Mainstream, VOL LV No 11 New Delhi March 4, 2017
Women of Tagore Household and their Impact on the Poet in Early Twentieth Century
Sunday 5 March 2017
by Taisha Abraham
Daughters of Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti; Harper Collins; 2016; 344 pages; Price: Rs 399 (paperback).
Daughters of Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti, set during the time of the Bengal Renaissance, is a sequel to her earlier novel, Jorasanko, the ancestral home of the Tagorefamily. Jorasanko essentially talked about the pioneering Tagore women. Set between the years 1859 and 1902 it delineated the gradual change from the feudal to the liberal mindset and its effect on the women of the Tagore household. The novel had left a deep impression that haunted me for days. I often wondered what happened to the younger generation. Daughters of Jorasanko takes up the story from 1902 onwards. The book is well-researched and the author dexterously weaves fact and fiction. It deals with the lives of the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s daughters, daughter-in-law, cousins and nieces and the impact of the lives of these lesser known women (unfolding against historical events of the partition of Bengal, Jallianwala Bagh tragedy and the independence movement) on the poet.
When the novel opens the two branches of the Tagore family—the Hindu and the Brahmo branch—are leading their separate lives in house No. 5. and house No. 6 respectively. The grandeur of the life in Jorasanko has waned. Financial problems have set in and there is talk of mortgaging one of the houses by members of the extended family. The pioneering women of the earlier novel have aged. Many are no more. Natun bouthan (Kadambari), his muse in the earlier novel—who had died a tragic death—, has been replaced in its sequel by Ranu, the daughter of Phanibhushan Adhikari (a Professor of Philosophy at the Banaras Hindu University), and Victoria Ocampo whom he met at Buenos Aires. What ties the two baris (houses) together are memories of a shared life in Jorasanko. Some of the scenes from the earlier novel are repeated in its sequel. For example, Rabindranath’s memory of the evening he spent with Kadambari (his sister-in-law and muse) on the roof of the house in Sudder Street re-surfaces. But such repetitions are not intrusive or boring; instead they add to the richness and continuity of the narrative line.
The daughters of Jorasanko lack the energy, volatility and vision of the women of the older generation, although we do see occasional sparks. In the Rakhi Utsav, for example, we see the women of Jorasanko come together to protest against the partition of Bengal. But in general, Tagore’s daughters and daughter-in-law are mired in their own problems of disease and childlessness. Aruna Chakravarti’s artistic skill lies in her ability to stoke the embers in her not-so-strong characters of the younger generation in such a way that they powerfully draw the readers to their troubled lives. We hope for the recovery of Tagore’s “long suffering daughter” Rani who eventually dies of consumption. We are by the bedside of a depressed Meera whose husband Nagen has not only used her for her father’s wealth but has also totally neglected her since their marriage. We also feel the pain of Madhurilata called Beli, Rabindranath’s older daughter, when she loses her much awaited child within three months of her pregnancy because of Nagen’s improper sexual conduct with her and the trauma that followed. We also feel for Protima, the poet’s daughter-in-law, who is in a loveless and childless marriage with Rathi. But most importantly, the author makes us empathise with the poet Tagore—who is also ailing and aged with “long pepper-coloured locks” (9)—in his inability to take strong positions on crucial family situations. He is a loving father and aches to bridge the widening gap between his “best-loved” Beli who was resentful about her father not taking a firm stand against Nagen for molesting her. The author sensitively makes us understand the complexity of the situation for the poet who is haunted by his own attraction to Natun bouthan (Kadambari): “Wasn’t Natun bouthan his sister-in-law?” (149)
Aruna Chakravarti’s openness as a writer is most felt when she deflects the responsibility from the actions of the characters to the judgment of the readers testing their sensitivity. This is one way she sets the stage for the readers to judge Tagore’s responses to situations in the family. If he dithers in taking strong positions it is not because he is callous but because he “was the scion of the Tagores of Jorasanko. Delicacy and restraint had been bred into this character over centuries of education and culture.” (149) Moreover, he is a poet and sublimates problematic domestic and national situations into “soul stirring lyrics”. (64) When his daughter Beli dies he does not go for the funeral but instead he catches the train to Bolpur station and walks to Dehali. Once he reaches there he goes to his table and writes a beautiful song that is heart rending: “On this moonlit night...” (166) His tears like “pearls; some fell on the song he had written”. (167) Similarly, when Bengal is heading for partition, he wrote “aami tomai bhalobashi (My golden Bengal/I love you)” which not only captured the imagination of the public but also became the anthem for the protest movement against partition (and much later the national anthem of today’s Bangladesh). Chakravarti makes us aware that Tagore is pulled by his poetic muse in directions that he himself has not foreseen. She never lets us forget that he is no ordinary man but the poet laureate who is the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is also a man with a vision in building his dream project for wholistic education at Santiniketan.
Chakravarti’s textured use of language, her encapturing of the beautiful sounds and colours of Bengal and her easy, vibrant style makes Daughters of Jorasanko stand on its own as a novel in which we see Tagore, the poet, despite his multiple filial, health and financial problems, at his productive best and vindicated from the accusations of being a callous father. His final moments are graphically and movingly described by the author but what lingers in the reader’s mind is the chanting of the crowds, “Jai Rabindranather jai!”
Taisha Abraham is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University. She also teaches postcolonial theories to students in the Master’s programme of the University of Delhi and has taught postcolonial theories in American and European universities as well. She has published extensively and is presently the editor of an international, interdisciplinary journal of social sciences, The JMC Review.