What is Civility? What It Takes To Be Civil?


Studying 19th Century Bengal’s Civilizational Conflicts in Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota?

Manisha Bhattacharya

“Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process” (The Institute of  Civility in Government).

The idea of civility is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. The necessary prerequisite for civic action, civility is a political idea also in an interpersonal sense in that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s is ignored. While this modern sense of the term is closer home to the lived experience of our contemporary social, political or even private lives, dialectical histories of the idea of civility can be traced back to various cultures across various ages where there have been instances of civilizational interchange. One culture coming in contact with another culture, negotiating power, difference and friction produces instances of creative expressions for it, most notably in literature and in the other arts of the age.

The epoch of Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-1873) was steeped in conflict and oscillation. His brilliant farce, Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota? (1859) is a full realism of the most daring kind in attempting a diagnosis of the disease from which nineteenth-century society was suffering. The conflict of his age was rooted in the contending grounds of Western paradigm of civilization, and Indian socio-cultural institutions as India was smothered under the dead weight of British administration.  Madhusudan probes right down to the roots of situation at once comic and tragic; and the ripple of laughter never disturbs the depths of the serious feeling evoked by the play. The theme of civilizational conflict becomes a recurrent one in Dutt; in another one of his farces, Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro (1859) one finds the clash between Indian domestic values, morals, and culture on the one hand and on the other the newly adopted Western values and culture which was a product of Bengal’s colonial encounter with Europe on the onset of nineteenth-century. One is reminded of Ania Loomba’s observations on how these new values were manufactured by the colonizing British specifically to suit their imperial project:

According to Benedict Anderson, colonial education policies aimed to create Europeanised natives or to use Macaulay’s famous words, ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect’. (Loomba 171)

Naturally, the cultural conflict found its reflection in Madhusudan’s portrayal of both the dogmatic and orthodox sections of the Indian society that could not internalize the influx of Western culture easily and the enlightened upper-middle class of Calcutta which also found it hard to accept the changes spontaneously. Moreover, those who encountered the current of a new legacy of education, focused on the materialistic parameters of establishment and prosperity through it; they accepted the new world in terms of their commercial achievements. As Rabindranath Tagore put it down beautifully in Crisis in Civilization (1941):

I am struck by the change that has taken place both in my own attitude and in the psychology of my countrymen – a change that carries within it a cause of profound tragedy […] Our direct contact with the larger world of men was linked up with the contemporary history of the English people whom we came to know in those earlier days. (Tagore 5-6)

Thus, with rampant hedonism determining the purity and dignity of education and culture, the  lack of assortative convergence between the two distinct cultures gave rise to a crisis in the life of a Bengali Renaissant. Madhusudan Dutt’s farce, Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota? (1859) revolves around the same.

Dutt’s farce was penned down at the request of Belgachia Theatre, commissioned by the royal family of Paikpara and was supposed to be performed along with his other play Sharmistha (1859). But the idea to write this farce had come to him long before. We find in the letter (8th May,1859) written to his patron Ishwar Chandra Sinha: “I am thinking of some domestic farces to follow immediately after the just representation of Sharmistha, and before it is repeated just to show the public that we can act the sublime and ridiculous both at the same time and with same actors.” However, this ‘domestic farce’ was never performed on stage. Dutt perceived the ills of the socio-economic structure of nineteenth-century and attempted to critically represent on stage those ailing social realities. Social decadence and putrefaction were not only pervasive in the urban space of Calcutta but also in the rural sphere and that was delineated in his farce, Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro (1859). A comparative study of these two farces (written at the same time) would help comprehend Dutt’s intricate social engagement in his plays.

In Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro, Bhaktaprasad Babu’s son Ambika, a student of the Hindu College, has just returned home. A discussion is going on between the father and the son regarding the contemporary education and culture of Calcutta. Here, Bhaktaprasad in his visions and ideas represents a contemporary Bengali middle class who could not prevent the influx of a hybrid culture and sent their sons to Calcutta to adapt with the modern culture. At the same time, he regrets his son’s degrading values and morale. The conflicted Bhaktaprasad has his parallel in the character of Karta Babu in Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota? Though Karta Babu allows his son Naba to go to “Gyantarangini Sabha” along with his friend Kalinath, he is internally concerned as he says, “I feel I should not have let Naba go” (Dutt 10). Furthermore, his decision to send Vaishnab Babaji in search of Naba finds echo in Bhaktaprasad’s voice in Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro: “It whould not be right to let Ambika stay long in Calcutta” (Dutt 11). The nature of the education that Ambika’s and Naba’s generation received in the city is beautifully reflected upon by Rabindranath Tagore’s Crisis in Civilization, written almost eighty years after Dutt’s plays:

In those days the type of learning that was served out to us was neither plentiful nor diverse, nor was the spirit of scientific enquiry very much in evidence. Thus their scope being strictly limited, the educated of those days had recourse to English language and literature. Their days and nights were eloquent with the stately declamations of Burke, with Macaulay’s long-rolling sentences; discussions centred upon Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all upon the large-hearted liberalism of the nineteenth-century English politics. (Tagore 6-7)

Both the representations of city and village elders (in the characters of Karta Babu and  Bhaktaprasad) share a similar kind of conflict, both of them retain their traditional moral uprightness. Bhaktiprasad’s anxiety about his son Ambika’s irreligiosity is clear when he says: “This ignorance towards the Brahmins, ignorance towards taking bath in Ganga, this is like the Christians” (Dutt 6). He is also uneasy about the rapidly changing society of Calcutta, that castes are mingling in Calcutta. Brahman, Kayastha, Tati, Tele, Kulu — everyone sits and eats together. In Ekei Ki Bole Sobhotya?  Karta Babu voices a similar concern about the conflicts between his own ‘Vaishnavite’ religiosity and Gyantarangini Sabha’s irreligiosity.  In a conversation with his wife, Karta Babu says: “This Calcutta is a sinful city — should respectable folks live here?” (Dutt 15). We find the resemblance in Sharmistha where an indignant Sukracharya storms into the council of king, saying “e papnogorite amar ar obosthiti kora kokhonoi hobe na” (Dutt 30) [I shall not live in this sinful city].

‘Nabakumar’, the name signifies a new era whose novelty has to be judged in the light of his father’s conservatism. The dramatist has made him a drunkard externally but tried to probe into his mind in search of another Naba(newness). There are not many years of difference between the publications of Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota? (1859) and Dinabandhu Mitra’s Sadhabar Ekadoshi (1866). The pair of Naba-Kalinath (in Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota?) couldn’t internalize the essence and the ethos of the English culture whereas the pair of Nimchand-Atal (in Sadhabar Ekadoshi) display a relatively genuine mastery of it. Though English as a language was a part of state ideology, its intricacies and its literature had nourished Nimchand’s mind just like it had Dutt’s, and it conveyed deep resonance with the recess of his heart. Still, why did Nimchand, culturally and intellectually so evolved a person, disrupt the domestic bliss like Naba? Why was Nimchand’s life as miserable as Naba’s? Nimchand believed that a new language along with the newly incorporated culture would help uplift the nation but he couldn’t foresee the upheaval caused by it — he was traumatized by his failed insights.

Thus we see the civilizational clash of the imperial and colonial cultures acting out through the familial and societal, interpersonal interchanges in Dutt’s farces. With a closer glance, one comes to witness the more nuanced shades of this conflict that works out in Dutt’s other works on an intrapersonal level, within the mental lives of the characters who are torn between diverse responses to happenings in the outside world. According to Afzalur Rakhim, conflict is “an interactive process manifested in incompatibility, disagreement or dissonance within or between social entities” (Rakhim 15). Rakhim also notes that a conflict may also be limited to one individual, who is conflicted within the self. Let’s now take a look at the shades of this intrapersonal conflict that manifests itself in Dutt’s characters.

Sharmistha is also endowed with a conflict between predestination and theory of Karma. Sharmistha, in Act 1, scene 2 comments: “ami apon doshei e durdoshai potito hoyechi” (Dutt 34) [(I blame myself for my fallen state]. While Sharmistha in her analysis sees the reasons behind her despicable state within her own character; Harakamini, wife of Naba (in Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota?) believes in the rather deterministic view of the world of human actions, where all actions are determined by destiny, leaving human beings with no possible choice. Like Sharmishtha, Karta Babu and his generation put their faith in the Indian philosophy of Karma. With poverty, on the one hand and profligacy on the other; a mythological play (Sharmistha) on the one hand and a farce (Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota?) critiquing the contemporary downtrodden society on the other — the coexistence of contrary ideas in Dutt makes the paradigm of old and new age so intriguing.

Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota? was earlier named “Bhogno Shibmandir” (“Ruined Shiva Temple”). Here, ‘Shibmondir’ refers to the ancient society and ancient values that the new generation wanted to break down. It’s as if the temple of Shiva collapses out of shame. It is relevant to quote Rabindranath Tagore here (from Crisis in Civilization):

During my boyhood days the attitude towards the cultured and educated section of Bengal, nurtured on English learning, was charged with a feeling of revolt against these rigid regulations of society. In place of these set codes of conduct we accepted the ideal of ‘civilization’ as represented by the English term. (Tagore 10)

In Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro, though Bhaktaprasad laments for the deceased values, his lewd and lascivious self also comes to the forefront. And in Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota?, when Vaishnab Babaji is sent in search of Naba, he comments at the passing prostitutes in a vile manner (Dutt 11) He is not even taken aback when asked for a bribe. Hence, Kalinath, Naba’s friend sarcastically hinted at him: “Scoundrel, you have your garland on, still you took bribe and lied. How can you? What a hypocrite!” (Dutt 12). It’s like the statement hurled by Gadadhar pointing at Bhaktaprasad: “If you take rice from the platter of lower castes, you find your religion at stake, but when you take their women, it doesn’t matter… Great great!! How intelligent our kartababu is” (Dutt 18).

Alcoholism, indiscipline and ignorance run in the blood of the Gyantarangini Sabha and surprisingly both Naba and Bhaktaprasad are aware of that. Despite this awareness, they could not restrain these diseases from polluting their own habits. Even with the contradiction in their words and actions, Naba’s concern for the country and its society seems genuine. In his speech he prays that they should try to make a social reformation of this country with their heart and soul (Dutt 22). The self- indeterminacy emanates from a conflict between the mind and the intellect. Likewise, Bhaktaprasad’s confession at the end of Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro asserts that he is a hypocrite and   he has got the punishment of his sin. We find Devjani saying in the 4th act of Sharmistha: “jemon kormo, temoni fol pelem” [I reap what I sow]. Unlike Bhaktaprasad who was attributed a definitive closure, Naba’s outcome is not definite and hence complicated. Naba’s drunken drowse and all the allegorical meaning of his last words hint at a particular closure but remains indecisive at the end. Unlike Bhaktaprasad whose character evolves throughout the play, Naba was introduced with a conflict in mind, and he ends up with a similar conflict.

This farce can be read as an allegory; it literally induces laughter but metaphorically depicts what Matthew Arnold called the Victorian ethos of spiritual hollowness in England, a “darkling plain” (Arnold 35). It is the summation of Arnold’s expression, the intermingling of sincere mood, the melancholic tone, and the conflicted voice. In the essay “Dover Beach and a Tragic Sense of Eternal Recurrence”, Murray Krieger explains that the protagonist is always already in a struggle, in a dichotomy, saying that “the man of little faith in a world of no faith, who still hopes to maintain the spiritual dignity which the world of no faith now seems to deny him” (Krieger 15). Arnold reflected the ideological upheaval that was present within society as a whole. He felt that great literature conveyed deep and everlasting truths about the human condition just as Michael in Ekei ki Bole Sobhyota? felt.

Two contrary ideas are juxtaposed in Dutt’s play; the discordant world of Gyantarangini Sabha, on one side of the coin and the pure source of Enlightenment emanating from that same Sabha, on the other side. Gyantarangini Sabha has two men as leading figures: Naba and Kalinath who overshadow the other members. Kalinath is presented as a foil to Naba, a fallen, cunning and wretched man, who frequents brothels, but is honest and straightforward. The dramatist has evaluated his character in the light of Naba’s. He can be compared with Gadadhar (Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro) and Dhanadas (Krishnakumari, 1861). This Sabha is full of hypocrites and deceivers; everybody deceives the country by being insolvent drunkards with the mask of social reformers. At the same time, Kalinath is disgusted by the treacherous, lustful nature of Babaji. Through the character of Kalinath, we find Madhusudan being favourable to the Young Bengal group. The farce was weighed in terms of Young Bengal group’s activities whose mouthpiece was Michael himself. Rajendralal Mitra in his Bibidhartha Songroho, said, “The sole purpose of this farce is to critique the habitats of a new clientele, the babu class. The incidents described here are more or less adopted by a babu” (Bhowmick 26). And Bankimchandra in his essay Babu opined:

Those who are indomitable in their words, experts in foreign language, adverse to the mother tongue, are called babu… those who save aimlessly, earn for saving, educate themselves for earning, steal papers to educate themselves, are called babu. (Chattyopadhyay 4)

Female characters in Madhusudan’s play are often the representation of a just voice, a critique of their husband’s flaws, fissures and inadequacy. All the female characters in Birangana Kabya and even Ravana’s wife had evaluated and rectified their men. Similarly Harakamini who was indifferent to the play of cards initially (helplessness) could also just explode abruptly in the end (protest). We find Harakamini wishing to hang herself and at the same time, we watch her hurling at Naba the truth of his ineffectual actions. Her bitter words about her husband parallel Fulkumari’s angst in Kulin Kulosorborsho (1854) by Ramnarayan Tarkaratna. And it’s Harakamini who dissects and diagnoses all the follies and foibles of the ‘educated’ class of young men of nineteenth-century society: “This impudent man says, we are now as civilized as the Sahibs. Do alcohol, meat and licentiousness make you civilized? – Is this called civility?” (Dutt 26).

Thus Dutt portrays the different sets of characters in his plays as torn between various kinds of conflicts. These conflicts between distinct cultures and their people help focus the contending discourses of civility and incivility in Dutt’s plays. The entire world of Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota is an emblem of these conflicts, both intrapersonal and interpersonal; conflicts that do not necessarily end in resolution.

[Translations of the Bengali texts are made by the author]

Works Cited
Arnold, Matthew. Dover Beach and Other Poems. London: Dover Publication, 2012. Print.

Bhowmick, Nirmalendu. Madhusudan Dutter Ekei Ki Bole Sobhyota? Calcutta:    Shilalipi, 2000. Print.

Chattyopadhyay, Bankimachandra. “Babu.” Lokorohosshyo. Calcutta: Stree, 1874. Print.

Gupta, Kshetra. Madhusudan Rachanabali. Calcutta: Kolkata Sahitya Samshad, 1993.Print.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/ Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Murray, Krieger. “Dover Beach and a Tragic Sense of Eternal Recurrence.” London: Charles E. Merrill Publishing, 1970. Print.

Rahim, Afzalur. Managing Conflict in Organizations. India: Transaction Publishers, 2012 Print.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Crisis in Civilization and Other Essays. Calcutta: Rupa and Company, 2003. Print.
The Institute of Civility in Government. N.p, n.d. Web. 25 May. 2018

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holds an M.A in English Literature from the University of Calcutta and her interest lies in the broad area of Victorian literature, and literature of nineteenth-century colonial Bengal particularly the novels and the journals of these periods. She tries to take a holistic approach by combining textual analysis, socio-economic, cultural and historical context, and feminist issues.


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