March 2011

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.

Interior Landscapes

ďNeither of them noticed that the period in which husband and wife rediscover each other in the exquisite first light of loveóthat gold-tinged dawn of conjugal lifeóhad slipped silently into the past. Even before savouring the new, they had become told, familiar, and accustomed to each other.Ē
-- From Rabindranath Tagoreís The Broken Nest

A bored young woman walks from room to room in her beautiful house. She sprawls on her bed and leafs through a novel, then wanders to the living room and looks through the bookcases for a new book. Suddenly she hears an interesting sound. She rushes to the windows and peers through the slats in the dark shutters. She sees a performer with a monkey, then some men carrying a palanquin, then a foolish man waddling along with an umbrella. Excited, she moves from shutter to shutter to peer through as these characters cross back and forth through her line of vision. She fetches a lorgnette, so she can see them better. When all disappear from view, she walks back through the living room, still holding up the lorgnette and stands on the porch that encloses the houseís interior verandah. Her husband walks by, fetches a book, and walks back again. He doesnít notice her. She focuses her lorgnette on him. As his figure recedes into a different part of the house, her hand, still holding the lorgnette, drops to her side, and the camera zooms abruptly away from her.

film still

Satyajit Rayís film Charulata (1964)†tells the story of a lonely young housewife whose distracted husband fails to notice until too late that she has fallen in love with his younger brother. The film is based on Rabindranath Tagoreís Bengali novella Broken Nest (Nashtaneer), which, along with two other Tagore novellas, Two Sisters (Dui Bon) and The Orchard (Malancha), about complicated marriages, has just come out in an excellent new translation by Arunava Sinha as the collection Three Women. The opening scenes of the film Charulata convey viscerally Charulataís boredom and confinement, conditions that are described, quickly and succinctly in Tagoreís economical but poetic prose:

Living as she did in a wealthy household, Charulata had no chores to do. The only task of her long, undemanding days and nights was to blossom fruitlessly, rather like the flower that will never ripen.

Tagore adds that Charulata has "a natural propensity for reading" and thus he, and Ray, in turn, sets up a clearly Madame Bovary-esque premise for his bored, educated bourgeois heroine. But whereas Madam Bovary gallivants all about the landscape in search of romance, Charulata, as a respectable young woman in late nineteenth century Bengal, does not leave the house. Her adventures, as her boredom, all exist within the confines of her home. Romance, or something like it, comes in the form of the traditionally close friendship between a woman and her husbandís younger brother, known as her "debar" in Bengali.

The relationship between Charu and her dashing debar Amal, never consummated and always unspoken, goes unnoticed by her husband Bhupati, until long after Amal has left their home for England. Bhupatai, whose newspaper business has failed, tries to turn to his wife for comfort, only to find that he has lost the chance to connect with her emotionally. Though the closeness between his wife and his brother is perfectly obvious to him, he welcomes it, partly because he thinks his wife needs friendships to occupy her time and partly because the wife/younger brother-in-law relationship is supposed to be an especially intimate one in traditional Bengali society (and other parts of India as well). Thus his ignorance of the extent of their emotional attachment to one another is not mere stupidity. He is guilty merely of missing nuance.

All three of the novellas in the new collection give the lie to any assumptions one might have had about the novel as a domain of pre-marital romances or extra-marital affairs. In each story, a marriage that is not altogether bad, and might even be considered fairly good on the surface, goes through a subtle transformation that threatens it. In each case, there is a love triangle in which the third party is a close family member who lives with the couple for a time. At no time is it even suggested that any improprieties have occurred, and the endings do not necessarily result in the wholesale destruction of the marriage. If this sounds tame, itís not. Instead, Tagore opens up vistas for the novel inside the smallest most enclosed spaces. I was struck suddenly by how unimaginative writing about life within marriages can be.

Tagoreís probing realism in these novellas may have cut too close to the bone for his audience at the time, made up of people like Charulata "with a natural propensity for reading" living in educated affluence in twentieth century Bengal. Broken Nest was considered shocking at the time precisely because it shone an unwanted spotlight on traditional family relationships and questioned the complacency of respectable marriages in happy homes. This was a reading public that was steeped in historical romances, a genre which keeps more or less outside of the middle class drawing rooms and hovers somewhere closer to fantasy. And it is of course the Madame Bovary subtext that in reading romantic novels, the lonely and bored Charulata is awakened to a desire for romantic love in her own life. Tagore never mentions what Charulata is reading specifically, partly because his audience would have known, since they were reading the same books. Ray (1921-1992), however, who made Charulata some sixty years later, feels the need to specify what his heroine must have been reading, and makes repeated references to the celebrated Bengali author Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1834-1894) in his film. Indeed, the first reference to Bankim comes in the very first scene: as Charulata flips through the novels in the library she is singing softly to herself, ďBankim, Bankim, Bankim.Ē

tagoreIf Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the only Indian ever win the Nobel Prize (in 1913) for literature, and the writer of numerous books, composer of an entire genre of music (Rabindra Sangeet), and founder of a utopian arts school, Visva-Bharati University, in the rural West Bengal town of Shantiniketan, is a colossus of Indian intellectual history, it must be remembered that he stands on the shoulders of Bankim, possibly the most important figure in the nineteenth century Bengal Renaissance. Numerous weighty tomes have been written about Bankim and anyone who has sat in a seminar room full of Bengali historians knows that one must nod solemnly and keep oneís mouth shut when the name "Bankim" is uttered in reverent tones. The gravitas that surrounds Bankim as a figure in intellectual history stems from his status as father of modern Bengali literature. Bankim wrote numerous novels and was author of the first novel in Bengali (and some argue the first novel in an Indian language), Durgeshnandini (1865), an historical romance set during the time of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (it so happens that this novel is also available in a fresh new translation in the same series as Three Women). Part of the magic of Bankimís writing lies in his forging of a new idiom for Bengali prose using both fancy Sanskrit words and informal slangy language. In his excellent introduction to Durgeshnandini, Shirshendu Chakrabarti tells of Bankimís apprehension in his experiments with using Sanskrit in Bengali in this first novel:

...when Bankim, apprehensive of grammatical and stylistic errors, read out the manuscript to a select gathering, one of the pundits present declared that he had been so carried away by the language as not to notice any flaws; another asserted that the flaws had beautified the language further.

Such effusive responses to Bankimís writing are common among readers of Bengali literature, and of course the affective response to this felicitous use of language is closed to those of us reading translations. With all this in mind, it was with some trepidation that I opened the pages of Durgeshnandini, my first ever foray into Bankim literature. Would I be up to the task of reading such an intellectual heavyweight? Would I be able to sufficiently appreciate literature so masterful as this? From the opening scenes I was happily disabused of my fears. Whatever cultural and historical importance Durgeshnandini may hold, and however much a reader in English misses of the subtle nuances of Bankimís language, the novel can best be described as "a ripping yarn." Just two pages in we find ourselves in a tantalizing circumstance: our young hero, a warrior, is trapped in a small temple on a dark night in a rainstorm. He soon discovers he is not alone. Two women of noble birth are trapped in the same temple! Our hero fetches a light from nearby thus affording the opportunity for lavish descriptions of all involved. Certainly the ladies have many lustrous qualities, but listen to the attractions of our warrior hero:

His physical stature might have seemed disproportionate on another person; but he was so broad of chest and his body so well sculpted that his height in fact added a divine comeliness to his appearance. His tender charm was as appealing as -- or even more than -- that of green shoots newly born after the rains; his armour was of the hue of young leaves of spring, his sword was slung in its sheath from the girdle at his waist, and he held a long spear. On his head was a turban, with a solitary diamond on it; from his ears dangled pearl earrings, a bejewelled amulet hung around his throat.

Needless to say, there is no going back after this, and the 180-page novel, replete with romance, adventure, battle scenes, evil despots with harems, love requited and unrequited, and holy men with poor impulse control, is quickly consumed.

bankimAfter reading Durgeshnandini, I was curious to read Bankimís earlier novel, Rajmohanís Wife, which he wrote in English. Bankim being Bankim, Rajmohanís Wife happens to be the first Indian novel in English -- an enterprise he seems to have promptly abandoned on completing the novel. The novel, which appeared serialized in a short-lived journal of the kind that is only read by a few of oneís closest friends, was reconstructed in the 1930s from the moth-eaten pages of an extant copy of the journal; the first three chapters were missing, and had to be reconstituted from a Bengali translation Bankim had been working on late in life. Meenakshi Mukherjee speculates in her forward to the novel that Bankim may have abandoned writing in English due to the very limited audience for that bizarre commodity, the Indian novel in English. How things have changed.

Rajmohanís Wife is also a ripping yarn, complete with some features of Victorian romances such as hidden chambers and damp dungeons that require a happy suspension of disbelief given the architecture of the houses described in the novel. But, as if to thread the needle and anticipate Tagoreís complicated drawing room marriages, Rajmohanís Wife is not so much a romance as the tale of an unhappy marriage. The heroine, Matangini has a husband who is a violent controlling lout, and the plot revolves around her brazen interference in her husbandís attempt to rob her sisterís husband, the erudite, city-educated Madhav, with whom she also happens to be hopelessly in love.

Discussions of early examples of the novel in India are always rife with hand-wringing about the genre as a Western import. Much ink is spilled in the attempt to show which aspects of various early works are "indigenous" and which are imported. But the novel is just one of those things that everyone wants once they have been exposed to it, like pizza, or dance music. Whatís interesting is how the thing is adapted to various cultures, like the way Americans have taken a millennia-old spiritual practice and turned it into a fitness craze (yoga). In Tagoreís writing on marriage, and in Rajmohanís Wife, we see the novelís propensity for romance and realism play out within a social milieu wherein marriages are arranged, often in childhood, and women rarely know any existence outside the family compound. In such settings there is no room for pre-marital romance, and no chance of swashbuckling strangers striding onto the scene as they do in historical fictions like Durgeshnandini. Romantic tension must therefore materialize and play out entirely within the bounds of the home, the outside world penetrating only through the slats in the window shutters, and through novels, which bring with them a whiff of adventure and the possibilities of romantic love.

Some further reading for the Bengali-phile:

Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye
Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay: An Intellectual Biography
Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man