I had been asked by the accomplished lady who has translated the subjoined story to introduce it with a few words of comment to the English public. For that purpose I commenced the perusal of the proof sheets; but soon found that what was begun as a literary task became a real and singular pleasure, by reason of the author's vivid narrative, his skill in delineating character, and, beyond all, the striking and faithful pictures of Indian life with which his tale is filled. Nor do these qualities suffer, beyond what is always inevitable, in the transfer of the novel from its original Bengali to English. Five years ago, Sir William Herschel, of the Bengal Civil Service, had the intention of translating this Bisha Briksha; but surrendered the task, with the author's full consent, to Mrs. Knight, who has here performed it with very remarkable skill and success. To accomplish that, more was wanted than a competent knowledge of the language of the original and a fluent command of English: it was necessary to be familiar with the details of native life and manners, and to have a sufficient acquaintance with the religious, domestic, and social customs of Bengali homes. Possessing these, Mrs. Knight has now presented us with a modern Hindu novelette, smoothly readable throughout, perfectly well transferred from its vernacular (with such omissions as were necessary), and valuable, as I venture to affirm, to English readers as well from its skill in construction and intrinsic interest as for the light which it sheds upon the indoor existence of well-to-do Hindus, and the excellent specimen which it furnishes of the sort of indigenous literature happily growing popular in their cities and towns.
The author of "The Poison Tree" is Babu Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, a native gentleman of Bengal, of superior intellectual acquisitions, who ranks unquestionably as the first living writer of fiction in his Presidency. His renown is widespread among native readers, who recognize the truthfulness and power of his descriptions, and are especially fond of "Krishna Kanta's Will," "Mrinalini," and this very story of the Bisha Briksha, which belongs to modern days in India, and to the new ideas which are spreading--not always quite happily--among the families of the land. Allowance being made for the loss which an original author cannot but sustain by the transfer of his style and method into another language and system of thought, it will be confessed, I think, that the reputation of "Bankim Babu" is well deserved, and that Bengal has here produced a writer of true genius, whose vivacious invention, dramatic force, and purity of aim, promise well for the new age of Indian vernacular literature.
It would be wrong to diminish the pleasure of the English reader by analysing the narrative and forestalling its plot. That which appears to me most striking and valuable in the book is the faithful view it gives of the gentleness and devotion of the average Hindu wife. Western people are wont to think that because marriages are arranged at an early age in India, and without the betrothed pair having the slightest share in the mutual choice, that wedded love of a sincere sort must be out of the question, and conjugal happiness very rare. The contrary is notably the case. Human nature is, somehow, so full of accidental harmonies, that a majority among the households thus constituted furnish examples of quiet felicity, established constancy, and, above all, of a devotedness on the part of the Hindu women to their husbands and children, which knows, so to speak, no limit. The self-sacrifice of Surja Mukhi in this tale would be next to impossible for any Western woman, but is positively common in the East, though our author so well displays the undoubted fact that feminine hearts are the same everywhere, and that custom cannot change the instincts of love. In Debendra the Babu paints successfully the "young Bengalee" of the present day, corrupted rather than elevated by his educational enlightenment. Nagendra is a good type of the ordinary well-to-do householder; Kunda Nandini, of the simple and graceful Hindu maiden; and Hira, of those passionate natures often concealed under the dark glances and regular features of the women of the Ganges Valley. In a word, I am glad to recommend this translation to English readers, as a work which, apart from its charm in incident and narrative, will certainly give them just, if not complete, ideas of the ways of life of their fellow-subjects in Bengal.
EDWIN ARNOLD, C.S.I.
LONDON, September 10, 1884.