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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

In Praise of Annada

Bharatchandra Ray

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Title: In Praise of Annada
Author: Bharatchandra Ray
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1752 (Eng. 2017/2020)
Length: 1155 pages
Original in: Bengali
Availability: In Praise of Annada: volume one and two - US
In Praise of Annada: volume one and two - UK
In Praise of Annada: volume one and two - Canada
In Praise of Annada - India
  • Bengali title: অন্নদামঙ্গল
  • Translated by France Bhattacharya
  • Published in two volumes
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the original Bangla text facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B : a interesting triptych, with a standout middle book

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       In Praise of Annada is a three-book poetic work, now published in its first complete English translation in two volumes as part of the Murty Classical Library of India, with the original Bangla text facing the English translation by France Bhattacharya. The first book, covering the first volume, is 'In Praise of Annada'; the other two books, collected in the second volume, are 'The Story of Vidya and Sundar' and 'The Story of Man Singh'.
       'In Praise of Annada' is, as the title might suggest, a sequence of poems centered on Annada -- the consort of Shiva. Like Shiva himself, there are various manifestations of her, and she is known by many names, ranging from Gauri ("a name of the goddess Annada as an unmarried eight-year-old girl", as the vital glossary explains) to better-known ones such as Annapurna. As with Shiva, different manifestations mark different aspects and versions of the god/dess -- and they're not the only such figures in the densely populated Indian pantheon; among the difficulties of following the text is keeping track of these manifestations and names, as 'In Praise of Annada' is, in every respect, a story of multitudes. As the poet observes about Annapurna at one point: "You create many illusions, and you assume many forms".
       Rather late in the book, there's a chapter titled: 'A List of Shiva's Names', but, aside from being less helpful than that heading suggests, readers must have long since adjusted to the transformations (and appellation-variations) in the story -- as they are, indeed, an essential aspect of it. In this respect, an early chapter, 'Sati Gets Ready to go to Daksha's' -- helpfully noting at the opening: "So many hundreds of supreme goddesses appear in the form of Kali" -- paves the way nicely with a tour de force sequence of transformations, as short sections have Sati in turn appearing as various figures -- beginning with an imposing Kali, presented as:

She has disheveled hair, the color of a dark cloud and large teeth.
Mounted on a corpse, she wears severed hands as a belt ornament, and corpses at her ears.
Around her neck is a garland of heads dripping blood.
       Later: "Disguising her ten forms, Sati became Sati again" -- but, yes, the multitudes can be confusing ..... So also with observations such as the obsequity (i.e. (fortunately) not meant quite literally): "Living beings in Shiva's service become Shivas. / Whoever repeats 'Shiva, Shiva' becomes Shiva in his body").
       Sati's father is less than impressed by Shiva -- even publicly denouncing him:
He possesses no good quality, lives here and there,
and is addicted to cannabis.
Respect or disrespect, a good environment or bad,
ignorance or knowledge: everything is the same to him.
He does not know dharma, nor does he respect karma,
and regards sandal cream and ashes as the same.
       This does not go over too well -- with even Sati, tarred by association, disappointed and taking extreme action, telling dad: "I will sacrifice this body of mine that has been born from you. / Only then will my sin disappear". Shiva, too, then takes it out on Daksha, in the kinds of vivid scenes of excess that Bharatchandra Ray excels at -- but his mother-in-law pleads the case for her husband and Shiva at least makes a bit of an effort to set things right again:
       Shiva felt ashamed,
so he saved Daksha's life, as well as his realm.
But Daksha cannot see, since he has no head.
He gets up, falls down, and roams around like a headless goblin.
       It's typical of the sly humor Bharatchandra Ray slips in, in how he describes such scenes. (And no worries: "Following Shiva's instructions, Nandi cut off the head of a goat, / brought it, and attached it to Daksha's shoulders. / It fit well".)
       There are several significant events in 'In Praise of Annada', playing out at shorter and longer length. One has Annapurna taking rather drastic action -- "She depleted the world of all its food" --, only then to feed a hungry Shiva. This allows for, for example a fine canto describing Shiva digging in -- beginning with the observation that he: "ate a lot with his five mouths" and then getting carried away -- "his body uncontrolled and languorous" -- in an ecstatic dance of gratefulness, including:
Whip whip whip his matted hair flapped loosely, while
Jahnavi gushed forward, tumble tumble tumble.
The snakes sounded hiss hiss hiss.
The jewel sparkled tink tink tink.
Crackle crackle crackle blazed the fire on his forehead.
       In thanks, Shiva commissions Vishvakarma (Vishai) -- "the celestial architect and builder of the universe", as the glossary explains -- to build a temple and then a whole (enclosed) city in honor of Annapurna in Kashi (Benares/Varanasi) -- again giving Bharatchandra Ray opportunity for some nice creative riffs in describing everything that is created and found in this little wonderland. Matters take a turn when Vyasa enters the picture -- and draws the ire of Shiva when Vyasa forbids the worship of Shiva. Shiva does not take this lying down and makes life difficult for Vyasa when he comes to Kashi; annoyed by the curse put on him, Vyasa comes up with an interesting plan: to replicate Kashi. As he explains:
Shiva has refused to allow me to stay in Kashi,
so I will make a second Kashi.
       This turns out to be easier said then done, as various gods are not inclined to help him in the undertaking. Turning eventually to Annada, she is annoyed by his what he's trying to do and eventually confronts him, disguised as an old woman. When he promises her:
     My city is better than Kashi.
The moment you die you will be liberated. That is certain.
       She pretends to be outraged, but returns -- and manages to irritate him enough so that he blurts out in frustration that: "Whoever dies here will become a donkey" -- which she is only then too happy to put into effect. (Lessons learned, everyone eventually comes to an agreement, however.)
       Another episode sees an affronted Annapurna dispatch heavenly servants Vasundhar and Vasundhara "to the mortal world" as ... mortals, with Annapurna checking in on their mortal forms -- and, eventually properly appeased, rewarding the earthly incarnation of Vasundhar, Harihor; this, too, however, leads to some complications .....
       This extended poem 'In Praise of Annada' does relate several significant episodes featuring her (in her various forms ...), but is something of a loose story- (and more) collection. In closing, Bharatchandra Ray notes: "This story has been but briefly narrated. There is so much more to say"; he's obviously making excuses, for limiting his selection of stories, but it also reflects his approach of simply throwing episodes out there, without all to much concern about presenting a traditional character-portrait (with character development and the like). 'In Praise of Annada' is something of a highlight reel: glimpses of a life.
       The poem impresses more in its pieces than its whole. Some of the episodes are certainly gripping, but it's the somewhat tangential cantos, where Bharatchandra Ray shows his chops, that are among the best -- as when he is able to go into detail regarding 'Annada's Enchanting Appearance'. Even where poetry is not foremost, there are creatively imagined scenes, ranging from the unusual disembodied 'The Garland of Sacred Places' to the brief episode of 'Consuming Cannabis'.
       If much is fairly straightforward narrative, Bharatchandra Ray does also play with language and especially, it appears, sound; translator France Bhattacharya certainly gives an impression of what he is doing in verses such as:
"Kill, kill, grr, grr, strike, strike !" they shout.
They shake litter jitter, all around.
They laugh a terrible laugh haha haha hoho hoho.
They produce menacing noises hum hum grum grum.
       Throughout 'In Praise of Annada', it is striking how varied the poetry and narrative approach is -- from sound-based play to much more straightforward story-telling; the variety is interesting, but also contributes to the unsettled feel of the book as a whole. It also stands in considerable contrast to the next book, the centerpiece of In Praise of Annada, 'The Story of Vidya and Sundar', which is, in how it unfolds, much more traditionally narrative.
       There is a framing device of sorts to it, as the story of Vidya and Sundar is presented as one related by Bhavananda Majundar to King Man Singh, but essentially the entire book is devoted to the story itself. The story is a fairly simple one: in present-day West Bengal there is a beautiful princess, Vidya, who insists on taking as her husband only someone who: "could prevail over her in debate" -- which proves to be more of a hurdle than expected, as suitor after suitor slinks away defeated; as her father at one point complains: "Knowledge is so much her attribute that it has become her shortcoming". Her father, Virsimha, hears of a prince in distant, southern Kanchipur, Sundar Ray, "handsome and intelligent beyond compare", and writes to him in the hopes Sundar can conquer Vidya. Sundar is immediately convinced she is the woman for him and sets out to win her:
I will voyage alone to Bardhaman with single-minded purpose.
A jewel cannot be won without arduous endeavor.
       Sundar doesn't make it easy for himself, traveling not as royalty but as a student -- "Sundar is my good name, and I am an accomplished poet", he introduces himself at the gates to Bardhaman. Quite the looker, Sundar makes quite the impression on the local ladies -- "At the sight of Sundar, they let their saris slacken. / Bharat coyly tilts his head. "Ladies, tuck in your loose saris !"" -- but he only wants to get to Vidya. Hira, a woman who supplies flowers to the palace and lives near to it, ingratiates herself with promises of possible connection to the royal house and takes him in as a tenant. And it is via Hira that Sundar makes first contact with Vidya, sending a poem in a garland of flowers, which does the trick:
She read the stanza, which only further baffled her,
but her body instantly overflowed with love.
       When they finally lay eyes on each other, their love is confirmed -- "What metaphors can I use ? / One glorious lotus at last met another" -- but the problem of actually meeting remains. Sundar's ingenious solution is to tunnel into the palace (with some godly help); the lovers meet, debate -- Vidya still insisting on this marriage-test -- and (secretly) marry. The marriage is quickly (and passionately) consummated, too ("As he coaxed Vidya gently, / her flower buds opened, and the bee entered the lotus")
       They keep their marriage secret, but Sundar regularly visits Vidya -- with, eventually, predictable results, as Vidya gets pregnant. This eventually becomes difficult to hide, and when her parents learn of it they are furious -- especially since Vidya won't explain herself (or reveal her marriage) beyond the pretty lame:
Every night the same dream comes to me,
the same handsome man, god, or celestial musician,
who forcibly embraces me, Mother.
       The police -- whom the king holds responsible for not protecting his household -- eventually discover the secret tunnel, and they lay a trap for the intruder, a comic scene that has them dress up as women, and Sundar, in his enthusiasm, not noticing quite as quickly as one might have expected him to. But even when captured he refuses to reveal his true identity -- arguing:
     No matter my identity, my caste, my parentage,
I have won Vidya and will not give her up.
Give me my Vidya and keep your precious caste.
       Of course, it's only when his identity (and acceptable caste) are revealed that the happy end can unfold -- though Kali made sure that even if the outcome was different and the king went through with the sentence he had pronounced on Sundar, Sundar had nothing to worry about:
If the king executes you, rivers of blood will flow,
and I will slay Virsimha and the rest of his kin.
I shall then revive you and bestow on you Princess Vidya along with her kingdom.
       So it's win-win for Sundar -- though fortunately the less bloody resolution prevails, when the king confirms Sundar's true identity.
       It's a well-told story, nicely paced and quite gripping -- even if some of the steps taken by various characters can strike one as odd choices. But overall, it certainly works. It helps that Bharatchandra Ray stays focused on the story; there are few digressional cantos with the notable ones at least standing out for one reason or another: 'The Women Revile their Husbands' is an entertaining variations-on-the-theme bit, with Bharatchandra Ray getting creative in all the complaints wives have, while 'On the Execution Ground, Sundar Praises Kali' is a bit of stylistic showing off, as: "Sundar praised Kali in fifty letters", which is the sort of thing that presumably impresses considerably more in the original.
       'The Story of Vidya and Sundar' is related by Majundar to Man Singh because Man Singh was curious to hear the story behind the tunnel in Bardhaman; once he's heard it, he's ready to move on -- which leads to the final book in this collection, 'The Story of Man Singh'. This one again is more Annada-focused, and presents a mix of episodes, somewhat as in the first book. The goddess (as Annapurna) again helps set the stage:
While Majundar took his leave to visit home for a brief sojourn,
the great and auspicious Annapurna designed a grand plan with Vijaya.
"I will make my power and glory known to Man Singh.
If after causing grief I grant happiness, he will worship me.
       And so it goes, of course. There's a big battle, with King Pradapaditya -- played out in a fine, colorful canto -- with Man Singh emerging victorious. Pradapaditya is put in a cage, where he rather unceremoniously starves to death -- with, in one of the book's more memorable scenes, Man Singh then having: "his body fried in clarified butter to carry it with him on his journey", and then presenting it to the emperor, Jahangir.
       It gets interesting at the mughal court, as the Muslim Jahangir thinks Man Singh's claims that devotion to Annada saved the day is absurd. As he points out: "The Hindu scriptures are nothing but lies. Reading them serves no useful purpose".
       Them is of course fighting words, and Annapurna sends in her army; the canto-heading 'Trouble in Delhi' doesn't really come close to describing the havoc she unleashes. Man Singh knows what caused this catastrophe, and reminds Jahangir:
It was you, Your Majesty, who had insulted the goddess and called her a ghost.
You are the one true cause of the havoc that has wracked this city.
       Of course, there's a way out -- and Jahangir quickly changes his tune. Annapurna is easily swayed and helps the poor guy out; he's so impressed he proclaims: "to the entire city, / "All of you, my subjects, in each and every home, worship Annapurna."". Her work done, "Annapurna accepted the cult and, overjoyed, / she returned to the summit of Mount Kailash with her own troops". Majundar also gets his just rewards.
       The book closes with a rough summary of the entire In Praise of Annada, in its eight-maṅgal division -- though, as noted in the endnotes: "The structure and division of the eight maṅgals, or eight-day celebration, as listed in this panda do not wholly correspond to the structure and division of Bharatchandra Ray's narrative over the three books". This playing a bit loose is a feature throughout the work, with Bharatchandra Ray willing to let himself get distracted on occasions; this makes the first and third books a bit harder to enjoy. The more focused middle work -- understandably the best-known and -loved part -- certainly benefits greatly from being much more tightly focused, and presenting a more straightforward story (rather than the varied, more radically episodic first and last books).
       There are some very fine cantos throughout, however -- including, in the final book, a sumptuous one describing 'Cooking for the Feast of Annada', as well as the descriptive 'An Account of the Great Ganga'.
       Translator France Bhattacharya's Introductions are informative and to the point, and include helpful summaries of the three books. The Glossary is invaluable but could be more extensive -- quite honestly, the many names are dizzying to the point of distraction -- and while the Index then proves a useful supplementary aid (in checking when names are mentioned, and where) it is the all the more unfortunate that there is a page-drift in the index to volume I; references are off by first two (starting at about mid-point) and then four pages there.
       'The Story of Vidya and Sundar' is a very fine piece of work, and well worthwhile. The other two books suffer some in comparison -- and the first one, in particular, can be hard to follow in parts -- but both include some very good cantos, and some striking episodes and scenes. While the three fit a bit oddly together -- indeed, can stand easily enough on their own, with what connections there are (beyond Annada playing a significant role) more tenuous than not -- it is good to have all three together in this lovely bilingual edition of In Praise of Annada and to be able to consider the work as a whole (and, for those who can, in the original).

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 February 2020

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In Praise of Annada: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Poet Bharatchandra Ray (ভারতচন্দ্র রায়) lived 1712 to 1760.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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