Details of Critical study
Conflict Between Innocence and Evil in Tagore’s Stories
Year Of Publish:
Conflict between Innocence and Evil: Child Protagonists in
Rabindranath Tagore’s Short Stories
Rabindranath Tagore wrote nearly one hundred short stories during his abundant literary career. Some fifty or more stories are readily available in English in collections like Glimpses of Bengal life (1913), Hungry Stones (1916), Mashi (1918), Broken Ties (1925), The Parrot’s Training (1944) and The Runaway (1959). Some stories were translated from Bengali into English by the poet himself and the others by several qualified translators.
With the exception of a few, almost all his short stories are brimming with pathos. To quote Bandyopadhyay, “Lyric and short story, temperamentally, are like twin brothers. So, it is not difficult for a lyricist to write a short story. Whatever may be Rabindranath’s position as a novelist there is no doubt that he ranks among the greatest short story writers of the world” (59). In the short stories of Tagore one can find the influence of man, nature and the mysteries of the supernatural. “The pictures of our rural urban lives, disintegration of the old joint family families, family quarrels, conflict in love and affection, conflict between religious superstitions and humanistic values and the final triumph of humanism provide a pageant of the entire Bengal life” (Bandyopadhyay 60). The domestic stories of Tagore are treated with unprecedented realistic approach. Tagore may not have the actual, practical experience with the rural life of his people in the stories. The same is the case with other artists as well. Experience is necessary, but equally important is imagination. Unless the stories are coloured with imagination, they will remain newspaper reports.
Next to women, the characters in Tagore’s stories that linger longest in the minds of the readers are those of children and the adolescent. Tagore was interested in children and their education; he was against the prevailing system of education and upbringing, which destroyed their personality and made them slaves of text-books, with the school as their prison-house. Tagore’s heart overflowed with pity for children. His deep and pure love to children gives his stories an impetuous energy. His children are very handsome and angelic and they win the hearts of all persons who meet them. They are active and fully involved in their child-like activities. “These children are sketched in outline: they gather colour with maturity; but the sympathy they evoke in their helplessness and dependence they forfeit in later life” (Sidhanta 288). The conflict of their innocence with the evil or cunningness of this world brings out the pathos of these stories. These children are very often drawn to Nature, led by Nature and are spending most of the time in the lap of Nature. The way they respond to Nature reminds one of the children in Blake’s and Wordsworth’s poems. As they are weak the reader finds them crushed by the cruel grown-ups.
In this paper, five short stories of Tagore with children as protagonists are analysed. The stories are “Holiday” or “Home-coming,” “Unwanted” or “Castaway,” “The Exercise-Book,” “Guest” or “Runaway” and “Trespass.”
The story “Holiday” or “Home-coming,” published in 1892-93, opened with a dramatic action. Phatik Chakrabarti, the ring leader of the boys planned to roll a huge log [which was waiting to be made into a mast] into the river. The boys were about to do that when Phatik’s younger brother Makhanlal came and solemnly sat on the log. When Makhan disobeyed Phatik’s command to clear off, he ordered the boys to roll the log with Makhan on it. With one spin of the log, Makhan’s solemnity, glory and wisdom crashed to the ground and he jumped up and threw himself on to Phatik hitting him with blind rage and scratching his nose and cheeks. Then he went home tearfully. Phatik was brought forcibly to the house by the servant. He was beaten by the mother since Makhan had reported to her that Phatik had beaten him. Meanwhile the widowed mother’s brother, Bishvambar Babu arrived there. He was meeting her after a long period. She told him about the uncontrollable wildness of Phatik and the perfect behaviour of Makhan. Bishvambar proposed to take Phatik to his house at Calcutta and educate him there. Phatik was only happy to go with his uncle.
Phatik was an unwelcome addition to his uncle’s family. His aunt could not put up with him. There is not a greater nuisance in the world than a boy of thirteen or fourteen. Many faults can be forgiven in a child or a young man, but at this age even natural and unavoidable faults are felt to be unbearable. He felt a fish out of water in the house and in the school. His aunt saw him as an evil star. Phatik longed to go back to his own house and be with his harsh, impetuous mother. At school there was no one more stupid and inattentive than Phatik. He was waiting for the holidays to go back to his house.
One day he lost his school books. He was severely punished by the teacher everyday for not studying. Phatik went to his aunt and confessed like a criminal that had lost his school books. His aunt’s arrogant, hurling response wounded his heart. That night when he returned from school he got fever. Thinking that he would be a nuisance to his aunt when he fell ill, he left the house that night. The next day he was brought back to the house with the help of police. Phatik was soaked from head to foot, and covered with mud. He was trembling violently. To the teasing words of the aunt he replied weeping that he had been going back to his mother, but the police had brought him back. The boy’s fever climbed alarmingly. He was delirious all night. Bishvambar fetched the doctor. The doctor reported that Phatik’s condition was worse. Phatik was asking his uncle now and then whether his holiday time had not come.
The next day, during the short time when he was conscious, he was searching for someone in the room. Bishvambar understood that the boy was longing to see his mother. He consoled Phatik telling that he had sent for his mother. Another day passed. The doctor reported that the boy’s condition was critical. Phatik was in a delirium telling this and that. It was then that his mother stormed into room, bursting into loud wails of grief. She threw herself on to the bed and called her son by name. “Turning slowly on to his side, and looking at no one, Phatik said softly, ‘Mother, my holiday has come now. I’m going home”’ (Selected Short Stories 112).
Thus in this story one finds an uprooted rustic child making a desperate attempt at ‘home-coming.’ “The one hunger that none can surpass–not even deaf and dumb, not even the backward child–is the hunger for understanding and sympathy and love” (Iyengar 73). The realistic portrayal of a teenage boy, the problems he confronts, the changes that take place in him, his queer behaviour, his longing for love, admiration etc. are very well drawn in this story. The readers are wonder-struck by Tagore’s keen observation. Nirmalkumar Sidhanta wrote on this story thus:
The Chuti (The Home-coming) is a story of a boy of high spirits not yet subjected to vigours of discipline. The three scenes are well contrasted: play and home life in the village-school and relatives in Calcutta and the fatal illness as a climax. This type of a child with potentiality but not amenable to the rigours of the old-fashioned home or school was dear to the poet; the kind-hearted uncle is lightly sketched as also the unfeeling aunt; the delirious talk of the boy with this ultimate welcome of a holiday is touching. Brevity has not affected the pathos of the tale; compression has enhanced the poignancy of death. (278)
One can sum up the story as the withering away of a child of Nature in the suffocating atmosphere of city-life. Tagore in narrating this story wants to tell all mothers that their children’s naughty nature should be tolerated and if they do not have the patience and love for bearing it, they will have to pay the price for it as it happened to Phatik’s mother.
“Unwanted” or “Castaway”
“Unwanted” or “Castaway,” published in 1895, tells the pathetic tale of Nilkanta, a homeless boy. Sharat went to Chandernagore with his wife Kiran to improve her health. Kiran was a great favourite with her family and neighbours. She was fond of society and amusements and so she insisted that they should go back to their native place since her health had improved. Sharat wanted to continue their stay there for some more days. Meanwhile a servant called out a message through the closed door. On opening the door Sharat learned that a boat had been upset in the storm, and one of its occupants, a young Brahmin boy had succeeded in swimming ashore to the garden steps. He was taken to the house and was given food, dress and shelter. He belonged to a company of travelling actors. He did not know whether his fellow actors survived. The boy’s name was Nilkanta. Nilkanta thus stayed with them. He was the favourite of Kiran. Sharat welcomed this guest in his house since Kiran did not want to leave the place. Nilkanta was on the period of growth. He could be called neither a boy nor a youth. He was full of dreams.
Shortly after Nilkanta’s arrival, Sharat’s younger brother, Satish came to spend his college days with them. Kiran was greatly pleased at finding fresh amusements in the company of Satish. They were of same age and they spent leisure time in games, amusements, quarrels, laughter and even in tears. Nilkanta started to think that he was neglected. He got jealous of Satish.
Now Sharat and family decided to go back to their native place. Kiran sent for Nilkanta and with kind words advised him to go back to his house. His reply was a burst of tears. It was hard for him to leave her. Seeing his crying Satish only teased him calling him a fool. Now Nilkanta’s jealousy and anger to Satish made him steal his fine inkstand, which was in the shape of a boat pulled by a silver goose. He hid it in his box. This he did as revenge. Satish used to scold him and beat him. The family members except Kiran suspected Nilkanta of stealing it. But Kiran did not allow them to inspect his box. That evening Kiran went to Nilkanta’s room stealthily to place some gifts–two new suits of clothes, a pair of shoes and a hundred rupee note–into his box, for his surprise. On the bottom of the box, surprisingly enough, she found the inkstand. She placed it there itself and on the top she placed the gifts she had brought. Nilkanta had been watching all these things from behind. He did not know how to explain the things to her. He did not steal it. He did it only out of revenge. He was in great agony. Kiran shut the box and got out. “The next day there was no sign of the Brahmin boy. The villagers said they had not seen him; the police said he was missing” (Selected Short Stories 171). The whole family went back to their native place. And only that miserable dog of Nilkanta remained there searching for his master crying and crying as if its heart would break.
To Nilkanta, Kiran was his only friend, sister, mother, and everything. So it is quite natural for him to feel agitated and jealous when her love and attention were shared by Satish. The jealousy grew into anger and revenge when he was scolded, teased and beaten by Satish. He hid Stash’s inkstand only to pacify his anger and revenge. He could not tolerate himself be thought and called a thief. And finally he was caught a thief by his own dear friend, Kiran! It was more than he could bear. And it ended in his tragic disappearance from the world.
“The Exercise-Book” is a story dealing with the pathos of a little girl suffering as a consequence of child-marriage. Tapobrata Ghosh writes about the inspiration for the story:
“The Exercise-Book” is set against the Hindu revivalism of the late nineteenth century. This reactionary movement aimed to prop up a decadent religious and social orthodoxy, partly by the grotesque ‘scientific’ defences of old customs and superstitions. Shortly before the date of the story, the Age of Consent Bill had been passed with the object of stopping child marriages. Conservative Hindus reacted sharply. Rabindranath’s story reflects his opposition to Hindu revivalism and to child marriage—though his own daughters were married of very early. (11)
Seven years old Uma became a great nuisance in her house as she learned to write. She would write or draw on every wall of the house. She dirtied not only the walls but also her father’s account book, her sister-in-law’s novel etc. She wrote whatever came to her mind. There was no logical sequence in her sentences. Then one day she scribbled on an essay prepared by her brother, Gobindalal for the newspaper. He was a regular writer in the newspapers. He beat her and then confiscated all her writing implements. The humiliated little girl, not understanding the reason for so severe a punishment, sat in a corner and began to cry. After some time Gobindalal somewhat remorsefully returned her looted materials and presented her with a bound exercise-book.
The exercise-book was a companion to her almost everyday and she wrote voluminously. She was sent to the girls’ school in the village and she took the exercise-book to the class also. The book became a medium to express her various mental moods.
When Uma was nine years old she was married to Pyarimohan, a literary associate of Gobindalal. Though he was educated, his mind was entirely closed to the new ways of thought. “For this reason he was very highly regarded by his neighbours, and Gobindalal tried to follow his example, though without complete success” (Chaudhuri 47). Uma was compelled to go along with her husband to his house and stay there. There she had much domestic work and she found little time to write in the exercise-book. Though her father wanted to bring her to his house frequently, her brother, Gobindalal was against it. He believed that the girl will have to stay in her husband’s house always as to learn devotion to her husband. Jashi, the elderly servant of Uma’s house also accompanied Uma to her husband’s house and stayed there for a few days to settle Uma in her in-laws’ house. Uma felt lonely and she took the exercise-book and expressed her feelings on the papers. “Jashi has gone home. I want to go back to Mother too” (Chaudhuri 47). She also requested her brother, through the book, to take her home just once.
Then one day when she was writing meaninglessly in the book, her three sisters-in-law peeped through the crack of the door and they were shocked to see it. They had no education. They laughed at her and so she shut the book and kept it on her bed. The sisters-in-law reported the matter to their brother, Uma’s husband. Her husband scolded her and made fun of her saying, “We’ll have to order a lawyer’s turban; my wife will go to office with a pen tucked behind her ear” (Chaudhuri 48). Uma was very sad and dejected. For many days after that she did not write in her book. Then one day, on an autumn morning, a beggar-woman came to their house and started singing about goddess Durga’s visit to her parents’ home. Uma is a name for the goddess. Uma called the singer secretly to her room, shut the door and started to write down the song in her exercise-book. Her sisters-in-law watched this through the crack in the door, and burst out clapping their hands. They reported the case to their brother. Pyarimohan came to her room and tried to snatch the exercise-book from her hand. To quote from the text, “But when she saw Pyarimohan was getting up to snatch the book from her, she flung it down, covered her face with her hands and collapsed on the floor” (Chaudhuri 50). He took the book and read aloud the pangs she wrote in the book. Hearing it his sisters laughed, standing beside him. The story ends thus, “After that day, Uma never got back her exercise-book. Pyarimohan had an exercise-book too, filled with barbed essays expounding his elaborate theories. But there was no benefactor of humankind to seize that book and destroy it” (Chaudhuri 50). To quote Tapobrata Ghosh, “This direct intrusion of the narrator might impair the formal dignity of the ending, but the infringement of narrative grammar brings out more clearly the writer’s human concern” (12).
Pathos of a little girl is very well portrayed in this story. Tagore brings out the agonies of a little girl who was a prey to the evil practice of child-marriage. Through this simple story Tagore makes a social criticism. He criticizes the age-old custom of child marriage. Poor little girls were just like slaves. They got love and care neither from their husbands’ houses, nor from their own houses. When boys of their age were freely enjoying their childhood life, these little girls were destined to work hard in their husbands’ houses. They had to face all tortures, mental and physical, from their husbands and in-laws. The male domination, as part of patriarchal system, is also found in this tory. To safeguard their selfish interests, men do not allow women to have education. Tagore, a modern man and an admirer of western culture attacks the traditional Indian attitude to education, especially to women. Similarly he was against the uncivilized practice of child marriage.
“Guest” or “Runaway”
“Guest” or “Runaway,” published in 1895, tells the pathetic tale of a boy named Tarapadan. Mathilal Babu, the Zamindar of Kathaliya was going back home with his family by boat. One afternoon when the boat was moored near a river side market to have their meals, a Brahmin boy came to Mathilal and asked whether they would drop him at Nandigram on the way. Mathilal consented. The boy’s name was Tarapada. He was a handsome boy of fifteen. He was given food and then Mathilal’s wife Annapurna inquired him about his whereabouts. Tarapada was the fourth son of his parents and was still a baby when his father died. He was the favourite of the family as well as the neighbourhood. But he joined a touring yatra-troupe and left his village without a thought. He was searched out and brought back. But
his stars had made him a wanderer. If he saw strange boats on the river, or sanyasi from a distant region under the local peepul tree or if gypsies sat by the river, making mats or wicker baskets, his heart would stir with longing to be free, to explore the outside world. And after he had run away two or three times, family and villagers gave up hope of him. (Selected Short Stories 199-200)
Tarapada thus joined a yatra-troupe again and left after some days when they started to tie him with love and fondness. He was as tired of ties as a young fawn, and was also like a deer in his love of music. Attracted by music he then joined a group of pacali-singers. The leader of the group began to love him as his own. And then one morning he flew away. At last he joined a troupe of gymnasts. He had the role of playing the flute. He left that troupe also when he heard that the zamindars at Nandigram had founded an amateur yatra troupe. So he tied up his bundle and headed for the place, meeting Matilal Babu on the way.
Tarapada was very much attracted by Mathilal and Annapurna. But their only daughter Charusasi was jealous of him and she used to tease him. Tarapada became a member of the family. He took no notice of Nandigram when they passed it. The boat arrived at Kathaliya after ten days. When they got down there, the Babu was given a ceremonial welcome. Tarapada took a rapid survey of the village meanwhile, and he was conquered by its splendour. Sonamani was Charu’s friend. She paid a visit to her. Charu could not tolerate Tarapada showing concern to Sonamani. Her dislike towards him turned into love and admiration. Charu wanted to own him completely. She quarrelled with Sona for no reason and then got into Tara’s room and stamped on his flute and broke it. But Tarapada still bore it, and did not scold her. At last Mathilal decided to give his daughter Charu in marriage to Tarapada since she hated all other alliances. Mathilal Babu fixed the date of the marriage, made all arrnagments for it, and sent word to Tarapada’s mother and brothers; but he did not inform Tarapada himself. Meanwhile several boats were going for chariot festivals at the house of Zamindar Nagababu of Kurulkata. Tarapada went to the bank of the river to witness this in the moonlight. He saw boats with merry-go-rounds, and yatra troupes, and cargo-boats rapidly going for the fair. There was an orchestra from Calcutta, which was practicing loudly as it passed. The whole world seemed like a chariot-festival to Tarapada. There was thunder and lightning followed by torrential rain. The next morning Tarapada’s mother and brothers arrived at Kathaliya. But Tarapada was missing. “In a cloudy monsoon night, before love and emotional ties could encircle him completely, this Brahmin boy, thief of all hearts in the village, had returned to the unconstraining, unemotional arms of his Mother Earth” (Selected Short Stories 211).
Through Tarapada Tagore has portrayed an ideal child of Nature. He cannot be tied down by human bonds of love. K. S. Ramaswami Sastri is of view that the story
has considerable poetic attractiveness. The boy Tarapada therein is quite as attractive a figure as Alastor could be expected to be if met with an ordinary life . . . The boy however is drowned in a flood and the poet suggests that was the fittest close to the life of such a dear and free and joyful child of nature to whom the trammels of common life would have been an intolerable agony. (386)
Sisirkumar Ghose writes about this story thus: “Tarapada in Athithi has heard what Tagore has elsewhere called ‘the call of the open reed.’ He is a Bergsonian without having read Bergson. ‘This world is a chariot moving in the dark. All things are moving, the earth trembles, the winds fly, the river and the boat are on the move” (81).
“Tara of ‘The Runaway’ and Nilkanta of ‘The Castaway’ have a kindred quality, and the stories achieve a rounded fullness of revelation,” says K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar (77). The unemotional way of presenting the tragic end of the characters is a wonderful talent of Tagore. In a single sentence he describes the end of the chief character. That brevity is a rare beauty. The tragic end of Tarapada is an inevitable one. He is a son of Nature and cannot be tied down by human relationships. When he was going to be tied down forever by marriage he had no other place to run away. Hence he returned to the “unemotional arms of his Mother earth.”
In “Trespass” Tagore portrayed the pathos of a boy who had to bear tortures from his aunt for a silly offence of plucking flowers from the garden. Jaykali Debi was an elderly widow. She had no children. She was the mistress of the Radhanath temple. Jaykali was a woman of few words; but with the few words or sometimes even without words, she could silence the most talkative of men. She was a tall and strong woman with keen intelligence. When her husband was alive, the property attached to the temple had almost been lost. She managed to recover all the lost property and evict all encroachers from the land. Nobody could cheat her. Jaykali had no real friend. Most women were afraid of her. She had an exceptional capacity for disdain. “Her looks, gestures, words, and even her silence could burn up those she condemned” (Chaudhuri 122). Yet she helped the community in their rituals, celebrations and times of danger. To quote from the text, “She was adept at nursing the sick, but the patients feared her like the god of death Yama himself. If they disobeyed the slightest rule of diet or medicine, the fire of her anger would scorch them more than the heat of the fever” (Chaudhuri 122).
Jaykali concentrated all her attention and care for the day-to-day activities of the temple. The temple yard was spotlessly clean. On one side a bamboo trellis supported the madhabi creeper. Except on festival days, boys were not allowed to enter the temple yard. “The Brahmin carrying out the puja was more afraid of this one woman than of two gods” (Chaudhuri 122).
Jaykali was bringing up two orphaned nephews in her house. The elder one’s name was Pulin and the younger one’s Nalin. They were well disciplined by their aunt. Then one day the two boys standing by the roadside just thought about getting into the temple yard and plucking flowers from the madhabi grove. Nalin, the more adventurous, suggested that he was brave enough to trespass the gate and pluck flowers. Pulin challenged him if he could. Nalin “knew very well what his aunt was like, but his irrepressible energy had not been subdued by her rigour. He was fascinated by the prospect of danger and had a compulsive urge to undertake whatever was forbidden” (Chaudhuri 123). When Nalin got into the yard furtively, Jaykali was intently telling her beads, looking at the idol. As flowers on the lower branches had already been plucked out for the god, Nalin began to climb the bamboo trellis. When he stretched to reach a few buds on a high branch, the bamboo crashed and the boy and the creeper fell to the ground together. To quote from the text, “Jaykali came running, saw what her nephew had done, and pulled him violently by his arm. The boy was considerably hurt, but that was not enough punishment, because it had been caused by inert matter. His battered body had further to be subjected to Jaykali’s deliberately-willed blows, which he bore silently with dry eyes. Then she dragged him indoors, shut him up in a room, and forbade him his food for that evening” (Chaudhuri 123-124). Then Moksheda, the servant-woman pleaded Jaykali to forgive the boy and give him food, but she was unmoved. The boy started crying out of hunger but not even milk was given to him. Jaykali still continued telling the beads.
When Nalini’s sad whimpers had almost fallen silent from exhaustion, the squeal of a frightened animal began sounding close by. It was accompanied by the yells of a mob in chase. Suddenly Jaykali heard a sound from the temple yard and saw shaking of the madhabi creepers. She flew to the grove and discovered a very dirty pig there. The holy soil of the paradise-like yard was defiled by the creature. The pujari brahmin rushed in with a stick, but Jaykali stopped him and bolted the temple gate from inside. Tagore wrote, “In a short while, a drunken mob of untouchable arrived at the gate and clamoured for the animal they had marked for sacrifice. From behind the closed door, Jaykali said: ‘Go back, you rascals. Don’t pollute my temple’” (Chaudhuri 124). The crowd went back. They could never believe that Jaykali would shelter an unclean creature in the temple. The story ended with an ironic but wise statement from Tagore, “This small incident brought great satisfaction to the great god who looks after all creatures of the universe, but the petty village god called the community felt considerably perturbed” (Chaudhuri 125).
Through this simple story, Tagore brings out the pathos of Nalin as well as the hypocrisy of Jaykali. There are many Jaykalis in the society who appears to be very pious and religious, whereas their actions are impious, wicked and irreligious. For a silly offense of trespassing, she gives her own nephew the severest punishment. His cry for food cannot soften the hard heart of hers. The merciless physical torture Nalin had to bear and his cry for food for many hours wet the eyes of the readers and there lies the pathos of the story. When he was crying for food, Jaykali was found telling beads. This is arch hypocrisy. Tagore mocks fun at the barbarous practice of untouchability. Jaykali believes that a very dirty and mean animal like pig cannot defile the purity and holiness of a heavenly-like temple yard and grove; but her own neighbours, since they were born in low caste families are forbidden entry to the temple yard fearing that it will defile the purity. Though irrational, and unreasonable, untouchability has continued for many centuries and it is still practiced in several parts of India. Tagore, as a world citizen and spokesman of modernity, was very severe in his attack on such evil practices. He is very confident that to God all creations are equal. That is why Tagore has wound up the story telling that this incident brought great satisfaction to the great god who looks after all creatures of the universe. It is not the real God who is perturbed by the entry of the pig but the petty village god called the community who felt considerably perturbed. “In ‘Trespass,’ Rabindranath builds up and shatters a different myth—the myth enshrined in ritual and convention. The devout Jaykali seems to be living embodiment of that myth; but she finally destroys it by her own action. The religion of man triumphs over the religion of ritual and convention” (Ghosh 15).
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