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Chokher Bali: Rabindranath Tagore

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This book has been under my radar ever since I was a school girl. And I have wanted to read it as it is renowned as one of the masterpieces of Tagore. But before reading I decided to do a background check because it was written some 100 years back at a time when women were relegated to the background as homemakers and mere decorative dolls adorned with jewels to be displayed as an asset. That time widow remarraige was a cardinal sin and widows lived as outcastes.

‘Choker Bali’ was first published as a serial in the periodical Bangladarshan from 1902 to 1903. In 1903, it was published as a book. In its preface, Tagore wrote:

“The literature of the new age seeks not to narrate a sequence of events, but to reveal the secrets of the heart. Such is the narrative mode of Choker Bali.”

The translation I read is by Radha Chakravarty. In the light of the preface I was expecting to read the inner working of the heart. And what I read completely blew my mind. I am not an apt person to be giving a review about such a great author, hence here i am honestly giving only my views about the books.

‘Choker Bali’ literally means ‘a grain of sand in the eye’.  Used as a metaphor for a relentless irritating presence, the title beautifully sums up the story about the bond between the two female protagonists, around whom the whole story is woven. The cover of the book is also  thoughtfully designed, with a subtle suggestion of sensuousness, a thread which runs throughout the story also. Radha Chakravarty with her skillful translation puts the setting and characters into context, and bridges the gap of the century between the writing and the re-telling.

Book: After its release the novel was heralded as the ‘Modern Indian Novel’ as Tagore chose to write about the women characters and their desires. A topic which was left untouched due to fear of society and its lack of sanction to such topics.As such there seems to be no plot when one reads the novel, but a deeper reading reveals otherwise.

Binodini is a convent educated young widow left to fend on her own when her husband dies soon after they are married. As was the custom in British India, she returns to her village and lives there for a couple of months until she accepts the invitation of Rajalakshmi (her mother’s friend) to live with her and her son, Mahendra (who had earlier rejected a marriage proposal with her) in Calcutta. He is newly married to Ashalata (a naive, gentle girl), and seeing the conjugal bliss of the two ignites the repressed sexuality in Binodini, who ponders over how this house, this mother-in-law, this Mahendra, the bedroom could all be hers. Deprived of the love, and jealous of what Ashalata gets from Bihari thakurpo (who she was supposed to marry) and Mahendra (who dearly loves Asha), Binodini is determined to break her family as she attracts Mahendra to herself. However, when she gets to know his true nature that he loves no one else except himself, and would fly away as soon as he senses danger, she seeks the love of Bihari Babu, who himself was denied love when he was supposed to get married to Ashalata.

The story weaves further the relationships of these three and Mahendra’s best friend, Bihari, as they deal with issues like distrust, adultery, lies, and problems between the four main characters.

It is contentious as to who is the main protagonist of the story. Tagore originally wrote the story with the working title, ‘Binodini’, which probably means that he meant the story to revolve around her. However, the fact that he changed the title to ‘Choker Bali’ – a phrase which Binodini chooses to represent the bond between herself and Asha, suggests that both women are the focus of the story, and to also appease the moral guardians of the time.

Binodini is obviously one of the strongest characters. She is well read, proficient in household tasks, is beautiful, as well as a model of perfection. Yet, her being a widow keeps her secluded and away from every temptation. It is foreseeable that a lonely woman who reads as much, and as varied stuff as Binodini would be tempted to put her ruses to work, to test her power over people, to feel the passion she so craves to experience.

Asha is her complete opposite – meek, simple, illiterate, and unable to run a house like Mahendra’s. She has no control over the turn events in her own life – whether it her life with her relatives, or her marriage to Mahendra, or her inability to handle the situation at Mahendra’s house – be it his passion or his mother’s antagonism.

Between the two women, it is Binodini we feel more attracted to. After all, a woman who takes her life into her own hands is to be appreciated and encouraged. Yet, it is Asha, who, towards the end of the book, comes across as the stronger one. She is the one who handles the situation with a courage, which seems to come from nowhere. And yet, when you think of the lives of Indian women, it is not unfathomable. Even the meekest of women gets courage, when she is left with nothing more to lose. The fact that this situation only comes when she loses all she has, speaks more of our society than anything else.

After the reading I wondered if Tagore always meant  for Asha to grow like she did. Or, did she surprise him too, and develop over the period of his writing?

With such strong female characters, the males seemed to be mere props for the story. Yet the story would be incomplete without them ass they are the reasons for the thoughts, temptations, conflicts and clashes. And they are the weakest among all. They neither have the courage to stand up to their principles, nor the grace to retreat from the scene silently. Their very presence only intensifies the situation, sparking more discord and trouble. Between the two male characters, Bihari is the more evolved. Mahendra is the very essence of the Indian male so prevalent even today – spoilt and egotistical.

The book though set in the 1900’s can give any of the contemporary authors a run for their money. At the core of it ,it delves into many aspects of relationships & how a single wrong decision can topple an otherwise peaceful life. There might be temptations enough but are they worth spoiling so many lives? Is jealousy a strong enough emotion to forget all other ties & relationships? The book delves into these many questions & more. It has an innocence, loyal friendship and an unadulterated flavor of love & relationship which is rare to find these days and is not written about in today’s world.

The only disappointment I felt after reading was the ending. After having created such a fierce and independent character Binodini, the end she faces is not apt if one reads from present scenario. But the book being set in the early 1900 had to end in the way it did. But Tagore did face severe criticism for the treatment meted out to Binodini.  In 1940, in a magazine named ‘Kabita’, renowned poet Buddhadeb Basu criticized the just-published novel ‘Chokher Bali’. He wrote, “I can’t believe, this great novel, in the last page, dragged to such a forced and imposed ending. It rendered the total writing lifeless.” Tagore, after reading this criticism, wrote to Buddhadeb accepting his inability to end the epic in a more subtle way, and said “I regret the ending now… you are right. It’s my right punishment to be scolded for such ending.”

But who can stand against the society and expect to be heard!!!!

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