A classic novel, much ahead of its time
Today I am reviewing a classic novel of legendary Bangla novelist - Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. It's Shesh Prashn(Hindi version has been titled as Antim Prashn). Sarat Babu always wrote the novels either on loving relationships within the Bengali families of his time or the delicate male-female romantic relationships which suffered from the complications emerging from the social milieu in that period. He wrote quite a few different novels and Shesh Prashn or Antim Prashn(the final question) is one of them which is definitely not a typical Sarat novel.
Antim Prashn is, in fact, the last(Antim) complete novel of Sarat Babu which was published in 1931. When I read it a few days back, I was startled to find that the legendary author had written a story much ahead of its time. In those pre-independence days when very less women were educated and most of them were finding themselves confined to the four walls of the home, belonging to their parents in the pre-marriage stage and belonging to their husbands in the post-marriage stage of their life; Sarat Babu visualized a woman who was the symbol of women's lib in the true sense. And through her, Sarat Babu dealt with the complex questions related to male-female relationship and fidelity.
That woman is Kamal who is living with Shivnath. It's a puzzle for all the protagonists in the story whether she is formally married to him or it's just a live-in relationship(in that period, nobody had heard of this term and such women were derogatorily referred to as keeps or concubines). She challenges the tradional values imposed by the male-dominated society on the women every now and then. She does not quail in any argument just because the arguers are men and she is a woman. She speaks and puts up her thought with logic, courage and conviction. And quite naturally, that's another reason for most of the males not to look upon her as a'good woman'(as per their vision).
The centre of all the discussions is the house of Ashutosh Banerjee or Ashu Babu who is an aged widower who has arrived Agra to live there with his unmarried daughter, Manorama. Ashu Babu wants Manorama to get married to Ajeet. However the dynamics of relationships take such twists and turns that Manorama comes close to Shivnath who is said to have ditched his first wife for Kamal and now ready to ditch Kamal also for the sake of her. However Kamal herself is no longer mentally attached to him. Ajeet, despite being the likely son-in-law of Ashu Babu gets distanced from Manorama and comes close to Kamal. Another angle in the story is that Kamal has a place for the aged Ashu Babu in her heart who is still so much dedicated to his deceased wife that his heart refuses to even think of any other woman in her place.
The novel contains some other ancillary characters viz. Harendra, Akshay, Avinash, Neelima, Bela etc. However the most prominent one among all of them is Rajendra who is involved in the activities related to the endeavour to free India from the British rule. He understands everything related to male-female relationships and he is able to earn a respectful place in the hearts of many including Kamal but he believes less in talking and more in doing his duty diligently.
The novel is not event-oriented as there are not many twists and turns in the narrative, it is thought-oriented and the author seems to have created the characters to bring a plethora of varied thoughts to the fore through them. The novel is studded with long and thoughtful dialogues, mainly regarding the male-female relationships and the philosophy of life. I like this style of the author very much and perhaps that's the hidden reason that I have also adopted the same style in portraying my thoughts through various characters in the Hindi plays written by me.
The novel under review is not just a fictional piece of work, it's an epic on philosophy, with the apparently boring subject of philosophy being elaborated in the most interesting style. It's a very bold novel and definitely decades ahead of the time of its being authored. It's definitely a timeless classic whose theme will always be relevant because the male-female relationship issue is eternal.
The novel hits hard on hypocrisy and presents a woman of today in that time of around 80 years back who frees herself from the psychological shackles imposed on her by the patriarchal society and the outdated traditions which are having nothing but one aim - depriving woman of her freedom of choice.
The basic question the novel deal with is the question of single-devotion towards a person of opposite sex. It is said that true love happens only once in a person's lifetime and the deed of being devoted to himself / herself throughout life is still considered exemplary. This novel also glorifies it through the character of widower Ashu Babu who is devoted to his wife even years after her death and is not ready to allow any woman to replace her in his heart. However it is not an undisputed ideal for everybody, declares the author through the bold(and the beautiful) character of Kamal who is not ready to take anything told at its face value and willing to test everything on the criterion of logic. Kamal believes that like everything in this mortal world, love is also not eternal or immortal and has to meet its death when its life is over. I believe, she is right(but exceptions are always there and will be there because it takes all kinds of people to make this world).
All in all, Antim Prashn(or Shesh Prashn) is a great novel which should not be missed by any reader willing to read some serious philosophical stuff. It's a novel which is able to satisfy both - the readers of fiction and the readers of philosophy. Language-wise too, it is meant for both - the layman and the purist.