An illustration showing a flash of lightening striking a stormy sky

The end of the world as they knew it

Aritra Chakraborti comments on two Bengali chapbooks relating to natural disasters and their relevance to a 'decaying' society.

During the middle of the nineteenth century, a large section of the native Bengali society found itself facing a tremendous catastrophe. For the majority of the natives, the world as they knew it – the quotidian life that they had come to accept as eternally and immutably true – was facing an impasse like never before. The crisis was a ‘monster’ named colonial modernity which threw centuries-old traditions off-balance. 

While the caste system was very much functional in all its dubious glory, the new rulers of the nation were not the savarna (upper caste) Hindus, not even the yavanic (foreigner) Muslims, but mlechcha (unclean) British. The natives were soon to realise that the new rulers had little respect for the customs and beliefs of the people they governed. They brought in their wake Western education and the values of modern Europe. They brought strange machines that built bridges over their sacred rivers and modern medicine that made their traditional miracles unnecessary. 

The introduction of English education created a situation where even shudras (fourth of the social categories found the Hindu scriptures, traditionally berated by the upper castes as untouchable) could, theoretically, have a chance of progressing in life and ‘usurping’ the Brahmins from their ‘rightful’ positions. Moreover, a significant section of the elites gleefully accepted the fruits this new education system. 

They even started imitating the British: they wore the same attire, craved for the same jobs and, worst of all, ate the same akhadya (traditionally forbidden food, mostly beef and foreign liquor) and prattled away in the same alien language. This, the conservative Hindus thought, were the beginning of the end of time.

Modernity, among other things, shattered the notion of cyclical, mythological time governed largely by the Vedic notion of the cycle of ages, and replaced it with a notion of linear, progressive time mostly associated with modern European societies. Time was now bound by the rules set not in the scriptures, but by the offices, courts and councils of the ruling British. Earlier in the century, Bhabanicharan Bandyopadhyay, had urged the pragmatic Hindu gentlemen to render unto the rulers the respect they deserved, while pursuing the ways of the quotidian life in private (Bandyopadhyay, 1823). 

However, under the burden of British rule, the conservative Hindus were finding it increasingly difficult to adhere to their centuries-old beliefs and customs. They had to adapt to the daily routine and work-hours regulated by the foreign rulers, instead of the older order of life governed by the daily rituals. They also had to swallow, though not without protest, one reform bill after another. 

As Western education and modern ideas permeated through the society, the so-called ‘lower castes’ started breaking away from their traditional, caste-defined professions and took up chakuris in Calcutta (McGuire, 1983). Combined with this, the gradual spread of education among women severely rattled the Hindus. While the Brahmin families resisted sending their women to the schools run by the mlechchas and their native accomplices, non-Brahmin families responded more positively to this change (Murshid, 1983, also see Census of India, 1901).

With caste and economically defined social borders becoming more porous, the need to underscore the differences between chhotoloks (the urban poor) and bhadralok (urban gentry) was felt more strongly than ever amongst the poets and satirists who catered to a largely conservative Hindu readership. Along with this, the educated women who no longer mutely submitted to the men of the house, and the Brahmins who forgot the traditional ways in this modern era – all these added to the paranoid imagination of the conservative section of the native society. 

Out of this was born a thriving millenarian culture where the present time was seen as the ‘Kaliyuga’, the last and most corrupt epoch in the cycle ages found in the Hindu scriptures. The demon presiding over this apocalyptic age was Koli, the root of all evil and the corruptor of all creation. As the populace despairingly awaited the arrival of Kalki, the tenth avatar of Vishnu who was supposed to slay Koli and bring an end to this Kaliyuga, the millenarian culture spread rapidly through the popular print. 

The chimaera of Kaliyuga was used to describe everything: natural disasters like storms, especially, were seen as divine retribution for the malpractices prevalent in these fallen times. The two books to be discussed here make ample use of the same metaphor. While both of them differ majorly in tone, they cater to the same social paranoia.

In the mid-nineteenth century, chapbooks and pamphlets played the dual role of entertaining the readers while serving the role of mass-media. Newspapers were expensive; they were also largely controlled by elite humanists who wrote in difficult, Sanskritised Bengali that was not easily comprehensible to a large section of the native population. A lot of people looked at the chapbooks and pamphlets as their regular sources of information (Roy, 1312 BS). 

Quite often, authors of such chapbooks and pamphlets would, indeed, incorporate a large amount of factual information in their text. Kailashchandra Bandyopadhyay‘s Baapre ki bhayanak Ashwine jhar [Oh! What a terrible storm in the month of Ashwin] (1271, BS) is a good example. However, neither Ishwarchandra Sarar nor Lokenath Nandi indulges in any journalistic effort. Instead, they weave the story of the storm into the metaphor of the apocalyptic Kaliyuga to concoct fantastical narratives featuring giants, demons, gods and goddesses.

Both books were published in the immediate aftermath of destructive thunderstorms, though it is difficult to infer the exact date of the storm from Lokenath Nandi’s Bhanga gnayer morol, a short prose narrative. In fact, he takes the readers straight into a narrative full of fantastical elements. His story takes place in a small village situated on the banks of the river Champa. The king, or headman, of the village is a huge, dark giant who demands regular offerings from his subjects. If their obeisance is not satisfactory to him, he arrives in the village in the form of deadly storms and levels the houses. 

For this, his much maligned subjects calls him ‘Bhanga gnyaer morol’ or ‘the headman of the broken village’. The people are justifiably scared of this giant, who continues to torment the villagers at impunity, since no one could stand up to him. Once, after a particularly destructive storm, the people of the village come together to find a solution to this problem. Unfortunately, none of the village elders manage to come up with a solution. 

Even the priest, a Brahmin, is unable to give them any sound advice. Eventually, a young boy called Nabeen hatches a plan to trap him in a ditch on the outskirts of the village and bury him in it. The villager rally behind him, and manage to lure him out of his house. Nandi does not put a twist to his tale, and Nabeen’s daring plan goes flawlessly. The giant is trapped inside the ditch. Nabeen triumphantly calls out to his accomplices and they bury the giant under mud, stones and bricks. In his final moments, the giant realises his mistake and begs the Almighty to forgive him for his past sins.

Ishwarchandra Sarar, Karttike jhorer pnachali gives a more precise date for the actual storm. Kamalkamini, a prostitute from Calcutta, goes to Vrindavan to meet Krishna and his consort, Radha, to lodge a complaint in the name of Pavan, the god of wind in Hindu mythology. Her house was destroyed in a terrifying storm on 16 Karrtik, 1274 BS or 31 October, 1867. Many lives were lost and a lot of property was destroyed. 

One of the casualties was one of Kamalkamini’s patrons who was in her house on the night of the storm. Stricken by the grief of losing her customer, who was also her lover, she has come to seek justice for this wrongdoing. Sarar’s narrative is written in the rhyming payar metre and gives a detailed description of the plight of the people on the night of the storm. Sarar, however, puts in enough salacious details about Kamalkamini’s daily life into the narrative to entertain his readers. In fact, she is seen copulating with her lover even as the man writhes from pain after the storm brings down the roof of her hut on the ill-fated man’s chest. [1]

Karttike Jhorer Panchali

Karttike jhorer pnachali, digitised as part of the British Library's Two Centuries of Indian Print Digitisation project.

View images from this item  (7)

Usage terms Public Domain

Eventually, though, Kamalkamini gets her wish. She is welcomed in Vrindavan by Narada who takes her to see Krishna and Radha. Kamalkamini describes in detail the destructions wrought by the storm, and lodges a complaint against Pavan. What follows is a parody of a court-proceeding where Pavan is put on trial. 

Various divine and mythical figures drift in and out of the narrative, including Karttik, the Hindu god of War and after whom the month is named in the Bengali calendar. Pavan is eventually found guilty of all the wrongdoings that Kamalkamini had accused him of. He is put in chains, and thrown into prison. Krishna, who had acted as the judge in the court proceedings, tells Pavan that he has become an accomplice of Koli, and for his sins he will remain in prison till the end of Kaliyuga. Cursing all creation and the gods themselves, Pavan goes to prison to serve his term. Along with him, Brahma is also put in prison for losing his grasp on the people of Earth. In the evil Kaliyuga, the entire world-order has gone for a toss:

The Brahmins are now neglected as the Chandals have stolen the idols. Negligent sons now no longer perform the last rights of their parents. The tasks of the Dwija (Brahmins) are now performed by Shudras, and the babus are controlled by their mistresses. The children of Haris and Bagdis now speak in Sanskrit. The king has given up his kingdom, and the Dhobis wear the finest clothes. (Sarar, 15)

The main argument of Sarar’s text thus revolves around the same myth of Kaliyuga. He repeatedly points out the breakdown of the ‘natural’ order of things: of how the Brahmins and upper castes have now been overthrown by the Shudras. Kaliyuga, Sarar says, has indeed reached its nadir.

So how terrible exactly were these storms that they prompted the pamphleteers to dream up such over-the-top fables? Contemporary successful pamphleteers Maheschandra Das De, Kailashchandra Bandyopadhyay, Haribondhu Chakraborty, Gopalchandra Das, Purnachandra Mukhopadhyay – have all written various pamphlets about apocalyptic storms. These texts are full of descriptions of broken houses, fallen trees and dead bodies strewn all over the countryside. 

Some of the texts actually deal with factual information: number of boats sunk or major buildings destroyed; government officials who tried to deal with the casualties. Kailashchandra Bandyopadhyay’s  Baapre ki bhayanak Ashwine jhar (1864) is  a good example. Often, after such terrible natural calamities, official inquiries were commissioned (Gastrell and Blanford, 1864) which frequently exposed the poor conditions in which the poor of Calcutta lived. However, it is entirely possible that not every storm that made landfall in Calcutta and in surrounding areas at that time possessed such ferocity. In most cases, the pamphleteers would exaggerate the effects of the storm to make the stories more attractive to the readers. This is what Barbara Tuchman, in a moment of ironic narcissism, had called Tuchman’s Law: ‘The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to-tenfold’ (Tuchman, 1978). 

In the books discussed above, Tuchman’s Law largely holds true. Instead of giving out any details of the actual events, both spin fabulous narratives that deal with deities, demigods, monsters and prostitutes with hearts of gold. These books were largely reactions to fate: cynical explorations of the mythos of Kaliyuga. Both Nandi and Sarar cater to the same popular imagination that saw the present moment as an age that was falling apart, an age where the older order was decisively brought under the chains of the foreigners, an age of Koli triumphant.  

While nineteenth century Bengal is often remembered as the time of the Bengal Renaissance, of great progress in in almost every walk of life, the metaphor of Kaliyuga became the underbelly to the utopic vision that the reform movements tried to promote. It was part of a continuous dystopia that reminded the religious and the believers of the sins that they have committed by allowing the colonisers take control of every walk of life. In nineteenth century Bengal Kaliyuga provided the basis for an unhistory of modernity: the story of a community of sinners who were pushing themselves towards a moment of complete anarchy and overthrow of the older order. And various poets, prophets and minstrels of the print-market gathered around to sing the song of the final days.

Works cited:

Bandyopadhyay, Bhabanicharan. Kalikata Kamalalaya. Calcutta, 1823

Gastrell, JE and Henry Blanford, Report on the Calcutta Cyclone of the 5th October 1864. Calcutta: Military Orphan Press, 1866

McGuire, John. The Making of a Colonial Mind: a quantitative study of the Bhadralok in Calcutta, 1857-1885. Canberra: ANU, 1983

Murshid, Ghulam, Reluntant Debutante: Response of Bengali Women to Modernization, 1849-1905. Rajsahi: Sahitya Samsad and Rajsahi University, 1983

Roy, Dinendrakumar, Pallibaichitra. Calcutta: 1312 BS 

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: the calamitous 14th Century. New York: Ballantine, 1979

[1] This is a curious practice of almost every chapbook writer of late-nineteenth century Calcutta. While describing any subject, they would find an excuse to talk about prostitutes. Even while describing destructions wrought by apocalyptic storms, or deaths of citizens from deadly diseases or even the arrival of British dignitaries, they somehow managed to incorporate a description of the red light districts into their narratives. Maheshchandra Das De’s Hay ki adbhut shilabrishti (1864), quite possibly published in the wake of the same storm, is a good example.

  • Aritra Chakraborti
  • Aritra Chakraborti is a former JU-SYLFF Doctoral Fellow at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. He is currently working as an Editor at Cambridge University Press, India. His research interests include the history of mass media, social history of pornography and science fiction and fantasy literature. He has previously worked with the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University, on various archiving and digitisation projects.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.