Sunday, March 21, 2004

Puzzling passions
Aradhika Sekhon

Chokher Bali
by Rabindranath Tagore.
Srishti Publishers, New Delhi. Pages 413. Rs 295.

A still from Chokher Bali
A still from Chokher Bali

TO review a Tagore has to be a special privilege for any reviewer. Radha Chakravarty, the translator, says about this well-accomplished task: "Translating Chokher Bali for 21st century readers has proved to be both a challenge and a reminder of the need to look afresh at texts that have changed the course of literary history." Chokher Bali socks the reader in the solar plexus with its surprisingly modern look at the female psyche. Set in the 19th century, it is yet vastly ahead of its time in many ways and firmly establishes Tagore among the ranks of the novelists of the world. For the reader who knows Tagore only for his poetry, sangeet and The Gitanjali, Chokher Bali, with its tormented, romantic sexual yearnings, definitely tends to startle. In the preface, Tagore states, "The literature of the new age seeks not to narrate a sequence of events, but to reveal the secrets of the heart. Such is the narrative of Chokher Bali." Tagore has emphasised psychology above plot and external action. The novel was first translated in 1914 by Surendranath Thakur and named Eyesore. It was also adapted to the stage. This was remarkable as Tagore’s novels do not lend themselves easily to dramatisation.

In Chokher Bali, Tagore visualises the life of the landed gentry and deals with the sweeping economic changes that resulted in the emergence of a new middle class in Bengal. The landed gentry, earlier rooted in the Zamindari system, had started moving to cities in search of new professions such as law, medicine, education, engineering and government service. To such a world belongs the protagonist, Mahindra, a medical student, and Bihari, his childhood friend, who, after a brief attempt at engineering, joins a medical college at Kolkata. However, Mahindra need not take his study very seriously and can easily combine it with a luxurious lifestyle in a well-to-do Kolkata household. Bihari also subsequently gives up his medical studies to set up a charitable hospital in a garden estate. The women, on the other hand, are married early and expected to take on the domestic mantle. Although a British "mem" maybe engaged to tutor them, but female education is not really necessary. Indeed, Mahindra’s attempts to educate his wife, Asha, bring upon them the wrath of his mother, Rajalaxmi. The narrative of the novel deals with a newly married couple, Mahindra and Asha, who are much in love and settling into a life of harmonious domesticity. But just as their passion begins to subside a little, enters Binodini, a beautiful and intelligent widow.

Binodini, who is related to Rajalaxmi, causes turmoil in her own life and that of her hosts. Widowed at a young age, it is hard for her to endure the love and passion shared by Mahindra and the docile Asha. She is bitter about the fact that Asha, whom she perceives to be much inferior to her in accomplishment should enjoy such falicity while she must endure the odious, dependant life of the poor widow. She sets out to captivate Mahindra, all the while befriending the innocent Asha, who is increasingly bewildered by the rapidly changing dynamics of relationships around her.

Even then the shades of the character of Binodini or Mahindra or any other person in the book are not black or white, but grey and fawn. Binodini, of course, is the strongest character, the female who unleashes forces into motion that could destroy existing relationships. Mahindra, the spoilt and pampered son of an affluent family, emerges as a weak man, who loses control over himself and his emotions and eventually requires strong circumstances to push him back into the domestic groove. Asha, the dependant and betrayed woman, emerges as a woman in control. The most upright character — the moral voice in the book, is that of Bihari. Tagore’s handling of his character has a psychological subtlety about it that saves him from becoming a boring warning in the book. His strong moral character is troubled by inner torment of forbidden love. Tagore steers clear of the trap of rigid morality. In the mixed and ambivalent emotions of Binodini, we see his attempt to question gender stereotypes that hold true till date — the conflict between social morality and the need for emotional freedom.