Eco-critically analysing the animal imageries in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh and Premchand’s Sawa Sehr Gehun

- Sharbari Ghosh

Abstract: The paper aims at understanding the inter and intra texts’ animal imageries to not be limited to the age-old negative aspects of the human race but rather to be an ‘extension’ of the human experience. Since both the short stories, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh and Premchand’s Sawa Sehr Gehun have been penned during the oppressive British rule, the paper also tries to locate the voiceless pain in the animal world keeping it at close quarters with the socio-cultural trauma of the contemporary human world. With the help of textual references and by implementing the various approaches of eco-criticism, the paper will thus, reflect upon the need to perceive the supposed (dis)harmony in the two worlds bringing together intellectuality and strength from either sphere.

Humans make sense in the world as they differentiate or identify themselves from or with other beings. This necessarily does not undermine the rest of the ecosystem rather pulls together the other units to create sense at two distinct levels, of the tribe and the individual. Using the eco-critical approach, the simultaneous power relations of the two worlds (human and animal), will be studied herein. Tracing out bestiality through animal imageries is a down to top mechanism to conceive the human world with greater depth. The animals in the society and thus, in the literature, more often than not have been sidelined for mere economic deals or as beasts of burdens. This paper, however, brings in two heart-wrenching vernacular short stories, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh and Premchand’s Sawa Sehr Gehun written around the same decade, in British India. To unearth the gory and tragic situations of both humans and animals alike while being fettered during the British rule, the short stories, former one in Bengali and the latter in Hindi, tries to unanimously paint a picture of pain (and not a façade of mere pity!) 

The use of animal imageries in the literary domain is neither mere ornamentation nor a coincidence. The animal imageries can primarily be bifurcated into the vernacular and the metaphorical animal imageries (DeWit 7). The first type connects more with the immediate social background and derives its meaning from the local language. The vernacular animal imagery provides a limited vision into a literary piece. The second kind of animal imagery or the metaphorical one is more widely used and can transcend the local virtues of a text to a universalised platform. Likewise, the abundance of apt animal imageries used by Fakir Mohan Senapati in his remarkable novel, Chha Maana Atha Guntha in the Oriya language is a brilliant example of highlighting various hidden aspects of the human self in particular and the society on the larger canvas. Fakir Mohan through a series of “kaduakhumphi birds”, “kingfishers”, “kite” and “Hindu cranes” (Senapati 103), dexterously brings to his readers the hierarchy of mistreatment and extensive exploitation rampant at all levels in the society. However, it is very important to note, the animal imageries used here direct the readers more towards the beastly face of the humans rather than expanding the idea of the human as a ‘species’ and as an integral part of nature. The two short stories herein, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh and Premchand’s Sawa Sehr Gehun try to uphold the mesh of relations shared by the humans, non-humans, and their immediate as well as the universal nature.

 Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) holds an irreplaceable position in Bengali literature; particularly owing to his magnum opus, Devdas. The short story, Mahesh brings to flesh and blood, the sagas of the marginalised clan of the society. With great precision, the story brings to the foray that the invisible communities comprise not only of religious minorities like Gafur Jola, a Muslim and the protagonist but also of the wordless creatures like his beloved bullock, Mahesh. Herein, the cow transcends the mere purpose of utility and becomes more of a symbol - of trauma and violence owing to the fatal existence of abject penury. With the scorching heat and the consequential drought during the Jaishth (the second month of the Bengali calendar and along with Baisakh month, which comprises the exhausting summer season) month, the burden of feeding the bellies becomes all the more problematic but empathy remains as rare as the raindrops! It is in this state of palpable chaos that the silent teardrops of Mahesh speak galore.

 The pain of starvation and physical degradation doubles up when Mahesh being a mere animal remains deprived of even the proper channels of word and speech to relay the same. Herein, Mahesh does not stand merely as a ribbed creature of four limbs but an element of contestation. The ribbed body of the cow reveals the pathetic state of humanity at large. When on one hand, Tarkaratna, the priest feeds himself with extra ounces of fruits and rice, yet spares not a single grain either to Gafur or to his beloved, Mahesh whom he cared for as his son. Thereby, carefully placing the humans in the same plane of cognition as that of the animals, Sarat Chandra reveals the depth of dark inhumanity rampant in the human souls. The Darwinian struggle of survival trespasses the boundary between humans and animals. So to say, desperation at the hour of hunger and thirst (both for the tangible food and for the intangible identity) effortlessly superimpose the traits of humans and beasts.

 The misery of the characters reflects the unrestrained exploitation of nature and the non-human beings in the hands of the deadly consumerist society identified by Tarkaratna and by the wealthy Brahmin Zamindar heading the village of Kashipur. Resonating with the words of Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City (Nayar 329), Sarat Chandra too does not aim at glorifying the green nature of the rural world rather brings in the helplessness associated with wretched poverty, the defunct societal structure and the harsh seasons. Through every inch of this literary piece at hand, there is a constant persuasion to re-construct a healthy bio-social cont(r)act.

 In the closing lines of the short story, when Gafur being caught in an unfortunate misunderstanding, puts an end to his dearest bullock and his metaphorical son, Mahesh, the story as if comes alive with the scientific term that all humans belong ‘only and only’ to the kingdom of Animalia. Though a mute spectator, the untimely death of Mahesh provides a psychological revelation of the human world wherein, the latter’s choice and cognition come to fruition only by manifesting ‘humanhood’ which entails supporting and caring for one another in the tribe. Alas! Most of the humans being caught in the mesh of circumstantial agony brewed by the consumerist world, never truly transcend the state of bestiality to humanity!

 Through the lenses of eco-feminism, it is instrumental to look into the binary opposites of male and female in the context of this short story. Throughout the literary piece, Amina (Gafur’s young daughter) hardly gets a say just like Mahesh. The only difference being, even though Amina has the privilege of word-formation yet never gets the right ‘event’ to voice out the same and Mahesh, on the other side, neither has the words nor has the capacity to relay his thoughts. In other words, Amina is an ‘extended version’ of Mahesh. Both doubly ostracised; once by the society and next up by the superior other, the (hu)man. In this surreal integration of women and nature (along with the non-human beings), it is key to note that not only do men exercise their will and action on the lesser ones by sheer force but also by hegemonizing them by false deification. Attaching vital elements of nurturing, caring and loyalty to the women and nature, the lot at large slowly gets pushed out of the culture and society (which steadily gets masculinized). 

 Additionally, owing to the violence and the brewed apathy in the environment, it becomes a major necessity to depict the sad state of affairs of the poor animals' side by side with their equally wretched masters. In cases of crisis, humans as we are, we often empathize with our clan at first before turning to help the animals. However, one needs to understand that the animals or the non-human beings are as much vulnerable as the humans are during the traumatic hours; in this context, drought and starvation. In these lines, it is important to underline the fact that the act of anthropocentrism highlighted here, ironically does not portray the humans as the cynosure rather cajoles the same to widen its arena of existence and thereby, the discourse to involve the other participants of the eco-system. This dialectical relation between nature and humans foregrounds the various levels of inequalities and exploitation. To march forward to a healthy environment, the sudden accidents of role reversals wherein the humans acting as brutes and vice versa, need to be uprooted once and for all. By scraping away the boundaries of anthropocentrism, the realisation of sensitivity is sure to dawn upon! It is through this inclusivity factor that the humans will get subsumed into nature and thus, will not attempt to exploit the same, either by alienation or by being a part of it.

 The animal imageries need to be studied not merely on the literary level but also on the linguistic level. Gafur being a Muslim gets penalised by derogatory words by the priest, Tarkaratna. The priest verbally abuses; calling Gafur, “mlecchá” (Chattopadhyay 1). The word taken from Vedic Sanskrit literally means barbarians. In this context of bitter social relation, Gafur gets reduced to a beast, an outcast and hence, gets shooed away from the basic amenities of human society just because he was born a Muslim in a Hindu dominated society. The Muslims therein were considered as ‘untouchables’ as well, thereby, making them an invisible part of the ‘civilised’ society. This binary of savage and civilised comes strikingly clearer when Tarkaratna once again hurls down offensive words like “pashondo” (Chattopadhyay 1). The etymological meaning of the word “pashondo” (Chattopadhyay 1) is one who is an atheist. However, the meaning twists into a derogatory notion by contextualising the same within the time frame of exploitation wherein words like these were being used in the colloquial language to determine humans who acted like brutes. This likening to brutes does not always refer to the inherent layers of bestiality in humans rather highlight the communities who were considered ‘lesser’ to the predominant higher classes. Thus, anyone lower to the privileged classes was considered nothing more than animals, who could be used for eternal labour hours, with no individual rights, and at the end, begging for the scraps of food left over by the upper classes. This extension of the human world into the animals and vice versa is not only traumatic but also alarming at the same time. The minute readings bring to question “the struggle of spiritual, political, and community values that are unique to the human animal” (Levy 66).

The feudal’s and the Zamindars’ exploitative measures did not get restricted only in Sarat Chandra’s Bengal rather stretched even to his contemporary, Premchand’s land. Premchand (1880-1936), the legendary ‘kathasamrat’ stands tall as one of the strongest pillars of Hindi literature, known widely for his heart-wrenching novel, Godaan. His writings subjectively and emotionally align much with Sarat Chandra’s; both delving deep into the intricacies of the human self by contextualising them within the current frame of oppression under the British colonisers in particular and within the existing world of all beings in general. Through animals and humans alike, Premchand like Sarat Chandra too brings in the ragged episodes of the rural life with the degenerative daily lives of the landless tenants and at large the dysconnectivity between nature and the humans. His short story, Sawa Sehr Gehun flags the human face of the shortcomings, pain and tyranny bolstered by the economic and socio-cultural greed through his protagonist, Shankar.

Shankar, a petty landless peasant, “a kurmi farmer - Collective name for the Hindu agricultural caste(s)” (Premchand 129) deprived of even two meals a day, gets caught up in a debt to a Brahman, who in the years has elevated from the position of a priest to a tactful and cunning Zamindar. Shankar like Sarat Chandra’s Gafur too has a bullock which happens to be his sole source of income as it helped him in the ‘agricultural activities’.

Out of the five bighas, only half remained along with a bullock on his side. How was it possible to be a peasant now? At last, cultivation became a mere instrument of preserving the family honour for Shankar for livelihood rested now entirely on the daily wage earning (Premchand 132).

Shankar’s menial amount of borrowing from the Zamindar along the seven years had turned a “mountain out of a molehill” (Premchand 133), converting a “quarter ser of wheat” (Premchand 133) into “five and half a mun” (Premchand 133). The politics of the narrative further problematises when seen through the ideologies of the Marxist environmentalists. The helplessness of Shankar and his dead-beaten starved bullock (who is nameless here in) voices out the pain and ignominy the wealth accumulators can put the ‘have-nots’ to; in silence and in vain. The namelessness of the bullock bellows at recollecting the universal trail of exploitation. It is imperative to perceive the present stand that exploitation did not begin with the tyrannical Zamindari system but began right from the birth of the human race.

According to Marxist environmentalism (Nayar 338), nature no more gets revered as a space for integration of all aspects of life rather gets denominated as a mere ‘commodity’ or even worse, simply as a ‘production sector’. Here, it becomes crucial to see that along with nature, the non-human beings and the lowest strata of the societal hierarchy, an exclusion navigates through; stealthily, first at the social level and next, at the environmental level. The hoarding of commodities and the excess avarice of the rich Brahmins to extract more and more from the vulnerable lesser beings and the non-humans depicts exploitation at multiple levels (both horizontally and vertically). The traditional hierarchy or the Indian varna system showcases the stultified and the decadent forms of the society, with the rich getting richer by accepting donations and the poor keep slipping into a deeper level of poverty even after selling their bodies for labour. The poor herein does not simply bracket Shankar but also his bullock. Either of them toils hard in the burning “Jeth sun” (Premchand 132), only to be thrown into a never-ending cycle of piling debts and humiliation. Even in the earlier short story, Sarat Chandra’s Mahesh, when Gafur along with his daughter, Amina leave their agricultural base behind hoping to live anew by working in the jute mills, this further portrays the introduction of the vicious industrialised and capitalistic parasite feeding onto innocent lives. The death of Mahesh just before Gafur’s withdrawal from his village also marks out the territory that capitalism and the much-loved modernity does not hold any space for animals. Consequentially, under the garb of better lives in an industrialised society, the people get deprived of their humanistic virtues even more. Thus, the constant contestation between the bourgeois and the proletariats get outlined herein with greater finesse. 

The animal imageries through a domestic animal also extend to the fact that humans at large are also being domesticated, being enslaved and are being ‘used’ until they are reduced to their bare corporeal frames without an ounce of emotion, conscience and vigour. To drive out the dark hovering debts from his head, Shankar worked way more than he used to. With no food on the table and no money even to cater to his hukka (an equipment for tobacco consumption), the anxiety of clearing up the debts multiplied further on. The extensive work hours with not much extra earnings reduced him into a mere skeleton with nothing more than a rag. His body became bare like that of a brute; with no clothing to cover the self-respect and the humane self. It is in these wretched conditions; Shankar too subsumes into the identity of an animal. Particularly, he gets caricatured as a stray animal who has neither any food to consume nor a home for shelter. The contextual integration of Shankar to a beast of deprivation and no self-worth assumes to be tragic rather than the peaceful interconnectedness hailed by the idea of ‘deep ecology’.

Lawrence Buell’s instrumental work, The Environmental Imagination (Nayar 337), “apocalypse is the single most powerful metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal”. This painful realisation occurs at the closing lines of Premchand’s Sawa Sehr Gehun. Shankar’s pile of debt does not come to a close rather closes the insignificant life of Shankar and introduces his son to yet another renewed cycle of slavery and captivity. Ironically, though Shankar along with his family and the bullock undergo unfathomable exploitation for no ‘proper’ reason yet they consider the same to be ‘pre-ordained’. It is in this naturalizing of the pain and brutality that the situation of the ‘other’ in the bourgeoise world grow even more pathetic. Once again through this latent acceptance, the meaning of Marxist ‘ideology’ comes alive and thus, the redundant societal bliss.

In this context, it is very evident that the eco-critical approach extends further into third world environmentalism. Premchand’s Shankar lived in a rural nameless village and on a daily basis, he was tormented. The pioneering idea of eco-criticism began in the West and consequentially, in the blind imitation of the West, our country too followed suit. The main problem however lies in the fact that the ways to protect nature and the non-humans, the bourgeoise perspective holds very paltry significance. It is the landless tenants like Shankar who work endlessly to secure the worth of the land and not the wealth-fed Zamindars. Thereby, Ramchandra Guha’s ‘environmentalism of the poor’ (Nayar 339) becomes an important point of discussion. Any malfunction in the environment directly affects the poorer lot and may or may not at all affect the Zamindars or the feudal lords. Even here, both Shankar and his innocent bullock bear the brunt of the excessive profiteering market set up by the priest turned Zamindar. Paradoxically, the voicelessness of the proletariats speaks way more about the imbalance in the society than the cacophony of the bourgeoisie!

When on one hand, the eco-criticism eyes the integration of humans, the non-humans and nature as a major factor in the progression of humans yet at the same time, these elements might also reveal the various discrepancies in human development. Likewise, be it Shankar or Gafur both exist within the framework of nature yet their end is abysmal; a state of catastrophe. The prime question arises why? Even though there is a string of harmony connecting Shankar, Gafur, and nature (including the non-humans too), but there is discord in the intra-human relations. It is the dissonance and friction between the various human strata that the true universal harmony cannot be achieved.

 Conclusively, either of the short stories brought in here under scrutiny, beautifully reflects that humans and non-humans are integral parts of nature, and supposedly, cannot exist in isolation. The animal imageries (both literal and linguistic ones) surfaces not just the integration of nature as a whole but also the fault lines in the same which needs to be glued by acting responsibly to one another. The animals in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Mahesh and Premchand’s Sawa Sehr Gehun being connoted as the ‘extension’ of human development and experiences bring together a sense of recognition for every individual’s share of contribution in building up the ecological consciousness. Thereby, the short stories amidst the multiple layers of social injustice try to highlight the need to restore sanity and rationality both in human nature and in the universal nature at large.


Works Cited 

Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra. Mahesh. BDeBooks,

Sinha, Arunava. “Translations.” 1 March 2016,

DeWit, David A. “The Joyce menagerie : animal imagery in the first three novels.” University of Richmond, UR Scholarship Repository, 1967, p. 7.

Levy, Josephine. “Biological and Animal Imagery in John Steinbeck's Migrant Agricultural Novels: A Re-evaluation.” Between the Species, 1994, pp. 66-70.

Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: From Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Pearson.

Premchand. The Bond of Slavery: Sawā Ser Gehun by Premchand in Hindi. Translated by Umesh Kumar, vol. 12, Translation Today, 2018,

Senapati, Fakir Mohan. Six Acres and a Third. Translated by Rabi Shankar Mishra, et al., University of California Press, 2005.



Bio: Sharbari Ghosh is currently pursuing post-graduation in English from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. Her research interests include Refugee and Migration Studies, Translation studies, Partition Literature, and Holocaust Studies. Her analytical approach to the usage of animal imageries traced in Fakir Mohan Senapati’s legendary translated novel, Six Acres and a Third, will be released by Muse India. On the most recent note, she has been selected (from an international pool of competitors) to participate with a cohort of 500 participants from 108 countries in the course, Global Compact for Migration by Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism.

Email: sgmg9698[AT]gmail[DOT]com

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