What impresses the reader, in the first place, is the construction technology that has gone into the making of ‘First Light’. It resembles a high-rise, with dozens of well-lit, airy rooms – chapters – which a critic’s fury, even an 8.1 on the Richter scale, cannot cause to bite the dust. Sunil Gangopadhyay is a remarkable architect and builder of fiction.
Though spread over more than 700 pages, this is not a novel of ideas. It is rather a novelscape of events with a multitude of characters thrown in. With perennially recharged creative energy and dexterity, Gangopadhyay constructs event after event and carves out a stream of vivid characters one after another. A raconteur par excellence, he is comparable to master storyteller Kambar whose characters peremptorily narrate stories to each other even as they are drowning in the swirling river.
The novel comprises an unending string of stories, each crafted to perfection. One of the personages is none other than Rabindranath Tagore, a poet in an imagined novel. Jose Saramago did it too, placing the late poet Fernando Pessoa at the centre of his novel, ‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’. Pessoa is good company for Dr Reis as he loiters onto the rain-washed, deserted Lisbon river banks swept by cold winds and when he makes love to the hotel maid Lydia, entering the room through the closed doors.
Saramago’s is virgin imagination whereas Gangopadhyaya’s description of Tagore’s acts are not born of imagination – Tagore sounds trivial writing a poem the moment he is in the company of a pretty woman. However, Gangopadhyay sounds original when he describes with subtlety Tagore’s love for his sister-in-law Kadambari.
But then ‘First Light’ is not a fictional work on Tagore, neither one on Swami Vivekananda or Ramakrishna Paramhansa who also show up in the novel briefly. The main personage of his work is time, a brief history covering over 30 years, from 1880 to 1910. Brief though it is, for Bengal it meant a period marked with turbulence.
The novel paints events like the partition of Bengal, the rise of nationalism, the nascent movement for the country’s independence. Above all, ‘First Light’ is a novel on human relationships. Gangopadhyay is at his best when he talks about love and great passion for women, as that of king Birchandra Manikya’s illegitimate son Bharat’s for the bond-maid Bhumisuta.
The narrative is studded with flourishes and flamboyance. Words of many hues ring tinsel: “The Ganga, rippling and shimmering like a sheet of silk…” And, “He saw the stars winking and glowing, pale and gold against a purple sky”. When Shashibhushan sees Bhumisuta for the first time, she was holding a bunch of white flowers in her hand. Men have “dark eyes and wavy hair”.
Many a passage in the novel, right from the first chapter – describing throngs of tribals coming out of the forest to attend the village festival like a “rainbow-hued river” wrapped in colourful loin clothes – is spectacular. So are the wedding scenes and the death of Kadambari.
The novel, eminently rendered in English by Aruna Chakravarti, is a spectacle of life and time. It bares, though, a certain amount of historical material, including the fact that Tagore had piles.
—Source: India Today

M Mukundan