Fault Lines of Settled Domesticity

On April 21, 2011 by admin

Shirshendu Chakrabarti

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 work 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 Bon) 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 chastise herself and adopt an ascetic regimen even when he was away inEurope. She thus finds release from this stifling priggishness in the light-hearted relationship with Shashanka bordering upon adultery. 

Niraja’s love is also possessive, relentlessly directed equally at the garden, the pet dog and the dependant’s son. After the dog’s sudden death, when her own child dies during delivery, she is physically shattered and never recovers from it. But even on her sickbed, with the knowledge of impending death, she is unable to give up her exclusive claim on the garden. The case of Charulata (Nashtaneer) is somewhat different. Here Tagore hints at a sexual and emotional denial on the part of the husband who is so absorbed with publishing an English newspaper that he initially does not notice, and when his attention is drawn to the fact, does not understand Charu’s growth from a child-bride to a young woman.  

Childlessness could also be seen as a metaphor that prefigures the decline of the aristocratic classes. In Tagore’s social and political writings, there is a premonition of this doom and its bearing on his own class status, but he came to terms with it rather early and endorsed the social transformation. Nikhilesh, the zamindar in Ghare Baire, openly associates Bharatvarsha with the lower castes and Gora searches the soul ofIndia not among the elite but among the toiling masses. We may also recall that despite doubts about totalitarianism inherent in communism, Tagore was inspired by the emancipation of the common people inRussia which he saw in 1930, a few years before he wrote the two later novellas.

Perhaps this sense of a devitalized aristocracy is captured in the mysterious onset of disease in these two novellas. However, the metaphor is more than social and is brutally  psychological, exposing the inability of middle-class men and women, trapped in codes of decency, to acknowledge the biological drives behind any love relationship.  Niraja discovers that her marital relationship with Aditya has been rendered hollow and her mind rendered petty and harsh by her loss of strength and beauty; the living world around her, which ironically comes to her deathbed in all its sensuousness, has little time for her bloodless, dying form. In the very first chapter, we learn that her lonely afternoons are marked by time signals as she looks at the quiet garden she loves and beyond it into emptiness receding into emptiness. There is a similar inevitability in Sharmila’s undiagnosed illness—from which she recovers unlike her brother, Hemanta—which rings Urmi to Shashanka and catalyzes the growth of adulterous passion.

Love between man and woman, when dismantled of its rhetoric, reveals an inescapable element of mutual possessiveness. Expressing itself in solicitude and concern, love can conceal a desire to dominate or control. In the ultimate analysis, this possessiveness presupposes the ego’s attachment to worldly possessions. Perhaps that is why in Malancha, objects take on a life of their own, suggesting Niraja’s jealousy-driven possessiveness. Ramen’s advice to Niraja is to acquire freedom from being tormented by her husband’s relationship with Sarala by giving up all her claims. As long as you think your wealth is being snatched away by someone, there is no respite from agony; but once you give up your most precious possession for the sake of the one you love the most, you experience happiness and peace. 

If the only freedom is the freedom from possessive desire and if such desire is the necessary pre-condition of love, if the desire to dominate is interchangeable with the desire to be dominated, then what is the way out of this impasse? As Nikhilesh had realized in Ghare Baire, ‘the day I can really release the bird from its cage I will realize that it is the bird who releases me. The one I bind in a cage binds me in my desire and that is bondage stronger than that of chains’ (552). Responding to the envious interrogation of Niraja, Aditya describes his love for Sarala as the product of growing up wild together in the forest shade, oblivious of each other’s existence. By contrast, their conjugal relationship approximates a punctilious ritual—as Aditya puts it, it was Niraja and not Sarala who aroused poetic feelings in him. Sarala’s beauty was irrelevant to Aditya’s love for her since he knew Sarala simply as Sarala. In accordance with such an equal relationship, Sarala affirms that Aditya is as much a dependant of her as she is of him. This realization, reminiscent of Nikhilesh’s insight, is echoed a few pages later by Aditya when he asks himself whether he had given refuge to Sarala or Sarala had given him refuge.

In all the three novellas, the characters do not understand each other and indeed themselves fully. Bhupati and Charu, for instance, move in virtually two parallel conversational corridors without a meeting point. Amal, as a budding writer, proficient in a florid style of Bengali is unable to grasp the force of Charu’s literary style praised by the critics.  Above all, Amal cannot quite follow the deeper meaning of Charu’s teasing, playful talk, her attitude to Manda and her reaction to Amal’s public recognition as an author. She is thus trapped in her own language which no one around her really understands.  Charu reconciles herself to a double life in which she fulfils her duties as wife while constructing a subterranean existence around sorrow at separation from Amal.  But that most secret, interior, cherished space where she is herself sans disguise and mask has no place for anyone else—even Amal’s presence is in the form of a cherished memory, an absence.

The language of Nashtaneer is firmly grounded in the realistic tradition and whatever interiority there is, is described unsentimentally and economically from the outside. In the later two novellas, particularly in Malancha, Tagore attempts to foreground interiority and capture the intricate and intersecting movements of the consciousness in an appropriately fine-spun style. This is why the characters converse as though in a reverie befitting a poem or poetic drama. The resulting style performs several functions at the same time. The same style enables Ramen to hide himself and his emotions in idle elegant talk and express his reflections on life without making them ponderous. The crafted prose is not without its counterpoint in the speech of servants, thereby hinting at the somewhat enclosed world of upper-class women and men. While the servants have their passions too, they do not aspire to a refined mastery of them. By contrast, the class position of Tagore’s heroines goads them towards concealing their passions and maintaining the decorum of polite society. In such a social situation, the poetic prose can serve the function of hiding or covering, thereby suggesting the repressed energies underneath. The hallucinatory language creates a claustrophobic atmosphere which heightens the loneliness of the women and brings out the stress underlying tranquil family life. It thus serves throughout in its conscious artistry as a foil to the unconscious, a veneer over the repressed passions that often explode with overwhelming force.

The instability is evident in Niraja’s dying outburst, in the uncontrolled sobbing of Charu or in the vehement remorse of Urmi, but it is equally conveyed by the warped maternal solicitude of Sharmila. Caught up in the cross-purpose conversation and hallucinatory poetry, the reader is drawn out of the habitual and familiar range of responses to recognize the fault-lines of settled domesticity and sympathize with the somewhat hysteric tenor of women’s private lives.  By contrast, the men lack in emotional intensity and pampered by society into emotional immaturity, they cannot really share in their wives’ destinies.  Thus the lonely, traumatized women of Tagore are nevertheless given a space of their own, where they can reflect upon and come to terms with their situation in life.  In this sense, Tagore remains a feminist before his time.

Shirshendu Chakrabarti is Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.

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