Pankaj Mishra’s 2012 book Ruins of Empire starts in May 1905 after the Japanese Navy has routed the Russians in the Tsushima Strait. News of the victory of an Eastern country over a Western power reached the colonised nations of Asia and Africa quickly. Mishra quotes Lord Curzon, who feared that “the reverberation of that victory have gone like a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East.” Mishra cites the joy Ataturk, Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen, W.E.B. Du Bois and Nehru had at this historic Western defeat. This was seen by some to prove conclusively that the East was not backwards and did not need western “civilisation”.
Rabindranath Tagore “led his students in an impromptu victory march around a little school compound in rural Bengal.” Elsewhere in Bengal, specifically at 17/1 Ramaknto Bose’s 1st Lane, Baghbazar, Calcutta, another man had been following the events of the war. From 1904 to 1905, Bengali poet and singer J. N. Mookerjee published a five part epic poem about the events of the war.
This poem is not mentioned in Pankaj Mishra; it is hardly mentioned by anyone. As far as I can tell all five parts of the first edition are not available anywhere. On WorldCat a microfilm of pts. 4&5 are referenced but it is unclear where they are. The British Library has an unidentified number of the volumes from 1904 but it is not clear if they have the whole thing. The National Library of India has a collected second edition from 1906 that puts all volumes together but does not have the first editions, which include several other poems and attached reviews of the work. I got my copies from the London bookseller Arthur Probsthain.
The quality of the verse is variable at times. The rhyming and scansion of the closing stanza of the first part of the epic ends it in a rather disappointing way:
Russians intended to retire, from the seat of war,
Leaving Vladivostok, Korea, Port Arthur, far
The battle fought on tenth of March, was a victory,
For Japanese , which demoralised the Russian army.
Other sections are, however, better. A London Globe review of the first three parts says that “Its success should lead to a revolution in war correspondence, for the public is not going to be satisfied with bald prose when it can get this sort of thing” (perhaps we could use some poet war correspondents now). In many ways this book confirms what Mishra says about the impact of this event. A central theme that runs through Mookerjee’s poem is the triumph of the East. In a particularly striking series of stanzas he describes a Japanese mother who, on learning her son has been exempted from service so he can take care of her, kills herself in order that the boy can fight the Russians. Perhaps a strange message for a Mother’s Day post.
This story for him represents the power of Eastern women. He adds:
Let the world see the noble qualities of th’East
Let th’ woman-kind of the Far East be the world’s priest,
And teach the world the lessons on self-sacrifice,
On religion, tolerance of their daily life.
As a Bengali poet he was invested in strength of Eastern models. It was important to him that this great Eastern victory was rhapsodised in an Eastern manner.
However, not all of the poem reinforces Mishra’s view of the Russ0-Japanese War as a great anti-imperial event. Of course, criticising the British in India was not the safest endeavour or one that would ease publication of your poetry. Still, the books are accompanied by several poems which praise of Lord and Lady Curzon as well as the British in India. The epic itself is peppered with praise of the Empire. “Hindustan”, he proclaims “with England thou must rise and fall, this I now see, // Behold Hindustan!”. The fourth part ends with the verse:
Then come one, come all, GOD SAVE THE KING, let us sing
Our Kai-Sar-a-Hind, mighty England’s noble King,
And for him, who is trying th’East and West to span,
Let us sing, GOD SAVE THE EMPEROR OF JAPAN.
Mishra says that “for many other non-white peoples, Russia’s humiliation seemed to negate the West’s racial hierarchies.” For Mookerjee, it could be seen to confirm the inferiority of the Slavs and the power of England:
If the Russians ever dare to come to our gate,
Whole India will rise to a man in the chase
The irresistible might of England and India
Would be too powerful for the Slav. in Asia
Let Russians think twice before insulting England,
England’s King is Kai-Sar-a-Hind of this ancient land
All this is not to argue against Pankaj Mishra’s book. The Russo-Japanese War was important for Mookerjee and other because it showed the power of non-Western countries. However, as far as this played out in relationship to colonialism was as complex as reactions to colonialism in the Early 20th century were. Not everyone wanted revolution against the colonial power, some wanted a slow peaceful increase in self-government and this was very much the line the British, quite possibly insincerely, pushed. Of course, certain classes of people also benefited from British rule.
The Russo-Japanese War was used by many. This rare and, probably, largely marginal epic poem adds another angle to the story that Mishra has already told us.
Because it is mother’s day I will close with Mookerjee’s poem to his deceased mother. Mookerjee seems to have been rather unlucky in his family life. His father died at the young age of 39. The second part of the epic begins with a short poem to his dead younger sister. This poem in the end of his 5th book eulogises his mother. It is a rather moving poem by a son for a mother whom he wishes to see just one more time. Although not as historically interesting, it is more affecting than his epic: