Translated from Bengali by Rimli Bhattacharya
With time to read a fifth novel for #seagullbooksfortnight, I chose Aranyak for two reasons: firstly to take me to India to the home of Seagull Books; secondly, as I am currently spending many a lockdown hour wandering through the woods in my local nature reserve, the story of Satyacharan who moves from Calcutta to manage vast swathes of the majestic jungle in Northern Bihar seemed like complementary reading.
Except that the verb “manage” in this case means lease for deforestation and agrarian development. When he first arrives, however, Satyacharan is a city boy, and the culture shock he experiences is severe. Yet as time passes, his new environment casts it spell on him, he begins to understand and value its richness. (Something similar happened to me with regard to the novel itself, which at first struck me a somewhat repetitive, but then suddenly during another night riding through the jungle …)
His new-found appreciation of the natural world surrounding him does not herald a conversion to eco-warriorism, although he does try to slow down the rate of destruction. At one point, he joins forces with Jugalprasad, a man who surreptitiously plants new species of flower in the jungle. Together they further beautify the most fertile area of the estate, but eventually Satyacharan has to bow to the will of his paymasters to lease this out also.
As Satyacharan moves through the jungle, travelling from settlement to settlement, he has time to observe his surroundings, and there are many descriptions of the lush vegetation in all its diversity. And of the dangers: the tigers, the wild buffaloes, the accompanying folklore. He tells of his interactions with the tenants, those who in the main hope for respite from their poverty, in a series of vignettes, which build up into a shocking portrait of the caste system as it was in the 1920s. (Is it any fairer now?) So many heartbreaking stories of social injustice here, yet Satyacharan’s telling is matter-of-fact. He does what he can to help individuals, and in so doing, saves one young widow and her children from certain starvation. He is generous to travelling artists, but he cannot help all, and there are inevitable tragedies. Yet these poor people never hold him – representative of the ruling classes, after all – accountable for their misery, even as he collects rents they can hardly afford to pay. They are without fail respectful, welcoming and hospitable.
After six years, at the end of his contract, the boy from Calcutta returns to the city a man. There is no telling of his readjustment to city life – the reverse culture shock that will be inevitable after these life-changing experiences. However, as Bandyopadhyay has written what is effectively a semi-autobiographical story in retrospect, Aranyak is assessment of those experiences, the resulting feelings (including guilt) and the ultimate acknowledgement that
“Many a thing of value that is a mark of our civilised world pales before the gift I had received from the civilisation of the forest world”.