Thursday, 18 December 2014

The freedom and the pain

Full title: Broken Nest and Other Stories
Author: Rabindranath Tagore (Translated by Sharmistha Mohanti)
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 129 pages, paperback
Publisher: Westland (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The four stories in the volume have many things in common. They are stories about women, but not just that. They are stories about women caught in the whirlwind of a fundamental change. They are stories about women gaining access. Not to social or political recognition, but to a special kind of spiritual enlightenment, an awakening that puts their former subjecthood into sharp perspective.
The rise to spiritual freedom is always celebrated in Tagore's bucolic way: the characters are inscribed in a circuit of natural happiness, a sort of poetic ecology where the human being finds a gentler, more manageable form of the Sublime than the one that overwhelmed European readers in the nineteenth century.
"Every day, while listening to his voice the sky on the east became blood- red, next to the clouds there appeared streaks of sunlight, the darkness would fall away like the burst calyx of a blossoming bud, and the red flower of the morning would bloom little by little in the lake of the sky."
So goes a description in "The Ghat's Tale." But this is only one example. Hundreds of others can be found throughout the texts. One needs to read them to see.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Source: Voices, Compassion, Education
What's also common in all four stories is the significance of writing. When the rise of the heroines is measured, their progress takes the shape of the distinction between orality and literacy. The written form seems to always win. When looked at with a cold, critical eye, this may seem to be akin to playing the winning card of the empire. At the end of the day, the entire ideology of expansion has been built on this promise of acculturation, where writing was equated with enlightenment. But Tagore doesn't speak of English literacy. By writing he means Bengali writing. And by it he means a system of inscription that brings the spiritual out of its hiding place, into a world where it has to antagonise the transitory standards of public discourse.
When he does make reference to English, as, for instance, in the title story, Tagore does it in the tone of satire. Bhupati, the Chekhovian tragic character who sees in the Empire an unfulfillable (for him) promise, fails precisely there: in replicating the very writing standards he's decided to emulate.
"Ever since childhood he had liked writing and delivering speeches in English. Even when there was no need, he would write letters to English language newspapers, and even if he had nothing to express he would always say a word or two at formal gatherings."
The fact that Bhupati has trained himself in the journalistic discipline is significant: he deals in politics, where the Empire dominates with vindictiveness, as all empires do. In such a context, there's little room for him to grow. His wife, however, Charu, is of a different cut. Living in the shadow of her husband's poorly understood patriarchalism, she finds escape (Bovaric creature that she is) in literature. Her pleasures may be simple; at the end of the day, the literature she reads is hopelessly pathetic, lachrymose, melodramatic. But what she gets from the books she reads is precisely this respite from the political illusions of Bhupati. Out of an illusion and into another  this is how Tagore traces the trajectory of Charu's liberation-cum-tragedy. She learns the craft of writing from a man (her brother-in-law) who seems different but proves otherwise.
The story of Charu's education is complex. It is not a mere impregnation with knowledge, but rather a form of exchange. Charu and Amal learn from each other; or rather, they push each other into the world of writing. But the woman is bound to find the limits of her destiny. The bliss of writing is short-lived. While Amal rises to prominence as a consequence of his mastering of writing (a crooked public recognition for a talent that consists of mere reproductions of traditional models), Charu remains a domestic miracle. Her work, published in a prominent periodical, is innovative. It receives recognition from a critic who has a knack for originality. But this is not what she's after: not public recognition (which had defeated her husband and had driven Amal away from India, into the heart of the Empire), but private, spiritual growth. This growth means pain (not unlike, perhaps, the maturation of a body that grows unnaturally), and Tagore takes the opportunity to elaborate a lot on the subject.
The same growth is apparent in "The Ghat's Tale." In this story, where the narrative voice belongs, very peculiarly, to that most Indian of aquatic edifices, the ghat, a widowed woman finds spiritual rebirth when she meets a sannyasi. Here too, departure is necessary. Like Amal in "Broken Nest," the stronger male character is obliged to leave (in a way European readers might find, again, melodramatic) because their grander projects make a mundane relationship impossible.
And again, in "The Postmaster," an illiterate girl who learns writing from her master, has to part with the object of her adoration as soon as her enlightenment is accomplished. As observed by the editor/translator of the volume, Sharmistha Mohanty, water is an element of separation in Tagore's stories. In "Broken Nest," Amal leaves for England, travelling by a cruise ship. In "The Ghat's Tale," the widowed Kusum ends up offering herself as a sacrifice to the river Ganga. In "The Postmaster," the master becomes conscious of this separation while the boat he has boarded is slowly departing, leaving the recently enlightened girl to cry silently her disappointment.
So it can be agreed that, in each of these stories, enlightenment comes at a cost. It is the price of liberation that these characters are paying. And because of that, the human element is mostly sad, despondent. Hope and celebration only come about in the passages where Tagore goes about describing nature. Nature which, to him, appears to be the truly luminous face of the world.