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Book review 'A Nation in Making': Banerjea’s nation-A man and his history

| AJANTA DUTT
Published : Jul 6, 2016, 6:38 am IST
Updated : Jul 6, 2016, 6:38 am IST

Sir Surendranath Banerjea (1848-1925), a foremost political leader of Bengal, dedicated his life to opposing colonialism through moderate but liberal methods.

A Nation in Making by Sir Surendranath Banerjea Rupa Publications, pp. 448, Rs 210.
 A Nation in Making by Sir Surendranath Banerjea Rupa Publications, pp. 448, Rs 210.

Sir Surendranath Banerjea (1848-1925), a foremost political leader of Bengal, dedicated his life to opposing colonialism through moderate but liberal methods. A Nation in Making, is an autobiographical work reprinted by Rupa. It renders political events of late 19th and early 20th century Bengal in magnificent detail. Banerjea’s fluent English script is both controlled and expressive, as he presents his own life as a public servant. His failures become his stepping stones to success, and in the latter part of the book, he indeed becomes its hero. It is a significant publication for imperialism history, sociology and literature, and gives us an insight into India’s relationship with the British Raj.

His achievements in the public sphere are punctuated by personal memoirs, interactions with people of renown, many of whom were his friends. Banerjea’s narration begins with his rigid Kulin-Brahmin orthodox family whose daughters married late. Thus they “enjoyed exceptional health largely to the absence of child-marriage for generations among them”. He speaks of the Brahmo Samaj, especially Keshab Chandra Sen whose “marvelous oratory, set forth with all the accessories of a sonorous voice, a noble diction” inspired him. He expresses admiration for Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who helped legalise widow-remarriage. Banerjea reflects on his boyish sorrow for a young widow whose house he never passed “without the liveliest emotions”.

He writes about preparing secretly for England for it was still considered “more perilous than a journey to the North Pole”. His father died before he won his case with the Civil Service Commissioners. He was disqualified with his friend Behari Lal due to a discrepancy in age. Apparently the Indian system “reckon(ed) the age not from time of one’s birth but from the time of the conception of the child in the mother’s womb” and his matriculation certificate was a year older than the ICS requirement. He cleared the examination again in 1871.

An inadvertent mistake cost him his position as assistant magistrate in Sylhet. His dismissal from the Civil Services seemed fatal and one friend even advised him to start a new life in Australia. He remained optimistic although he had been discriminated as “a member of a community that lay disorganised had no voice”. He speaks eloquently of his wife who remained cheerful despite this “dark crisis”. Vidyasagar appointed him English Professor at Metropolitan College for Rs 200 a month. Later he made Presidency Institution “nucleus of the Ripon College” and it now bears his name. He gave up active teaching when elected to the Imperial Legislative Council in 1913 which involved frequent travel. For him, teachers were “the masters of the future . Theirs is a heaven-appointed task.”

Intrinsically connected with the Indian Association, he attended its inaugural meeting under the great shadow of his son’s death that morning. Again, the Indian National Congress in 1911 was convened just three days after his beloved wife died. Truly a great statesman, he always put personal sorrows aside for duty towards nation. He took over Bengalee in 1879 by paying Rs 10 as “consideration money for the goodwill”. He relates the “grim tragedy” of his friend

Dr Suresh Chandra Sircar, brutally murdered in Barrackpur by three drunken European soldiers. He involved himself in such cases, using his newspaper to demand justice. His indomitable spirit caused the Englishmen to pun on his name — Surrender Not!

President of the Indian National Congress twice, he was elected to the Calcutta Corporation and remained in office for two decades. His work as minister brought great impetus to medical education; but ultimately remarkable was his unceasing work during the 1905 partition — and through the years for its reversal. Speaking for this cause in England at a breakfast-meeting he found, “The talking is the most important thing, the eating is secondary”. He describes the 16th of October 1905 minutely when the foundation-stone was laid for the Federation Hall, and recalls that his “arms were red with rakhis”.

His opinions regarding the Minto-Morley Council, Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms, participation in Swadeshi, his fight for making Calcutta University autonomous kept Banerjea at the helm of plenary action. He asserts that “opposition to government has been the watchword of my public life.” This book is a veritable record for such “resistance” where he concedes that the rulers did offer “fellowship and friendship”. Banerjea concludes incisively that the “first crowning blunder of the new regime” was to choose Chittaranjan Das as Calcutta’s mayor because such posts are held by “venerable citizens who have grown grey in the service of the Corporation”.

This book is an excellent treatise of history in the making set forth in crisp and lucid English hardly heard today. Banerjea’s commands his flow of words towards precise and comprehensive utterances, often pithy, containing the intellectual flavour of his education abroad. It is hardly surprising that he is considered the Indian Burke who believes “prudence is a sovereign virtue”. His knowledge of the English idiom is evident when he bemoans Vidyasagar’s death: “The mantle of Elijah has not fallen upon Elisha”. British spellings that were the order of the day are sprinkled through names like “Chunder” and “Peary Churn”.

Banerjea weaves back and forth through political happenings, but hardly mentions being knighted in 1921. He does not elaborate upon incidents outside Bengal or even Tagore’s renunciation of knighthood. He calls his revealing reminiscences “a psychological moment” of our history. This book should belong to every personal collection as it is easy to read and reference repeatedly. Annotations and footnotes on historical figures mentioned here would enhance its worth. An index at the end is absolutely necessary for future editions. Dr Ajanta Dutt teaches English at Deshbandhu College, Delhi University, and is also on the editorial board of a bilingual quarterly, Hindol.