Uttara Yogi

— Arup Mitra


Price: Rs 495

Pages: 576
Dimensions (in cms): 14x22
ISBN: 978-81-89738-55-6
Hard Cover
Publisher: Niyogi Books, New Delhi

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About Uttara Yogi

This historical novel takes place in pre-independent India, at a time when efforts were being organised to throw off British rule. Through the narrative of the fictional character Harimohan Datta, who meets and befriends Sri Aurobindo, the author recounts the story of Sri Aurobindo's life and his rise to prominence as a leader of the nationalist movement. Interwoven with the well-known events and historical personalities of the day are varied characters who become involved in the adventures, betrayals, and tales of patriotism that move the story to its conclusion, the arrival of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry on 4 April 1910.


In Uttara Yogi, Arup Mitra, longtime resident of Pondicherry and disciple of Sri Aurobindo, offers a new work based on a mix of history, legend and fiction. While the historical personality of the Master finds a place in many contemporary novels, notably in Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai, it is perhaps for the first time that a radically new attempt has been made to present the career of Sri Aurobindo's pre-Pondicherry life through a modern day Sutradhar, Harimohan Datta, who is both a participant and an observer in the dramatic action.

The blurring of the boundary line between history and fiction is, of course, central to Mitra's oeuvre. He has suggested elsewhere that his aim is to present a popular account of Sri Aurobindo's life and narrate the events that preceded his historic arrival in Pondicherry on 4 April 1910. The idea clearly is to bring Sri Aurobindo before a wider audience. A laudable goal!

Uttara Yogi throws up a number of interesting issues related to the art of historiography, traditionally regarded as an attempt to understand and interpret events of the past based on empirically verifiable facts. The novel also foregrounds the art of narrativization that willfully ignores the claims of historical ‘certitudes' and welcomes fictional devices through irony, ambiguity, paradox and points of view characteristic of the Novel form.

Significantly, in recent times newer approaches to history have questioned the so-called objectivity of traditional historiography. Both the Post-Structuralism and Subaltern History schools have drawn our attention to the ‘location' of the historian and the actual narration (discourse, if you will) underlying the events themselves. The questioning itself is welcome, though it has to be conceded that most humans have a longing to know the real events as they really happened. Mitra has made his own choice. He reveres his Guru and builds the story of Uttara Yogi basically around the Master's own account of his life.

Mitra's goal is not to address the philosophical issues revolving around traditional historiography and narrativization, but to tell an engrossing and important story. In Uttara Yogi, we see the intersection of two primary narratives: one is the story of Harimohan Datta, adopted child of the aristocratic couple Horace and Julia Cockerell. This story, we may say, is a complete work of imagination. The second narrative, based on historical fact, is a story that marks the transformation of Aurobindo Ghose into Sri Aurobindo.

Mitra carefully works out the double narratives through a structure of four parts: "The Beginning", "Search Within", "A Special Destiny" and "The Man and the Mission", each part deftly built so as to bolster the overall understanding of the nationalist who evolves into the exponent of Integral Yoga and the future evolution of man.

A "Short History", offered at the beginning of Uttara Yogi, acts as a foreword to the novel. It acquaints the reader with the necessary background: the role played by the British East India Company in a colonial rule based on loot and plunder. The Raj, it need hardly be said, created a psychology of diffidence and self-loathing among the subject population.

In a fast-paced, action-packed narrative, Mitra gives a chronological account of the events and incidents associated with the life of Sri Aurobindo. The novel opens in 1870 in a remote hamlet of the South Indian Peninsula, in an area hit by severe drought. The people of Nagai have gathered because of the crisis to implore a saint named Vasudeva to bring rain to the parched land. As the first clouds bring the miracle of rain, the sage of the Nagai foretells the arrival of a Yogi from the North: ‘Read God's writing in the sky', he tells the devout. ‘Soon a great Uttara Yogi will come and settle down in these parts of the country for his own and the world's spiritual salvation. It is he who will lead you in the future.' (p. 20)

The two tales of Uttara Yogi are based on the changing fortunes of its two leading families. Horace Cockerell, ICS, and his wife Julia, granddaughter of the Viscount Strathallan, adopt Harimohan and give him an English education. Similarly, the English-educated Dr Krishna Dhone Ghose of Rangpur and his wife Swarnalata, daughter of Rishi Rajnarayan Basu of Deogarh, the legendary reformer of 19th century Bengal, have their own plans for their four sons: Benoybhushan, Manomohan, Aurobindo and Barin.

Through a series of short chapters that revolve around spectacular events, Mitra presents the dramatic action of the late 19th and early 20th century India. The focus is invariably on the Renaissance and nationalistic movements that seek to dethrone the British from the Motherland.

Thus we see the early life of Aurobindo and his brothers in England. We hear of Reverend Drewett, James and Henry Cotton, historian G.W. Prothero, Lord Kimberley and George Russell.

We witness the arrival of young Aurobindo in Baroda as an administrator in the service of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad. As Aurobindo teaches in Baroda College and writes articles for K.G. Deshpande's journal Induprakash under the title "New Lamps for Old", Harimohan, the fictional character, receives an offer from the Maharaja to become the Dewan of Baroda.

We meet Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Romesh Chandra Dutt, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Jatindranath Banerjee. The latter joins the Baroda army to train for future insurrections. We see the meeting of Aurobindo with Tagore and Sister Nivedita, C.C. Dutt and his wife Lilavati, Sarala Devi, Brahma Bandhab Upadhyay, P. Mitra and Raja Subodh Mullick. We hear of the tumultuous events leading to the partition of Bengal brought into effect by Lord Curzon. We learn of the Anushilan and Jugantar Samitis, underground organizations that spearhead revolutionary action. Here we see a band of fearless nationalists: Barin Ghose, Nolinikanta Gupta, Sudhir Sarkar and others who were ready to lay down their lives for the sake of the nation. We meet other historical figures of the day including Lord Curzon, Sir Andrew Fraser, Sir Edward Norman Baker, Charles Tegart, Judge Beachcroft and Rabindranath Tagore.

As the novel progresses, Barin, Aurobindo's brother, meets Indraneel, the son of Harimohan. We are told of experiments in bomb-making in the Dighiria Hills that result in casualties.

We next see the sacrifice of Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki, Aurobindo's imprisonment in the Alipore jail, his defense by the fiery barrister Chittaranjan Das and his final acquittal. His departure to Chandernagore, and later to Pondicherry, is narrated with equal passion.

Finally, as Moni (Suresh Chakravarty) journeys on the Madras Mail along the Coromandel Coast, he finds himself conversing with the fictional character Ayanar Gounder, who is destined to witness the realization of the prophecy about the arrival of the Uttara Yogi.

Based on years of painstaking research, Arup Mitra narrates the story of Sri Aurobindo with passion and fervor not unmindful of his loyalty to history. It's a tightrope walk clearly. Mitra's preferences for visionary goals and idealistic actions are evident. Some may question his reluctance to offer counter-narratives based on skepticism and disbelief.

Uttara Yogi is no Saint Joan of Bernard Shaw where miracle-making must be constantly juxtaposed against comic disbelief. I am glad Arup Mitra has not fallen into this trap. Some may question the degree of monotony created by the regular pattern of short chapters around an event or two. It is possible that an alternate narrativization could have been effected. However, Mitra has opted for his own approach, and it is a legitimate choice!

What concerns us ultimately is the overall vision of the novel. This is where Arup Mitra scores. Published on the occasion of the centenary of the Master's arrival in Pondicherry, the book reminds us of the immense significance of that event as the beginning of a new epoch in human history.

— Sachidananda Mohanty
Dr Mohanty is Professor and Head of the English Department at the University of Hyderabad. His latest work is Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader. He has received a number of national and international awards and is widely published. He had his early education at the SAICE, Pondicherry.

November 2010