An excerpt from the story ‘Manbhanjan’, from ‘The Broken Home and Other Stories’ Translated by Lopamudra Banerjee (Authorspress)

About the Book

In this collection of two novellas and six short stories of Bengal’s illustrious Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Galpaguchchho’, translated into English, the women are the unmistakable nucleus of the fictional narratives. Whether it is the deep, brooding world of Charulata and her affectionate bonhomie with brother-in-law Amal in ‘Nastanirh: The Broken Home’, or the world of the lonely, feisty Giribala in ‘Manbhanjan: The Appeasing’, the surreal world of the mute girl Subha, or the two disparate worlds of Sohinee and Neela, mother and daughter, colliding with each other in ‘Laboratory’, the feminine subjectivity in an overarching patriarchal setting is not only noteworthy, but unforgettable. The diverse trajectories of all these women have been traced in the selection of the tales, ranging from Charulata, the reticent woman belonging to the aristocratic gentry of the 19th Century Bengal to Sohinee and Neela of ‘Laboratory’ (written just a year before Tagore’s death) who are amorous, sensuous and also ostentatious, never hesitant to speak their minds. All these eight works of fiction by Tagore are deep, enthralling sagas where women have been scripted in an inimitable, powerful aura. The translator has sincerely attempted to portray the essence of their complex emotional world, originally depicted by Gurudeb Tagore.She has received the International Reuel Prize (Category: translation) for ‘The Broken Home’ in summer 2016.

 

Amazon India’s Purchase Link: The Broken Home and Other Stories

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The three-storied palatial mansion of Ramanath Shil was the secluded den of Giribala, the young wife of his son Gopinath Shil. In the top floor of the mansion, flowers bloomed in pots, facing the right door to her bedroom. The terrace, guarded with a high protective wall had shielded her carefully from the world outside. For a surreptitious glimpse at the world outside, she would have to peep through the holes in the wall, constructed by missing bricks. Her bedroom walls were adorned with engravings of various foreign women in attractive costumes and postures. But the image of her own sixteen-year-old self, reflected in the large mirror placed in the entrance to her chambers, was no less beautiful than those engraved in the walls.

The distinct beauty and the splendour of Giribala’s presence would evoke awe and wonder in everybody who came across her. Her beauty and aura was like a sudden consciousness followed by awakening, mesmerizing those who would see her for the first time. The admirers of her beauty would feel unanimously that her beauty was far more unique and strikingly different than what they had seen anywhere so far.

But wasn’t Giribala herself madly, irresistibly in love with the glory of her own beauty and gracefulness? Didn’t she bask in the narcissistic pleasures of reveling in her youth and resplendent beauty, as it gushed through her entire being like bubbles of wine, spreading over the bottle in spurts? Yes, she cherished the intoxication of enjoying the irresistible essence of her own body. The way she dressed, the characteristic appeal of her appearance and gait, the movement of her arms and the swaying of her neck, her rhythmic footsteps, the musical sound of her anklet and her bangles, her liquid laughter, her racing words and her bright, razor-sharp glance bore testimony to the pleasures she derived from celebrating her own beauty and voluptuousness.

Often, she strolled around the terrace restlessly, wrapping her body in new, colourful clothes. She loved to taste the elixir of life amid the quiet confines of the terrace, as she responded to her clandestine, yet unrestrained wish to dance to the unheard, unsung melodies nurtured in her own mind. The constant upheaval and projection of her own body, the youthful surge and waves of the richness and abundance of her beauty overwhelmed her, filled her spirit with an inexplicable rhapsody.

Sometimes, she would pluck a leaf from a plant, with a disheveled sari, her bangles making a musical tinkle as she would lift her right arm to fly it in the sky. With the gesture of her tender, supple hands, she wished to fly, like a cage-free bird, towards the cloudy firmament. Sometimes, with sudden vigour, she would throw away a lump of hard soil from the flower pot. Sometimes, with an eager inquisitiveness, she would lean over her toes to look through the vast, ever-changing outside world from the holes of the fortress. She would turn her back away after a while, as the aanchal (border or edge) of her sari swayed in the wind, and the key strings tied to her sari tinkled. She would untie her bun in front of the mirror, and start tying her hair again several times, without rhyme or reason, and at unexpected times. She bit the ribbons, entangling her hair with her beautiful teeth, and raised her hands to pull her braids backwards, twisting them into a coil. When she was done with dressing up and fantasizing with herself, she would tumble in her soft bed in solitude, resting indulgently as she waxed and waned all over the bed like a lone moonbeam.

Childless and married into a rich, aristocratic household, Giribala had enough leisure to indulge in her solitude, as she strived to store her rich, exquisite beauty within herself. However, after an extent, she was incapable of containing it within herself any longer. She had a husband, but she had no control on him, whatsoever. Strangely enough, in all these years, her beauty had bloomed from a bud to a flower in complete oblivion of her own husband.

However, as a child bride, newly married to her husband Gopinath, she had received all his love and attention. Often he would elope from his school during the quiet noontime and come to her for the excitement of a budding, exhilarating romance. They had also exchanged love letters in fancy mails, even while staying under the same roof. The young Gopinath, brimming with newfound love for her, would express pride amongst his friends as he would show off those love letters as his prized possessions. Those days, while the young couple enjoyed each other’s attention and their untainted proximity, there were also episodes of fighting, estrangement and making up between the two, mostly due to inconsequential or imagined reasons. Those episodes testified the depth of their mutual love.

Meanwhile, Gopinath’s father, the master of the house died quite untimely, and he became the sole successor to his father’s property and the new master of the house. With a sudden, newfound freedom at his disposal at quite a precocious age, a strong sense of arrogance promptly overpowered him and made him outwardly bound. With this untimely freedom, he found a bunch of useless scums surrounding him, and he enjoyed their presence. Gradually, Giribala became accustomed to his absence inside the house. The excitement and obsession of being the young leader among his peers and fans whom he had sheltered in his mansion drove him insane. Throughout history, there have been instances of how such obsessions have grown and flourished. Don’t we all know of Napoleon, the phenomenal historical leader, who had extended his influence among the infinite human population and in the annals of history? There, in the lavish comforts of the drawing room of the Shil mansion, the little master had formed his own follower-base, cherishing the heady feeling of his leadership in his own special way. He had forged camaraderie with many by virtue of his easy banter and frolicking, and their sycophancy and fake words of admiration filled him with unabashed pride. This was a common practice for many young, wealthy men of his age, even at the expense of the loss of their wealth, and the debts they incurred, the stigma they had to live with.

As the days passed by, the glories of Gopinath’s leadership and popularity among his useless peers skyrocketed. Their mindless fun and frolicking continued to destroy his sanity while his admirers kept fueling his desire for name and fame, shamelessly proclaiming him as the undisputed leader of their merry-making. Blinded by his newfound fame and leadership, he started ignoring all his familial and domestic responsibilities, twirling around his phony friends like a vortex.

On the other hand, Giribala, with all the winning beauty in her stride, lived anonymously in her silent, unpopulated chambers as she continued to rule an elusive kingdom from an empty throne. She was confident of her own beauty and unmistakable charm, which she knew, had made her fit to reign as a queen. She also knew that all with her magical presence, she was gifted with the prowess to rule over the vast world outside which she had only peeped into, through the holes of her fortress. Ironically though, with all her beauty and her ravishing charm, she could not captivate a single man in her own house.

Giribala had a witty servant girl who was quite close to her, and her name was Sudhamoyee. She lovingly referred to the girl as ‘Sudho’. She would sing songs to her mistress; create beautiful rhymes for her, praise the beauty of her mistress effusively and also regretted that all this beauty was wasted in the hands of a worthless man.

Sudho was indispensable in Giribala’s life. She would love to narrate lavish passages of praise for her mistress’s beauty, commenting on her beautiful face, her graceful body, the glow of her complexion. Giribala would sometimes protest against Sudho’s praises, as she teased her as a liar, a fake admirer. Sudho, on her part, would go on swearing and trying to prove the validity of her statements, and Giribala would finally believe her.

Sudho would sing a song to her mistress: “At your feet, I write my testimony as your humble servant”. The song evoked in Giribala’s mind an image of a dedicated lover worshipping the magnificent beauty of her two red, supple feet. She imagined him in all his devotion and subservience, lying at her feet in submission. But to her misfortune, no such admirer really came to surrender himself to her beauty. Only the musical sound of the anklets adorning her two beautiful feet reverberated in the crushing silence of the terrace.

Meanwhile, as the lonely, beautiful Giribala pined for love, attention and company inside the palatial mansion, her husband Gopinath had found a new love interest, a theatre actress named Labanga with astonishing acting prowess. Her stage histrionics were unparalleled and attracted herds of men towards her, including Gopinath, who would watch, spellbound, her effortless feigning of senselessness, her nasal refrains as she addressed her lover on stage in a frantic, elongated, endearing tone. The bunch of her male admirers, dressed in fancy waistcoats over their dhotis, clapped and cheered her from their seats, swept off their feet by her phenomenal stage presence.

Quite a while back, while Giribala had heard about the famous histrionics of this actress and her magnetic appeal from her husband, a sense of jealousy had overpowered her. Those were the days when he had not completely evaded her. Those were the days when she was unaware of his terrible infatuation towards Labanga, yet the thought of another woman excelling at the entertaining skills she herself lacked was intolerable to her. And while this sense of envy plagued her, she had the irresistible curiosity to go to the theatre and see Labanga performing in the theatre with her own eyes. However, her husband never gave her permission to step outside the four walls of the mansion.

After her own futile attempts to step out of the house, she gave some money to her servant girl Sudho and requested her to enter the theatre and to witness the show. Sudho came back from the theatre, uttering the name of Lord Rama several times to atone for her blasphemy. Giribala was relieved as Sudho expressed her disgust in the ugly, vain postures of the women performing and cursed the men and their vulgar tastes for being fascinated by such women.

But the relief she felt was temporary. Her husband had estranged her for a long time now, and however much Sudho had tried to assure her about the ugliness of such women, she grew more and more inquisitive about what pulled her husband towards them. Sudho had touched her mistress several times and swore to her that the actress looked like an ugly, burnt out wooden form wrapped with a cloth. If that was true, why would her husband still consider her attractive? Giribala’s ego was hurt tremendously, as she was unable to determine the reason.

Her heart brimmed with forbidden pleasures when one day, unable to restrain herself any further, she set out of the house with Sudho surreptitiously in order to witness the theatre show herself. Amid the slow, sudden tremors of her heart, she explored, for the first time in her married life, the uninhibited beauty of the world, the soothing musical scene, the scintillating visual treats that transformed her being. She had emerged from the shielded, joyless, lifeless inner chambers of their mansion to the crescendo of a bountiful, festive world. It was all a pleasant dream and she cherished being a part of it.

That day, an opera named Manbhanjan (The Appeasing) was being staged. Giribala witnessed, as if in a trance, the ringing of the bells, the start and the cessation of the music, the mesmerized looks in the eyes of the audience. She remained the awestruck spectator as the curtains were raised, as the lights of the stage shone brighter, marveling at the sight of the graciously dressed dancers who danced in rhapsody to the melodious music. An inexplicable sense of excitement ran in her veins as the claps and words of accolades of the audience echoed and resounded in the stage. Bit by bit, she was relishing the feeling of enchantment that seeped into her, while the music, lights, colours and claps made her oblivious to the society, to the everyday world around her. She seemed to have stepped on a beautiful, wholesome world where she could roam around, unobstructed.

In the midst of her trance, Sudho fearfully whispered in her eyes: “Bouthakrun (dear Madam), let us go back home now, Dada babu (the Master) will be furious if he comes to know of our escapade.” Giribala, however, ignored her pleas to return home. She was entirely free of fear, of inhibitions at that moment.

As the show proceeded, she witnessed, with rapt attention, the enactment of a love scene between the two divine lovers, Radha and Krishna. Her bosom heaved in unexplained pride to see Radha’s fits of anger and Krishna’s myriad attempts to pacify her, as he pleaded, cried, begged to Radha to forgive him. Deep within, she imbibed the spirit of Radha, and Krishna’s torture in Radha’s hands satisfied her ego tremendously. She had heard about the irresistible power and sweep of beauty, and assumed that it was an overwhelming asset, but here, amid the dazzling beauty, music and splendour of the stage, she truly experienced how glorious and intoxicating it could be. The scene moved her neglected, abandoned self and fueled her desire to reign, while she realized that like Radha, she too had the power to agonize others.

Even after the opera ended and the audience dispersed, she sat, dazed, transfixed for a long time, oblivious about her home and her domestic life. In her mind, the scenes enacted lingered, while she hallucinated that the curtains would be raised yet again. Her thoughts revolved around Sri Krishna’s submission to her paramour Radha and the subtle nuances spelt between the lovers.

Sudhamoyee, the servant girl was perplexed by her mistress’ behavior. “Bouthakrun”, she implored, “what are you doing here? Get up and let us go back home, all the lights will be out now!”

In the dark hours of the night, Giribala returned to her quiet, lonely bed chamber, to the characteristic dullness of her everyday world, where a faint lamp flickered in one corner of the room. The quiet bed and the old mosquito net wavering lightly in the wind reminded her of the absence of people in the room, the absence of sounds and life and mocked her rudely. Back from the wondrous world of beauty, music and light she had witnessed, she missed that world immensely. It had opened up new vistas of discovering herself in that glorious universe, where she saw herself as a complete woman, not as the neglected, ordinary wife of her philandering husband, Gopinath Shil.

Since that day, she started frequenting the theatre. After the first few days, as her initial euphoria with that world subsided, she started to study the faces of the actors and actresses of the shows. By that time, she had the ability to see through the façade of their fake make-ups and vain acting. However, the world of theatre still seemed overwhelming and intoxicating to her, and she could feel the surge of excitement gushing through her veins whenever the curtains were raised. This irresistible, elusive theatrical world, with its magical weave of music, poetry and artistry allured her with all its might and she craved to be a part of this world. With all her beauty and charm in her stride, she secretly cherished the thought of reigning in this theatrical world and excelling in it.

The day she first noticed her husband Gopinath in the theatre, she was taken aback by the mad outburst of his excitement following the performance of a particular actress onstage. How much had he belittled himself in his mindless obsession for another woman, she wondered, while suddenly, a thought crossed her mind. She nurtured a dream in her mind, the dream of a day in the near future when her husband, besotted with her magnetic charm, would spring at her feet in surrender like a charred, ravaged insect. Would her heart melt to see her husband surrender, thus? No, she contemplated that she would feign indifference, trampling his pleas with her feet, as she would leave the scene with her pent-up anger and grievances that she had for him. She resolved to accomplish it one day soon, to honour the dignity of her beauty and dazzling youth. But how could it ever be possible? Gopinath was seldom seen inside the house these days. With every passing day, he was being sucked more and more into a whirlpool of his own madness and vain excitement as he had vanished from the sight of his own wife.

On a full moon night during early summer, Giribala seated herself in the terrace, while her yellow sari swayed in the wind.  Her husband had absconded from her room and her life, yet, she never failed to dress herself up in new clothes and exclusive ornaments. The sparkle of precious pearls, diamonds and other jewels in her body had excited her senses, and as she moved around, the ornaments danced in her body in musical ripples. The armlets in her arms, the choker in her neck embellished with ruby and pearls, the sapphire ring in the little finger of her left hand added to her majestic beauty and unparalleled charm. Sudho, seated at her feet, occasionally massaged her supple, lotus-like feet with her hands, and expressed her spontaneous excitement at the tender beauty of her feet. “Oh my, Bouthakrun”, Sudho exclaimed, “Had I been a man, I would have wished to die, hugging these feet to my bosom.” Giribala smiled and replied to this with a tinge of pride: “No, you would not be able to do that, as then I would not spread my feet to you like this. Now, stop talking and sing that song for me…”

In the moonlit beauty of the evening, Sudho started singing in the terrace: “At your bare feet, I write my testimony as your humble servant, let the whole of Vrindavan be a witness to my devotion.”

When the clock had struck ten at night, both the servant girl and her mistress saw the sudden arrival of Gopinath in the terrace. He was smelling of the strong scent of Aatar, as his shawl swayed in the wind. Surprised and embarrassed to see her master so suddenly, she bit her tongue, veiled herself and ran out of his sight at once.

For all these days, Giribala had been restlessly waiting for such an encounter with her estranged husband. She immediately took upon this event to exhibit her pent-up ego and pride. Like the Radhika of the opera she had seen a few days before, she sat, resolute in her vanity, never looking up at her husband’s face for once. But the scene that followed was in no way close to the tender, moving love scene of the theatrical performance she had witnessed. Nothing happened the way she had contemplated and longed for. Neither did her husband Gopinath come closer to her, nor did he surrender himself at her feet, nor did he sing or plead to her.

“Give me the keys of the house.” He ordered her in a rough, loveless voice.

Was this the ideal way of addressing one’s wife amid such a mesmerizing full moon night, amid such a festive spring, followed by a long period of estrangement? All the love scenes depicted in poetry, drama, novels and literature seemed so vain and untrue at this moment! How on earth could a man who was overwhelmed with such pretentious love scenes and with such exaggerated display of affection on stage speak to the beautiful lady in his own life, thus? When he said to her: “Give me the keys now”, the tone of his voice carried no love, no tenderness at all.

The pregnant wind that bore the deepest sighs of failed poetry and romance reverberated in the terrace, spreading the essence of the blooming flowers. The disheveled hair of Giribala scattered all over her face and her yellow sari blew away in the air, restless, unrestrained, as she stood up, surrendering her pride.

She held her husband’s hands and pleaded to him with all her love: “I will give you the keys, but you have to come inside with me.”

She was determined to do everything in her power to make up for their prolonged separation. She was desperate to cry her heart out, to make him cry and suffer for his negligence towards her, to use all her lovingly nurtured assets of beauty, to materialize all her secret desires to win back his love and attention and emerge the victor.

But Gopinath did not want to listen to any of her pleas. “I do not have much time to waste, give me the keys fast”, he said.

Giribala continued pleading: “I will give you the keys and everything else you want, but you have to come inside and stay with me tonight.”

Gopinath: “That is impossible. I have to leave urgently.”

Giribala: “I would not give you the keys, then.”

Agitated to see his wife’s insolence, he roared: “Oh, well, I will see how you win in your resolve!”

He forcefully opened the aanchal of her sari, but the key strings he expected to see were not there. He plundered their bedroom, broke open his wife’s dresser and found all her belongings—her kohl, her vermilion box, the ribbons for tying her hair, only the keys were missing. Enraged, he rummaged the bed, looked below the mattress, broke open the almirah, yet could not find the keys.

Giribala watched all this violence, insult and injury, as she stood, stoned, gripping the doors with all her might. After all his failed attempts, Gopinath came up to her again, and burst out in a mad rage: “Give me the keys at once, you will see what I will do to you otherwise.”

Giribala remained quiet, stoic in her resolve. Gopinath gripped her tightly and snatched away all her precious ornaments, the choker from her neck, the armlet from her arm, the ring from her finger. In his uncontrolled wrath and pride over his recent triumph of manhood, he kicked her and went away.

In spite of all this fury and unrestrained violence that had ravaged Giribala from inside, the people in the mansion, in the whole village slept unperturbed. The full moon bloomed, a quiet observer to the apparent serenity of the night, while the heart bled, screamed and moaned in pain. Nobody except Giribala felt how those shrill, heart-wrenching cries pierced through the soothing full moon night, as they tore the beauty and tranquility of the night in shreds. That night too passed away, and she was stunned into silence, witnessing the sense of devastation it brought upon her.

Even Sudho didn’t know of this extreme humiliation and defeat of her mistress. The thought of suicide had crossed Giribala’s mind; she wished to avenge her insult and injuries by finishing herself, her useless beauty and youth with her own hands. But would her departure from this loveless world even mean anything? She wondered. Would anybody, including her husband feel her loss after her death? Life had become a burden of torment to her, and the idea of death gave her no solace.

Soon, she declared she would be going away to her parents’ house, far away from her in-laws’ mansion in Kolkata. She went away, all alone, completely ignoring all those who forbade her to step out of the house. Meanwhile, her husband Gopinath went out for a boating trip with his friends and nobody knew when he would be coming back home.

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About the Translator

Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet, editor and translator, currently based in Dallas, USA. She has a Masters’ degree with thesis in creative nonfiction writing from the Department of English, University of Nebraska at Omaha. She also has a Masters’ degree in English from the University of Calcutta.

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