Some books are difficult to classify in any particular genre. They span several; of them and in that journey leap into the classification of epics. And yet an epic is typically a piece of work that only scholars can relish. The rest of us can scarcely dream of touching one of those and make do with adaptations or summaries. But Sunil Gangopadhayay is one author who writes history as if it happened yesterday and the vibrancy of the characters , the urgency of the times, and the fast pace of the narrative never let you realize that you are actually reading and relishing a classic.
Sunil Gangopadhyay’s First Light is a book that once again like its predecessor “Those Days” brings history to life. If only school level history books were so interesting! Those Days roughly deals with the period from 1850-70 and First Light from the period 1886 -1906. First Light is like its predecessor populated by giants the nodal figure being Rabindra nath Tagore. Surrounding him is a raft of historical characters from diverse fields, be it religion, education, the theatre and of course politics.
The book pretends to be fiction but is extensively wedded to historical fact and in actuality fleshes out and humanizes for us the giants we have perhaps read about in our history books but known little about them apart from their iconic status. What Gangopapdhay does for us is paint a very believable and human picture of all these icons – be it people of the stature of Rabindra Nath Tagore or Rama Krishna Paramhansa or Swami Vivekananda or the royal family of Tripura – all are researched carefully and the facts about them are all presented –warts and all.
But the beauty of the book is that though it presents its noblest characters with feet of clay – Rabindra Nath’s leanings towards his sister in law and possibly his niece, Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s fear of death as he lies terminally ill with throat cancer, the opulent decadence of the zamindars and the royalty, their nobility comes out more enhanced because they are presented as humans with understandable failings and short comings.
Amidst all these towering characters who are basically shaping and creating history – primarily of Bengal but also vicariously also of India, the author has also managed to sneak in a love story between two fictional characters – Bharat, an illegitimate son of the King of Tripura and Bhumisuta, a rescued Devadasi and the love story serves the purpose of disguising what is essentially a gigantic lesson in history as a work of fiction.
The meticulously researched book has nuggets of information that I not easily known. That Swami Vivekananda was named thus by the Raja of Khetri, after the Swami had himself chosen a tongue twister of a name; the Raja of Khetri also financed Swamiji’s trip to Chicago for the World Parliament of Religions and also bought him his clothes which incidentally included a Western Suit. That Rabindranath Tagore’s first fan of significance was not any one in Calcutta, but the bereaved Maharaja of Tripura who was so consoled on reading Tagore’s poetry that he sought him out with gifts and presents.
First Light is of course a work of historical fiction but it very vibrantly resonates in the present; much like the Bengal of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century where tradition and modernity ; struggled for space as did faith and reason, the same forces are still battling it out in twenty first century India – albeit under different disguises.