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Emotional Experience

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 38, September 7, 2013

A Moving Cultural, Regional,
Emotional Experience

Sunday 8 September 2013


by Taisha Abraham

Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti; Harper Collins India; pages: 406; price: Rs 350.

Reading Aruna Chakravarti’s Jorasanko, as a non-Bengali, was a cultural and regional experience. Along with the seven-year-old bride of Satyendranath, Genu, we too enter the spacious Tagore household amidst ululation, conch-blowing, the “clamour of pipes and kettle drums” and intoxicated by the “delicious aroma of ghee, and spices” emerging from the cooking pits. There is an intense energy all around. We are part of the wedding party assimilating the grand celebrations, but also noticing the “dark and cavernous” corners of the Tagore mansion, where hierarchies are maintained and rituals challenged. Chakravarti’s ability to encapture the colours, voices, spaces and smells of the Tagore household draws the readers directly into the complex politics and intricate inter-personal relationships of its inhabitants.

The generational narrative goes back and forth, unfolding local rifts between the Pirali Brahmins and the Kulins, familial tensions and spousal conflicts—all of which feed into the larger national political and social debates of the period. To Dwarkanath’s Western ways Digambari asks herself:

“Where does a woman’s duty lie? In cleaving to her husband even if he has parted ways with dharma? Or in rejecting him?”

She chooses to be with him in keeping with the Hindu dharma but draws her own boundaries when it comes to issues of purity and impurity.

Similarly, Debendranath, the eldest son of Dwarkanath and Digambari and the founder of the Brahmo Dharma, has an epiphanic moment when he questions the meaning of life at his foster grandmother Aloka Sundari’s last journey to the banks of the Ganga. Aloka Sundari’s response that life is only a preparation makes him decide to give away all his material things to the dismay of his loyal and obedient wife, Sarada Sundari. Debendranath challenges several traditional Hindu customs and rituals. He has a Brahmo shraddha for his father, instead of the traditional Hindu last rites against the will of several family members. These rifts within the family that break the household into two are catapulted into the public space through the newspapers that report these events and feed into the social fissures of a society in transition.

The women may be seen in reactive roles to the changes that surround them but in their own way they show their resistance and acceptance overtly and covertly. Ironically, the root of the explosive problems in the society of the times is seen in the treatment of women in the Tagore household. Children who are married as early as five, women who are medically neglected like Sarada Sundari, the anaemic wife of Debendranath, the emotionally ignored and languishing Kadambari, the wife of Jyotirindra-nath, who was lonely and miserable in her marriage, or, women who are kept dispossessed and in a dependency syndrome like Nagendra’s wife, Tripura Sundari. The most overt example of domestic violence in the household is seen in the relationship between Birendra—the fourth son of Debendranath and Sarada—and his wife, Prafulla. He physically bruises his wife, Prafulla: “Prafulla ‘s mother had hinted to her, before the marriage, that men did strange things to their wives and hurt them, sometimes, but it was all part of a marital relationship.” The “girl’s bruised, swollen lips and the blue-black marks on her neck and breasts” speak the unspeakable in terms of the complexities of domestic violence circumscribed by culture and tradition.

Although structured systems of gender and class are firmly embedded in the cultural landscape, we see how gradually the rules of the abarodh shrink and slacken, and “neither Debendra nor Sarada had the power to stop the process”. Jnanadanandini initiates it by introducing a new way of draping the sari, which was popularly named as the “pirili” style in Calcutta. Women navigate their space by forming new alliances with male members of the household, who are closer to them in age and interests, without losing their marital and feminine role as demanded by society. Kadambari, for example, bonds spiritually with Robi as his muse, others like Jnanadanandini flower by negotiating a space between husband, Satyendranath, and brother-in-law, Jyotirindra-nath, and yet others suffer but with an inner resilience and resistance that gives them strength to stand their own. Despite Debendranath’s caveat to the women of the household to stop the Durga Puja celebrations, both Jogmaya and Tripura—the “stubborn women”, as he says—continue with it in all its magnificence.

The voice of the author too emerges at certain points in the narrative, as strong, protesting but never intrusive or judgmental. Chakravarti is sensitive to the dual lens of time: the historical period of her novel and the contemporary times in which she writes. Through this dual lens her narrative adroitness gives us insights into Debendranath’s difficulty in embracing the Brahmo religion wholeheartedly: “Robi had his upanayan ceremony jointly with his brother Som. Debendranath, though a Brahmo, never forgot his Brahminical ancestry and insisted on performing all the rituals pertaining to it.” Again, Chakravarti highlights the fact that women do not experience adolescence but grow suddenly from a girl into a woman: about Mrinalini, the wife of Rabindranath Tagore, she says: “One day she was a child playing with her dolls and the next, as it seemed to everyone in the house, she had become a woman.” Or better still when she tells us about Rabindranath receiving a letter about his wife, Mrinalini’s fall from his fourteen-year-old son, “who, in his absence, had assumed the role of the man of the house”. Chakravarti shows us the trends in culturalist thinking underlining for us in a way that only a creative artist and scholar of her standing can do softly, unobtrusively, and with the power of historical and cultural knowledge.

The male characters, too, are portrayed in a multidimensional way. Moulded by the society of their times they are torn between the societal demands made upon them and their own rational questioning, engendered by the reform movements of the times, both in India and abroad. Satyendra, for example, feels bitter about the fact that his father had not considered for one moment what his mother’s “incessant childbearing was doing to his wife, how it was eroding her health and strength”. She had borne him fifteen children. At another point in the narrative, we see how Robi, too, thinks about the character of Binodini while writing the closing chapters of Chokher Bali. She had seduced two good men. Should he kill her off? He decides against it after all, as he says: “She was a widow, denied love and physical fulfilment by a harsh, insensitive social order.”

The book moves from strength to strength in its portrayal of characters, its vibrant creation of the atmosphere of the period in which the novel is set, its easy style, textured approach to the complex, emotional relationships, and, the graphic description of the various happenings at Jorasanko. Cumulatively, it leaves the readers haunted and moved for days after the book has been read. The “dark and cavernous corners” of the Tagore mansion, which we noticed when we entered the house with Genu, the young bride of Satyendranath, acquires special significance. What started as a cultural and regional experience becomes an intense emotional experience as well. This is indeed a tribute to a gifted writer!

The reviewer is an Associate Professor, Department of English, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi.

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