English Writers From Bihar

— Priyadarshan

Did you know that Sheikh Deen Mohammad from Bihar was the first Indian writer to have his book published in English? Born in 1759 at Patna, Deen Mohammad had a unique personality. Having lost his father at a very young age, he was brought up by an Englishman called Captain Godfrey Evan Baker since the age of ten. He was employed with the East India Company which he represented in a war against the Marathas. Later, he went to England with Baker. His “Travels of Deen Mohammed”, published in 1794, is said to be the first book by an Indian to have been published in English. The book is said to have an engrossing account of the decadent Mughal Empire and contain eyewitness accounts of many battles. Historical figures like Mohammed Bin Qasim, Sirajuddaula and Haidar Khan also find mention in the book.

In addition to writing, there were many other fields in which Deen Mohammad displayed his talents. He belonged to the “Nai” (barber) caste and had learnt the art of making fragrant soaps during the Mughal regime. He introduced Britain to “champi” – the Indian style of head massage – and used his skills to treat people suffering from various diseases. He is said to have become the “shampoo surgeon” of Kings of England.
Bihar has been maligned as a state where people are weak in English, but it is also the birthplace of an English writer of international fame. George Orwell, who wrote “Animal Farm”, was born in Motihari. The town even has a decrepit memorial built in his honour. The world remembers him for a novel which is said to be the most scathing indictment of Communism. However, Orwell’s works were numerous and on varied themes with novels like 1984 on the one hand and books like Burmese Days on the other. He stayed true to his convictions and was called the soul of his times. He fought against not only Communism, but also Fascism and imperialism and even sustained injuries while taking part in a war against Spanish dictator Franco.

Well-known contemporary novelist Vikram Seth spent a major part of his childhood in Patna. He was born in Kolkata, but did his schooling from Patna’s St Michael’s and St Xavier’s. The distinct “purabiya” flavor of his “A Suitable Boy” owes itself to his prolonged stay in Patna. Another of his famous novels is “An Equal Music” which is set against a European backdrop and contains detailed exposition of western classical music, though his cosmopolitanism is visible here as well.

Another acclaimed English writer Upamanyu Chatterjee, too, was born in Patna. He was with the Indian Administrative Services and his popular novel “English August” was based on his experiences during the training period. The novel’s protagonist is posted at Madna in South India and the interesting experiences of his stay in the mofussil town make up the book’s storyline.

The list of English writers born or brought in Bihar is even longer. Gaya-born Tabish Khair is known for his prose as much as for his poetry. Amitav Kumar, who was born in Arrah and educated in Patna, too has acquired a huge readership by virtue of his versatile creativity. There are many other people from Bihar who have made a mark in other forms of writing. Noted social scientist Ashis Nandy was born in Bhagalpur. He is one of those who could be credited with keeping India’s intellectual vibrancy alive. His younger brother Pritish Nandy, who has been a renowned journalist, writer and TV personality, too was Bhagalpur-born. Few people may be aware that prior to attaining fame as the editor of the “Illustrated Weekly” and other accomplishments, Pritish Nandy had carved a niche for himself as a sensitive English poet. The late 60s and the early 70s were witness to many collections of his poems. Another English writer from Bihar who can not be overlooked is Siddhartha Chowdhury. His books like “Patna Roughcut” and “Day Scholar” were quite a sensation. He won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009 for “Day Scholar”.
Although talented youths from Bihar have been, in the last two-three decades, forced to settle down outside their state and country because of inadequate educational and economic opportunities back home, they have made a mark everywhere by virtue of their abilities. English writers from Bihar are an example of this phenomenon. Many more names could be reckoned among such writers, but the objective here was not to make a long list but to draw attention towards an often overlooked facet of Bihar’s linguistic accomplishments.

(Priyadarshan is a senior TV journalist with NDTV and a noted writer.)