English, Sanskrit and a road
Bibek Debroy | 27 May, 2019
The longest introduction Manmatha Nath Dutt wrote was in one of the earliest translations, that of the Valmiki Ramayana. After that, the introductions became short and terse, almost non-existent. In the introduction to the Valmiki Ramayana, the translation is actually described as “The Ramayana in an English Garb”. “The immortal Epic of Valmiki is undoubtedly one of the gems of literature, – indeed, some considering it as the Kohinur of the literary region, which has for centuries, and from a time reaching to the dim and far past been shedding unparalleled and undying halo upon the domain presided over by “the vision and the faculty divine.”..Bharata, stoutly and persistently declining, despite the exhortations of the elders and the spiritual guides, to govern the kingdom during Rama’s absence in the forest, and holding the royal umbrella over his brother’s sandals, are personations of the ne plus ultra of fraternal love, and consummate and perfect ideals of their kind….Truly of the Ramayana it can be said in Baconian language that it has come home to the business and bosoms of all men…Ravana is remembered not only in consequence of the prominent part he plays in the Ramayana, but also on account of his famous advice to Rama immediately before death, – namely that the execution of evil projects should be deferred, but that good ones should be promptly executed, – a very sage counsel doubtless, answering partially to Macbeth’s observation on hearing of Macduff’s escape: “… From this moment/The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings of my hand….”….Ah, who can say how many women have turned away in the budding prime of youth from the primrose path of dalliance, and have in preference followed virtue, who alone is truly fair… In it (the Ramayana), cosmogony and Theogony, the genealogies of kings and princes, – of human and extra-human beings, of Ashuras and Danavas, of Jakshas and Gandharvas, and Shiddhas and Charanas; folklore and anecdotes and legends, and stories half-mythical and half-historical; descriptions of cities existing at a period long anterior to the age of Troy and Memphis, and the chronicles of kings that reigned before Priam and Busiris, – all these with others too numerous to enumerate, have been woven into the mighty web and woof of the magic drapery evolved by the son potent art of Valmiki…..Nay, we can perhaps safely go so far as to assert that very few amongst those Western scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of Sanskrit literature, have been able to enter into the spirit of that part of its vocabulary in which are couched those peculiarly Hindu ideas and sentiments that constitute the unique genius of the people. To translate, therefore, such a work as the Ramayana from the dead and indefinite Sanskrit into the living and real English, is, like unearthening a fossil and inspiring it with life; or rather like transferring a light from a bushel in which it has been hidden, to a mountain-top, – so that men may behold it and the surrounding objects by help of its grateful rays. Surely, to render a work from a dead tongue into a living language and specially such a language as English with all its resources, is literally taking it from its narrow and circumscribed sphere of influence, and placing it before the world at large – in fact, making it the common property and heritage of all mankind.” The Introduction ends with an invocation. “Let us, accordingly, begin by invoking Him whose presence can convert the foulest and the most unclean spot, pure and clean, “like the icicle that hangs on Dian’s temple,” or the hearts and aspirations of the Vestal Virgins, or pious saints ever engaged in meditating the Most High.”
In this longish quote, there is quite a lot that is easy to miss. “The vision and the faculty divine?” That’s William Wordsworth in “The Wanderer”. “Oh! many are the Poets that are sown/By Nature; men endowed with highest gifts,/The vision and the faculty divine;” Ne plus ultra? That could be from anywhere. After all, it does mean the ultimate example. But I think it was because Coleridge wrote a poem titled “Ne Plus Ultra”. Business and bosoms of all men is from Francis Bacon’s “The Epistle Dedicatory”. “I do now publish my Essays; which, of all my other works, have been most current; for that, as it seems, they come home to men’s business and bosoms.” Macbeth is obvious. But Shakespeare features again, through Coriolanus. “The moon of Rome, chaste as the icicle/That’s curdied by the frost from purest snow/And hangs on Dian’s temple.” Priam and Busiris in the same breath? Might be coincidence. Or was this because of a familiarity with Edward Young’s (1683-1765) plays? I can understand Priam or Busiris separately. But linked together, it suggests Edward Young. A pity there weren’t these kinds of introductions in the subsequent translations.
Gleanings-I starts with “What mortal now can harm,/ Or foemen vex us more/ Through thee, beyond alarm/Immortal God, we soar.” This is from John Muir’s (1810-82) translations, published only a few years ago, in 1879. Among other stories, Gleanings-I tell us about Krishna. Krishna has gone away to Mathura and there is an attempt to bring him back to Gokula. “When they all came to his royal palace to take him back to his old haunts, he told them as prince Harry told his boon companions. “Presume not that I am the thing I was, I have turned away my former-self.”’ This sounds unnecessary and forced, but never mind. It is from Henry IV, Part 2. “Presume not that I am the thing I was,/For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—/That I have turned away my former self.” But it was difficult to get away from Shakespeare. In Gleanings-I, we also have the Shakuntala story, with a footnote. In fairness, Manmatha Nath Dutt was not the first, or the only one, to make this comparison. “Here again the similarity of Shakuntala and Miranda is very much apparent. Miranda saw only her old father Prospero, so did Shakuntala her father Karna.” Gleanings-II has the story of the Rani of Argal, with a description of the river Ganga. “Mother of mighty rivers/Adored by saint and sage;/The much-loved peerless Ganga,/Famous from age to age.” The Rani and her maids were then surrounded by Moslem soldiers. “The fear was in her bosom/The Rani shed no tear;/And her eye resentful sparkled,/As the enemy drew near./She stood there brave and scornful,/Her maids by her side;/And with undaunted calmness/The Ajodhya’s chief defied.” The Rani shouted out, “Are there no Hindu clansmen,/No Hindu brother here,/To whom a Hindu mother/And a Hindu wife is dear?/If such there be, arouse ye,/Stand forth, stand forth to aid,/By the gods I adjure you,/My curse on you is laid.” Abhai Chand and Nirbhai Chand help her and the Mahomedans fled. “But all rejoiced to see her,/And with one voice did tell/How the Rani and her maidens/Had fought so brave and well.” As for the Governor who had attacked the Rani of Argal, “When white with age/Still then be bore the shame,/That he had wielded weapon/Against a noble dame.” The influence of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Horatius” is hard to miss. In the Buddha book, Manmatha Nath Dutt gave his address as Elysium Bower, Baranagore. Elysium was a common place word then, among the English-educated. There used to be Elysium Road, now Lord Sinha Road. But Elysium Bower takes us straight to John Keats and “Endymion”.
Finally, from “Domestic Duty”, “True love must unite the heart and soul in such a way that they may appreciate properly the burden of the song: ‘I set my life in your hand,/Mar it or make it sweet,-/I set my life in your hand,/I lay my heart at your feet.’” This is not that common a song. Where did Manmatha Nath Dutt get this from? His source must have been the novelist Marie Corelli (nee Mackay, 1855-1924). This song is quoted in her 1900 novel “The Master-Christian” and Manmatha Nath Dutt picked it up from there. This give us an idea about the breadth of Manmatha Nath Dutt’s reading interests.
The table below states what we know from the books, not just the year of publication and the publisher, but also how Manmatha Nath Dutt described himself. There are a few addresses mentioned as Manmatha Nath Dutt’s addresses: (1) 65/2 Beadon Street; (2) 40 Nayan Chand Dutt Street; (3) 3 Furriapukur Street; and (4) Elysium Bower, Baranagore.
What did Manmatha Nath Dutt study? He did possess formal degrees. From 1891 to 1900, in his books, he described himself as M.A., with M.R.A.S. added from 1895. It helps to understand the education system first. Three universities were set up in 1857, in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. In 1882 a Commission was set up to examine the Indian education system. Even if one is not interested in Manmatha Nath Dutt, this makes for fascinating reading. It tells us what the system was like in 1882. The Commission’s report stated, “The function of these Universities is that of examination, and not of instruction. The latter is conducted by the affiliated colleges and other institutions authorized to send up candidates for the university examinations.” This was a decentralized structure, modelled on systems prevalent in Britain. Before enrolling in any such college, the University of Calcutta conducted an Entrance examination. The Education Commission tells us this Entrance examination examined the prospective student in (1) English: (2) an optional language; (3) mathematics; and (4) history and geography. After two years, there was a First Examination (F.A.) in Arts. Since one is interested in Manmatha Nath Dutt, one is specifically interested in English and Sanskrit. For English, for F.A., one studied King Lear, Julius Caesar, Merchant of Venice, some books from Paradise Lost, Hyperion, Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, Morley’s Life of Burke, Church’s Spenser and Stopford Brooke’s Primer of English Literature. For Sanskrit, it was Kumarsambhavam, Meghadutam and Shakuntalam. After another two years, a student appeared for the Bachelor in Arts (B.A.) examination and after another one year, a student appeared for the Master in Arts (M.A.) examination. M.A. was the last examination. There was nothing beyond that then. For the B.A. examination in English, the reading list had The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Henry V. selections from Wordsworth and parts of Faerie Queene. For the M.A. examination, it had Henry IV, Henry VIII, Coriolanus and Othello. While the texts did vary a bit from year to year, this gives a general idea. The picture that has so far emerged is of an individual with an intimate knowledge of English literature, in particular, poetry. Before the Shastri upadhi in Sanskrit, Manmatha Nath Dutt obtained a M.A. degree. By implication, he obtained F.A. and B.A. degrees before that. The subject chosen for F.A, B.A. and M.A. must have been English. This can never be proved conclusively. After all, one can study Bengali or Philosophy and pick up one’s knowledge of English. But English seems extremely likely.
From passing the Entrance examination, it took five years, at least in the University of Calcutta. “The usual age at which an Indian student seeks admission to the University is between sixteen and eighteen years.” Under normal circumstances, a student received the M.A. degree between the ages of 21 and 23. We know that from 1891, Manmatha Nath Dutt started to use M.A. after his name. If he started his translations immediately after passing the M.A. examination, say in 1890, an unlikely prospect, he would have been born between 1867 and 1869. However, it must have taken five years or more to get the magazine and the society going. Something like 1861 or 1862 seems a more reasonable year of birth. Because of a reason we will come to later, it was probably 1862.
This means he would have been admitted to the University in 1878 or 1880, after passing the Entrance examination. Where might he have studied? Had it been a few years later, it might have been Scottish Church College. But in 1880, Scottish Church College was still Duff College and not all Bengalis were fond of reading the King James’s Bible in college. It became Scottish Church College in 1908. It could have been Vidyasagar College, which around 1880, was still known as Metropolitan Institution. However, Manmatha Nath Dutt is unlikely to have studied in educational institutions started by Western missionaries. That more or less pins it down, at least then, to Presidency College, now Presidency University. This was started as Hindu College in 1817 and renamed Presidency College in 1855. His B.A. and M.A. must have been through Presidency College. What about the school? Though the feeder school to Sanskrit College is possible, given the proficiency and expertise in English, I think the answer boils down to Hare School (established in 1818), Hindu School (established in 1817) and Oriental Seminary (established 1829). Hare and Hindu were government schools, Oriental Seminary was private. Perhaps one should also remember the following. First, among the Bengali bhadralok, because of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio and the Young Bengal movement a few decades earlier, Hindu School had become less favoured. Second, Oriental Seminary was famous for the quality of its education in English. For example, the noted Shakespearean scholar, Captain D.L. Richardson taught there. Third, though Rabindranath Tagore dropped out of any system of formal education, he did study for a while in Oriental Seminary and that’s not completely irrelevant. The student strength in a school now is completely different from what it was then. The afore-mentioned Hunter Commission tells us that in 1881-82, the average number of pupils in a school in Bengal was 17. Had Manmatha Nath Dutt studied in Oriental Seminary, Rabindranath Tagore would certainly have known him personally, as a co-pupil. Fourth, there was a reference to Soshee Dutt earlier. Romesh Chunder Dutt was a bit older than Manmatha Dutt and we know nothing about interaction between the two kin families. Is it possible that Soshee Chunder Dutt also planted the love for English poetry in Manmatha Nath Dutt? In any event, forced to identify the school, one would perforce opt for either Oriental Seminary or Hare School.
From 1901, “Shastri” was added. The fact that “Shastri” was added later means that it was a separate degree. Where did he study and where did he pick up the Shastri title? Let us get Pali out of the way first. It is necessary to mention this because there are occasional suggestions that he translated from Pali too. He did not translate from Pali. But he obviously knew Pali. He tells us that in the Preface to the Buddha book. “In presenting this sketch of the life and teachings of this Great Teacher I have consulted almost all the works extant either in Sanskrit or Pali.” Shastri might certainly have been an honorary degree, explaining Sucheta Kriplani’s statement, “In those days the Indian States often organized conferences of scholars and honoured them with titles and other rewards.”
What if it was the other, and “Shastri” meant he studied Sanskrit? The gurukula and traditional systems are somewhat different in nature. In the modern system, the upadhi/title “shastri” connotes different things in different places. Today, the nomenclature will be “Shastri” for B.A. (in Sanskrit), “Acharya” for M.A., “Vidyavaridhi” for Ph.D. and “Vachaspati” for D.Litt. We tend to forget that Lal Bahadur Shastri’s (1904-66) surname was not Shastri. Shastri was the “upadhi”. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s surname was Srivastava, which he dropped because of its caste connotations. Subsequently, when he did a B.A. (not in Sanskrit) from Kashi Vidyapith in 1925, he obtained the title of “Shastri”. Today, there are Sanskrit universities where B.A. confers on the successful student the title of “Shastri”. In nineteenth century Calcutta, Sanskrit College was established in 1824, with an affiliated school that was like a feeder school. In the initial years, Sanskrit College had a Secretary, not a Principal. Both in 1832 and 1833, the Officiating Secretary was Horace Hayman Wilson (1786-1860). Horace Hayman Wilson left a deep impression on Manmatha Nath Dutt and he drew extensively on Wilson’s work, not just for the translation of the Vishnu Purana. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) was the Principal from 1851 to 1858. Before Vidyasagar, only brahmana students could join Sanskrit College. Manmatha Nath Dutt was not a brahmana. He was what in Bengal is called a kayastha. During Vidyasagar’s tenure as Principal, the admission rules were changed and non-brahmana students could also enroll in Sanskrit College. Subsequently, Mahesh Chandra Nyayratna Bhattacharyya, (1836 – 1906) was the Principal from 1876 to 1895 and he introduced the system of “upadhi”s. Note that the University of Calcutta did not have a Sanskrit department until 1907. Therefore, when Manmatha Nath Dutt became Shastri in 1901, the M.A. degree would have been awarded by the University of Calcutta, but the title of “Shastri” would have been conferred by Sanskrit College.
Having obtained the “Shastri” title, one had the option of dropping the original surname, as Sivanath Sastri (also spelt Shibnath Shastri) did. Other than the Buddha book, Manmatha Nath Dutt never dropped his original surname. Sivanath Sastri (1847-1919) was author, historian, educationist, social reformer and much more. He was Manmatha Nath Dutt’s senior by almost fifteen years and there is no reason why they should have interacted, though Manmatha Nath Dutt would have known of, if personally not known, Sivanath Sastri. Sivanath Sastri was born Sivanath Bhattacharya and dropped the surname after obtaining the title “Shastri”. A footnote in his autobiography tells us how he obtained the title of Shastri. Sivanath Bhattacharya passed the M.A. in Sanskrit examination through the University of Calcutta and stood first in the first class. This is also confirmed in Sivanath Shastri’s biography, authored by his daughter, Hemalata Devi. That is how he obtained the upadhi of Shastri. He studied in Sanskrit Collegiate School and Sanskrit College. That’s exactly what happened with Haraprasad Shastri (1853-1931), born as Haraprasad Bhattacharya. He studied in Sanskrit College and Presidency College and stood first in the first class in the M.A. examination in Sanskrit. That is how he obtained the title of “Shastri” and subsequently dropped the surname of Bhattacharya. If “Shastri” was a studied degree, that should establish Manmatha Nath Dutt studied in Sanskrit College for his M.A. in Sanskrit, was first class first and thus obtained the upadhi of “Shastri”, under of course the assumption that he studied his Sanskrit in Calcutta. This was a remarkable accomplishment, though he studied for the M.A. in Sanskrit when he was a bit older than most other students. Note that Sanskrit College and Presidency College had close links and were just across the road (College Street) from each other.
There is a Manmatha Dutta Road in Calcutta. It is in the area known as Belgachia and connects Jessore Road with Tara Sankar Sarani. Towards the Tara Sankar Sarani end, a fork becomes Indra Biswas Road. Manmatha Dutta Road is a short road and there is nothing along the road to indicate who it was named after – no statute, no plaque. The road has been there for years, featuring in many Bengali short stories. The famous poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), lived in Manmatha Dutta Road for some years and old-timers still point out his residence as a landmark. Typically, roads are named after famous or important people. There aren’t too many famous people named Manmatha Dutta. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, there were famous Bengalis with the same first name of Manmatha Nath. Manmatha Nath Ray Chowdhury and Manmatha Nath Gupta are instances and there was more than one Manmatha Nath Ghosh. But Manmatha Nath Dutta was a rarity. Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, the football team, had a glorious decade in the 1930s and towards the start of that decade, Dr Manmatha Dutta played for Mohun Bagan and captained it. But there is no logical reason why a road in Belgachia should be named after him. There was a freedom-fighter named Manmatha Datta. In the Andaman Cellular Jail, there are plaques that give the names of freedom-fighters, decade-wise and region-wise. For the 1932-38 period, in the Bengal list, Manmatha Datta is numbered 190. That road in Belgachia is unlikely to be named after him either. Therefore, it is almost a certainty that this road is named after our Manmatha Nath Dutt.
Kolkata Municipal Corporation has a Road Renaming Committee, as do many other cities in the country. From a book by Thankappan Nair, we know how this road came to be named. Indra Biswas Road first. “The proposal to name the road from the “projection of the Triangular Road extending from the end of Manmatha Dutt Road, running parallel westwards also at the back of the Pareshnath Temple as Indra Biswas Road” was notified by the Corporation on August 25, 1937 (C. M. Gaz.; September 4, 1937, p. 631) and the name was sanctioned on April 28, 1938 (C. M. Gae., May 7, 1938, p. 878).” By the way, Indra Biswas was a local zamindar (jamidar in Bengali) and the road was named after him as a mark of respect. Moving on to Manmatha Dutt Road, “The Corporation, vide notification dated August 25, 1937, proposed that a “portion of the new road to the east of the Tallah Park running from. 16-2, Paikpara Raja Manindra Road to the junction of the three roads southwards to the north of the Pareshnath Temple” be called Manmatha Dutt Road (C. M. Gaz., September 4, 1937). The name was sanctioned on April 28, vide notification issued in the C. M. Gaz, of May 7, 1938, p.878.” We need to understand how this part of Calcutta came to be developed. These were the northern suburbs. Today, Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has almost 150 wards. These are the geographically contiguous wards, say number 1 to 6. This Tala, Chitpur and Cossipore area was outside KMC’s purview till 1923, though from 1889, Chitpur and Cossipore were under a suburban municipality. Cossipore is now ward no. 1, Belgachia is ward no. 3 and Chitpur is ward no. six. Manmatha Nath Dutt Road is in ward number 5. The proposal to name the road Manmatha Dutt Road was dated 25th August 1937. If Manmatha Nath Dutt was born in 1862, and if he died in 1912, as one can deduce, 1937 would have been his 75th birth anniversary and his 25th death anniversary. A convenient date to commemorate him, if it was that. It could well have been that. At that time, the Mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation was Sanat K. Roy Chowdhury and a Mayor might have had a role to play in naming of roads. Sanat K. Roy Chowdhury had an important role to play in the Bengal Provincial Hindu Mahasabha. In addition, he was also the author of a monograph on Hinduism. He was interested in Chandi. The worship of Chandi is based on the Markandeya Purana, a text Manmatha Nath Dutt translated. Sanat Kumar Roy Chowdhury would probably have been interested in Manmatha Nath Dutt. Did Manmatha Nath Dutt die in 1912? In all probability, the answer is yes. He might of course have decided to give everything up and go off on sannyasa. However, the abrupt way in which the Rig Veda translation was terminated does suggest he died in 1912, somewhat unexpectedly. It was a sudden death.
1. I have in mind Busiris, King of Egypt: The revenge, more than Busiris, King of Egypt: a Tragedy.
2. Metrical Translations from Sanskrit Writers, John Muir, Trubner and Company, London, 1879. This quote is from “Praise of Soma”.
3. In an odd typo, Kanva is throughout Karna.
4. Since this was headed by William Wilson Hunter, it is usually known as the Hunter Commission. Report of the Indian Education Commission, Superintendent of Government Printing, Calcutta, 1883.
5. To be accurate, there was a separate examination for something known as the Premchand Roychand Studentship, instituted at the University of Calcutta in 1866. To sit for this examination, one needed to first obtain a M.A. degree from the University of Calcutta and an individual who obtained this studentship wrote PRS after his/her name.
6. The Hunter Commission, Ibid.
7. In 2016, Sanskrit College became a University.
8. In Bengali, Atmacharit, published by the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj in 1918.
9. In Bengali, Pandiit Shibnath Shastris jiban-charit, Hemalata Devi, New Era Publishing Calcutta, 1919.
10. A History of Calcutta’s Streets, P. Thankappan Nair, Firma KLM, Calcutta, 1987.
11. Hinduism and Eternal Verities, Sanat Kumar Roy Chowdhury, Bhupendra Chandra Lahiri, Calcutta, 1928.