Those Backward Hordes: Representing the Indian Peasant as a ‘Rebel’ in Early Indian Fiction in English
One of the earliest Indian works of book-length fiction in prose to have unequivocally earned the title of a ‘novel’ in posterity, Reverend Lal Behari Dey's Bengal Peasant Life (1878; titled Govinda Samanta, or The History of a Bengali Ráiyat in its first edition, published in 1874) exists in the annals of literary history and criticism mostly as a part of lists enumerating the ‘early novels’. It has been ranked novel amongst what Meenakshi Mukherjee terms the nineteenth century Bengali literature of ‘protest’, alongside texts such as Dinabandhu Mitra's Neel Darpan, Mir Musarraf Hussain's Jamidar Darpan and Dakshina Charan Chattopadhyay's Chakar Darpan. This essay seeks to consider Reverend Lal Behari Dey's quest to write an ‘authentic history’ of the Bengali peasant in the light of the fact that the humble Bengali peasant and his native rural Bengal would steadily become a staple of discussion in the nineteenth century, featuring prominently in economic and historical narratives, in the pages of newspapers, periodicals and novels, almost always in terms of his ‘backwardness’ or his status as a foil to the urbanized bhadralok. The first section of the essay addresses the claim to authenticity in terms of the predominance of visual descriptions in the narrative technique, in keeping with the novel’s realist mode of representation. Following that, the essay argues that the claim to authenticity, furthermore, lies in a narrative construction of rural Bengal as a changeless idyll, untouched by the experience of colonial modernity. The essay then considers the material constitution of the backwardness of the Bengali peasant, in the context of transformations in rural land ownership and rent structures following the Permanent Settlement. The fourth and final section of the essay addresses the question of a rebellious peasantry, and the narrative foreclosure of the possibility of an agrarian unrest that might lead to lasting social change.
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