Details of Critical study

Daring Heroines of Tagore’s Short Stories

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Chandora and Sashikala: Daring Heroines of Tagore’s Short Fictions “Punishment” and “Elder Sister”


Rabindranath Tagore, the only Indian to get Nobel Prize for Literature, is mainly a poet. But his short stories are world renowned and perhaps more attractive than his poetry. In the words of Asit 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).

Tagore has written nearly one hundred short stories during his abundant literary career. It was during the 1890s that he wrote fifty-nine stories. 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.

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. “Rabindranath’s success as a master short story writer was actually ensured by his essentially lyrical temperament since . . . there is close affinity between a short story and a lyric” (Bandyopadhyay 62).

Tagore is widely regarded as the innovator of the modern Bengali short story and is credited with introducing colloquial speech into Bengali literature. He has been compared to such masters of the short story, as Tolstoy, Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant. “Tolstoy is didactic: Maupassant is erotic. Rabindranath combines the good qualities of both without their excesses. He delved deep into the psychology of man and riddle of existence in his short stories which are universal in their appeal” (Bandyopadhyay 61-62). Tagore’s short stories are often set in rural Bengali villages and are peopled by characters from the underprivileged sectors of society. They reflect his commitment to social realism in prose and his ten years experience among such individuals. As a short fiction writer, Tagore was a practitioner of psychological and social realism. His stories depict poignant human relationships within a simple, relatively uneventful plot. Many of Tagore’s short stories also include elements of the supernatural and bizarre. Hariom Prasad is of opinion that, “The phenomenon of the combination of lyricism with the realism in his short-story is unique. We perceive in them rich emotionalism and at the same time a realistic portrayal of the poor and middle-class people in the villages and small towns” (211). His short stories do not deal with incidents in life. Hopes and aspirations, disappointments and frustrations, joys and sorrows in human life are depicted through his stories. The famous Indian film director Satyajit Ray has adapted several of Tagore’s short stories into movies.

Vishwanath S. Naravane observed that modern short story is Rabindranath Tagore’s gift to Indian culture. Many of Tagore’s short stories became available in English after he had gained international acclaim as the Nobel Prize winner. Early reviewers in English received Tagore’s stories with mixed appraisal; while some applauded his short fiction, others found them of negligible quality. Later critics have commented that these early reviewers were ignorant of the context of Indian culture in which the stories are set. Critics have praised Tagore for his blending of poetic lyricism with social realism, as well as the way in which his unearthly tales maintain psychological realism within an atmosphere of supernatural occurrences. Scholars frequently praise Tagore’s short stories for the deeply human quality of the characters and relationships.

Indian woman’s rare quality of courage, piety, obedience, love and devotion are the themes of many of Tagore’s stories. The treatment of women and their position in society was of serious concern to Rabindranath Tagore. Being a sensitive man and the supreme romantic poet of Bengal, he understood women in all their joy and sorrow, hope and despair, their yearnings and their dreams. Tagore found in the women of his country an immense wealth–their courage against all odds, their power of survival under the worst possible conditions and oppression, their forbearance, their self-sacrifice and gentleness. It pained him to see such colossal waste of so much human treasure.

The violence, both psychological and physical, against women in Bengali society was found everywhere. Its functioning was sometimes blatant but often subtle, insidious and invisible. What was worse was that the society as a whole, even the women, seemed to have got used to this slow poisoning without realizing the effect it cumulatively had on it. There was very little protest and the poison gradually had settled in the ‘body-society.’ Through his stories and novels Tagore wanted to shape public opinion, personal beliefs and the society’s self-perception. He wished to bring out into the open, and consciously and critically look at the position of women in our society. He wanted these stories to be the mirror in which men would see themselves and would want to change, for it was necessary to bring about a change in the way men looked at themselves in order to change the lives of women

Tagore had the unique natural genius to read women’s minds and analyse their strange structure, through his stories. Even in cruel actions and base thoughts, Tagore brings out noble feelings. Even though ‘Suttee’ had been a cruel, savage act, the rare passion of the women for it was a noble one. Tagore through his brave, chaste heroines proclaims to the readers that this rarest feeling and passion is still in our country even though ‘Suttee’ was abolished years back. Tagore tells the world that Indian women are highly sacrificing, loving, obedient, meek, religious and kind. They adore their husbands and love their children deeply.

Women in Tagore’s days were highly exploited by the feudal society. The out-dated, cruel, feudal customs enhanced the miseries and tortures of women. Through his stories Tagore pointed out those injustices. “Simultaneously, he reveals the spiritual richness of Bengali women. The depiction of the cruel exploitation of the helpless women made the critical pathos of the stories of Tagore more intense” (Basu 58). Tagore was never influenced by patriarchal views. That is why he depicted his heroines as more powerful and brighter than the spineless men. Tagore not only reveals the spirituality of his heroines but also shows their keen practical sense and determination. Tagore’s stories confirm the fact that he believed in the progress of women and in their emancipation from feudal bondage. He also believed that, given equal rights and opportunities, they might occupy their rightful place in society side by side with men. Taking these views into consideration one can call Tagore a feminist writer.

When one analyses the Bengali women’s fate, as depicted in Tagore’s stories, he/she can find two kinds of intellectuals in Bengal society who played central roles in the stories. The first category of intelligentsia wanted to preserve feudal customs for their personal gains. They amassed wealth by exploiting the helpless poor. Some of them even held important positions like judge. The second category did not involve directly in the exploitation of women, but their passive attitude did not lessen the burden of Bengali women.

Tagore brought out the pathos of woman caused by various situations in the house. Women had to face several problems in their houses. Nirmalkumar Sidhanta opines:

In a few stories we have seen the problems of the wife in a joint family, the conflict of loyalties between what is due to her husband and what she must do for her parent’s family. But the conflict becomes more acute when her husband is perhaps a subordinate person, where she may see jealousy or ill will on all sides. Numerous new relationships grow up and she has to adjust herself to these without forgetting her old ties: the relations between the wife and her husband’s younger brother (who is an object of affection while the elder brother has to be treated with respect); those between the husband’s and the wife’s sisters, between the wives of two brother, between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. If she is unfortunate she may have a co-wife; if she loses her husband she may become a little better than a maid servant tolerated by her ‘in-laws.’ If she has some responsibility to a brother she may find it difficult to reconcile that with what she owes to her husband’s family. (287)

Tagore treated these problems and created examples of womanhood who remained immortal in the minds of the readers.

Most of the women protagonists of Tagore’s short stories are prey to patriarchy. They meet with their tragic end as a result of torture and cruelty from their husbands or brothers or fathers-in law. There are very few short stories of Tagore where heroines resist oppression and face challenges with valour and will power. Two such short stories are “Punishment” and “Elder Sister.” Though Feminist movements have not been evolved in India in Tagore’s times, he exhorted to his countrymen through these stories the necessity of women empowerment.


“Punishment” or “The Sentence”


The story “Punishment” or “The Sentence,” published in 1893, tells the hard life of Bengali peasants. Women had no human rights. Tagore was able to show the spiritual richness of women in peasant families, though they lived in utter poverty, and had to face humiliation everywhere. The story is about the life of two young brothers Dukhiram and Chidam and their wives Radha and Chandora. After a day’s heavy work when the brothers returned home hungry, the elder brother Dukhiram asked his wife Radha for some food. When only harsh words were returned Dukhiram lost his temper and killed her with his chopper. He was upset and repentant. Then Chidam came to his rescue. He requested his wife Chandora to own the crime. He told her to tell the court that she had been forced to kill Radha, in self-defence during an argument. “Chandora who loved her husband dearly is taken aback by her husband’s cruel suggestion and is convinced that her husband had never given any value to her feelings” (Basu 59). So she decided to end her life as a protest against the humiliating proposal. In the court Chandora told the judge that she had killed her sister-in-law because she hated her. Chidam understood his mistake and was ready to take all the blame on himself and thus save his wife. Dukhiram also tried to save her telling the court what actually happened. But the judge was convinced that Chandora had done the murder and he sentenced her to be hanged. Sankar Basu continues his analysis of the story thus: “By depicting the bitter life of peasant women, Tagore writes at the end of the story: ‘Some time in the dawn of youth a very young dark complexioned lively girl, setting aside her dolls left her parents place to live with her in-laws. But who could imagine that auspicious marriage night, of what would happen today’” (60). Chandora did not want to continue her life since her husband had not valued her intense feeling towards her.

Chidam used to quarrel with her and they were not on good terms on that day of murder, and that might have been one reason why he chose his brother for her. In a weak moment, not thinking much about its consequences Chidam told this lie about the murder to Ramlochan, the pillar of the village, who happened to visit their house immediately after the murder. His attachment to his brother was so deep that he wanted to save him. At the same time he wanted to save his wife also. He asked Ramlochan clinging to his feet, how he could save her. Ramlochan suggested him the way out by putting the crime on Dukhiram. But again without much thought he said that if he lost his wife he could get another, but if his brother was hanged he could never replace him. This was the circumstance which led Chidam to request his wife to own the crime. But what a deep wound it made in her heart! No balm could cure it. She wanted to protest against it by ending her life. Tagore thus showed through this story that women protested against feudal oppression. Though their protest was a passive one, they resented against the set norms and customs and were not willing to accept humiliation in a submissive manner. Before the death sentence, at the end of the story, Chandora simply uttered the words: ‘Oh I want to die.’ Sankar Basu opines:

These simple words convey the depth of the offence and grief in the mind of a simple but strong-willed and stable woman, who found that she has been deceived in his love towards her husband. Such laconic, natural and highly impressive endings of Tagore’s stories in many ways remind us of the endings of Chekhov’s stories. (115)

Nature, too, adds to the gloomy atmosphere of the house of murder. A very refined description of nature before the storm is given here. Here nature not only formed the background of the terrible happening, but also reflected the tense situation in which the murder would take place. The description of nature in the story runs thus: “There was not a breath of wind. Weeds and scrub round the house had shot up after the rain: the heavy scent of damp vegetation, from these and from the waterlogged jute-fields, formed a solid wall all around. Frogs croaked from the pond behind the cowshed, and the buzz of crickets filled the leaden sky” (Selected Short Stories 125). Tagore thus set the nature to prepare the readers for the tragic event, which would soon befall the poor peasant family.

The way in which Tagore portrays the intense, dejected feelings of Chandora is remarkable. When her husband was called to the court she turned away and replied to the questions, covering her face with her hands. Her answer to the judge’s question whether her husband did not love her was ironic. She answered that he loved him like crazy. In the jail, just before the hanging when the civil surgeon asked her whether she wanted to see anyone she replied that she would like to see her mother. The doctor then asked her whether he should call her husband since he wanted to see her. Her reply was ‘Not him,’ with an emphasis on the word ‘him.’ In the original Bengali story instead of the term ‘him’ the term ‘maran’ was used. “Maran” literally meant “death.” It was a common ironic expression particularly among village-women. The complex implications here included Chandora’s rejection of the husband she still loved, the pride [abhiman] that prevented her from backing down and a shy reluctance to show her true marital feelings in public.

“Elder Sister

In the story “Elder Sister,” published in 1895, Tagore depicted a brave woman who sacrificed her life for her younger brother. Jaigopal, one of the main characters of the story, was a typical representative of the middle class. He was an idle man who lived at the expense of others. His wife Shashikala was a modest, kind-hearted woman. She loved her husband deeply and obeyed whatever was ordered or requested. The smooth married life of Jaigopal came to an end when Shashi’s mother gave birth to a son, who was the sole inheritor of the family. Jaigopal left his wife having thought that he would not inherit anything from her family. His love towards his wife was centered round her wealth. Through him Tagore portrayed a class which was greedy, selfish and money-minded. Shashikala’s life became very hard. In addition to the separation from her husband, her parents also died, leaving the child into her hands. Kind-hearted Shashi started to look after the child. She had great attachment to it. Meanwhile Jaigopal returned to her house with a secret ambition to possess the property of the child. He thus became the guardian of the child, named Nilmani. Shashi started hating her husband when she knew of his malicious intentions. She took upon herself the task of protecting her brother from her evil husband. Jaigopal went back to his house. The middle class despite their education were still sticking to old cruel feudal morals. The Deputy Magistrate refused to help Shashi when she approached him because she was an unprotected woman. Jaigopal was an acquaintance of the Deputy Magistrate and he succeeded in getting hold of Nilman’s property. Shashi narrated the whole story to the Magistrate and requested him to look after the orphan. The Magistrate took the responsibility of the child and promised her that he would reconsider Nilmani’s case. Shashi went back to her husband and started living together. When Jaigopal knew about what she had done, he killed her. Shashi had anticipated her death. Though she was helpless, yet she took the decisive step to save her brother from the grip of her cruel husband. She thus martyred her life for her brother. Sankar Basu opines: “Her death symbolises the awakening of women. In the character of Soshi a splendid picture of Benagli women has been revealed. Their brave, decisive and kind nature capable of loving intensely and struggling for justice has been reflected in the story” (62).

The news of her death flashed the next morning as it was a natural death, caused by cholera, and her body had been cremated in the night itself. Nobody made any comment on that. The neighbour Tara would sometimes speak out what she thought, but people told her to keep her mouth shut. The narrator ended the story expressing his doubt whether Shashi could fulfil her promise to her brother that he would see her again.

Analysing Shashi’s character critic Upendranath Bhattacharya writes:

When woman sees her beloved is helpless, then her love becomes stronger, and then she like a fortress defends her beloved from any blow and attack. When Soshi found that besides her Nilmani had none, she then started through all she might to defend him from the attack of her cruel and egoistic husband. (qtd. in Basu 62)

Bhattacharya rightly analysed the deep feeling of Shashi towards her brother. Unlike the helpless heroines in other stories Shashi could defeat her husband’s malicious motive of stealing her brother’s property. One sees in Shashi a representative of the courageous Indian women who are willing to give up their lives for noble causes.

Works Cited

Bandyopadhyay, Asit. “Rabindranath Tagore: Novelist, Short Story Writer and Essayist.” Studies on Rabindranath Tagore. Vol. I. Ed. Mohit K. Ray. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2004. 47-70. Print.

Basu, Sankar. Chekhov and Tagore:  A Comparative Study of their Short Stories. New Delhi: Sterling Publications Private Limited, 1985. Print.

Prasad, Hariom. “Tagore’s Short Stories: A Critical Study.” Studies on Rabindranath Tagore. Vol. II. Ed. Mohit K. Ray. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2004. 211-218. Print.

Sidhanta, Nirmalkumar. “Rabindranath’s Short Stories.” Rabindranath Tagore: 1861-1961: A Centenary Volume. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961. Print.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Selected Short Stories. Trans. William Radice. London:  Penguin, 1994. Print.

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