There have been many cultural icons who have put India on the world map with their excellent literary skills. One of the greatest icons amongst them is Rabindranath Tagore. Being a Bengali and being born in a generation which marked the end of Bangali cultural simplicity and pride, I feel very regretful to say that I am not well-versed with Tagore.
Being born and brought up in Kolkata, you cannot miss the presence of Tagore. Tagore and his works are omnipotent and also omnipresent. Coming from a family which was way ahead of its time, Tagore’s works reflect a line of radical thought which strike a cord with individuals from all generations. Throughout his stories, plays, poetry and novels, Tagore has talked about a lot of issues which were taboo topics at that point of time and which are a taboo even now.
Known to be deeply engaging, Tagore’s texts have a tendency to raise complex emotions and raise striking questions in one’s mind. This is the precise reason why not everyone is deeply well-versed or connected with Tagore. One consistent theme in some of his later works has been to challenge societal norms. Many of these questions are still being asked by different schools of thought. A lot of these important questions are similar to the questions raised by what we presently relate to or theorise as Feminism. I’m not saying that Tagore was a feminist, however, he did raise similar questions through his works, which we as feminists are asking even now.
Streer Patra (The Wife’s Letter) is an epistolary written by Tagore, expressing a woman’s plight and resentment with the way her life unravels. The story however covers much more important issues than what it presents at face value. The text reflects the difficulty of widows and how society oppressed them during the 19th century.
The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural reformation to improve the status of women and women’s education.
The plot revolves around Mrinal, who is married to an upper-class, upper-caste patriarchal zamindar household. After marriage Mrinal is mocked for her rustic nature. However, her affinal family is highly aware of her sharp brains. As Mrinal goes on to describe the mundane nature of her daily lifestyle, a fragmentation in the story line is added by the appearance of Bindu. Bindu is the widowed cousin of Mrinal’s sister-in-law. Tortured by her extended paternal family, Bindu runs away and then comes to stay with her cousin. Troubles start appearing here as well when Mrinal grows fond of Bindu and starts fighting for her with the rest of the family.
Bindu is however soon married off to another household, to a mentally-challenged man. Terrified of her husband and mother-in-law, Bindu runs away from her in-laws household within three days of the wedding and comes back to Mrinal. However, Bindu has to succumb to patriarchal norms and go back to her husband. Mrinal’s desperate attempt to rescue Bindu through her brother also failed, when Mrinal’s brother brought back the news of Bindu’s suicide. Losing all faith in the institution of the family, Mrinal left her husband and her family to find solace in tirtha (pilgrimage).
Tagore was one of the pioneers of the Bengal Renaissance which took place during the 19th century. The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural reformation by a group of intellectuals within the state to improve the status of women and women’s education. While on the one hand these group of intellectuals have been criticised for being embarrassed about the illiteracy of their community’s women and also for their ‘barbaric‘ customs, on the other hand they have also been praised for bringing a concrete change to the lifestyle of Bengali women, and Indian women at large.
Through Mrinal’s narration of her lifestyle we get to know about the different patriarchal customs which have continued to bind society. When Mrinal is being ‘seen’ for marriage, her parents are both sitting in anxiety waiting for the approval of the groom’s uncle. A woman’s beauty is a criteria which is primary for being valued for marriage marketability. A woman who is beautiful will not have a dearth of men seeking her hand in marriage. This redundant thought on beauty is still garnered in the minds of the society and presently commercialisation of beauty has made it possible for women to achieve societal standards of beauty, so as to improve their marriage marketability.
When Mrinal’s husband asks her why she keeps roaming around the entire day, she replies that she rests during the afternoon and reads. Her husband then asks what is the reason to read? “Oto pore ki hobe? Tumi ki ar Raichand, Premchand upadhi pabe?” (What will come out of your reading books? Will you get titles like Raichand and Premchand?), Mrinal painfully explains how she is bound by her beauty and no one gave any importance to her intelligence. Tagore beautifully expresses this through the concerns which Mrinal’s mother has for her daughter.
Mrinal narrates, “Ma amar buddhi’ta niye khub udbighno chhilen, meye manusher pokkhe ek balai!” (Mother always used to worry about my intelligence, she thought that it was a curse for me!) This line beautifully sums up how women were only viewed as objects which were to be owned and patronised by men. Women who were capable of thinking were dangerous and hence had to face resistance.
“Jake badha mene cholte hobe, she jodi buddhi ke mene cholte chay, tahole tar kopal bhangbei!” (The person who has to follow restrictions, shouldn’t want to follow her brains, then she’d have to face resistance). The thought that women might actually possess the ability to rationalise and participate in activities other than household chores was completely alien to the society at that point of time. Hence a woman having too much intelligence was not a boon but a curse!
Tagore exposes the hollowness of the reform movement that was carried out during the 19th century. Despite the fact that women were granted certain rights such as education and widow remarriage and the system of purdah was lifted, yet the crux of all these acts was not visible to the Indian society at that point of time. Western-educated Indian men felt that there was a necessity to change the structure of the Indian society and especially culture, as a response to the British who had labelled Indian culture as ‘brutish‘ and ‘barbaric‘,
In terms of culture, these group of reformers believed that the Indian culture was superior to western culture, however it needed certain kinds of polishing. One such polishing was ‘empowering‘ women. Women who were not granted education and treated like an object lying in the household, were now expected to be educated and suitable to the Western educated man.
Tagore exposes the hollowness of the reform movement IN the 19th century.
What was lost in this context was the fact that in both scenarios, women were being adapted or were adapting themselves to the likes of men, and thereby not utilising their own agency in any manner. Women were seen as the barometer of respectability of the society, which only led to further policing of their behaviour. The burden of upholding ‘Indian culture and tradition’ was placed on them. Thus, even though there were ‘reforms’ carried out for women, yet there were no real reforms being made FOR women.
Thus like Mrinal, Bimala from Ghare-Baire also had a kind of emptiness which consumed her every living moment. They found no purpose to their life and to the skills that they already had.
Tagore was inspired to write Streer Patra when he was requested by a reader of the Amrita Bazar Patrika (1914) to write on the widely reported death of Snehlata, a young Bengali woman who set herself on fire to prevent her parents the torture of arranging dowry for her marriage.
Bindu’s death and the torturous life which she went through are not a tribute to only Snehlata but to the numerous women who did not find a voice or an appropriate way to express their plight during that period, and even now. Literature cannot help us solve practical problems of dowry deaths and honour killings and domestic violence, but literature gives us the greater power of empathy. Empathy and a subjective understanding of these issues is what helps us relate to their causes and restore their survivors back to normal life. So let’s thank the Nobel laureate for creating a platform for discussion and empathy.
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