‘Chaturanga’ is a novel that, on careful reading, reveals some deep-rooted male-chauvinistic attitude on the part of no less a literary figure than Rabindranath Tagore.
It is a well known fact in literary circles that Rabindranath Tagore’s relationship with his mother, his first lover and his wife were not satisfactory. His mother, Sharoda Shundori Debi, stayed rather aloof, a consequence perhaps of being burdened with the job of producing so many off-springs for her husband who earned himself the title Moharishi. His adolescent-wife, who he renamed Mrinalini Debi, was too young to be able to appreciate his big literary aspirations when he married her. His very first love-affair with his sister-in-law, Kadombori Debi, ended in a disaster. She, feeling jilted, killed herself, or so it is generally thought.
Given this scenario in which his very first, almost inchoate impressions and romantic feelings were formed, it is perhaps little wonder that a dark pathos overshadows most of his writings. Because in real life he could not get married to his beloved who inspired so much of his early writings, a feeling of shame and guilt for his beloved, who was an aspiring writer too, seems to impend over his literary works.
Take the first short story, in his famous collection of short stories, “Ghaater Kotha’”, (a tale of riverside) for example. In this story we encounter an aspiring spiritual devotee, a woman, who kills herself while the male character, a determined spiritual seeker, continues his search, being freed from the snares of womanly love. The age-old mistrust of desire, carnal love haunts the story like the remnants of ancient religious scriptures. It is a strange bias for a man of his stature to see women always as devotees rather than seekers in their own rights. The dialogues he put in the mouth of his female character in this story are stereo-typical as in many other stories. And in the novel ‘Chaturanga’ that I’m going to look at in greater detail in this paper, the female characters are seen in very similar light: cowering, apologetic towards men for disturbing their great powers of contemplation, for being a distraction, and making their own lives valuable fussing over men’s healths.
But the question is: how far are his female characters real beings of his times and how far are they figments of his great imaginative mind? How many characters like his own elder sister Shornokumari Debi do we meet with in his world of literary compositions? What makes his literary fantasies so powerful is his undeniable gift for language, his deep reverence for nature, and his frank disavowal of shallow religious rituals, his maverick status but underneath all that wasn’t there a very infantile dependence on women as he chose to see them, and not as they really were?
Men of the undivided sub-continent, as colonized subjects of the British empire, had to feel superior to women in those times, as many perceptive critics have rightly pointed out. Rabindranath Tagore was no exception in that he being a member of the privileged class, favoured over Muslims of his times by the British, needed unwavering and almost self-denying devotion from women of his times. But in the post-colonial context it’s time to have a new look, a new assessment of the handsome man with a womanly voice, who still holds so many readers spell-bound all over the literary world. And just like any other person, a literary person can’t quite be free from the factors that present themselves before him/her, the difference, however is in the fact that a literary figure, or a great artist can often exert more influence on the happenings of his/her times, than a non-literary person, or someone not so artistically or creatively inclined. Rabindranath’s literary works and sayings influenced the course of history in profound ways and he is revered to this day as the greatest representative of Bengali artistic culture, almost in exclusion of other female artists of his times.
It is therefore a matter of great import for me as a Bangladeshi to look with a certain amount of critical reverence at a man whose literary works continue to be cited as the greatest inspiration for Bangladeshis seeking a homeland in order to uphold their Bengali identity. Since his music and writings are still considered to be the very nucleus which forms our identity as Bengalis, and as Bangladeshis, it is a very pertinent question to ask in this post-colonial, and gender-sensitive climate how far his literary creations are in tune with modern times. How much literary justice has he done to his female characters, in particular?
Let us focus on the character Daaminee in his novel ‘Chaturanga’, to begin with. She is a character, enmeshed in the spiritual quest of her times, a quest which was primarily for men, defined by men. The three other characters that Rabindronath created in order to bring out the on-going conflicts between Hindus, Muslims and atheists are Jogomohon, Shochish and Sribilush. Rabindranath deserves some credit in that he tried to expose the banalities, the outward shows and ritualistic behaviours which tended to compartmentalize the Hindus of those times, not to mention the political instigation of the British for their own benefits. He was even a brave enough critic of the Brahmmo Shomaj that his father founded as his novel ‘Gora’ proves.
In that novel we find the male characters debating, discoursing intensely and passionately over religious discords that threatened to split even the newly-founded Brahmmo Shomaj into several sects. And there also women play second fiddles, trying to gloss over unpleasant disputes as make-up artists, nursing bleeding wounds born out of religious bigotry, and then simply fading away in the background when the literary crisis is over. In ‘Gora’ the central character is a man, who comes closest to a round character at the expense of other flat female characters. But in ‘Chaturanga’ the male identity of a spiritual seeker seems to be fractured, split into several identities with Daaminee trying to be a saving grace, a bridge-builder, a helpless dependent in purely economic terms of course, a symbol for untamed nature and all that is unexplored and therefore feared by spiritual seekers in the secret caves of their hearts. But in the end she is sacrificed mercilessly as a character whose spiritual journey, its subtle nuances, its joys and pains remain as mysterious as ever.
But more about Daaminee a little later. Let us turn our attention for a while to the rather uncomfortable truce Rabindranath tried to find in the plot of his novel between Muslims and Hindus, or Brahmmos to be specific. The atheist uncle Jogomohon is a strong voice of dissent in a society that exploited religion as a social and economic tool while the political rein was firmly held by the British. It is quite interesting in this context to note Rabindranath’s acknowledgement of the condescending British professor, Wilkins, who adds grandeur to Shochish’s character by singling him out as an outstanding atheistic student, far above the rest of the conventionally religious. Rabindranath, as the narrator Sribilush, however remains safely subservient to Shochish’s mentor Jogomohon and later on to Shochish.
As the story unfolds, we see how Rabindranath sought to bridge the economic disparities between the Muslims and the Hindus by showing Jogomohon as their genuine benefactor. But he didn’t bring the educated Muslim class into the picture at all. The charitable gesture towards the Muslims is extended through Jogomohon, but these Muslims are “chaamars”, poor cobblers of his neighbourhood. And in the current use of the word, according to Bangla Academy’s dictionary, the word also denotes low-class, cruel people which makes interpretation of this word a bit problematic. But it would be safe to guess perhaps that Rabindranath used “chaamar” in the first sense of the word. But however refreshingly unconventional a bond uncle and nephew may have shared in their adherence to humanistic atheism, a term we should analyse again in the light of Shochish’s treatment of Daaminee, in the end we surprisingly find Sribilush to be the inheritor of the property Jogomohon leaves behind.
In his property deed Jogomohon leaves behind the provision for his house to be used as a charitable institution for the education of Muslims after his heir’s death. However, as far as economic empowerment is concerned we see no such luck for Daaminee. She is deprived of her share of wealth her husband Shibtosh leaves behind. That wealth is inherited by Leelanondoshami, his guru. So as a widow she has no other option but to stick around her husband’s guru as an unwilling, unconvinced disciple. That is how she is introduced at the beginning of the novel and towards the end we see that she is rejected by her own relatives and brothers. She loses her parents too. We find out nothing about her educational background while the other male characters display scholarly achievements at one time or another.
And we need to zoom in on Rabindranath’s decision to introduce a female character in the novel. We find no educated female students with whom either Shochish or Sribilush could have had a discourse on atheism in their student days at the university. We get only vague descriptions of what great depths of intellect Jogomohon, Shochish and Sribilush plumbed but not much specifics. And no female character in sight. But it is only when Shochish fails to rely on his own atheism, after his uncle’s death, and decides to roam around aimlessly in the villages with Sribilush as a sympathetic follower, that we find them stumble upon Daaminee, the village dame, a vulnerable victim in the lap of nature. She is shown to be isomorphic with nature with a strong attachment to the physical aspects of existence only.
But let us not forget Nonibala, another female character, who serves as a macabre prelude to Daminee. Notice how this short-lived shadow of a character moves over the veneer of the novel. She is like an apparition with hardly any dialogues to her credit. The first glimpse of her comes through the eyes of Jogomohon. He sees her sitting in one corner of the floor like a “bundle of clothes” (ch.1, sec.5) She comes all undone, in a terrible plight, trying to save herself from the thug next door. Consider her description seen through the eyes of Jogomohon: “she is of tender age without a single spot of ignominy on her holy face; her eyes look like the eyes of a hurt female deer; her entire creeper of a body is exuding shame and hesitation.” (ch.1, sec.5) In short, a perfect female victim for Jogomohon and Shochish to take pity on.
So we find Nonibala placed in a precarious position between the two brothers Jogomohon and Horimohon who go on fighting each other over orthodox Hinduism and humanistic atheism. Nonibala’s wordless exploitation is intensified as the two camps go on debating over her status as a “prostitute”. Nonibala is given shelter at Jogomohon’s house but she is not given the right to education. She is employed straight away as a household worker. She has to play the “divine mother” to Jogomohon in order to save herself from the label of a “prostitute”. Consider Jogomohon’s words of comfort to her. It doesn’t occur to him to arrange for the unfortunate young girl’s education even though he is extremely keen on starting a night school for Muslim boys’ education with his share of patriarchal property. He even makes it clear that he wouldn’t be around for much company to her either, and then calling himself an eccentric, he appeals to the young girl’s natural affections. He becomes a mother’s eccentric little son to her.
Deprived as she is of any language of her own, we only learn about her overwhelming feelings of gratitude through the words of the narrator who assures us that this magnanimous gesture from this man even outweighed her own mother’s feelings for her. Rabindranath attempts to make Jogomohon more of a mother-figure to Nonibala than her own mother while just a paragraph ago we hear Jogomohon’s own wish to be considered an eccentric son to her. Such is Rabindranath’s mastery of glossy, flattering language of social interactions of his times that to an uncritical reader the inherent contradictions may not even surface on the conscious level. As if a mother-daughter relationship dynamics is the same as that between a benefactor and a beneficiary and can so easily be replaced by the latter in times of a socio-economic crisis.
So Nonibala goes on residing in his shelter. Notice Shochish’s detachment from her also. He is the one who after all rescues the girl from her thug-like cousins but then he is nowhere around her to even look at her with his “star-bright eyes”, with the “light of worship in his heart” that was so obvious to Sribilush that day he first saw him and fell in love with.
But she is there anyway to faint in front of her oppressor, to shiver like a bamboo-leaf for days, to get raped by her oppressor in spite of tight security measures taken by her benefactors, to give birth to a dead child like a helpless animal, to threaten to thin out and vanish into nothingness, to ask the earth beneath her feet to part so she can hide her miserable self there etc. Not a single dialogue.
Making her roam ghost-like in the span of two very short sections in chapter one, the time for Nonibala’s demise draws near at the author’s discretion. But of course, Rabindranath didn’t let the character die before she further glorifies Shochish’s character. Even though Shochish used to avoid her in the house, he however considers it incumbent on him to propose to marry her. His aesthetic humanism is measured by this sympathetic gesture on his part in the face of intolerable social stigma and on-going bad-mouthing by orthodox neighbours. But with due reverence this much has to be admitted that even that much reaching out to women was quite revolutionary an act by conscientious men who fought against the rigid norms of their own society.
But Rabindranath’s revolutionary zeal fell short in this novel. In his literary space he certainly could have shown more idealism with respect to women since he was a big believer in idealism. Nonibala chooses to seal her own fate by taking her own life. This is like a thunderbolt out of the blue because mysteriously enough at this point Rabindranath all of a sudden decides to give us a glimpse of this ghost-like character’s heart. In her suicide note we find out she has been all this time in love with someone whose identity is not even disclosed. And it’s hard to imagine that she was referring to the rapist who got her pregnant. With hundreds of pronaams at the feet of her benefactor and tears this unreal character then fades away. She signs off her letter calling herself “a sinning woman”. Such an unfortunate introjection of the erroneous value-system of patriarchy!
This is how the first chapter “Jogomohon” ends. The second chapter is “Shochish”. Shochish is a character built up in a grandiose fashion only to be razed to the ground as an uncertain straw oscillating between atheism and bouts of deep devotion to a guru. There is hardly any connection between the early determined focused life of a scholarly atheist, who is inspired to do social charity by his mentor-uncle, and the roaming ascetic-type man that he turns out to be towards the end of the novel.
We see Shochish’s spiritual bankruptcy with the passing away of his uncle. The social charities that Jogomohon helped to set up lost their meaning for Shochish almost as abruptly as they had incited him to action. However Rabindranath’s portrayal of this character remains very unconvincing because on the one hand we see Sribilush extol him as the “flower of their movement without which it became denuded and revealed the arrogant thorns” and on the other hand we find him agonizing over his own humanistic atheism, which he finds to be a gaping, fearsome “no”, synonymous with a complete denial of truth. (ch.2, sec.2) As if all this time all he imbibed from his uncle is as transient and doomed for destruction as his uncle’s physical existence. And then his wandering life in the villages begins.
Just as Nonibala is completely overshadowed by Jogomohon’s fight with orthodox religion in the first chapter, Daaminee meets with a similar literary injustice in the second chapter “Shochish”. But in her case justice appears to have been done in a much more subtle way. She was created to be an ideal site for the disconnected factions to seek refuge in.
Notice what expressions Rabindranath chose to employ to give us an idea as to how Shochish and Sribilush spent their days, prior to their meeting with Daminee. They had their amorous play in Kirton songs and dance, witnessing the love-affair between the “all-pervasive woman-nature” and “all-pervasive man-consciousness”. (ch.2,sec.5) Women are naturalized in the sense of being devoid of the challenges of consciousness. No wonder then that in the numerous discourses on aesthetic theories that Shochish and Sribilush engage in with Leelanondoshami and his followers, Daaminee is never an active voice there. But then why is she there?
No, we don’t get any specifics as to the nature of these aesthetic discourses. But profound and abstruse stuff of the celestial sphere they were, the narrator assures us. From the purely intellectual battles between orthodoxy and atheism, interspersed with a few good charitable works in the city, they have now moved away to implant themselves in the lap of nature as spiritual seekers. But the aesthetic theories, if they were worth mentioning, would be mentioned with or without Daaminee, wouldn’t they? Instead we see, at this crucial point, she is introduced by the nickname Baamy which to any bilingual would have the obvious ring of “Balmy”. She is like a balm on their festering wounds, a fresh fragrance that goes with the flow of life instead of being bogged down with too many theories. But on closer inspection of the character, as Rabindranath drew it, the slang meaning of the word “balmy” can’t be quite ruled out as I will try to show in further analysis.
With Daaminee’s beautiful laughter from the inner quarter of the house they begin their exploration of the everyday world of a householder. Like “the torn-off petals of flowers” from the other side of the wall, Daaminee’s life as regular householder beckons them. The sound of dangling key-rings in the aachol of her shari, the aroma of food she cooks in the kitchen, the sound of the broom—all these open the door of their senses to what seem like the real heaven of aesthetics. Nonibala is sent to the kitchen as soon as she is rescued and Daaminee makes her very presence felt from the kitchen wordlessly, through aroma, to scholarly men.
However, Daaminee is allowed a bit more exposure in comparison with Noninbala. She, we are told by Sribilush, is like the thunder inside the monsoon cloud, as her name indicates. But on the outside her body is like the puffy clouds, brimming with youth. And then we are given an excerpt from Shochish’s dairy where she is compared with Nonibala. How little Shochish knew her personally is a fact that is set aside for the moment and we get her character analysis in this rather insensitive judgment formed in the seclusion of his world of ideas: “in Nonibala I have seen one universal form of woman. She is the one who took in the unholy stigma, the woman who laid down her life for the sinners and in doing so made life’s honey-container all the more richer.” (ch.2, sec.5) Almost a Christ-like crucifixion and the sadistic glory attached to it. And then comes his assessment of Daaminee: “in her I have seen another universal form of woman who doesn’t belong to death, she is a drinker of life’s flavours. She is constantly filling up in fragrance, in beauty, in joyous waves like a flower garden of spring.” (ch.2, sec.5)
The ascetic streak that haunted Rabindranath is allowed full expression in Shochish, it seems. He is however counter-balanced by Sribilush, a very docile householder-type aspect of Rabindranath’s own self. Sribilush, however, having followed the path of rebellion against conventional religion for a while, at first revolts at Shochish’s drastic pendulum swing from atheism to subservient prostration before Leelanondoshami. He is aghast at Shochish’s servile foot-massaging of his guru and it takes him a while to get used to Shochish’s new ways. But it is very interesting to note how Sribilush justifies all these contradictions in him as being two sides of the same coin, spiritually as well economically speaking.
Perhaps it would be too harsh a judgment to say he is an unconvincing character– unimpressive, may be, but not altogether unreal. Rabindranath’s literary ethics urged him to unmask a male archetype in Shochish which split reality into two mutually exclusive halves: the brighter half of his self being set free in broad day light in the playing field of the world while his uncle was alive, and the darker half of his self being set free “in the lap of his mother”, at night (ch.2,sec.4). And this dark self is then associated with aesthetic world—the world of songs and dance. He silences Sribilush’s further inquiries by simply declaring that he is hungry for both kinds of liberation—diurnal as well as nocturnal. This archetypal split in male consciousness is in fact as old as the ancient Greeks and the Vedics (Boidiks). Like the Vedics, the Greeks also split the world of light-and-shade into Apollonian and Dionysian realms where rationality and logic were Apollonian and the creative and more feminine aspects were relegated to the “dark underworld” of Dionysius. The Dionysian realm is dark because of its association with the maternal womb.
Shochish displays that archetypal split. It is this split in his character that serves two patriarchal purposes at the same time: one, it relegates the world of aesthetics—be it day-to-day or philosophical or even poetic, to a carnal land below the waves, and two, his rejection of Daaminee then seems justified.
Let us now list the number of steps that Daaminee has to descend in order for her to be available for both Shochish and Sribilush while we are on “Shochish” chapter. A widow, an unwilling disciple, without any financial strength this character still fights on—or that’s how the author at first tried to delineate her but as you go a little deeper into the chapter you see that all that fire, that electrifying rebellion in her was drawn for special effects only. The greater the resistance of the hunted, the higher the excitement of hunting it—this sort of prehistoric hunter-man type mind-set takes over abruptly, typified by Leelanondoshami. No dialogues, no discourses with Daaminee are given to explain the cause for this sudden extinction of the initial spiritual fire and playfulness in her and her lapse into meekness. The writer as narrator, having projected the cruelest aspect of himself onto Leelanondoshami, wrote with a vague and yet fatalistic air: “Daaminee’s downfall gradually set in. I can’t quite bring myself to write, it’s difficult to write about this. The web of pain that continues to be woven from behind the veil of life by the invisible hand is not from any religious scripture, nor can it be tailor-made according to personal will—this is why the inner and the outer clash and tears gush forth.” (ch.2, sec.7) In other words this was the writer’s own scriptural recipe for blunting all the sharp edges of a female character in a state of authentic rebellion for self-actualization. And she is relegated to drowning and diluting her pain for her aborted self in tears.
Note again the magical transformation the novelist tried to bring into effect with his gift of the gab. Daaminee’s authentic character is aborted mercilessly and by way of explanation we hear: “the cacophonous layer of her being just smashed in the light of dawn, quietly, and the flower of her self-surrender lifted up its dewy face.” (ch2, sec.7) Daaminee’s services have now become like a divine blessing for the inmates of the ashram. The process of thwarting her Self-realization needs gathers momentum in the guise of such crafty language.
And then another scene in this chapter prepares the ground for Daaminee’s further humiliation in front of Shochish. On a winter noon, all of a sudden, Shochish enters her room and finds Daaminee crying hysterically, with these bizarre words: “O stone, o stone, have mercy on me, have mercy, kill me.” (ch.2, sec.7) Shochish, being apparently such a serious seeker, runs away from her, without a single question. No other word, by way of explanation is spoken by any character. Another female character is being pushed slowly behind a veil of irrationality, if we witness consciously. Notice the use of the word “stone”. Since in this novel the writer had made a conscious effort to lessen the impact of religious disputes between Muslims and Hindus/Brahmmos, what better buffer to use other than women—an archetype of self-mortifying helplessness and selfless service for many men! “Stoning the devil” had been a very familiar practice among Muslim extremists historically and continues to be so in religiously intolerant, backward places. So by putting such self-depreciating words into her mouth, the writer was perhaps trying to associate her with the scriptural devil of patriarchy.
Then towards the end of the chapter the retreat of Daaminee– with three men– where her sole purpose was to cover the feet of her guru with her long hair, cry to his mournful songs and prostrate. And then comes that macabre revelation of Shochish’s diary where he alludes to a mysterious nocturnal visit by some creature who we can guess is most probably Daaminee. Shochish likens her to a snake. It is noteworthy how in the cave of a meditation retreat, the author chose to degrade the status of the snake which was revered as a symbol of wisdom, as serpent power, in Goddess-worshipping cultures. He further adds: “because it is so soft, it is so disgusting; this is the real bundle of hunger.” (ch.2, sec.10) And here the vulgarization of the woman reaches its height. She seems like a balmy type of character in the slang sense of the word. And then Shochish starts kicking her in the face in the darkness of the cave until she leaves him alone. He hears the sound of a stifled cry. It could have been a very natural arousal of sexual desire on Daaminee’s part, surrounded as she was by all these divine-flavour-hunting men, who however were not honest enough to express their need for Daaminee. But here Rabindranath, in patriarchal fear and disrespect for carnal desire on the part of women, paid his due to his Muslim as well as Hindu/Brahmmo brethren and lost his integrity as a spiritual seeker.
Shocking and quite unexpected, but, woman-phobia is quite evident in his writings. It is difficult to spot it easily because of its garb of other-worldly purity which hides a kind of sadistic asceticism. His religious writings address the Supreme Being as “Probhu” and he made his female character Daaminee address her fellow spiritual seeker as “Probhu”. Linguistically he tried to blur the distinctions between the Supreme Being and male characters posing as Supreme Being to the female characters.
The third chapter is called “Daaminee”. In the very opening of this chapter we hear again the destructive tune of Daaminee’s impending doom in Leelanondoshami’s bestial remark: “Bhogoban is out hunting, the female deer is adding to the zest by running way from him; but die she must.” (ch.3, sec.1) In the previous chapter, in the fearsome darkness of the cave, she appears to be a snake, ready to devour men, and now she is a female deer running for her own life. The analogies that the writer brought into his composition betrayed male-centric desire to reduce women-kind to the level of speechless beasts.
However in section one of “Daaminee” we get inklings of her compassionate nature. But her acts of love and kindness to her neighbours, to the animals around her are given a whimsical, eccentric air as though they don’t have an intrinsic value of their own. All three men Leelanondoshami, Sribilush and Shochish are stalking her to join their discussions on aesthetic theories and are trying to force her submission to their shadhona. Emotionally traumatized, Daaminee pleads for their mercy and asks them to leave her in peace but Shochish asks her to submerge herself patiently under the turbulent sea where everything is as calm as should be. And that sea is nothing but the sea of their turbulent passions for her, where like the Goddess Durga they want her to drown. But still she fights on, keeping her wits about her and tells them like a valiant soldier that she will be saved only if the three of them leave her alone.
In section two Sribilush’s hidden agenda begins to manifest. So far he has been a shadow-like follower of Jogomohon, Shochish and Leelanondoshami. But at this point we begin to see how his condescending attitude towards Daaminee gains momentum, fuelled by Leelanondoshami’s acts of spiritual supremacy. It is in contrast to Daaminee that Sribilush’s amorphous effeminate character begins to take shape. At the cost of lowering Daaminee with his mild indifference and patronizing indulgence, Sribilush manages to acquire some significance. But listen to his excuse for bringing himself closer, on a one-to-one basis with Daaminee: “From whatever I have seen of women, having seen them from a distance, quite superficially, I have come to believe that women are ready to give their hearts where they meet with the greatest sorrow. They weave their garlands of devotion for the man who can trample upon their garlands in the nasty puddles of lust and make them odious; and if this doesn’t work then they target such a man who has disappeared into such subtleties of emotion that he can not be regarded as a concrete existent.” (ch.3, sec.2) This is how the author charted the path of romance for women in this novel—either it is absolute submission and denigration, or it is love-affair with a ghost-like being!
Imagine the extent of his ingratitude when in spite of being, on the off chance, on the receiving end of Daaminee’s simple yet compassionate care he decides to degrade her day-to-day conversations with him as a householder as mere “blabbering”! And he compares Shochish’s clueless adherence to his guru with his helping out Daaminee with some wounded animal. Perhaps it would be a safe psychoanalytic guess to say deep down inside Sribilush feels guilty for his enviable proximity to Daaminee, at the expense of her periodic alienation from the other two inmates of the ashram, and especially Shochish. So he, in his turn, has to denigrate her in order to justify his new-found luck to his “spiritual brethren”. His feelings of paralyzing shame at being addressed by Daaminee in a genuinely friendly manner are disturbing indeed.
Daaminee’s growing closeness with Sribilush adds to Shochish’s clueless eccentricity. He, all of a sudden, identifies women as the root cause of all that stands in the way of their spiritual liberation. He calls them “agents of nature” who in various forms of beauty allure men and trap their consciousness. This is the real root of religious orthodoxy, a kind of mental block that has historically discriminated against women for their beautiful physical forms. But Sribilush, in his pretense of more humanistic liberalism, corrects him by saying that nature has to be obeyed in order for them to rule over it. Even apparently such a harmless person as Sribilush doesn’t hesitate to confuse a woman’s consciousness with nature. Although to his credit, he at least confesses to Daaminee that they do make the fatal error of trying to understand aesthetics of life by keeping women far away from themselves.
It is doubtful whether Daaminee’s attachment to Shochish would be so intense if she was allowed to breathe as a real character. Perhaps it would be, perhaps not. We find her being subjected to intense devotion to Shochish which he fails to honour. Daaminee makes an attempt to bring some fresh air into their ashram by asking for modern books. But her attempts are soon thwarted by the guru who wants to smell only the exclusively “holy” elements of religion, and none of its amorous sensualities. Because of Shochish’s blind reverence for the guru, Daaminee tears the new books to pieces and decides to obey him as her guru instead.
The strong bond of attraction between Shochish and Daaminee is problematised quite inhumanly. Shochish tries unusually hard to resist his passionate feelings for Daaminee. But his overwhelming feelings of passion for her are stigmatized in a horrid description. Through the eyes of Sribilush we see him as a storm-tossed broken-down ship that has lost its mast, and its paal. He has a wild look in his eyes, and with disheveled hair, thin face and slovenly clothes he is quite a wreck. The chance of a spiritual rejuvenation that life offers him through a passionate romance with Daaminee is squandered. It is heart-rending to see him struggling to free himself from a woman whose physical presence or identity begins to have more charm for him than mere theories and songs of their spiritual path. But Sribilush’s presence and his closeness to Daaminee only add to his misery but don’t incite him to the chivalrous act of claiming her as his beloved.
Daaminee makes a desperate plea to open Shochish’s eyes to the depravity that such a path is leading them to. The author does some justice to her in making her a severe critic of their spiritual path but this voice of the critic is soon hushed up by yet another unexpected human sacrifice at their altar. A woman in the neighbourhood commits suicide, all of a sudden, because one of Leelanondoshami’s disciples decides to leave his wife for her sister. This cowers Daaminee into submission. So the chapter ends with Daaminee prostrating before Shochish and asking for his divine guidance.
But to make matters unnecessarily mystical, in a brief rejoinder, we are told about Daaminee’s sudden marriage to Sribilush. This simply mars Daaminee’s credentials as a self-respecting individual.
And that’s not all the injustice that’s been done to her. The fourth chapter “Sribilush” begins with the abrupt revelation that Daaminee has passed away! With Jogomohon, Shochish and Leelanondoshami out of the picture, Sribilush simply wouldn’t know how to relate to her on a one-to-one basis, would he? So she had to be gotten rid of.
However, the “Sribilush” chapter simply would fall on its face, like the “dried up tongue of the desert which seems like a letter of appeal to the merciless hot sky” (ch.4, sec.2), with Sribilush and Shochish having nothing much of life-assertive substance to say to each other. So Daaminee had to be brought back into the chapter as flashback. We get a picture of her mockery of a live-together with both Sribilush and Shochish, prior to her marriage with Sribilush. They have now left Leelanondoshami’s ashram. Unlike Shorotchondro’s novel ‘Srikanto’, they didn’t end up in a marijuana-smoking camp or else withdrawal would have been more difficult for the three of them, perhaps. In such camps characters like Piaree are in more dire conditions, perhaps, but I’m not getting into that comparison at the moment. Let me stick to the novel at hand in the scope of this paper.
Sribilush suggests that they live in an abandoned house near the river in the village since Shochish declines their offer to move to the city with them. In such a morbid setting both he and Shochish can have their bizarre psychological hang-ups acted out in front of a helpless victim. Even though Daaminee is at once doctoring and nursing her fellow human beings but she has to lower herself once again by calling herself “a sinner” (ch.4, sec.1) Why this character is made to bow, prostrate and degrade herself again and again is a question the author evaded. Or rather he gave the answer in the most brutal way possible—that even while away from of all rigid social and religious injunctions of conventional society male biases against women are bound to resurface in such unusual and disturbing manner.
Shochish’s nocturnal soul-searching keeps waking Sribilush and Daaminee up. One night, they awakened to hear Shochish’s sudden spiritual insight. He finds out, as Rabindranath himself did during his early-morning lectures on spirituality in Shantiniketon, that since the Creator is constantly coming towards forms, human beings have to go the other way to meet their Creator—that way they can meet their Creator half-way, so to speak. The Creator, being eternally free, finds peace in bondage, and since human beings are captives they can find their peace in formless freedom. Is it not a tasteless recipe for nihilism? Perhaps the author was trying to forge a link through this character with Buddhist path. In an effort to incorporate Buddhist philosophy in his literary canon, and to make Shochish a bit more attractive than an average Buddhist, he declared him a poet. But Buddha’s renunciation was a reaction to the excesses of Hindu religion and the rigid caste-system that kept people compartmentalized. But Shochish moved away from a healthy atheism, or rather agnosticism (though the author didn’t use the word) to a Buddhist nihilism.
What a peculiar analogy Shochish comes up with to support his new-found insight in the middle of the night: “one who sings goes from raagini to ananda and one who listens to the song moves from ananda to raagini. Therefore one comes from freedom to bondage and the other goes from bondage to freedom. This is how the two meet.” (ch.4, sec.3)
The writer’s gender-bias against raagini, the feminine form of raag, is quite obvious here. Doesn’t every singer or musician feel both the movements in the integrity of his/her being? A song or a musical composition can mean different things to different people, under different circumstances. Why tie it up with a religious doctrine? But of course, neither Sribilush nor Daaminee raises any counter-point and Sribilush is left wondering whether Daaminee is at all capable of comprehending such a profound nocturnal insight. He, however, remains safely, rather evasively silent.
And what does this movement from bondage to freedom mean for Shochish? Almost in the same breath he calls the Creator “my destruction” and implores the Creator to smash him to pieces. Because the Creator is constantly assuming all forms to him in its infinite love, he has to lose himself in formlessness to meet the Creator exclusively like a spoilt brat. He walks into the “infinite”, having spoilt the couple’s sleep.
Consider the scene of another night—it is a night of tempest. We are told that three of them sleep in three different rooms. The nearby river is swelling up in stormy wind and it is really pelting down. In this fearsome, destructive tempest all of a sudden we are told to hear “a widow-witch’s crying” while “the entire sky is freezing over like a blind boy”; “the wind is blowing like a sharpened knife slicing through the ribs of their house and howling like a beast.” (ch.4.sec.4) Daaminee wakes up, in sentimental motherly concern for Shochish, according to the author’s command, and tries to shut the windows in his bedroom. But Shochish plays hard to get and leaves the house. Daaminee waits at the threshold of the house for quite some time and then finally her chase begins. Sribilush peeks into Daaminee’s heart in an unsolicited manner from his bedroom perhaps and observes like a sadistic priest that “if Daaminee could suffuse the entire creation with her tears, like this night, she would be saved.” (ibid)
The chase takes the unfortunate woman, amid thunder and lightening, near the river. There she is made to hurl herself over Shochish’s feet. She begs him to return, risking her own life. Her self-abnegation is wrenched out of her heart again in these words: “kick me into the river if you want but please return home.” (ibid) And what does she get in return from the nihilist? That he is looking for someone else, and that Daaminee should abandon him.
She agrees just to appease him and then she brings him back from the destructive tempest.
But is such a heroin-like rescue attempt on her part rewarded? The Nobel laureate author disappoints us again. There is a vague suggestion of a kind of intimacy between Shochish and Sribilush because the very sight of the two of them walking back into their separate bedrooms after the outing felt like “misfortune, having mounted on my chest, is trying to choke me”(ibid) to Sribilush. And the next day, without fail, he sees signs of his fetish all over Daaminee’s face! Foot-prints of the Creator, of course.
Finally Daaminee, having reached the nadir of emotional injury at the hands of Shochish, decides to get back to the city. And Sribilush adds insult to her injury by observing poetically: “the boat is smashed into pieces hitting again and again against the mountain”. Why Shochish is compared to a mountain,(who, according to his own words, is trying to disappear into formlessness) I don’t know. A mountain is commonly a symbol of unshakable faith accompanying a kind of knowing silence. Which of these qualities does Shochish show in his highly erratic behavior? Perhaps the author meant to highlight his rock-hard stubbornness and blind arrogance by this metaphor. And why Daaminee had to be compared with “a boat smashed into pieces” becomes obvious as the story moves to the phase where Sribilush and Daaminee get married.
Right at the beginning of the fourth chapter Sribilush is shown to have a special regard for Daaminee because he didn’t just “slip into marriage the way people slip their feet into their shoes” (ch.4, sec.1), (a return of the foot fetish!) but we are told that he married her knowing fully well what he was getting into.
And what did he know? He knew that Daaminee blames herself for all that has happened between herself and Shochish, that she has no place in her aunt’s house, that her parents have passed away and that her brothers will not give her shelter and that he can’t lose her to Leelanondoshami, and that the newspapers are slandering their union. So, at this point he offers himself as the great saviour. He proposes to marry her as a charitable gesture.
Before the sudden acquisition of Jogomohon’s property, Sribilush’s scholarly accomplishments earn him the right to stay with Daaminee as tenants in one of his admirer’s house.
In a bizarre attack of amnesia, he tells us while he is living together with Daaminee that she has looked upon him for the first time in her life. He seems to have forgotten completely all the care-free joys of a day-to-day life she shared with him at the ashram as a fellow human being. Now he is happy because back then she could see a little too much but now in the confines of their family life she can see only him.
She wants to be “built anew as a housewife so that no trace of the fractured pieces of her former identity remains.” (ch.4, sec.5) And she wants to be handed over to Sribilush (as though she were Shochish’s daughter!) by Shochish himself. She is made to go through more moral slaying when she condones Shochish’s insensitive treatment of her. She takes all the blame on herself and calls herself “the ugly one”.
So with this type of confession out of her, Sribilush finally settles down with her in marriage. We hear about some unexpected joys in their lives. And we hear how Daaminee looks back on her life and calls all her past experiences a bunch of illusions—a confession without which the author’s male-chauvinistic need for exclusive possession of another human being wouldn’t be fulfilled.
As for the neighbourhood in the city where they get back, we hear of a plague that has struck suddenly and the deceased ones are all Muslims. However because of Jogomohon’s good repute with the Muslims, Sribilush gets not only his property, of which Shochish is deprived, but also the necessary help of his Muslim neighbours in freeing himself from legal tangles.
So now Sribilush needs to show off his humanitarian work and so he secretively, in spite of all the scandals that their marriage has brought forth, decides to marry off Daaminee’s brothers’ daughters off and to pay for her brother’s son’s education. We don’t know what age they are but we learn that the daughters have to be married off while the son gets to continue his education.
On the home front the domestic bliss keeps increasing, we are told, by Daaminee’s magic touch. She is so good a housewife that she gets rid of the household helpers that Sribilush hires for her and decides to do all the work herself. We hear nothing about her educational aptitude, no more about the fact that she used to love reading modern books at the ashram. Instead we see her teaching sewing to the Muslim girls in the neighbourhood, not the boys of course.
A few years, springs according to Sribilush, pass like this. And they continue their retreats into the cave—the cave they used to visit while at the ashram, although it is not certain why Sribilush continues to drag her into that cave: to keep thinking of her as a beastly “bundle of hunger”?
No wonder then that towards the very end we hear Daaminee complain about a mysterious pain in her chest. Doctors can’t decide what it is. So again she is made to take all the blame on herself and declare masochistically, reacting to all the sadism that has been unleashed on her, that the pain is her “spiritual wealth”. And that’s not all. On the one hand she is made to absolve all the doctors of their inability to cure her and on the other hand she is made to give Sribilush his dues for being so generous with her all this time. She declares in a pathetic show of self-mortification that this pain is the greatest dowry she can leave behind for a noble person like Sribilush.
The novel closes with Sribilush looking back on a full-moon spring night with Daaminee on the sea-beach. The entire sea with its high tides seemed like tear-rolls to Sribilush as he extorted the last prostration from her, at the author’s wish of course and the consolation too that in the next lifetime (if there is any such thing like that) she would like to see him again.
I wouldn’t however like to end this review of Rabindranath’s novel without a few concluding remarks. As a musician I love his musical compositions and still like to sing some of them and listen to good renditions of his music. I personally owe a lot to his visions and his style of writing but that is no reason for me to be blind to his prejudices. As a poet, even, he continues to inspire a lot of Bangladeshi and Bengali writers and poets, including myself. I realize and accept with due humility that my review of one of his works is not the last word on such a multi-faceted talent. But any critique of his works that doesn’t take the feminist angle into consideration is really not my cup of tea.
(Revised in June, 2013)
Andaleeb Shahjahan Purba has an MA in English Literature from Dhaka University. She has worked at BRAC University, East West University and is currently working at DPS STS school as a teacher and teachers’ trainer.
This article © Andaleeb Shahjahan Purba. First published on AlalODulal.org. Please do not reproduce without permission and credit.