A lovely story, but feels unreal

The Asian Age.  | Kushalrani Gulab

It would be a book firmly anchored in place and time, solid as only a feast can be.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: The Story of Bengal’s Greatest Bhakti Saint by Chitrita Banerji, Juggernaut, Rs 499

My first thought when I saw the cover of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: The Story of Bengal’s Greatest Bhakti Saint by Chitrita Banerji was how Amar Chitra Katha-ish it seemed, with its depiction of the saint, arms raised to the heavens, wearing bright saffron against a blue sky.

My second impression of the book after briefly browsing through the pages was a bit of a sinking feeling. At just about 200 pages of not at all closely printed text, it seemed likely that it would actually be Amar Chitra Katha-ish, though in words, not illustrations. And though, as an atheist, I am the very opposite of a seeker of the divine, my heart sank. Chitrita Banerji is one of the most evocative writers I have ever read; her books on the life and food of Bengal are keepers on my bookshelves — they will never be lent to even my closest friends for fear that I will never get them back. Would I be able to cope if, with this short book that seemed bound to be a hagiography based on highlights from the saint’s life, she unravelled my admiration of her writing?

Fortunately for both Banerji and myself, no such terrible thing happened. Rather, I read the briefly told story of Chaitanya’s life as though it was a bedtime story — calming and sometimes even enchanting. Given the many different ways this book could have been written, I approved wholeheartedly of the magic of Banerji’s writing, which is just as evocative as it ever was, creating images in my head that I am happy to host, despite my disquiet about religion.

There is, however, a “but” lurking somewhere in my brain, and I will explain why it’s there after I give you a short outline of the story.

When Chaitanya was a child, no one could have predicted that he’d grow up to be Bengal’s greatest contribution to the bhakti movement — the movement that asserted that the way to God is not through rituals and high caste interventions, but simply through the love of God. Nimai, as the young Chaitanya was called by his family and friends to invoke the healing powers of the neem tree and keep him strong and healthy, had been a much desired baby, only the second of his parents Shachi and Jagannath Misra’s eight children to survive birth and immediate babyhood. This meant that though he was a sweet child, he was rather spoilt, and growing into adolescence, that sweetness turned into brashness, and few people could stand having the angsty young man around.

But when his father died, young Nimai realised that he was the only person standing between his family and penury. It took him some time to rein his tumultuous personality in, but he mastered himself and soon became the mainstay of his mother and young wife, earning by teaching as his father had done before him.

It was at this time that Nimai joined the bhakti movement, joining processions that marched through the town of Nabadwip, chanting the glory of Lord Krishna. Soon, his need for the lord became too strong for him to hold back even at the risk of shattering his mother’s heart, and he took the vows of monkhood, along with the name Chaitanya.

From now on the book is about Chaitanya’s travels, his disciples and the changes he wrought in their lives, and his love for the lord — and food. He was never ashamed of his love of good food, Banerji writes. Chaitanya only objected to the feasts organised by his disciples if his followers were not invited too, which meant that the monk who sometimes had absolutely nothing in his bowl, often had many, many bowls overflowing as well.

And then one night, during the Rath Yatra festival in Puri, Chaitanya vanished. Was he overcome by the epileptic fits he was sometimes subject to? No one knows. Did his love for the lord overpower him to such an extent that he perhaps fell into the wild sea, or became one with the idol of his lord? No one knows. Speculations and hypotheses abounded, but only one fact stood out. At one moment there was Chaitanya. Then he was gone.

As I said earlier, Banerji’s take on the life of Chaitanya has a storybookish, highly evocative quality that I much appreciate. However, here’s the “but’: she fails her readers on two counts. First, while to be fair, there was not much she could say in 200 pages, Banerji gave me no reason to believe that Chaitanya was Bengal’s greatest bhakti saint. He could have been just any person with something extraordinary about him — and there are more people like that in the world than we think. And second, while I do love the sense of timelessness that Banerji infuses the story with, which makes the book feel as though it could even be set in the present, the same quality gives the story a fairytale feel, making it a lovely story, but utterly unreal.

At the end, I’m glad I read the book. I’ve missed Banerji’s writing. But I do believe, that if she’d focused more on the food that Chaitanya was served — his second love, and to judge by her earlier books, her first, she’d have written a much less ephemeral book. It would be a book firmly anchored in place and time, solid as only a feast can be.

Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea