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Today – the 25th day of Baishakh according to the Bengali calendar – is Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary.
The early 1900s was a period – probably the only period in his long lifetime – when Rabindranath Tagore came close to championing what we may describe as cultural nationalism. This was when Tagore often appeared willing not only to conform to, but also eulogise, conservative social values, though these values really went against the grain of the liberal humanism in which his art had been steeped from the beginning.
Indeed, in this period he often spoke in the traditionalist tone so beloved of social conservatives. In some letters he wrote around this time to teachers of his Santiniketan school – appropriately called the brahmacharya ashram, literally, ‘hermitage of pure conduct’ – Rabindranath wanted the students to be put through a strict regimen of studies, prayers, physical exercises and plain vegetarian food so that they learnt to appreciate and imbibe ‘ancient Indian value-systems’ as they grew to adulthood. He even wrote some semi-polemical essays defending traditional social mores, once, incredibly, going even to the extent of hailing the ‘courage’ of the self-immolating Sati.
At another place, he suggested that the caste system of Hindu society was neither ill-conceived nor morally reprehensible, because it was the glue that held society together. Professor Sumit Sarkar has shown how this unwonted shift towards cultural conservatism coincided with the ascendancy of Hindu revivalism in evidence in much of Bengal’s Swadeshi movement (1903-08). Some of the poet’s creative work of those years inevitably mirrored this tonal shift, too. Tagore’s ambivalence to gender issues at this stage is a case in point: witness his 1902 short story Malyadan (‘Exchanging Garlands’), a maudlin narrative with the unsubtle message that the best thing that can happen to a woman is a loving husband.
But of course Rabindranath was destined to break the shackles of this intellectual retrogression soon enough, or he would not have been one of the 20th century’s great minds. His novel Gora (1910), where he delved deep into questions of religious identity, religious and social rituals, gender and nationhood, helped him recover his sense of perspective. After that, his work evolved steadily and surely over the last three decades of his life, and he would never again allow his vision to be clouded by unreason, dogma or given wisdom.
Indeed, when one now looks back on his post-1910 views on gender equality, nationalism, democracy and economic and social justice, one realises that his catholicity had few parallels in the contemporary world, except perhaps among the most progressive segments of socialist internationalists in Europe and elsewhere.
Here we take a look at a triad of remarkable short stories Rabindranath wrote between April and July, 1914. These are stories that foreground issues of gender and patriarchy, shining a light on the many different ways gender inequity not only destroys its victims but also maims and cripples the communities that practise such inequity. The power and sweep of their argument, the passion and angst seeping through their storylines, together with the fact that they look at gender and patriarchy from multiple angles, set these stories apart from everything else written in Bengali on these questions.
Published in April, 1914, Haldargoshthi (‘Haldar Family’) revolves around Bonoari, the scion of a prosperous landowning family, who proves to be somewhat of an outsider to his family’s cultural milieu. He is head-strong but kind-hearted, quarrels often and violently with his father’s hard-nosed Diwan who thinks nothing of squeezing the last penny out of a poor fisherman who has hit a particularly rough patch, and generally takes up the cudgels on behalf of whoever finds themselves up against the wall. He adores his young wife, soaking her in an excess of romantic love she doesn’t know what to do with, and feels exasperated when she fails to stand by or even sympathise with him when he happens to scrap with his domineering father over some injustice.
Bonoari’s father always thought of him as stupid and obstreperous, and, after an explosive falling-out with him when Bonoari manages to send the Diwan to jail for wrong-doing, disinherits him for good, leaving his estate to his other son when he dies. In the end, Bonoari is obliged to leave home and embrace an uncertain future, but his wife not only clings to her father-in-law’s family but is aghast that her husband has chosen to rock the boat for no rhyme or reason. To her, Bonoari is a renegade unworthy of her sympathy, let alone her love. (At any rate, she recognises faithfulness to her husband as a virtue, while love, even conjugal love, remains an unknown quantity.)
The system of patriarchy has subsumed her so completely that her loyalty to that system blocks everything out, even conjugal loyalty; and that her husband loves her to distraction only annoys her. Though Haldargoshthi is nominally about Bonoari, it is Kiranlekha, the wife, who sits at the centre of Tagore’s searching critique. She is a victim of the system – not any less so because she chooses to be its advocator.
Haimanti made its appearance in May of the same year. The eponymous protagonist, a 17-year-old, educated girl raised in a liberal family living outside Bengal, is married into an ‘enlightened’ fin de siècle Kolkata joint family which gladly welcomes her to start with, mainly because she brought in a handsome dowry. Her young, well-educated, husband admires her intelligence, her simplicity, her love of books and, above all, her very transparent honesty, and soon genuine love blossoms between them. But it is her uncompromising honesty that begins to get Haimanti into trouble with her parents-in-law over this, that and the other.
Seventeen years being considered well past the marriageable age in respectable Hindu circles then, Haimanti is expected to understate her age to friends and family. Likewise she is nudged to tell impressive tales about her father’s station in life, so that the stock of her in-laws can also rise in tandem. Shocked, Haimanti refuses to oblige on all such requests, often creating consternation over what is widely seen as her stupidity and intransigence.
Soon, her father is no longer welcome in her new home, she herself is subjected to cruel and mean barbs all the while, and her welfare is increasingly neglected. Haimanti pines for her past, wastes away in body and spirit, and soon falls irretrievably ill. Her husband, bound as he is by unyielding ties of a patriarchal family, is unable to stand by her side and merely looks on, resigned, as she is pushed inexorably to her death. Even a companionate marriage between two educated and loving adults thus withers in the wilderness of patriarchy and gender discrimination. The victims acquiesce, for they are powerless to do otherwise.
The 1972 Bangla film Strir Patra by Purnendu Patrea
Dissent eludes Haimanti and her husband, but it is dissent, indeed defiance, which defines Mrinal, the plucky heroine of Strir Patra (A wife’s Letter – July, 1914). The story unfolds in the shape of Mrinal’s parting letter to her husband after she has left his home for good. Married into an affluent city-dwelling family at the age of 12 and outwardly conforming to the requirements of a traditional Hindu household at most times, Mrinal has however always lived an inner life of her own also – a life untouched by the self-righteous rigidities, parochialism and petty-mindedness of her in-laws’ hidebound home.
Away from prying eyes, she reads and writes poetry, and she has none of the self-effacing diffidence that characterises her sister-in-law, the wife of her husband’s elder brother, who has been conditioned to play second fiddle to the men of the house in everything. Quietly, but firmly, Mrinal stands her ground on matters on which her husband’s family scarcely expects her to have an opinion. Into this uneasy equilibrium walks Bindu, Mrinal’s sister-in-law’s unlovely and unwed younger sister, who has been hounded out of her parental home by her cousins after her mother’s death. She has nowhere else to go to, but that doesn’t seem to make her any less of a burden to everyone in her elder sister’s prosperous home. Except to Mrinal, who takes Bindu under her wing and gives the luckless girl unbounded love and affection – to everyone else’s chagrin. Soon, the family begins to look for a way to get rid of her unwelcome presence.
Sure enough, it is decided to marry Bindu off, and an apparently suitable match is soon found. Mrinal is deeply sceptical, but there is precious little she can do: after all, can she stand between Bindu and her chance, however slim, of a decent life? A tearful Bindu is bundled off to her in-laws. It soon turns out that her husband is insane: his periods of relative lucidity are followed by spells of demented fury. Bindu flees from him in terror – only to be told that her sister’s family cannot offer her shelter any longer, for the only possible place for a married woman to be in is her husband’s home.
Mrinal remonstrates with everybody repeatedly, but they are openly dismissive: isn’t a husband’s right over her wife’s body and mind absolute? And how could they possibly face the wrath of the police if a charge was to be brought against them for kidnapping Bindu from her in-laws’ home? A distraught Bindu knows that all doors are barred to her now. Though Mrinal tries to shield her from impending doom as best she can, Bindu runs away again – only to kill herself. At last, she is delivered from her fate of having been born a woman.
It is at this point that Mrinal, married for 15, apparently, happy years, decides to turn her back on her husband, his home, his family, and the way of life they represent. She goes away for good to live in Puri, by the sea, and her last letter to her husband is really her will and testament. She reminds him what a terrible burden it is to be a woman, suffering, day in and day out, the monumental sanctimoniousness of a community that condemns its women to bondage and indignity even as it sings paeans to its numerous goddesses.
She points to the exuberant shamelessness of a society that cites as the apotheosis of womanly virtue ‘the wife who carries in her arms her husband, a leper, to the door of the whorehouse that he may satiate his libido’. But she tells him something else as well. That it is yet possible for a woman to be free, to cross the forbidding threshold of phony domestic bliss and take charge of her own destiny. That her soul had been deadened by years of mindless devotion to empty habit, but by her death Bindu had opened her eyes to other possibilities:
And please don’t imagine me contemplating death… No, I hate to play such stale jokes on you all. Remember Mirabai, a woman like me, shackled by chains quite as heavy as mine, who didn’t need to die that she might live?……
Like her, I will also live. Indeed, my life begins now.
Strir Patra is a triumph of Tagore’s narrative art. It is intensely lyrical in tone, but that tonality only helps the story to flow along without let-up; it does not tie it down for a moment:
No, your narrow lane (housing her in-laws’ home) scares me no more. For today the blue ocean opens out endlessly in front of my eyes, and an abundance of the clouds of July gathers over my head…
It is easy to see why Strir Patra’s scalding indictment of patriarchy got the dyed-in-the-wool social conservative’s goat when the avant garde Bengali literary magazine Sabujpatra (‘The Green Journal’) published it first. Here was a story that struck at the very roots of orthodox Hindu society, giving it no quarter, deriding its idiocy, its crazed misogyny and its moral hollowness like it had never been done before. Indeed, the story erupted on Bengal’s literary firmament with the blinding, if transient, light of a meteorite. For a while, its impact seemed to have been as great as that of the news that a deadly World War had just broken out to engulf all of Europe.
One imagines Rabindranath had conceived of these three stories as a trilogy of sorts, with each part giving the reader a damning new perspective on the overarching problem of patriarchy, opening their eyes to how patriarchy dehumanises both its victims and its upholders. The stories were well ahead of their time, and they continue to unsettle and move us today. For, more than one hundred years after Rabindranath wrote them, these stories hold a mirror to us Indians. And the image we see of ourselves in it is not edifying.
Anjan Basu writes about culture and the politics of culture. He can be reached at email@example.com