A Deathless Life: Tagore and the “Daughters of Jorasanko”
Aruna Chakravarti has done it again! After the success of "Jorasanko," her impeccably researched, intimately detailed fictional account of the inner life of the Tagore household in the early years of the Bengal Renaissance (1859-1902), she has just published the even more engrossing sequel, "Daughters of Jorasanko", which takes up the story where it left off, and completes the tale, ending at a vital moment of closure for Tagore lovers.
As we reluctantly come to the end of this second book, it is 1941 and a great poetic spirit leaves both his bodily abode and his home in Kolkata. There can be no spoilers or surprise in this, since we know the date and circumstances of the poet's passing, being well-documented historical facts. But such is the magic of Aruna Chakravarti's writing, transmuting history into throbbing reality, that by the end of this exquisitely imagined historical novel, we are so emotionally entrenched in the life of Tagore and his family that despite our foreknowledge of the outcome of the story, we experience the suspense and finality of the moment, as if we were right there, standing with Nandita, Tagore's grand-daughter, on a rain-washed, moonlit verandah, awaiting confirmation of our intimations of a loved one's transition to the beyond.
The proof of an accomplished writer is that she sends the reader, who is barely finishing the last lines, reeling back to the beginning, wanting to re-read it, reliving the entirety of the whole life, not just of a great man, but a house teeming with characters and events.
As stated in the beginning, and according to Aruna Chakravarti herself in her Author's note, "Daughters of Jorasanko" is a sequel to her earlier novel. But even though each book can stand on it's own, I feel, they are really volumes one and two, of the same story. It's not essential to read them in sequence, but it is, I feel, imperative to read both books to understand more deeply not only a particularly vibrant epoch of Bengal's history, but also of some lesser known facts about Tagore, the man and the poet.
"Jorasanko" had concentrated on the initial years of both the founding of the Tagore family, and Tagore's career, with emphasis on three important women in his life: his two sisters-in-law, the dynamic Jnanadanandini and his muse Kadambari, and his supportive wife Mrinalini. But "Jorasanko" ended abruptly with Mrinalini's death, and the entire story of Tagore's life still remained to be told.
Thus, the "Daughters of Jorasanko" is an essential read, picking up the narrative where a bereaved Tagore is left to bring up his children as a single parent. The stories of the difficult life of his three daughters Beli, Rani and Meera and two sons Sami and Rathi, while dark, ironically throw light on the human side of Tagore, the less than perfect father.
We meet not only many other women of Jorasanko, important in his life and to the establishing of Shantiniketan, like his daughter-in-law, Protima, but also those female characters not connected to Jorasanko but to Tagore, influencing and inspiring the poet, such as the precocious Ranu Adhikari and the Argentinian, Victoria Ocampo
What makes this sequel even more compelling is the fact that now we are witnesses to the most important years of Tagore's literary journey, both in the figurative sense, and as we accompany him on some actual voyages across the ocean. We are with him as he reads the telegram informing him of his being awarded the Nobel, and we live through the aftermath of his negative reaction to the sudden public jubilation. We are in his head and privy to his uneasy thoughts and written communications, when he is struggling to understand and forgive his daughter Beli's assaulter, or trying to bridge the resultant rift with her.
Chakravarti splices and spices the narrative with excerpts from his private letters, official communications, speeches and poetic compositions, but in such balanced measure and with such a delicate hand that it never obstructs, rather helps the flow of fiction.
It's the same with the use of fragmented and multiple points-of-view: jumping from the perspective of one character in one section, to that of another in the next, does not jar but helps the narrative transit neatly from one historical event to another. Chakravarti deftly uses her female characters as vehicles to explore various periods in Tagore's life, or the political and social history of Bengal. Some of the notable women we encountered previously in "Jorasanko," like Swarnakumari, Tagore's gifted literary sister, or Jnanadanandini, the wife of Tagore's brother(the first Indian to be an officer in the British civil service), who initiated the modernization of Bengali women by her own example, are represented in the present volume by their daughters: Sarla and Bibi, respectively. Through Sarla, we meet Swami Vivekananda at a personal level, along with important figures of the epoch, charged with the spirit of awakening and of Indian independence. Bibi gives us a window into Tagore's involvement in the protest movement against the division of Bengal in 1905, the Rakhi Utsav.
Chakravarti's deployment of language is controlled and consistently graceful, with painterly descriptions of surroundings and seasons. These along with her astute and insightful observations of emotional and psychological complexities, make the story immediate, and add resonance, depth and credibility to characters and events.
Among the many flashes of literary brilliance, two instances glow in my mind. The first is the section about Tagore dealing with the demise of one of his daughters by escaping by train to Shantiniketan, without seeing her lifeless face one last time, leading him that very night to compose the song "Aaj jyotsna raate sobai geche boney"(On this moonlit night all have gone to the woods/in a sweet wind drunk on the wine of spring./ But I'll not go with them – no, not I/ I'll sit within these walls in my own corner/ a quiet corner of my lonely self.) In this luminous section, Chakravarti's prose makes us quietly witness this poetic transmutation of human grief into sublime poetry.
The other instance is the poignant section right at the end, when Tagore lay dying in one part of the divided Jorasanko, and in the other part his nephew Abanindra is making a farewell round through his recently sold family home, on the eve of giving it up to the new owner. Chakravarti's vision of the pain and beauty of desolation and loss, the wrench of memories and "the sense of a world slipping away" is masterly. The evocation in this last chapter, of the illusory past and of Abanindra trying to recall some verses of his dying uncle's deathless poetry, captures the essence of Jorasanko---the historic house and Chakravarti's two shimmering books.
Abanindranath Tagore is humming his Robi kaka's song: Dinguli mor shonar khanchai. At one point he halts, forgetting the next verse:
"What came after that? If he remembered rightly it was a series of questions. The lines came to him as he sang:
Can so much anguish be in vain?/Are they not birds but shadows?/
Did nothing stream across the sky?/ My rainbow-coloured days?"
At the end of the book, we too, ask ourselves: perhaps, the fleeting physical world exists more truly in imagining, remembering and recreating it?
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About the Author:
Aruna Chakravarti is a well-known academic, writer and translator. She was also the principal of Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi, for ten years. The Inheritors, her first novel, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2004. She has also translated Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyays Srikanta and Sunil Gangopadhyays Those Days and First Light. She is the recipient of several prestigious awards, among them the Vaitalik Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Sarat Puraskar.
About the Reviewer:
Neeman Sobhan is an Italy based Bangladeshi writer, poet & columnist. She teaches at the University of Rome, La Sapienza.
Among her published works are: a collection of her columns 'An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome'(UPL); an anthology of short stories 'Piazza Bangladesh' (Bengal Publications) and recently, a collection of poems, 'Calligraphy of Wet Leaves'(Bengal Lights).
She is presently working on her first novel, 'The Ninety-nine Names for Being'.