The Living Age 904, 28.9.1861
From the Saturday Review.
* Nil Darpan; or, the Indigo Planting Mirror. A Drama. Translated from the Bengali. Calcutta. 1861.NIL DARPAN.*
This is a traslation of Bengali drama, in which the native views of indigo-planters, and of all the thousand evils attendant on their train, are supposed to be embodied. It is easy to conjecture that it is merely a Cacutta squib, and is a manifesto of those natives there who are ready to wage an endless war with the European setlers. But although it may be nothing more than an engine of party warfare, and although its statements and suggestions must therefore be taken with a very considerable abatement, it is still a very curious document. The drama is a form of composition in which the higher natives take as much feeble delight as they ever take in any literary work, and the view of indigo-planting which this play presents is one which, when exhibited in a popular form, may meet with many eager and interested readers. That Nil Darpan is not regarded at Calcutta with indifference may be gathered from the fact that it has been thought worth while to accuse the Government of aiding its circulation. The quarrel between the ryots and the planters has been gradually transformed into a quarrel between the planters and the Government, and the Government has been supposed to have caught gladly at an opportunity of placing their opponents in a very unfavorable light. To us in England the drama has no interest, except so far as it enables us to conjecture what are the misdeeds of which the natives accuse the planters, and what is the truth of the accusation. The list of crimes is serious enough. The planters are pictured as cheating the ryot, imprisoning and murdering him, victimizing his daughters, and corrupting the magistrates by connivance at the intriques which the magistrates carry on with the planters' wives. We have no doubt that the picture is a false one. It is false, not because such crimes have never been committed, but because exceptional, rare, and unconnected misdeeds are put together as forming a natural and probable whole. There can be little doubt that natives have been cheated, any possibly murdered, by planters or the servants of planters; it is possible that magistrates may bot have been always impartial; native women may have been marked down as prey for the spoiler. But these things have occured, if they have occured at all, at very great intervals of time and place, and belong not to a class but to individuals. It is not merely a calumny, but a notorious calumny, to represent magistrates as habitaully swayed by corrupt motives or native girls as habitually insecure. So, too, the ryots in the drama are as false to nature as the planters are. They are one and all the most peaceful, noble, pious, patient, industrious people that can be imagined. We know at onece that this cannot be true to life. They are like the good children in a tract. They are exponents of a doctrine, and not like real flesh and blood. But all this only proves that in a party manifesto, Asiatics like Europeans, do not stick at trifles, but put the rosiest coloring on their own cause. Room is still left for a representation of native feelings and manners which has sufficient faithfulness to be instructive, although not enough to be fair. It is so very difficult in England to look at any Indian question from the side of the natives, that we must not throw away any help because it is imprefect.
The indigo planters of the piece are called J. J. Wood and P. P. Rose, the dramatist having apparently a great wish to show that he was up to English initials. They are a couple of unmitigated ruffians, and whenever offended they have instant resource to "shamcand," which a footnote explains to be "an instrument made of leather, used by the planters for beating the ryots." This, however, is not all. "Wood Saheb is represented as having a habit of standing on the breasts of ryots until the blood begins to fall drop by drop, and when his practices are discussed in a company of ryots, one of the speakers takes care to remark that Wood Saheb's shoes have got nails in them, and that the fiend thrusts the nails in when he gets on people's breasts. His strocities arouse the vengeance of a kind of William Tell, who early in the play announces that if ever he gets a chance he will, "with one slap, raise J. J. Wood in the air, and at once put a stop to all his 'goffams,' and other words of chastisement." At the coclusion of the drama this audacious ryot executes his threat, not exactly by raising Wood Saheb into the air with a slap, by by biting off Wood's nose. Meanwhile, his wrath is heightened by a little severity applied to him personally by P. P. Rose, who, hearing that the destined avenger has refused to give evidence agains other ryots, seizes an instrument of torture called a ramkant, and with a devilish satisfaction and malignity, says to his victim, at the same time that he strikes and kicks him, "Be silent, thou child of the sow. This ramkant is very sweet." This trait of character is made to attach to the planters throughout. They express in the frankest manner their very worst thoughts. Wood Saheb is especially explicit, and confides to a myrmidon called Gopi the most brutal ebullitions of his soul. The pattern patriarchal ryot, for example, has been forced not only to cultivate indigo, but to grow it on the sides of his tank, and this stimulates J. J. Wood to remark that thus "with one stone two birds have been killed; "for, in the first place, indigo is grown, and in the next place, it is grown in the very most spot for the interests of the ryot. That this would suggest to most Europeans another proverb, that the planters would scarcely like to kill their golden goose to get at the eggs, has never occured to the dramatist.
It appears to suit the Bengali fancy to pile up horrors as thickly as possible. Such tremendous catastrophes occur so rapidly in the fifth act that we actually begin to get callous to the suffering of the wrethes on whom the curse of indigo has fallen. The father of the ryot family, having been arrested illegally, is found dead in his prison, and his garments are so arranged as to inflict some peculiar kind of insult to him. It is, indeed, this matter of the robing which appears to weight even more heavily than his death on the minds of his bereaved relatives. This combination of horros drives the wife of the deceased mad, and in her frenzy she kills her favorite daughter-in-law by adroitly squeezing her throat. The eldest son is mortally wounded by J. J. Wood, to whom he had offered a little present of fifty rupees in order to purchase an exemption from the cultivation of indigo during the time necessary for performing the funeral ceremonies of the father. "There is sin," we are told, even in repeating J. J. Wood's answer. However, the sin is not sufficient to prevent its being repeated, and we hear that wood's answer was couched in the following very technical terms of insult: "Your father was hung in the jail of the Yabans, with thieves and robbers; therefore keep your money for the sacrifice of many bulls, which are necessary for his ceremony." At this is accompanied by the placing of one of the planter's shoes on the knees of the supplicant, the son cannot stand it. He remains silent for a short time, and then gives the Saheb a hard kick on the breast. To kick a man's breast is more than most Europeans could do, and reflects the greatest credit not only on the courage, but on the agility of a native. J. J. Wood's anger may be imagined, "He took a stick out of the hand of the hamadar and smote with it the head of the son. The head was cracked, and he fell senseless to the ground." The circle to whom this terrible news is related are not cheered even by the sight of J. J. Wood's nose, which the avenger produces for the comfort of the mourners. The woes accumulate so rapidly, and the action is so complicated by the sudden introduction of relatives previously unheard of, - who come in, utter a platitude, and then fall senseless on the ground, - that we hardly know who are alive and who are dead until the time arrives for the heroine of the piece to go off, which she does after having been in some way killed by the young Saheb. Fortunately, in the last speech in the play, most fof these horrors are concisely summed up and catalogued by the younger son, whose business it is to act as chorus, and explain the drama. He points the moral by saying, "Hoe very sorrowful! The Bose family of Svaropur is destroyed by indigo, the great destroyer of honor. How very terrible are the arms of indigo!"
The comic element in the play is supplied by a scene in which the magistrate hears an indigo case, and disposes of it so as to suit his own convenience and the interests of the planter. The plaintiff's attorney makes a speech full of Bengali humor. He represents the planters, and he offers to prove that the planters can never have done what they are said to have done: and this he thinks is made sufficiently clear by their being Christians. The crimes of which they are accused are stricly forbidden by the Christian religion. "The main aim of the Christian religion is to show kindness, to forgive, to be mild, and to do good unto others; so that it is by no means probable that the indigo planters who follow such a true and pure religion ever give false evidence." The magistrate hears the attorneys on both sides, and does not interrupt them. They at last perceive that his attention is only partly directed to them, and is principally engrossed by a letter which he is writing. He calls an officer of the court, and tells him to give the letter to Mrs. Wood. He then disposes of the case by the simple process of ordering it to remain within the Nathi, or court documents, and then his heavy work is over, and bidding the officials keep the next case till the following day, he hurries off where pleasure and Mrs. Wood await him. This scene is really not without a little dramatic merit. The fun of proving by the Christian religion that the planter cannot have done what he has done, almost raises a passing smile. Nor is a certain Oriental force of expression entirely wanting in any scene. A neighboring ryot called Sadhu, for example, puts into a long but telling shape the feeling with which he hears of the eldest son's misfortune. He tells us successively that he could bear to be bitten by a hundred serpents, that he would meet robbers with indifference; and lastly, he would bear the worst thing a man can be called on to endure, and would see ten indigo factories in a village instead of one; but he could not bear to separate for an instant from the excellent elder son "who is the supporter of his dependants." This rodomontade is sufficently Oriental and energetic to make it appear tolerably natural.
The utmost hopelessnesss pervades the whole piece. There seems to be a floating belief in the goodness of the Supreme Government and in the beauty of the Christian religion; but the Government and the Christian religion are very far off, and the planter in very near. It is, however, something that the natives should have a belief that the Government means to act kindly and honestly towards them, so far as it can. But the Government is represented as very powerless in the midst of its good intentions. There is a truth in this, as there is a truth in much of what is submitted to us in this play. We must expect that to the apprehension of the native, our Government, however just and kind, will seem very far off, and the local tyrant will seem very near. While, again, the general bearing of the planters is much misrepresented, there can be no doubt that the feelings which lie at the bottom of such open acts of lawlessness as are treated of in this frama do really prevail far too widely in India. There is a contempt and aversion for the natives, and inclination to class them with negroes, and to treat them like slaves, which is a gworing evil, and if it is kept under, is only kept under by the unceasing efforts of the Government. We must not look at Nil Darpan to see what the English in India are, but it is not unprofitable to see in these pages what they might be if men of wisdom and authority did not set and maintain a tone of prudence, moderation, and justice.