Think Bengal, and it’s hard to not think Tagore. The most eminent family of the Bengal Renaissance, the Tagores have been a major influence on the cultural life of the country. Even as we continue to celebrate these brilliant men including Rabindranath Tagore, who set the benchmark for creative endeavour in the midst of a revolution, how well do we know them? We know about their brothers, uncles, fathers and grandfather – equally illustrious men who went by titles of Prince and Maharshi. But that is about it. We have little information about the women of the family, the mythical characters propping up these ‘successful’ men. Where are their stories?
Aruna Chakravarti’s delightfully evocative Jorasanko published by Harper Collins addresses this very lacuna. This meticulously researched, the semi-fictional book takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride over a period of 40 years (1859-1902) as it documents the lives within the abarodh. Literally translating to ‘blockade‘, the abarodh was where the women of all rich families spent most of their lives, acting out a grand play as daughters, wives, mothers, and widows. The Tagores, with their aristocratic background, were no exception to the rule. The book begins when Jnanadanandini Devi arrives as a child bride to Jorasanko, the familial home of the Tagores.
Through her eyes, we see the abarodh for the first time – cavernous, rule-bound, and completely feminine. The niceties of the introduction done, Ms Chakravarti pulls no punches as she takes us back two generations to Digambari Devi, the matriarch of the family. From there, she progresses linearly through 4 generations. We see Jorasanko split into the Hindu and the Brahmo wings, its flirtations with bankruptcy and disaster, Satyendranath’s appointment as the first Indian Civil Service officer, and Rabindranath tottering on the brink of fame – all through the eyes of the women who lived through these upheavals.
Women, wives, pawns: A saga of gendered imbalance
(Plot spoilers ahead)
As she charts out this history, Ms Chakravarti touches upon themes like women’s agency, caste and class barriers, and the tussle between tradition and modernity as Jorasanko transitions from a feudal structure to a western one. We see unequal marriages, imbalanced not just by age, but also by caste and autonomy. Wives are expected to move from the bedroom to the birthing chamber, following meekly in their husbands’ footsteps. Sarada Sundari accepts that fate as she suffers through a religion she doesn’t believe in, all for the sake of her husband. She, in her turn, perpetuates this cycle of powerlessness by turning a blind eye to the abuse inflicted on one of her daughters-in-law by her husband.
A constant theme in these occurrences is that of blind obedience, at all costs. Love and respect from husbands is unheard of within the abarodh, and when it does surface, it draws ire from the powers that be.
The book also explores what happens when women stand up for themselves. The clashes of will between the men and the women quickly turn bitter. Tripura Sundari’s attempt to adopt one of Jogmaya’s sons erupts in a legal feud that stretches out for years. A similar fate awaits Jogmaya who is herself ostracised for refusing to accept the religion her brother-in-law wants to foist on her.
These women and their relationships with each other ultimately fall prey to the petty jealousies of the abarodh. They become pawns in the grand scheme of things, which Ms Chakravarti beautifully portrays through the dichotomy of jewelry. While jewelry is the only property that women hold, it is never theirs to own. On one hand we have Jnanadanandini, whose jewels are taken away because of her mother-in-law’s dislike of her. On the other, we have Mrinalini whose jewels are used by her husband to set up Santiniketan. Much like the women they belong to, jewelry in Jorasanko either sets woman against woman, or serves the husband.
Defining our heroes and heritage: The need for alternative histories
In spite of the regressive social context of caste and class, however, the book celebrates the immense strength and courage of these women. We see Digambari Devi throw her husband out for taking up ‘Western’ ways. Jnanadanandini shapes the trajectory of the entire book as she refuses to bow to the rules of the abarodh and reinvents life for herself on her own terms. She claims independence as she sets sail to Britain all by herself, dressed in a sari of her own making.
Swarnakumari, another daughter of the family, becomes the first woman from the family to go to university and goes on to become India’s first woman novelist. Needless to say, she has changed the face of women’s literature in the country. Her daughter Sarala, the editor of the Bharati, a Bengali journal, becomes the first nationalist in the family, and organises festivals for the freedom movement.
In Jorasanko, we get to see the genius of the Tagore women in undisputed glory as they write and perform plays, sing songs, and manage affairs better than the men do. We see them throw off the yoke of tradition to blaze a trail of their own making. Perhaps, for the first time ever, we see the men of Jorasanko without varnish – talented, careless and caught up in the genius enabled by the women of the family.
By giving us a picture of all that remains forgotten, Jorasanko reminds us of the importance of alternative histories in defining our heroes and our heritage.
Hima Kriti is a student at IIM Indore. Interested in all things books, you’ll usually find her nose deep in all manner of theories *cue Anoushka Shankar on the headphones*. She loves wandering (or is it wondering) through life, and stumbling across new ideas. Writes, occasionally. You can find her on Instagram
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