Daughters of Jorasanko

Reviewed by Raana Haider
Wednesday, March 8th, 2017


 

As the unread pages thinned out, a wishful aspiration took hold of my thoughts. Could there not be a ‘Jorasanko 3’? The author has left this immersed reader yearning for more; clamouring for more. And yet that is not to be. For any reality-check would dictate that an era, an epoch came to an end with the demise of Rabindranath Tagore in 1941. Thus, there has to be closure.

 

Pratham din er surya…

 

The first day’s sun;

When existence had newly kindled into life

Had asked the question:

Who are you?

There was no answer.

 

The years rolled by.

The last day’s sun

In the quiet dusk, from the shore of the western sea,

Asked the same question:

Who are you?

There was no answer.

 

For all the reams of writings on Tagore, it is deeply engaging to read the historical narrative in the context of the familial complexities of the numerous members of the ancestral Jorasanko household – in particular, the multi-generational females who held prime presence in the prequel ‘Jorasanko’ covering the period (1859 to 1901) and who continue to command centre-stage in the sequel ‘Daughters of Jorasanko’ (1902-1941). Here is the much desired literary ‘encore.’

 

In yet another mesmerizing book, Aruna Chakravarti in ‘Daughters of Jorasanko’ has once again scaled literary heights. In a gripping yet embracing story-telling of the dreams and desires, the trials and tribulations of the numerous personalities of the Tagore family; presently extended to daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and grand-children of the now Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The towering figure of Tagore and his expansive canopy of personality contrasts with his long-enduring struggle within his family life. Here we encounter the omnipresence figure of a man who remains a father often absent. The author dexterously explores with deep insight and expressive sympathy; the pain and sense of helplessness of a single father, a distraught father and a family elder. She peels away the armour of an iconoclastic figure and exposes the frailties of a human being.

 

Memories of Mrilani continue to haunt him. The loss of his devoted young wife and mother of his three daughters and one son creates flashbacks on her critical role as the family lynch-pin and care-giver. He assumes parental responsibilities and takes on often a ‘lost father’s’ role. Marrying off his daughters at a tender age despite their mother’s reservations, the ensuing marital unhappiness in all three lives continues to haunt him. Deep remorse at his miss-judgment, Rabindranath declares: “He wouldn’t allow anyone to rob her of the smallest particle of her identity or tame her bright fearless spirit. He had made mistakes with his daughters but he wouldn’t repeat them with Buri” (his beloved grand-daughter).

 

Nagendranath is Rabindranath’s youngest son-in-law. Infatuated with his elder sister in-law, he assaults Beli who traumatised suffers a second miscarriage and remains childless. Once informed of the tragedy while in England in a letter written by Beli’s husband Sarat; Tagore replies: “…It is my great misfortune that I’m being tested in this way. Please understand my plight and refrain from taking any hasty decision…Your ill-fated father-in-law, Sri Rabindranath Tagore.”

 

The many female muses who inspired the artist, the lyricist and the poet are explored by Aruna Chakravarti in a deft and delicate weave. There is Kadambari, his sister-in-law and earliest muse who committed suicide at the age of twenty-three.   Her demise left an indelible impact on his life. While Rabindranath paints, his nephew Abanindranath also an artist asks: “Why do your women always have this pained look, Robi ka?” …Her (Kadambari’s) eyes that come before mine whenever I paint a woman’s face” is the uncle’s response. The younger artist persists: “Even the one or two self-portraits you’ve done so far are totally unlike the handsome, happy, smiling Robi ka I’ve known all my life. I’ve never seen you look so angst ridden, so tormented, in real life as you do in your self-images…” Ranu is the young girl infatuated with an old man. Tagore in response: “Will not your heart leap up with joy at the triumph of life over death? Ranu is the spring breeze which has breathed new life in me. She has given me back my youth.” Little Ranu went on to become dazzling Ranu Mukherjee, the patron of the arts and the grande dame of Calcutta society. And there is the admirer, writer and host in Argentina Victoria Ocampo who inspired him to write ‘Aami chini go chini tomaare, o go bideshini.’

 

It is in the context of Tagore’s relationship with Victoria, that the author brings in cleverly yet sensitively a possible aspect of the man’s intrinsic nature. “He had kept himself loftily aloof from the practical aspects of Victoria’s arrangement for him. He hadn’t asked her what they were or where the money was coming from. Not once. It was as though, great poet that he was, his soul was out of sync with the business of the mundane world. But in his heart he knew it was only a pretence. He had lived in denial because it suited him to do so.” These lines are evocative of the immense scope and depth of perception that Aruna Chakravarti brings to ‘Daughters of Jorasanko.’

 

The presence of eminent personalities and the inclusion of historical milestones link and provide the reader with a powerful picture of the political, socio-economic and cultural backdrop in the first half of the twentieth century in pre-independent India. The Nobel laureate renounced his knighthood in 1919 following the British atrocity at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The enduring legacy of that decision is: ‘Jodi tor daak shune keu naa aashe, tabe ekla chalo re.’ Swami Vivekananda, founder of the Ramakrishna Mission promoted his social uplift programme upon his return from his visit to the West. The changing social structure encapsulates the evolution of Calcutta’s neighbourhoods. Rabindranath visits Ranu’s home on 35 Lansdowne Road –“a moderately double-storeyed house with pink lime-washed walls and faded green shutters.” The description fits the remaining mansions in the once up-scale neighbourhood. The business tycoon G.D. Birla bought land owned by the Tagores in Ballygunge. The Hindu branch of the Tagore clan residing at No. 5 Dwarkanath Tagore Lane or Baithak Khana Bari, the historic mansion built by Dwarkanath Tagore was sold to a Marwari industrialist – the emerging commercial class of Calcutta.

 

On a train to Bolpur station in order to reach Shantiniketan, Rabindranath’s journey is marked with the wide spectrum of activities around him. “Some men were playing cards in the next compartment. Three spades…the knave of hearts…two aces and a pair. Voices slurred with alcohol. He heard other sounds. Whispers, high-pitched laughter, mothers calling out to their children. Food baskets were opening and delicious aromas floated into his nostrils. Someone was eating luchi and alu chhenchki. Other smells. Pickles. Mutton curry. Ripe mangoes.” I was immediately transported to my own train journey from Howrah to Bolpur station – the sounds, the smells, the hustle-bustle. And always available is Darjeeling, Calcutta’s eponymous hill station destination for recuperative powers. This is where Beli, Rabindranath’s daughter retreats  following her miscarriage.

 

Aruna Chakravarti notes that: ‘This is a work of fiction with some parts based on historical fact.’ The book fall into the genre of historical fiction; yet so masterfully has the author engaged the reader in an intricate interplay of events, setting and characters that the reader becomes an integral part of the ebb and flow of the seamless story-telling.

 

Raana Haider is the author of ‘India: Beyond the Taj and the Raj’, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013.

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