So Many Hungers!: A True Picture of Indian Society
Bhabhani Bhattacharya’s first novel, So Many Hungers! (1947), is one of the finest pieces of creative writing born out of the agonised torment of body and spirit endured by the sacred soil of Bengal during the hideous famine years and they early stages of the Second World War. The novelist shows the unfortunate predicament of Bengal by portraying the ups and downs in the life of two families- one of Samarendra Bose, an affluent barrister and businessman of Calcutta and the other of a peasant of Baruni, whose soul is given to song and wandering. The two families are linked by their contact with the saintly figure of an aged nationalist leader, Devesh Bose (father of Samrendra Bose), who is worshipped by the villagers of Baruni as God because “the divine bliss fills his heart with riches.” He is a true Gandhian and has been deep in Civil Disobedience Movement and has courted imprisonment several times. He loves villagers and is proud of them.
Devesh Bose’s son Samerandra Bose, is quite opposite in nature and ways of life to his saintly father. His only aim in life is to please his British rulers, earn glamorous titles from them and accumulate more money. To him the war is veritable windfall. He treats it as the chance of life-time. As war progresses, he collects rice and hoards it and later on sells it at very high price. He has his plans for his eldest son, Rahoul too. He is proud of son’s D.Sc. degree in Astrophysics from Cambridge University and wants him to be on the highest post of technical Adviser in New Delhi so that he may use scientific knowledge to invent a highly destructive weapon. Rahoul’d heart is, however, set elsewhere. Having come under the influence of his grand-father earlier, he is drawn towards Gandhiji’s Non-Cooperation Movement. While pretending to research on the Death Ray, he works secretly for the Quit India Movement.
As the clouds of war envelop the world by their darkness and scarcity of food and famine stare the people of Bengal in the face, the life of town as well as of village, deviates from its traditional grooves and undergoes sudden and far-reaching changes. The crisis of Europe overtakes Bengal and disrupts its moral life. As the war runs the third year of its dismal course, the villagers of Baruni begin to experience its heavy burden. Their guide, Devata, and other congress workers of the village along with the mendicant and his eldest son, Kanu, are arrested during the Quit India Movement. The fishing boats of the villagers are seized by the Government for the use of military personnel and peasants are forced to sell their grain to the agents of the imperialist government and greedy hoarders.
As the famine stalks through the land, villagers begin to die of hunger. Destitute leave their villages and march towards big cities in the hope of getting food. The mendicant’s daughter, Kajoli , her mother and her little brother, Anu als join this endless cavalcade of starving masses. On the way, they come across tired and famished skeletons groaning in pain while jackals crouch and eat their bodies. Vultures circle over the dead bodies and make a prey of human flesh. Facing numerous difficulties and hardships, they reach Calcutta kajoli and her mother make a vain attempt to search Rahoul and the join their destiutes crowded on the roads and pavments. They beg for their food but find it difficult to satisfy their hunger. When unable to fight against hunger, kajoli’s mother and brother fall ill, she thinks of earning money by selling her shame. But as she goes to the betel woman who keeps a brothel, she hears the newspaper vendors shouting about Devata’s fast unto death in the prison house and immediately his message to his people to be strong, true and deathless in the face of their miseries begins to ring in her ears: “Friends and comrades, do not betray flag. Be true. Be deathless. Bande Matram.” How could she, dadu’s granddaughter, demean herself, her grand-father and her flag? Stricken by deep remorse, kajoli decides to earn an honest living by turning a newspaper vendor.
The fateful morning on which Kajoli makes her momentous decision, Samrendra Bose receives the news that his youngest son, Capt. Kunal of Indian Artillery, has been listed as missing and his eldest son Rahoul been arrested. Simultaneously the radio announces in its morning news that he has been awarded the title of the “Companion of the Indian Empire.” The Empire that claimed both of his sons, the broken-hearted Samrendra Bose reflects gloomily and drops down lifeless.
Though Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, the novel hints at different kinds of hunger that move men and women the world over, such as the soul’s hunger for the absolute, a subject nation’s hunger for freedom, a ruler’s hunger for power, a greedy man’s hunger for wealth and titles, a debauch’s hunger for cuddling girls, its main theme is hunger for food. Bhabhani Bhattacharya gives a very detailed, graphic and moving picture of his hunger and the heavy loss of human lives resulting from it. Famine shows distressing pictures of human sufferings as men have never witnessed before. Mother unable to bear the death by starvation of their children, bury them alive. Men, keenly waiting for their turn to get food, breathe their last the moment food is poured in their bowls. Destitute and dogs fight for possession of the rich city’s ten thousand rubbish heaps, in which scraps of rotting food lie buried.
Juxtaposed with this woeful tale of man’s hunger for food is that hateful sight of man’s callous greed for wealth. While the granaries of the selfish and greedy capitalists and black marketeers like Shri Lakshminathan and Samrendra Bose abound in rice, innumerable human beings die for want of it. While the restaurants of the rich city, Calcutta, buzz with life and music and bulge with food, destitutes in the nearby lanes and pavements lie sick and helpless and die for hunger. In this world of wealthy traders, there prevails a callous disregard of all codes of civilized humanity. It is a picture of mad world in which vice and self-interest are flauntingly successful and corruption universally prevalent. The symbol of this inferno is Shri Lakshminathan, a leering debauch, a big businessman who fattens on black market and shamelessly gloats over the sorry predicament of helpless destitute girls forced by circumstances to sell their bodies.
If the famine exposes the sordidness and meanness of human soul, it also brings on the surface of its latent nobleness. There are moments when the helpless and famished destitutes rise above their bodily infirmities and shoe a hidden core of sympathy, nobility and heroism. A famished boy, who has fought against a dog to procure a jam tin lying in the dustbin, holds out the treasure to be shared by a youngster who looks with wistful eyes toward him. A peasant girl abuse the body’s sanctity to feed starving destitutes, who call her mother. It is these sights of richness of human spirit that hold out before us hope for man’s survival in spite of all the bludgeoning he has to endure at the hands of nature and fellow beings.