Thomas Newbold, PhD Candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations and History, The University of Chicago
In 1822 the Sanskrit satirical play Hāsyārṇava (Ocean of Laughter) was first printed at Calcutta, accompanied by a Bengali verse translation. In the play, set in the fictitious realm of a king where the transgression of all that is proper is the sole norm, the kingdom’s Brahmins methodically violate all expected moral and social prescriptions in order to comically pursue ever more base forms of gratification. Yet the upside-down world of the Hāsyārnava was no far-off fairytale realm for the residents of early nineteenth-century Kolkata.
The satirist Bhabānīcaraṅa Bandyopādhyāẏa, editor of the Hāsyārṇava, worried explicitly that the new arrangements of employment and sociability brought about by the colonial order could make life in Kolkata appear comically grotesque to outsiders, and that the normless city could and would be laughed at. He was not alone in being so preoccupied: Fort William College paṇḍits Mrityuñjaẏa Bidyālaṅkāra and Kāśinātha Tarkapañcānana joined him in worrying about the transgressions of the moderns and in making a reinvigorated case for the authoritative traditions that explained how matters ought to be. Others – most prominently Rammohun Roy – openly objected to their normative solutions, and in so doing complicated the straightforwardness of any appeal to textual prescriptions. The debate that followed transformed the simple quest for a realignment between norm and practice into a philosophical problem proper: if life in Kolkata was not to be immoral, where would good norms come from?