Henry Louis Vivian Derozio (1809–31), a Eurasian of Portuguese Indian ancestry, has been described as the first Indian poet to unleash the Age of ‘Modernity’. Derozio has been traditionally portrayed as a harbinger of ‘Indian Renaissance’ by many a critic.1 But there has been dearth of essential information on his life, work and milieu, though his poetry has been read for more than a century in the departments of English in several Indian Universities. Derozio, Poet of India: The Definitive Edition edited with a scholarly introduction by Rosinka Chaudhuri comes to fill the gap in a major way. The blurb of the book, which presents Derozio as, ‘the first modern Indian to write of the incumbent nation extensively in English,’ makes explicit the editor’s position on Derozio in several ways to which I shall return after a while. This critical and authoritative work, as the title indicates,
brings together for the first time most poems of Derozio as uncovered from the pages of the India Gazette, the Bengal Annual, the Kaleidoscope and other newspapers and magazines, along with essential background information, editor’s notes to his poems, prose writings, correspondence, polemical and personal responses published during his lifetime and posthumously.
Chaudhuri who worked on Derozio earlier as part of her research has now delved into archives, both the India Office and the British Library in London as well the National Library and Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. She has also worked with individuals in Bengal, who continue to commemorate Derozio by publishing his poems in contemporary periodicals. This meticulously and brilliantly researched volume on Derozio stands out as a model for similar much needed work on other writers, cultural figures and socio-cultural formations of the crucial nineteenth century and also of the twentieth century.
The travails of unearthing fresh documents on Derozio’s writings and their context as given by the editor in the preface speaks for the depth of research that has gone into this critical volume. For instance, when Rosinka Chaudhuri finally gets hold of Toru Dutt’s essay, ‘An Eurasian Poet’, after much effort with many scholars assisting in libraries situated in three continents, she finds that the essay was not about Derozio at all but on a Mauritian poet who wrote in French by name Leconte de Lisle. Her scholarly introduction provides a fuller picture of Derozio throwing light on his scholarship and immediate surroundings. The title of Rosinka Chaudhuri’s book could, however, be controversial. But she justifies the title by clarifying that the word ‘definitive’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary is an edition of a book which is ‘most authoritative’. True to the scope of this meaning, her book covers most of Derozio’s works including poems, essays, letters and other correspondence, which have remained undiscovered for more than 150 years.
Drawing our attention to the marble plaque on the wall of an old house in Calcutta that Derozio lived in wherein it was written, ‘greatest of teachers, pathfinder of rationalism, and forceful warrior against the practice of widow-burning’ (Introduction, p. xxii), the editor laments that his poetry is lost in ‘local popular perception’ of Derozio as a leader and philosopher. Thus, Rosinka Chaudhuri spells out the objective of her ‘definitive edition’, ‘Derozio’s poetry has, for long, been subsumed under the burden of his reputation as leader and iconoclast, something this book will attempt to change . . .’. While placing ‘the man behind the legacy’, she describes Derozio as ‘a poet, philosopher and madman’. She says, ‘. . . [t]o our understanding of the madman as a hallmark of modernity, of otherness, of ironic vision of the world. It encompasses a freedom to err, to doubt, to fail,—that is to say, it implies a freedom for human weakness to exist as a symbolic figuration of modernity’.
Rosinka Chaudhuri argues that all those who wrote on Indian writing in English have ‘devoted a chapter or a few pages to the progenitor of the craft but there have been no full-length studies of Derozio from among them . . .’. She attributes this neglect about Derozio’s poems to ‘our contemporary ambivalence’ towards the nineteenth century idiom of English ‘when it occurs in Indian poetry’ as Derozio wrote most of his poems in this idiom. This argument is not altogether convincing for our school and even undergraduate textbooks are replete with verse from Shakespeare to Browning, Toru Dutt and others.
Rosinka Chaudhuri for the first time has uncovered some important poems of Derozio, particularly those published during 1829-31 in various papers like the Kaleidoscope, the Bengal Annual, the Calcutta Literary Gazette, and The Oriental Pearl. Among these some interesting poems are ‘Sonnet to Rajanigandha’, on the most loved flower in Bengal, ‘Moods of Mind’ (1831), and others. Rosinka Chaudhuri places Derozio’s writings in four sections and two appendices containing critical responses to his poems in the poet’s contemporary period and the select material on Derozio published posthumously with an exhaustive bibliography. Each section is prefaced with an introductory note by the editor. The first section has poems and prose published in the India Gazette during the period 1822–8. Rosinka unveils a poem, ‘Sonnet to Night’ published on 30 December 1822 in the India Gazette, when Derozio was just thirteen years old. Earlier, his first poem was considered to be a sonnet beginning with a line, ‘Swift fly the dart . . .’ which appeared on 24 April 1823. The editor presents the poems in chronological order with cogent contextual comments as background and the way they were received in their contemporary time and space.
‘Don Juanics’, a long satirical poem modelled on Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ by Derozio was published in three instalments between 26 December 1825 and 10 April 1826 in the India Gazette. ‘Don Juanics’ is a satire on the lifestyles of men of Derozio’s Calcutta. Here in the prose section is inserted a hilarious piece of prose, ‘On Drunkenness’ by Derozio discovered by the editor for the first time. The other major piece is ‘Torn-out Leaves of a Scrap Book’ in which the subject matter ranges from the trivial (tea parties and chit chat) to the serious (colonization and literature in India).
Section two of the book contains the two volumes of poetry published during Derozio’s lifetime, Poems in 1827 and The Fakeer of Jungheera in 1828. The first volume contains well-known poems like ‘The Harp of India’, ‘Freedom to the Slave’, ‘The Poet’s Grave’, ‘The Ruins of Rajmahal’, among others. In the second volume most space is taken by the title poem. Here the editor dispels the wrong belief that the second volume contains more poems than the first as some critics have written.
The third section carries Derozio’s poems and other writings including his correspondence and polemics with his contemporaries in his last two years of life. Many poems during this time were written with a pseudonym, Leporello. Rosinka establishes here that Derozio used this name to publish ‘light, humorous and personal’ poems but a poem like ‘On the Abolition of Suttee’ (1829) was published in his own name as it indicated his public stand. Before writing this poem, as the editor explains, Derozio was against a legislation banning widow-burning, unlike Rammohun Roy and others who pressed the colonial government to legislate a ban. He argued in his prose writings that this practice had to be abolished through education of the people but not through legislation. However, when the ban came into effect, he celebrated the British legislation and Lord Bentinck in this poem. This section also carries a well-known poem, ‘To My Pupils’ (1829) which was later republished with a different title, ‘Sonnet to the Students at the Hindu College’. Here we also find his resignation letter to Hindu College following false allegations by the conservative college management committee accusing him of heresy and incest. There is also the later correspondence of Derozio with the principal of the college and others. Many poems included here have for the first time uncovered by the editor. Section four includes a number of poems and other writings published posthumously in various journals and newspapers but remained largely unassorted before this edition.
Contextualizing Derozio’s poetic work in the colonial transactions of the formation of the ‘native modern’ from among the educated Indians and the liberal philosophers of Europe, Rosinka Chaudhuri traces out the ‘birth of the modern’ with reference to Derozio. She describes Derozio as ‘the first modern poet of India’. She also places him as ‘the first national poet of India’ as a newspaper review put it during Derozio’s life time. Talking about the early reviews and critical appreciation of Derozio’s poems, she terms the debate as ‘the first such instance of literary debate and discussion structured on Western conventions in modern India’ (p. xxxv). She designates these literary critical responses as ‘formative, providing the foundational basis of the coming Bengali literary modernity’.
Talking about the formative years of Derozio, Rosinka Chaudhuri traces the influences from the French Revolution, English Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, to philosophers like David Hume, Tom Paine and others. Derozio studied in Drummond’s Academy set up by a Scottish idealist David Drummond.
While tracing the influence of the European Enlightenment project with its rationalist spirit, scepticism, empiricism, notions of universalism and radical liberalism on Derozio, Rosinka Chaudhuri’s introduction lacks the critical perspective on the Enlightenment project in relation to colonial enterprise. The elaborate explanation of the impact of bourgeois liberal philosophies that emerged in England and the rest of Europe on the Young Bengal movement in general and Derozio and Derozians, as his followers came to be known, in particular is no different from that already available in many traditional accounts of the dawning of the Enlightenment era in India. Though showing awareness on the recent critical debate on the western project of Enlightenment and bourgeois liberal thought,2 Rosinka Chaudhuri cursorily glosses over the debate and adheres to the unproblematic nature of the concept of modernity in India.
While perfunctorily referring to the complexity of the nature of ‘Indian modernity’, she refuses to go into the debate between Partha Chatterjee, and others3 and instead takes up the task to ‘define Derozio’s career in the light of a very significant context, that of the birth of the Indian modern’ and ‘that his contribution constituted a noteworthy originary moment in the formulation of Indian modernity’ (p. lxviii). She says that ‘Derozio needs to be re-evaluated’ keeping in mind the scholarship produced on Indian response to colonization in the context of ‘postcolonial criticism and theory dominated by the Western academy’. She argues that Edward Said’s ‘foundational text, Orientalism failed to take into account the agency, in the production of the Orient, of the colonized themselves’. She further argues that the path cleared by that text has in some ways facilitated efforts such as her own book in this case, but she wants to ‘move from the emphasis on the West’s projection of the Orient toward the Orient’s re-creation of itself, made manifest here in the literary identity being hammered into shape by colonized subjects such as Derozio’.
She further argues that ‘poetry evidently had a very important place in the evolution of national and individual identity’, though ‘the genre of poetry has a near-invisible status in post-colonial criticism’. Therefore, she embarks on producing ‘an appreciation of the achievement of Derozio’s verse in a colonized context . . . to understand of how the literary field impacted upon the cultural formulation of the modern in India’.
While Rosinka’s critique of postcolonial criticism can be well taken, the unproblematic nature of her concept of ‘Indian modernity’ fails to engage with the colonial enterprise’s mission in producing colonialist modernism in India and other former colonies. Similarly her notion of ‘the national’ in the context of continued reproduction of the colonialist/orientalist notions of nationalism in India also fails to explain the Eurasian position of Derozio and his close relationship with the British colonial educators, scholars and other European officials and local elites. In any case Derozio can’t be taken as a representative case for the colonized subject, as projected by Rosinka Chaudhuri in this book. Her position in this regard doesn’t also explain the ‘public space’ that she so eloquently talks about that was shared by Derozio and other local elites of the time including the Bengali Bhadralok and their collaborationist politics with the British colonial enterprise that led to the formation and perpetuation of not only the colonial rule but also the orientalist notions of thought and socio-cultural practices.
Rosinka Chaudhuri candidly argues that the ‘[T]he well-defined public arena that Derozio inhabited in the early nineteenth century was a condition for the birth of the modern in India’ and not simply a ‘transition to the colonial order.’ This condition was, she tells us, ‘peculiarly Indian modernity’ that was in congruence with the British rule but not necessarily a consequence of it. To explain this particular condition she points to the ‘introduction into the country of industrial technologies, of print-capitalism, of new modes of transport, of new avenues of trade and commerce, of art and aesthetics, of the novel, of English poetic convention, and of new styles in food, dress, and furniture’. At this juncture, she concludes that ‘Derozio’s career is a testament to the singularity of the heterogeneous Indian modern as it developed in the long nineteenth century, inclusive as it is of the impress upon it of Western philosophy, the English language and other colonial modes of discourse’. Now what is the difference she is making between the colonial as the agency for the modernity and the local agencies structuring modernity on their own initiative? The difference Rosinka Chaudhuri tries to make however, collapses into the same Orientalist project of the colonial mission as demonstrated within her argument.
However, Rosinka Chaudhuri’s effort is to present ‘the milieu of modernity’ of ‘cosmopolitan Calcutta’ in which Derozio’s career as a poet flourished as global, and simultaneously taking shape in a modern world along with the developments elsewhere in Europe and America. In Rosinka Chaudhuri’s own words, ‘… it remains, indisputably, that the radical liberal ideology and practice of the first three decades of the 1800s brought home to Indians an understanding of the modern world’ (p. lxxvi). She sees this modern worldview developing as ‘conjuctural phenomenon’ globally rather than ‘a lineage or influence diffused from Europe to Asia, from metropole to colony’ quoting the British historian C.A. Bayly. What is totally missing here is the colonial mediation of this ‘milieu of modernity’ that was filtered into a space where the whole bourgeois liberal philosophy was used by the colonial enterprise to domesticate the native mind and justify the colonial rule over subjugated populace.
‘This period that witnessed the birth of the modern, however, was brought to a gradual closure . . . from the first half of the 1830s . . .’ (p. lxxvii). She argues that by the middle of the decade conservatism set in Calcutta after the death of Derozio (1831), Rammohun Roy (1833), and victory of the Anglicists over the Orientalists after Macaulay’s famous minute of 1835 along with the death and deportation of the remaining freethinkers and radicals of Calcutta.
Rosinka Chadhuri insists that ‘Derozio was a formative influence’ in ‘a period of flux that witnessed the birth of the Indian modern, when the interaction between colonized and colonizer in the first phase of British imperialism in India created changed significations in a heterotopic production involving various members of this historical situation’. She argues further that this is a ‘polyvalent approach’ which helps us come out of ‘a simplistic teleology’ that ‘modernity is an import to be associated with British imperialism’. According to her polyvalent approach, ‘Indian modernity was formed from both local and Western materials in a distinct way’. Rosinka Chaudhuri’s so-called polyvalent approach misses the pressing exigencies of the colonial enterprise and this graft into an abnormal location that she calls the Indian modernity remained so abnormal which Dipankar Gupta calls mistaken modernity.4
G.N. Saibaba teaches at the Department of English, Ram Lal Anand College, University of Delhi.