Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's Devdas was published in Bengali in 1917.
The 'Devdas metaphor', a time-honoured, enduring tragic symbol of unfulfilled love, has captivated readers and film-going audiences for the better part of a century now. But interest in the original Devdas, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's piece de resistance, has been rekindled recently in the wake of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, which is an adaptation of the Bengali novel. This is a good time to take a fresh look at the novel in translation, and to look at the specific ways in which the Devdas metaphor has engaged our imagination over several generations.
Parvati said, "What is this all about?"
"I cannot explain all of it. Oh God, such humiliation, such guilt have been spared today." In the falling light, Parvati failed to see the tears swimming in her aged husband's eyes.
Vinodlal, Bhuvan-babu's youngest son, also came home after his exams, he never went back to his studies.
Devdas roamed the streets in vain for the next few days, a little out of his mind really. Dharmadas went up to him to say something and Devdas bared his teeth and scolded the daylights out of him. Getting the picture, even Chunilal didn't venture too close. Dharmadas wept bitterly, "Chuni-babu, why did this happen?"
Chunilal asked, "What has happened, Dharmadas?"
It was like the blind leading the blind. Neither of them knew the truth of the matter. Dharmadas wiped his tears and said, "Chuni-babu, just do your best to send Deva back to his mother. If he won't study anymore, what's the point of staying here in Calcutta?"
This was true. Chunilal pondered over the suggestion. A few days later, again at dusk, just as Chunilal was leaving the mess, Devdas appeared from nowhere and took his hands in his own. "Chuni, are you going there?" he asked.
Diffident, Chunilal said, "Yes – but if you don't want me to go, I'll stay."
Devdas said, "No, I won't stop you. But tell me something – what do you expect to gain there?"
"There are no expectations. Just a way to whiling away the hours."
"But do they? While away? The hours, I mean."
Chunilal looked at him intently, trying to gauge his thoughts from the look on his face. Then he said, "Devdas, what is the matter with you – won't you tell me everything?"
"Nothing is the matter with me."
"You won't tell me?"
"No, Chuni, there is nothing to say."
Chunilal was quiet for a few moments and then he asked, "Devdas, will you do me a favour?"
"Will you go there once more? I have promised."
"That place where we went the other day?"
"Oh no, I hated it."
"I'll see that you like it this time."
Devdas mulled over this for a while absentmindedly and then said, "All right, let's go."
Chunilal had held the ladder for Devdas to make his descent into the murky depths and then quietly moved away.
Now Devdas sat alone in Chandramukhi's room. She sat in one corner, looking on wretchedly. Once, she spoke from concern, "Devdas, don't drink any more."
Devdas placed the glass on the floor, frowned bitterly and asked, "Why?"
"You have taken to drink very recently, you won't be able to bear it."
I don't drink in order to bear it. I only drink because I am here."
Chandramukhi had heard this before. Sometimes she wanted to hit her head on the wall and bleed to death. She was in love with Devdas.
He hurled the glass away. It hit the wooden chair and shattered into bits. He lied back against the pillows and spoke incoherently, "I don't have the strength to get up and go, that's why I stay here – I am senseless, that's why I look at you and talk. But Chandra, still I don't lose my sense completely – a little remains – I cannot touch you – I feel repulsed."
Chandramukhi wiped her eyes and said, "Devdas, so many people who come here never touch alcohol."
Devdas' eyes widened and he sat up. He flailed his arms about deliriously and said, "Never touch it? If I had a gun I would have shot them. They are worse sinners than me, Chandramukhi."
He stopped and seemed to drown in his thoughts. Then he said, "If I ever give up drinking – though I never will – then I will never come here again."
Devdas began to chafe his face on the pillow. Chandramukhi came close and held his face up. Devdas frowned and said, "Ahh, don't touch me – I still haven't lost my senses. Chandramukhi, you don't know – only I know how much I hate your kind. I'll always hate you – but still I'll come, sit and talk – I have no choice. Will you ever understand? Ha ha – people choose to sin under the cover of darkness and I come here to drown my sorrows in drink; there couldn't be a better place for this."
Devdas focused his eyes to rest on her poignant face and said, "Well, the very soul of forbearance. You are the prime example of how much humiliation and assault, how many jibes and insults a woman can stand."
Devdas turned away and continued to mutter. Chandramukhi couldn't hear what he was saying. Very soon he dropped off to sleep. Chandramukhi came and sat beside him. She wiped his face with her sari.
Many of the villagers, and the two brothers Dwijodas and Devdas, performed the last rites of the zamindar Narayan Mukherjee and came back home. Dwijodas wept like a child out of control – it took a few men to hold him in check. Devdas sat beside a pillar, calm and collected.
When it was past noon, Devdas went and sat at his mother's feet where she lay in a faint. Some women sat around her; Parvati's grandmother was also present. Her voice broke as she addressed the bereaved widow, "Child, look who is here – it's Devdas."
Devdas called out, "Mother". She opened her eyes and merely said, "Son". Then the tears began to roll from the eyes shut tight. Devdas laid his face on his mother's feet. Then he got up slowly and walked away. He went into his dead father's room. His eyes were dry and his body was cold as a statue.
A little later Parvati's mother came looking for him. She pushed the door open and called, "Devdas."
"What is it Aunty?"
"This won't do, my son."
Devdas stared at her, "What have I done, Aunty?"
Parvati's mother knew the answer, but it wouldn't escape her lips. She pulled his head on her lap and said, "Deva, child."
"What is it?"
At last he hid his face in her bosom and shed a single tear.
Even a bereaved family's day pass swiftly. A new day dawned, the weeping and wailing was less intense. Two days later Dwijodas called Devdas and asked, "How much should be spent on Father's last rites?"
Devdas looked at his elder brother, "Whatever is deemed necessary."
"But brother, it is no longer my decision alone. You have grown up and your opinion is important too."
Devdas asked, "How much cash is there?"
"There is a lakh and a half in Father's account. I feel ten thousand would be good amount to spend."
"How much is my share?"
Dwijodas hesitated, "You get half. If we spend ten thousand, then you and I will get seventy thousand each."
"What will mother have?"
She doesn't need cash. She is the mistress of the house – we will look after her."
Devdas thought for some time and then said, "I think we should spend five thousand from your share and twenty – five from mine. Of the remaining fifty thousand in my name, half should be kept in Mother's account and half can be handed over to me. What do you think?"
At first Dwijodas seemed a little embarrassed. But then he said, "Excellent. Actually, you know since I have a family – weddings, education and so on – you know how it is. This would be the best."
After brief pause he said, "If you could just put it on paper…"
"Is it really necessary? It doesn't look good. At such a time – I think all this money-talk should just be between us."
"That's true. But you know…"
"Okay, I'll put it in writing." The same day Devdas made out the requisite papers.
The next day, as he climbed down the stairs he spotted Parvati standing in a corner and stopped in his tracks. Parvati was staring at him, as if she could hardly recognize him. Devdas walked up to her and asked her, "When did you get here Paro?"
That same voice. They were meeting after three years. Abashed, Parvati looked at her feet and said, "This morning."
"It's been a long time. Are you all right?"
"How is Chowdhry-babu? And the children?"
"They are all fine." Parvati stole a glance at his face. But she simply couldn't bring herself to ask how he was, what he was doing. At that moment she had run of questions all of a sudden.
Devdas asked, "Will you be here for a while?'
"Well then –"
He walked away.
The last rites were performed in due course. The day after, Parvati took Dharmadas aside and handed him a gold chain. "Dharma, this is for your daughter."
Dharmadas' eyes grew moist as he said, "It's been so long since we saw you. Is everything all right, didi?"
"Everything's fine. And your family?"
"They're fine, didi."
"How are you?"
Dharmadas sighed deeply and said, "How do you think? Master has gone, now I wish to go as well." Dharmadas looked like he would pour out his heart. But Parvati stopped him. She hadn't gifted him the chain for nothing. She asked, "Don't talk like that , Dharma, if you go who will look after Dev-da?"
Dharmadas struck his brow and said, "Oh, I've looked after him enough when he was a child; now I wish I didn't have to see him."
Parvati edged closer to him, "Dharma, will you give me an honest answer?"
"Why not, didi."
"Then tell me the truth – what does Dev-da do nowadays?"
"Rubbish and nonsense, what else?"
"Dharmadas, do tell me."
He struck his brow again and said, "What is there to tell, didi, there's nothing left to tell. Now that Master's gone and Deva has got a lot of money, things can only get worse."
Parvati's face fell. She had heard some rumours. Apprehensively she asked, "Really Dharma?"
She had got a whiff of something from Manorama's letters, but she hadn't believed it. Dharmadas shook his head and went on, "No food, no sleep, just the bottle and nothing else. He stays away for days on end. He's blown so much money away – I've heard that he has given that woman jewellery worth many thousand rupees."
Parvati shivered from head to toe. "Is this all true, Dharmadas?"
He mumbled to himself, "He may listen to you – please stop him. Look at the state his health is in – at this rate his days are numbered. Who can I talk to about this? This is not something you can say to his parents or his brother." Dharmadas banged his head on the wall, and wailed, "Sometimes I want to die, Paro."
Parvati left. She had hastened back when she heard of Narayan babu's death. She had thought that she should be at Devdas' side in these troubled times. But what had become of her beloved Dev-da? Memories crowded her mind. If she directed one criticism at Devdas, she hurled a thousand curses at herself. If she had been there, would things have come to such a pass? She had already cut her nose to spit her face, but now the joke was truly on her. Here was her Dev-da, wasting away, rotting in fact… and she was busy setting up someone else's home. She was doling out charity everyday to strangers, and the one person who meant everything to her – he was starving to death. Parvati promised herself that she would go and talk to Devdas.
It was a little before dusk when Parvati entered Devdas' room. He was sitting on the bed studying some accounts. He looked up as she entered. Slowly, Parvati shut the door, bolted it and sat on the floor. Devdas looked at her with a smile on his lips. His face was sad, yet calm. Suddenly, he said, "What if I dragged your name in the mud?"
Parvati shot him a quick, pained glance from her bright eyes and lowered them immediately. That look made it very clear that the comment would always be lodged in her heart as painful reminder. She had come with so much to say, but her mind went blank now. Every time she came near him, she seemed to lose her powers of speech.
Devdas laughed again, "I know, I know, you're feeling shy, right?"
But she still couldn't talk. He went on, "Don't be. So, okay we made a mistake the fault was on both ends – now look at the mess we are both in. You spoke in anger and haste, I wounded you on the brow – I suppose that makes us even."
His words were devoid of sarcasm or derision; he spoke of the past with a pleasant, contented look. But Parvati felt her heart was ready to burst. She covered her face, held her breath and said to herself, "Dev-da, that wound is my salvation, my only hope. You loved me and so you were kind enough to inscribe our sweet memories on my brow. It is no shame to me, no disgrace – but a matter of pride."
She answered through the cover of her sari, "What is it?"
"I often feel very angry with you –"
At last, his voice took on a bitter edge. "Father is gone, it is a difficult time in my life; but if you were with me, I wouldn't feel it so. You know my brother's wife and my brother's nature too. What am I to do with Mother now? And I simply do not know what will become of me. If you were here I could happily drop it all in your lap and... what's that Paro?"
Parvati was sobbing helplessly.
Devdas said, "Are you crying? Then I have to stop talking."
Parvati wiped her eyes and said, "No, go on."
In an instant Devdas cleared his voice of all emotion and asked, "Paro, I believe you have turned into an expert homemaker? A proper wife, are you?"
Inwardly Parvati bit into her lips and thought, "Not really."
Devdas laughed out loud, "I think it's really funny. You were this tiny little thing, and now look at you. Big house, large estate, grown children – and Chowdhury-babu, everything suitably aged… what are you laughing about?"
Chowdhury-babu was a great amusement to Parvati, whenever he came to mind, she wanted to smile. Even in this tearful state, she grinned.
Devdas assumed a fake air of gravity and asked, "Could you do me a favour?"
"Are there any nice girls in your part of the land?"
Parvati gulped, choked and spluttered, "Nice girls? Whatever for?"
"I could marry one. I feel like settling down, just for once."
Parvati donned a straight and sweet face, "She has to be very beautiful, right?"
"Not more than you."
"And she has to be a good soul?"
"No, not much of that – perhaps a little playful – someone who can squabble with me like you used to do."
Parvati thought, no one else can do that, Dev-da. For that she'd have to love you as much as I do. But instead, she said, "Well, that's easy. Thousands like me would be honoured to call you their own."
Devdas jested, "For the moment, just one will do. Can you get me one?"
"Dev-da, would you really marry?"
"I just told you." But he didn't tell her that she was the only woman he would ever be interested in, for as long as he lived.
"Devdas, can I ask you something?"
Parvati collected her wits and asked him, "Why did you suddenly start drinking?"
Devdas laughed, "That doesn't take a lot of practice, does it?"
All right, but why did you make it a habit?"
"Who told you this, Dharmadas?"
"That doesn't matter. Isn't it true?"
Devdas didn't deceive her. He said, "Yes, to some extent."
Parvati sat there in shocked silence. After a while she asked, "And have you given this woman a few thousand rupees worth of jewellery?"
Devdas laughed again, "I haven't given them to her, but I have got them made. Do you want them?"
Parvati stretched out her palm, "Why not? Look, I have no ornaments."
"Chowdhury-babu didn't give you any?"
"He did. But I gave it all away to his eldest daughter."
"Don't you want any?"
Parvati shook her head and dropped her gaze.
To be continued...