Naraach, meaning weapon, is the original title of this absorbing historical epic, first published in Bengali. It sums up the novel’s purpose: a blistering indictment of the abuse of women in 19th-century Bengal.
Prolific novelist Debarati Mukhopadhyay skilfully combines three major narrative threads with historical facts to present her case. She also draws in real-life individuals from the time, including the former Nawab of Awadh and Kadombini Gangopadhyay, one of the first Indian women to become a practising doctor. This creates a large cast of seemingly disparate characters who connect in a dramatic finale.
The novel opens in Calcutta in 1885. An impoverished brahmin, Krishnoshundor Chattopadhyay, is imprisoned in a depot with his family, waiting to be shipped to Surinam and sold off as an indentured laborer (essentially a slave) in the sugarcane fields. This was not his choice: he was misled by the recruiter who visited his village and promised a healthy wage. The offer also provided an escape for Bhubonmoni, his widowed 16-year old sister, who has been raped and made an outcast. The village elders twist religious verses to justify her penance. To purify herself, she must give sexual services for “two fortnights” to a high-ranking brahmin: in other words, one of them.
Just before the ship sails, Bhubonmoni is rescued from the depot by a relative—the husband of Kadombini Gangopadhyay. Krishnoshundor’s two daughters are not so lucky. Despite having three wives and two mistresses, the slave trader, Nobokishore Dutta, has been unable to produce a son and believes he will therefore rot in hell. A charlatan persuades him that the only solution is to marry a 10-year old, high-caste girl. Nobokishore, who is of a lowly caste, hedges his bets by abducting both Krishnoshundor’s little daughters, leaving him to face the arduous sea journey with just his wife and small son.
The action then moves to a very different side of Calcutta. Chondronath, a young musician, has come to find his fortune in Metiabruz, a glamorous, pleasure-loving suburb established by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, now exiled from Lucknow by the British. Here Chondronath falls in love with Moti, a beautiful singer. Although she is the daughter of the Nawab by one of his concubines, she receives no financial support and must survive with sex work. She is also the mistress of the sadistic slave trader, Nobokishore, and Chondronath resolves to save her.
The final thread of the story follows Bhubonmoni as she flourishes in the liberal Gangopadhyay household. Their home is a sanctuary for progressives and activists such as the radical student, Shourendro. Both youngsters, and the reader, are exposed to the new thinking of the time about the rights of women to education, to remarry once widowed and, most importantly, to reach the age of consent at significantly older than 10.
The treatment of the female characters in the novel is unthinkable today. Author Mukhopadhyay does not dwell voyeuristically on the violence, instead pinpointing exactly where the blame lies. Even though the Bethune School had been set up by its British founder in 1849, the rationale for teaching women had not been accepted. Mukhopadhyay writes:
An educated woman would inevitably be a widow prematurely – this superstition still ruled over most people. It was even rumoured that getting an education flattened the breasts and didn’t allow milk in them, besides weakening the ability to have children.
Caste oppression and religious hypocrisy also feel the wrath of the author’s pen. Even the unquestioningly faithful Krishnoshundor begins to doubt his superiors, as Mukhopadhyay explains:
But the older he was getting, the more he felt that there was an enormous gulf between the genuine shastras of the Vedas and the ‘shaastor’ constructed according to their convenience by the leaders of rural society.
How to break these powerful strangleholds on society? Bhubonmoni knows the answer. “We need a human narach, each of whose potent blows will destroy all the injustice society heaps on us,” she tells Shourendro. He ends up believing that she can be such a force.
Considered a youth icon in Bengal, Mukhopadhyay’s popularity suggests that she too has similar qualities. Although the translation and accompanying note have some inconsistencies in spelling, including names and transliterations of Bengali, Chronicles of the Lost Daughters remains a lesson in history and a lesson for the future.