accompanying copy of Forget Me Not is a present to you. I had no time to get it bound. Pray, get it bound yourself for my sake. This is a token of the unfortunate giver’s respect, esteem and love.
Excerpted with permission from Betrayed By Hope: A Play On The Life Of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, HarperCollins India.