Uploaded in : 2008
To Mark the Death Centenary Year of Jules Verne
The Jules Verne we do not yet know in India
An illustrated lecture by Ms Swati Dasgupta, a Researcher on Verne
Chair: Dr. Jean-Marie Lafont
March 24, 2005, is being observed all over the world of literature and science as Jules Verne’s death centenary. India has a special place in the voluminous works of Verne, the most famous science and fiction writer of all times. One of his books is wholly devoted to and three others have accounts of events in India. The most well-known of all of Verne’s characters is Captain Nemo who seems to be a projection of Nana Sahib in his life after the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857. Verne’s sympathy for the cause of Indian Independence comes out very clearly in his L’lle Mystérieuse. Sadly, much of all this has been obscured by motivated English versions of Verne’s books for well over a hundred years and India still does not know him well enough. It is only very recently that the long overdue work of translating Verne into English afresh is being done.
Location: CONFERENCE ROOM-1
Review by Come Carpentier de Gourdon
The evening was dedicated to a presentation of the best-selling French author Jules Verne on the occasion of his death centenary. Dr. Dasgupta has done extensive research on the work that the famous novelist did on India, a country which appears in no less than five of his books.
Jules Verne was born in the old capital of Brittany, Nantes, in 1828 and was expected by his family to go into business or the legal profession. However, he only managed to get a degree in Law because writing became his main passion. Like many of his contemporaries gifted with literary propensities he tried at various times to make a success as a playwright but his plays were at best modest hits on the ‘boulevard’ or popular stage and he found his real path in part thanks to the great publisher Jules Hetzel who contracted him to write a series of travel and adventure stories in contemporary settings, at the rate of two a year, under the general heading of ‘Voyages extraordinaires’ or ‘Extraordinary Travels’.
The target audience was the high school and college youth but the books were meant to be enjoyed by all the reading public, said Dr. Dasgupta. Jules Verne got a free rein to indulge his passion for science and exotic adventures in a world which was fast revealing its last remaining mysteries to the audacious and boundlessly optimistic Western explorers of the XIX century. As an admirer of his contemporaries’ drive to unravel the secrets of the universe, Verne could not fail to look up with both esteem and envy to the great British colonisers on whose ever-growing empire the Sun never set. Not surprisingly a majority of his heroes are British though Verne, influenced by the ancestral French dislike for the English, often gave the most prestigious roles in his writings to Scots, seen for centuries in France as natural allies.
India attracted renewed attention in France during the 1857 ‘sepoy mutiny’ or first war of independence, as it should more properly be called. Jules Verne often evoked that unsuccessful rebellion on which de Valdezen, the French consul general in Calcutta at the time, had extensively reported. However the first specific reference to it, in the famous novel Twenty thousand leagues under the sea turns out to have come as an afterthought. The author has first described his mysterious submarine commander Nemo as a Polish rebel who had fled the Russian oppression of his native land. However relations between France and Russia were getting increasingly close at the time and Hetzel, who knew that Verne’s novel had a large Russian readership, did not want to incur the Czar’s censorship. At his prompting, Verne turned Nemo into an Indian Maharajah, Prince Dakkar, who was, in his subsequent novel, related to Nemo and his futuristic submarine the ‘Nautilus’, described rather confusingly as both the son of an independent ruler from Bundelkhand and a nephew of Tippoo Sultan.
The widespread tendency in France not to make any difference between Muslims and other Indians who were all until recently labelled ‘Hindous’ accounts for this historical inconsistency and has allowed some researchers to speculate that Nemo may have been, in Verne’s thinking, none other than the vanished Mahratta leader Nana Sahib. In fact Nana Sahib appears nominally, and rather unflatteringly characterised, in the great Indian novel of Verne La Maison a Vapeur (The Steam House).
In order to account for Nemo’s secretiveness and clandestine activities, Verne made him a rebel hero and a victim of Britain’s ruthless imperialism, dedicated to bringing about the freedom of his country from the hated conquerors. Clearly Verne shared the widespread sympathy that the French public felt for the cause of Indian independence which they often related to their own Republican revolutionary past. On the other hand, the European public was commonly afflicted with typical prejudice against ‘backward’ natives, widely held to be idolatrous, cruel and deceitful. As an enthusiastic proponent of Western technological and missionary civilisation, Verne could not fail to share in the relative disdain of his contemporaries for the subject peoples whose lot it was to be colonised, converted and ‘civilised’. This mixed view of India often appears in two other novels which describe parts of the sub-continent rather extensively, namely, The Steam House and Around the World in 80 days.
One factor which is to be kept in mind however is the influence that both his publisher and then his own son, Michel, had on Verne’s writing which they did not hesitate to modify and abridge for various commercial or political motives. However the most extensive distortion of his thought was carried out by his first English translators (especially the notorious Mercier Lewis) who not only omitted all unfavourable references to the British empire’s deeds, especially to the atrocities committed by the Queen’s general in repressing the ‘mutiny’, but also distorted or edited out altogether many of his scientific and technological descriptions and theories which they probably did not understand or found tedious without realising their prophetic character.
Accurate, non-bowdlerised renderings in English of some of Verne’s great novels were first provided, unsurprisingly, by an American, Sydney Kravis, in the nineteen fifties, at the very moment when the Empire’s decline had set. Until then the control exercised by London over all English publications appears to have been surprisingly strong and it is little wonder that Jules Verne, conscious of the global popularity of his work and of the French official policy of friendship with White Hall, avoided criticising the hegemonic power of the time too strenuously and generally pictured individual Britishers in a flattering light while reserving his scorn and dislike for the often-reviled Germans, especially in the novels he penned after the disastrous French defeat of 1870, such as the Begum’s Wealth where India again makes an appearance, although liminally.
In his final comments, concluding a lively discussion, Prof. Jean-Marie Lafond pointed out that there had indeed been considerable French moral support for the 1857 insurgents and that the Foreign Office had alerted the British East India office of rumours about French military officers travelling under cover to India to supply the rebels with training and arms. The ‘great game’ was thus alive and well. In fact Napoleon III’s unofficial envoy to India, Rousselet, wrote a very popular book about his travels in the country which was one of Verne’s major sources, along with the renowned magazines L’Illustration and the Revue des deux Mondes.