Of all the figures from the celebrated ‘Bengal Renaissance’ still remembered today, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar (26 September 1820-29 July 1891) seems the most unlikely candidate of all to have been at the centre of a political storm in the run up to the 2019 general elections (when a bust of his was broken during a rally). One thing was abundantly clear then—that what made this man stand out from the pantheon to which he belongs was what he stood for still in the mind of the ordinary Bengali. This, essentially, was nothing less than the substance of Bengali identity itself. In the national imagination he is a symbol of the authentic: the image of Vidyasagar is of a dhoti-chadar-slipper clad Brahmin of prodigious learning, a man of the soil who achieved immortality. The people could see that he was also the first great reformer and progressive in the shape of the ordinary Bengali—in his unprepossessing appearance, the people could see themselves.
As we learn from Amiya P Sen’s recounting, Iswarchandra Bandyopadhyay was born in 1820 in the village of Birsingha to ‘grinding poverty’ in a family of Sanskrit pundits who could trace their lineage back a couple of generations as scholars of smriti. It is the peculiar virtue of biographies that they can illuminate certain traits of character or inborn quirks in unexpected ways—I learnt here, for instance, that Vidyasagar’s grandfather had predicted when he was born that the child would stammer, which Sen feels explains why ‘all his life, Vidyasagar avoided public speaking, even though he was a great conversationalist’. His grandfather also described the new-born child as a ‘bull-calf’—‘hinting at the stubbornness to which many more were to testify in the years to come’.
The life of Vidyasagar is iconic in a way that it is for no other figure of nineteenth-century Bengal in that it is encapsulated in episodes and enactments (some apocryphal) that live vividly in the popular imagination. Thus any Bengali will immediately recount the milestones on the road to Calcutta that the boy is reputed to have learnt his numbers from, the time he was insulted by an Englishman who addressed him with his feet up on his desk whom he then paid back in kind, and the kindness, courage, intelligence and sheer perseverance of his personality as revealed in incident after incident. This must make him a difficult subject to write on, and Amiya Sen does well to address not just the life, but also the books in both Bengali and English by local and international scholars, highlighting their contributions as well as sometimes pointing out lacunae. From Asoke Sen’s Elusive Milestones, which marked such a significant moment in Left historiography and its revaluation of the Bengal Renaissance, to Brian Hatcher’s more recent path-breaking endeavours, to all the traditional Bengali accounts available, Sen ranges across the entire spectrum of opinion and information available to present his subject. This is done in three sections that follow the Introduction: ‘A Luminous Life Lived in Full’, ‘Thoughts on Education’ and ‘Vidyasagar and the Woman Question’, which are followed by a Postscript: ‘Was Vidyasagar an Atheist?’ and four appendices on the chronology, works and other information.