Three women, three stories of forbidden love.
Ignored by her well-meaning husband, Charulata falls in love with a high-spirited young cousin in The Broken Nest (Nashtaneer, 1901). Sharmila, in Two Sisters (Dui Ben, 1933), witnesses her husband sink her fortunes and his passion into his business-and her sister. And the invalid Neeraja finds her life slowly ebbing away as a new love awakens for her beloved husband in The Arbour (Malancha, 1934).
Romantic, subtle and nuanced, Rabindranath Tagore's novellas are about the undercurrents in relationships, the ,mysteries of love, the ties and bonds of marriage and, above all, about the dreams and desires of women.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was Bengal's most celebrated writer. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, becoming the first Indian to win the prize and the only Indian to win it for literature. Regarded by many as a Renaissance Man, he was a novelist, dramatist, artist, lyricist, educationist and, above all, a poet.
Between Nashtaneer (1901) and Dui Bon (1933) or Malancha (1934), there is a gap of more than three decades and the reader may find it rather odd that they have been included for translation in a cluster. While there are obvious differences between the early and later works of Tagore, these are perhaps less important than the central preoccupation, if not obsession, that unites them: an anatomy of upper-class conjugal relationship, in particular, women's problematic location in it. On the one hand, trauma and loneliness in the home pushes the women to the brink of hysteric madness where they discover their unknown sexual intensities. On the other hand, the same women may imprison themselves in stereotypes of domesticity. Needless to say, such themes and issues are absent in many of Tagore's earlier short stories with a rural background. As he puts it in a discussion late in his career, while the early stories had a youthful freshness, tenderness, and spontaneity, his later fiction, focusing on urban life, was marked by psychological complexity and a conscious use of technique (Forward, 23 February, 1936). This urban fiction is characterized by an almost banal, everyday family life involving sober financial planning and calculation: the male protagonists are all engaged in business. The placid surface is then suddenly broken up by a seismic upheaval equally in matters of the heart and those of finance. Financial fraud and collapse accompany emotional treachery and turmoil.
The paradigm of transgressive, often self-destructive, passion of women within a patrician or middle-class milieu can of course be traced back to the domestic fiction of Bankim Chandra, Chatterjee. Barring a few exceptions, the Victorian domestic novel had been marked by settled family life and the prudential distrust of ungovernable passion. Thus, it could not have served as a model for Bankim or Tagore. At the same time, Victorian values were a visible 'civilizing/colonizing' influence on the Bengali middle and upper classes, shaping the ideals of companionate marriage, family, and home. But if Victorian morality gave rise to a new concept of domesticity, Tagore's fictional representation of it exposed the stifling hypocrisy and limitations of that morality. Victorian values may have introduced the notion of companionate marriage to the middle-class Hindu household, but the entire process involved a poeticization of women. Thus, a prosaic and routine domesticity is turned into a sanctimonious ideal by a rhetoric of mystification. Tagore formulates his critique of the process in many of his writings: in Ghare Baire (1916), for instance, he does this appropriately through the interior monologue of Bimala, the heroine. Recalling her mother's role as devoted wife, she simultaneously realizes that the unaffected, self- effacing simplicity of that domestic routine is beyond recovery. She discovers that the humdrum domesticity of the immediate past was being supplanted by a poeticized and mystified version, public opinion now responded to change by moulding that which was as easy as breathing into a poetic art. The imaginatively inclined men of today are raising their pitch constantly as they hold forth on the unparalleled poetry of the wifely devotion of married women and abstinence of widows. It is evident from this how in this domain of life there has been a breach between truth and beauty (Rabindra Rachanabali, vol. 4, Vishwabharati, 1987, p. 474; translation mine).
Sharmila (Dui Ban) and Niraja (Malancha) are victims of this mystification.
The couples in these three novellas and indeed in most of Tagore's urban fiction are childless. While it is common knowledge that a barren wife or one producing only girls was held in contempt-even the memoirs of Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of one of Tagore's elder brothers, bear witness to this attitude-such issues are kept out by Tagore. Moreover, the mother-in-law or sister-in-law is conspicuously absent in the novellas. Evidently, Tagore excludes these relatives here in order to concentrate on the man-woman relationship which is specifically under stress in a period of transition. But the childlessness is more puzzling, especially in view of the unprecedented importance of childhood in his entire oeuvre, including critical and educational writings. The obvious contrast here is with the domestic fiction of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee where much of the happiness of the family derives from children. Could childlessness then be seen as a conscious strategy to question the inauthenticity ('breach between truth and beauty') of the domestic ideal discussed above?
Sharmila's maternal solicitude for her husband, juxtaposed with her childlessness, may thus indicate a mismatched relationship. As Tagore had, put it in a letter, Shashanka and Sharmila had never really been united, although the cracks were not visible on the surface. Their marital relationship is therefore like a make-believe game and Shashanka openly rebukes her for treating him like a toy in front of the world. Despite her suffering, Sharmila somewhat masochistically surrenders to the stereotype of the woman who is ruthlessly left at home by her husband in pursuit of his commercial enterprise which for her is the eternal masculine, heroic struggle with fate. Her younger sister, Urmimala, is very different, impulsive, curious, and brimming over with vitality. But Nirad wishes to dominate her completely, disguising his love of power and money in the form of lofty ideals according to which he would mould her nature like a scientific procedure in the laboratory. Urmi submits to this subtle tyranny, this aestheticization, much against her nature, although fortunately she is not trapped into marriage. Internalizing the sermons of Nirad, she would periodically chastize herself and adopt an ascetic regimen even when he was away in Europe. She thus finds release from this stifling priggishness in the light-hearted relationship with Shashanka bordering upon adultery.
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