“The importance of Rajmohan’s Wife only increases when we realise that it is probably not just the first English novel in India, but in all of Asia. Its dramatic location at the cusp of history only adds to its fascination. In Bankim’s slender work, not just a new India, but an emerging Asia seeks to find its voice in an alien tongue. In this effort, a spark shoots across the narrative sky in the form of a new beautiful, spirited, and romantic heroine, Matangini. There has been nothing like her in Asian fiction before. Created from an amalgam of classical, medieval, and European sources and a totally unprecedented imaginative leap into what might constitute a new female subjectivity, Matangini is a memorable character. In all of Indian English fiction, there are few women who have her capacity to move the narrative. She, moreover, embodies the hopes of an entire society struggling for selfhood and dignity. Her courage, independence, and passion are not just personal traits, but those of a nation in the making. This subtle superimposition of the national upon the personal is Bankim’s gift to his Indian English heirs. The trail of an epoch making novel like Midnight’s Children (1981) can thus be traced back to Bankim’s more modest trial as far back as 1864.
Rajmohan’s Wife gains in value and interest when we see it as a part of the story of modern India itself. This is a story that is still being written; in that sense it is a work in progress, which is exactly how I’d like to see Rajmohan’s Wife too. As a work in progress, rather than a false start, it negotiates one path for India’s future growth and development. In this path, the English-educated elites of the country must lead India out of bondage and exploitation. While the Rajmohans and Mathurs must be defeated, Matangini must find her happiness with her natural mate, Madhav. However, the latter is not possible just yet; Matangini has therefore retreat to her paternal home. Like an idea ahead of its time, she must wait till she can gain what is her due. But not before she enjoys a brief but hard-earned rendezvous with her paramour and smoulders across the narrativescape of the novel with her disruptive power. Indeed, the novelty in Bankim’s novel is precisely the irruption, the explosion that Rajmohan’s wife—both the character and the story—causes in the narrative of modern India. Like a gash or a slash, the novel breaks the iterative horizons of a somnambulant subcontinent, leaving a teasing trace that later sprouts many new fictive offshoots.”
I am sure after this small taste, many curious readers would want to read the whole essay. It can be accessed here. After all, national consciousness, when invoked through and inspired by thoughtful and noble literature, art and music is always much more real and uplifting than anything uttered by the so-called political leaders and workers of the official machinery.