Author  Sunil Gangopadhyay (Translated from Bengali by Monabi Mitra) [New Delhi: Harper Perennial,  2010]


Reviewed by Yoginder Sikand


Indian history is replete with stories of fiercely iconoclastic rebels who, refusing to be bound by the strictures and prejudices of religious orthodoxy, bravely denounced social convention in their quest for spiritual transcendence and social equality. One such figure was the late nineteenth century Bengali poet-rebel Lalan Fakir. Defying the logic of the conservative society in which he was born by insisting that he was neither Hindu nor Muslim and announcing that he cared nothing whatsoever for hierarchies of caste and class, Lalan Fakir was, by all counts, an amazingly charismatic revolutionary who sought to preach a human-centric understanding of the transcendent, one that was rooted in the struggles of the poor and oppressed for their true humanization.


Little is known about Lalan outside Bengal, for all the vast numbers of poems he penned were in Bengali. This thoroughly inspiring book, a translation from the Bengali original, provides a gripping account of Lalan Fakir’s life, presenting him not as a world-renouncing mystic or a champion of religious syncretism, as some accounts of the man indeed do, but, rather, as a deeply-committed social critic and a crusader against injustice. Although in the form of a novel, with sections that are clearly fictionalized—historical accounts of Lalan being scanty and still heavily contested—it details significant aspects of Lalan’s eventful career in a powerfully moving manner.


Born in a poor Hindu family, Lalan, named Lal Mohan Kar at birth, experiences a sudden transformation in his life when he accompanies a landlord on a pilgrimage to the Ganga. Falling ill, he is given up for dead by his travelling companions. A symbolic cremation is arranged for him and his body is thrown into the river. Unknown to the landlord and Lalan’s own family, Lalan somehow survives, being rescued by a poverty-stricken Muslim woman, who nurses him back to health. In her house he meets a wandering dervish, whose enigmatic presence has a powerful impact on him. Although born in a Muslim family, the dervish is neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, and preaches an ethical spiritualism that transcends communal boundaries. His chance meeting with this man has a powerful influence on Lalan, who later goes on to tread on the same path as the dervish in seeking to bring Hindus and Muslims to realize their common humanity and the futility of communal strife that

is legitimized by their understandings of god.



A major turning path in Lalan’s life occurs when he returns to his home after his recovery.  Hoping to be accepted by his family, he is treated as an outcaste by them for having eaten food cooked by the Muslim woman who had rescued him from his near-death experience. That constitutes the final break for Lalan with his society and with conventional religion, which he gives up for good. Thereupon, he realizes the utter inhumanity of religious supremacism that follows from how he sees Hindus and Muslims—the two communities that inhabit his world of rural Bengal—understanding and practicing their respective faiths. Witnessing Hindus and Muslims squabbling about the proclaimed merits of their religions and religious heroes, Lalan realizes how an utterly dehumanizing obsession with rituals and beliefs, with little or no concern for ethics and compassion for others, underpins what he regards as the fake religiosity of conventional society. He realizes

that he can no longer identify himself with either Hindus or Muslims, for he cannot agree with either in the ways they understand religion and relate to the rest of humanity. Lalan expresses his torment at this, born from a painful realization, in an evocative poem thus:


People ask, what is Lalan’s faith?

Lalan thinks, ‘I’ve not seen the face of faith with my eyes!’


Some sport a garland, and some the rosary,

And with that they slice themselves apart.


But when it is time to be born or die

What tells them apart?

If circumcision marks a Muslim man,

Is the body a token of one’s faith?

A Brahmin has a holy thread;

But what about the Brahmin woman?


The world is alive with talk of faith

Men find salvation and faith in it

Lalan has torn such faith into shreds

And left it by the old trodden paths!


Hounded out from his home for having transgressed the law of caste, Lalan bids farewell to home and hearth and wanders off into a forest, desirous of abandoning the world in search for truth. But, like the Buddha, he soon discovers that stern austerities and shunning the world are not the answer to the painful predicament he is confronted with. Unfamiliar with the scriptures of the orthodox Hindus and Muslims—for he is illiterate—he spends his days reflecting on life, the universal reality of suffering and the tyrannical uses to which conventional religion is put to dehumanize  the poor, to further enrich the powerful and to set communities against each other, all in the name of god.


Soon, Lalan, who is now a fakir—that is to say, neither Hindu nor a Muslim, but, rather, one who has transcended all communal labels—gathers around him a sizeable number of comrades. These are men and women, of ‘low’ and ‘high’ caste, of Hindu as well as Muslim background, who have fled to the forest where he has taken up residence, seeking refuge from domestic abuse and the oppression of dreaded priests and landlords. Together, they form a little commune, leading a simple yet spiritually rich life, with Lalan as their source of inspiration, and sharing their few resources together like one large family. Central to Lalan’s inspiring charisma is his deeply evocative poetry, which he and his comrades often gather together to sing. (Lalan’s poems are still hugely popular in West Bengal and Bangladesh, being regarded as among the masterpieces of the immensely rich Bengali literary tradition. Sadly, the book contains only a few snatches of his verses.)


Refusing to turn into a cultic hero for his comrades, Lalan insists that he and they are equals, and that their little settlement must be run on egalitarian lines, the model of an ideal society. The vision of such a society draws on Lalan’s this-worldly spirituality that places human beings, not religious dogmas, rituals and practices, at its centre, for, as Lalan believes, religion ought to exist to serve humans, rather than the other way round. Lalan’s spirituality is a powerful critique of escapism as well as fatalism in the name of religion, for, he seems to say, one’s fate is not divinely decreed but can be changed through one’s own efforts. He decries the use of religion to seek to legitimize poverty and degradation in its name. True religion, he insists, must necessarily speak out for, and on the side of, the oppressed. Thus, he cries out:


Worked to death

With empty purse,

Fruitless days

From bad to worse,


I shrink and fade

While they grow fat,

What kind of ghostly life is that?


Content in the little world of their own that they set up in the forest, escaping the society that regards them as heretics and rebels, Lalan and his comrades are suddenly confronted by the agents of a local landlord who demand that they should vacate their huts. The forest, they are told, now belongs to the landlord, and Lalan’s insistence that the forest belongs to all is rudely rebuked. The society that Lalan and his friends have rebelled against and fled from, it seems, is hell-bent on taking its revenge. Lalan is whisked off to meet the landlord. However, on hearing his poetry, the landlord is so overcome and driven to contrition that he befriends him. The power of Lalan’s love conquers the man, and the commune is thus saved.


The Faqir, and the related Baul, tradition now struggles to survive in Bengal, mainly among some ‘low’ caste Muslims and Hindus, having to contend with charges of both ‘superstition’ and ‘heresy’, and being targeted both by ‘modernists’ and orthodox religious revivalists, both of which regard it as a challenge to their hegemonic claims. But Lalan’s message of universal love, his human-centric understanding of religion, and his thundering criticism of communal hatred and supremacism in the name of god, which this book so strikingly recounts,  remain as relevant today as they were in his time—which makes this book delightful and immensely rewarding reading.

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