Srikanta in Rangoon

Amardeep’s course on Travel Writers: India, England and the United States, sounds tempting–“Travel also shows us things about ourselves we might not have known, as we are forced, when abroad, to confront our particular prejudices and limited knowledge about the world.” His focus is on non-fiction, but I’ve been noticing interesting travel references in Indian fiction. It’s not always, or even often, about crossing from East to West; Bengali writers, for instance, seem to have viewed the passage from Kolkata to Rangoon with fascination. Burma crops up in Tagore, and also in Sharatchandra.

Here’s a brief extract from Sharatchandra’s Srikanta, where the hero steps on board ship after being medically examined for signs of the plague, and passed by the doctors:

“One who has never mounted the deck of a ship has no idea of how it is done. Packed into a congealed mass of stinking bodies, I was alternately pulled forward and pushed backwards in a series of jerks that bore a closer resemblance to the motion of a giant machine than to the movement of human beings. I reached the deck, almost swooning from lack of air, but there was no way I could stop there. The relentless pressure from behind propelled me on to a gaping hole through which a flight of dark steps led to the monstrous cavern of the ship’s hold. The mighty stream of Punjabis, Bengalis, Madrasis, Gujaratis, Marathas, Afghans, Chinese, Marwaris and Biharis gushed into the cavern with the force and turbulence of a mountain cataract. I may have lost consciousness for a few moments for I have no memories of the downward flight…”

Srikanta survives a gale; in Rangoon, he waits out the quarantine imposed by the agents of the Raj, and then grapples with the dreaded plague. His experience of a foreign country is that of sickness and joblessness, but also, in a key passage, of his realisation that the rules and regulations of caste and class differences might not be set in stone. Sharatchandra devotes almost as much space to the shipboard passage, interestingly, as to the entire time Srikanta spends in Burma.

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