Classic autobiography revisited

THE work of a poet, middle class merchant and philosopher, written in Braj Bhasha, Ardhakathanak is indeed “half a story”, as the author communicates himself partially. Enumerating briefly his strengths and foibles, failures and triumphs, he keeps his intimate experiences (amorous escapades, conjugal life) and acts of indiscretion secret. Moreover, he repeatedly provokes curiosity in readers to know more with his rousing words (“there is a secret matter which can not be told”). How disconcerting! Hence, to the modern readers accustomed to the sense of fullness and intimacy in modern autobiography, the author’s deliberate reticence sounds strange and incongruous.

Even the portraiture of his kin is lopsided. While the woman remain on periphery, much space is given to men, particularly his domineering father, Kharagsen, who forced upon Banarasidas, still the boy, the merchant’s business. His bosom friend, Narottamdas, too, occupies many a page.

Considered artistically, it is a poor attempt. The material is rendered too naively to turn readers on. Since the author was incognisant of the techniques, found in the successive autobiographies—divisions into chapters, other convenient stages, use of illustrations—he fails to add an artistic touch to the long versified narrative which is sometimes dull and lackluster.

Yet curiously, even with inadequate autobiographical faculty, he anticipates modern innovative autobiographers by flouting autobiographical conventions. Hence contrary to first person, his use of third person for self-portraiture yields some quaint effect. However, the probable reason for his departure from the fundamental feature of autobiography is self-proclamation or use of “I ness” was out of favour in India in those times.

So, in the absence of any model before him what made Banarasidas essay an autobiography, particularly with an ordinary life, is really intriguing. Confessedly, he wrote for his friends with the tangible motivation, “let me tell my story to all”. However, a yearning to grasp the vicissitudes of human existence could be the hidden stimulant as he alternates his self-account with philosophical reflections on human behaviour, norms of morality and role of karma/fate.

A word about title. He wrote his story at the age of 55, entitling it Ardhakathanak. He hoped that he would live for another 55 years as “a hundred and ten years in the span of a man’s life,” said Jainism with belief. Ironically, he died merely two years after setting down his story!

The plot draws upon joys and sorrows of daily life. The protagonist bears the bouts of long physical illnesses, anxiety of his passion for love and learning at the age of 14, marries thrice but suffers the misfortune of early death of his nine children. He undergoes huge financial losses and the agony of spiritual vacuum. Yet, in each crisis he maintains his equilibrium, blaming it upon his past karma. Even living as a pauper for the few months, he whiles away his time reading, writing and sharing his musings on life with people he gathers around himself. Though written centuries ago, the book still wields value for the portrayal of some eternal human involvements and emotion. The reader can identify with the protagonist’s business/financial cares, carnal drive and spiritual scepticism.

Spiritual illumination can be described as the leitmotif of the book. Born in a Jain family, the protagonist learns readily the religious rituals associated with the Jain sect. Yet, it is only with a certain amount of scepticism, he observes religious rituals with his family. At 16, he experiments with the worship of the Shiva slyly. Spiritual doubts nag his mind all the while.

At 37, he becomes aware of Adhyatma, a rising protestant movement among Jains, which preached contemplative religion over observance. Yet, despite his efforts, he fails to grasp Adhyatma completely. Hence, he vacillates in the spiritual turmoil for long years. Eventually, Swami Pandit Roopchand, the learned spiritual master, enlightens the protagonist spiritually. However, Banarasidas’s spiritual odyssey also serves as a historical document, detailing the fortune of the merchant community under the great Mugals—Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan.

Conclusively, since Banarasidas’ times, Indian autobiography has made conspicuous, rich evolution. Yet, despite its gaps and artistic weaknesses, Ardhakathanak, is to be reckoned with, chiefly, for setting up the tradition of autobiography in India.

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