Arogyaniketan, a novel with an off beat theme is set, like most stories of Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, in the red soil of Birbhum. On one level the theme is a clash between the old and the new, between traditional medicine and the Western system of allopathy. The traditional system of Ayurveda, Iiterally the Veda concerning life, is based on the Hindu concept of rebirth and the dignity of death, with the belief that death is only a part of the continuous process of renewal which goes on in life. But no modern doctor would be willing to accept death as a means of the graceful exit. He would consider it morally wrong to let a patient meet his end without a fight.
But it is not just a clash of values that the novel is concerned with. On a deeper level the theme is man's confrontation with death and his attempt to come to grips with it. The author looks at the human weakness with tenderness and sympathy. Also, there is an effort to overcome the fear of death, and all this makes this novel a great work of art. In a novelist of the range and depth of Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, the local gradually merges into the universal. What stands out is the essential human experience which moves the reader anywhere.
Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay (1898-1971) was born in village Labhpur-district Birbhum, West Bengal. He left college to participate in the Non-cooperation Movement in 1930 and served one year term in jail for his political activities. After a few stints at various odd jobs, he decided to devote his entire time to writing and was active in his pursuit till his last days. He published 130 books and wrote for several magazines, and has been acclaimed as one of the most outstanding novelists of his time. He was eminently successful in his authentic portrayals of poorer communities of the village-the workmen, the snake-charmers, the 'pata' painters, the tribals and others. He saw the emergence of the business class and the sun setting on the feudal system-his novels like Kalindi and lalsaghar bring this conflict alive. Many of his novels and stories were made into films and plays-Arogyaniketan being one of them. He received Sahitya Akademi Award for Arogyaniketan and the coveted Jnanpith award for his novel Canadevata.
Enakshi Chatterjee, a bilingual writer, has a number of books to her credit including children's fiction, books on popular science, biographies and translations. The wide spectrum of Bengali fiction translated by her ranges from Tarashankar on one end to new and emerging writers like Sohrab Hossain on the other. She has also translated from English to Bengali - Vikram Seth's Suitable Boy being one of them. She received the Rabindra Puraskar for popular science, Katha Award for translation and Vidyasagar Award for children's literature.
AROGYANIKETAN or the clinic run by the Mashay family of Debipur, doctors for three succeeding generations, was by no means a charitable dispensary or a hospital in the conventional sense.
Established some eighty years ago, it has a rundown look now. Cracks have formed in the mud walls, the joints in the thatch roof have come loose in places, a line of depression has formed in the middle like a hunchback's neck. It is just about ready to fall apart, the end being only a matter of time.
The builder, Jagath Bandhu Kaviraj Mashay, however, had thought otherwise. 'I'll not go to the length of saying that it will stay as long as the earth and the meon and the sun will stay. I'll say this, however, that as long as my family remains here in this village, this establishment also will stay firm and secure,' he remarked to his bosom friend Thakurdas Mishra. 'Mind you, this is no vain boast,' he added with a grin. He folded his hands and touched his own forehead in all humility. 'This is a business of perpetual gain. The more you give the more you get. Like old ghee, getting more precious with the passing of time. In a way this is the best profit-making concern in the world. Both ends will profit, the giver as well as the receiver - no one will be the loser.'
His friend Thakurdas Mishra, the book-keeper of the village landlord, was a practical man. Complicated estimates did not bother him, he was at home in dealing with lawsuits - but when it came to philosophic abstractions he was completely at sea. 'Oh come, come,' he gave a crooked smile and said, 'You'll make an easy ninety per cent profit by feeling the pulse and making some concoction from herbs-I can safely presume. But what about the patients? How do they profit? How could you say such a thing, my dear Jagat? He will have to run into debt to provide your fees - surely he will be the poorer healthwise and wealthwise.'
'You certainly have a crooked mind' interrupted Jagatbandhu. 'The money part comes later. I did not mean profit or gain in terms of money. What I meant was the best kind of gain in this life. One party gains for he gets healed, the other has gained God's mercy by nursing the sick. Do you know that healing is the best kind of gain that is allowed to man? In the Mahabharata, Dharma in disguise of a Yaksha asks Yudhistir some questions. One of them was, "What is the greatest gain?" To which Yudhistir replied, "The greatest gain is to be healed of sickness."
Unconvinced, his friend Mishra smiled. Fish will always show through the vegetables - as they say. No matter how much Sanskrit you bring in - your proposal reeks of money.' He laughed at his Own superior wit. But as luck would have it, he was stricken with rheumatism Soon after, which disabled him totally for three months. It was the old Mashay who treated him back to health. On recovery Mishra thanked him, 'I've got back my life because of you. I want you to know that if ever the occasion comes I'll be ready to give my life for you.'
'You are convinced then that the greatest gain is to be cured?'
'Yes, I am, indeed,' Mishra said without rancour.
The next day Mishra came to the clinic armed with a brush dipped in oil and vermillion paint. He wrote in bold letters on the wall: to be cured is the greatest gain.
Arogyanikclan was still to acquire its present name. People used to call it Mashay's place or the Mashay Clinic.
The name came to be given during the next generation, when Jagatbandhu Mashay's son, Jeevan Mashay, took up the hereditary profession. By then the times had changed. In the cities the new era had come a long time ago though it was just beginning to be felt in the villages. Jeevan Mashay named the clinic Arogyaniketan and put up a wooden tablet in front of the verandah on which the name was written in black letters. He made a few other changes. He kept the traditional seat, a large Covered divan, but added a couple of chairs, a table and a bench for accommodating the patients.
The ramshackle furniture is still there, the chairs with their arms gone. The bench has stood the test of time, however. It is still quite stable.
The tottering building with the name plate along with its Owner Jeevan Mashay can still be seen there, struggling against time. One has to travel about a hundred miles from the city by the broad gauge railway train. From the junction station a branch line will take one to a prosperous village ten miles away. The village has a motley collection of taxis, buses, cycle-rickshaws along with old bullock carts - bearing the stamp of the changed times.
Arogyaniketan is not too far from the station - a little over a mile, a distance negotiable by rickshaw or cart, but the best thing would be to take a walk in order to enjoy the sights - the old order giving in before the new in that quaint little village.
The red gravelled road goes past the ruined places of ancient landlords, dilapidated gardens, temples covered with moss, rubbish heaps and fallow land overgrown with weeds, the broken steps leading down into the numerous ponds. One finds dirt and desolation all around. An ancient banyan tree towers over the scene, its branches old and dry. Under its shade can be seen the cemented platform of what once used to be a place of worship. The gravelled walk ends here, meeting a broad cobbled road, fringed by shops of various kinds. This is the market place, full of the bustle of life, the strange mixed smell, movement of carts laden with goods, noise and crowd. The market has expanded considerably. There are tea and sweetmeat shops for the weary traveller. The best tea shop is next to the Nabagram Medical Stores, the one store one can hardly miss with its colourful advertisement of wares. The shop and the furniture are both new and striking. Haren the doctor, who wears trousers and a bush shirt, presides over the pharmacy, a stethoscope dangling from his neck.
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