Patience, hallmark of his women
Tagore's women come across as strong and independent even when they seem trapped in conventional roles, says Shoma A. Chatterji

The Nobel Laureate presented  the woman of tomorrow. In Laboratory, Punjabi woman Sohini is shown as everything the “good Bengali woman” is not
The Nobel Laureate presented the woman of tomorrow. In Laboratory, Punjabi woman Sohini is shown as everything the “good Bengali woman” is not

Rabindranath Tagore created, redefined, reinvented, deconstructed and presented the woman of tomorrow. Images of Tagore's women come across as strong and independent even when they seem trapped in conventional roles. Women everywhere will find a close friend in Tagore. Positive or negative, central or marginal, young or old, normal or psychotic, rural or urban, married, single or widow, traditional or modern, his fictional women are strong with personality traits rarely found in Bengali literature of the time in so many different ways, so frequently and spread out over a hundred years of literature and history.

Was Tagore a feminist? Few of his earlier essays say no, he wasn’t. In 1891, Tagore had heard Pandita Ramabai say that women can do anything that men can, except drinking alcohol. This statement provoked him to immediately author a short essay called Ramabai-er Baktritar Upalakhse (With reference to Ramabai’s lecture). He reiterated two long-held myths about women. Firstly, he said that women are born physically weak, and also that "women are quick-witted but do not have a strong intellect like men." He pointed out that though many Western women learnt music, none of them had become a Mozart.

Secondly, he emphasised that as nature had shaped women to become mothers, outside work is beyond their world. In Tagore’s opinion, the sexual division of labour is merely a reasonable arrangement between consenting adults — man, the provider, woman, the nurturer. No force is involved..

Maitreyee Chatterjee (The Sunday Statesman August 04, 2002) reveals how "even Tagore was annoyed with the ending of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879.) He felt Nora’s rejections were in excess of her husband’s condemnation of her. He said that in the Indian family structure, women brought up on the ideals of patience and self-sacrifice were more appreciated and respected and that Nora’s situation was unthinkable in India." Though initially, the young Tagore seemed very uncomfortable with Nora’s decision, at the age of 53, Tagore re-interpreted Nora as Mrinal in his Streer Patra (Letter from the Wife, 1914.)

His earlier views about women and motherhood are in sharp contrast with his later fictional writings, which show most of his important female characters as childless. Dipankar Roy points this out. Tagore’s many young female protagonists, who often make a more enduring mark on the readers than their male counterparts, are almost as a rule childless. To be a mother is, by definition, to be a good wife and in turn a good woman. In Tagore’s novels what we encounter instead is widowhood, often a result of childhood marriage to much older husbands, and whom we meet are young widows who have no ways of attaining any legitimate right to motherhood.

Their threatening sexuality, which is a genuine problem for colonised male self, often wreaks havoc among the family and society at large..

Sanjukta Dasgupta selects three well-known short stories "to map out how Tagore scripts transgression and debunks the abject and foregrounds the Indian woman as subject. The Bengali women Mrinal (Streer Patra) and Kalyani (Aparichita) are juxtaposed against the zestful Punjabi woman Sohini (Laboratory.)" In Streer Patra (1914), Tagore interrogated arranged marriages and the entrapment and enslavement of women as wives. All three women — Mrinal, Boro Bou and Bindu — have loveless marriages. Boro Bou’s and Mrinal’s husbands provide them with shelter, security and sustenance. Bindu and Mrinal resist the appropriation of their power in their separate ways. Bindu commits suicide for being married off to an insane man because she is an orphan and a liability in the family of Boro Bou. Mrinal leaves her husband’s home forever to live the rest of her life on her own terms. In Aparichita (1914) Tagore addresses the social evil of dowry, fleshes out the irresolute Bengali male, and draws attention to the power of the educated woman through Kalyani, who remains single after her father breaks off an alliance when they place pressures for dowry.

Sohini of Laboratory (1940) is a Punjabi woman married to a Bengali man Nandkishore. Sohini is everything the ‘good Bengali woman’ is not. She is shrewd, cunning and calculating. She is not only beautiful and intelligent but also enterprising and uninhibited. She is an educated woman. She is strong willed and moves about with a knife tucked at her waist. Perhaps in fear of rejection by his readership of such a starkly strong but negative portrayal of a woman, Tagore gave her a Punjabi identity, thus distancing her from his Bengali readership. He probably felt that the aggressive sexuality of Sohini, who uses it to entrap or defeat resistance, might not be acceptable to the conventional Bengalis, who might readily accept these qualities in Punjabi women they knew little about but not Bengali women they were familiar with.