Title: Chokher Bali
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Genre: Psychological social novel
If we look for the term “Classic Literature” in dictionaries or internet, we would find various definitions and descriptions of it. Basically a classic is a creation of an author which transcends the barriers of time and space and confirms its place in eternity. Renowned Italian writer Italo Calvino opined that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”. A book holds the classical perspective when it executes the universal ideas and sentiments in a compact and well-united way. Noted French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve stated that “the idea of a classic implies something that has continuance and consistence, and which produces unity and tradition, fashions and transmits itself, and endures … enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, … discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; … a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, … contemporary with all time.”
Through the ages, various books by (same or) various authors in various languages have found their niches in the casket of Classic Literature. From William Shakespeare to Paulo Coelho, almost every writer has played their part in the formation of Classic Library and the process is continuing. Although the term ‘Classic’ is generally associated with the Western Canon, it can easily be applied to the works of literature from all traditions, such as the Literature in Translation or the Indian Classics. India is a land of diversity and so is its literature. It has the tradition of multilingualism which hugely enriches its great literature. Authors hailing from different regions of the country have numerously penned down equally enchanting masterpieces in different regional languages. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the “Bard of Bengal” and the first ever Nobel Laureate in literature from Asia, is revered as the greatest litterateur of all time in the history of modern Bengali literature. Though his works have profusely been translated nationally and internationally, his renown primarily rests with his brilliant creations in Bengali language. Many of his works are considered as classic and I would to try to review here his one such classic novel named “Chokher Bali” (Sand in the Eye) with main reference to its protagonist heroine Binodini.
“Chokher Bali’’ (1903) is said to be the first ever modern-psychological-social novel in the history of Bengali literature in terms of the character portrayals and the contemporaneity of its theme and style. The story revolves around the central character and heroine of the novel Binodini and her journey. There are couple of other characters as well but Tagore depicts them in such a way that it seems they are there only to complement Binodini. The story somewhat goes like this; Binodini was a village woman. Being the only child of her father, unlike other girls she was given proper education by an English missionary governess in her childhood which made her thoughts modern and character upfront. Mahendra was the only pampered son of a widow mother who studied medicine and the successor of his huge ancestral property. He lived with his mother Rajlaxmi and his widow and barren aunt Annapurna. Bihari was his childhood cum best friend who was treated as another son of the house by its members. At first Binodini was sought as Mahendra’s bride by Rajlaxmi but incidentally this match didn’t happen and Mahendra married Ashalata while Binodini was married off to a sick man who died just in a year of the marriage and widow Binodini returned to her village. Asha was Annapurna’s niece and being an orphan she was reared in her uncle’s house. She was beautiful but illiterate and not even very much deft in household chores which caused dissatisfaction inside Rajlaxmi. But Mahendra loved his wife very much and didn’t mind her faults, rather he became active in making Asha literate. Rajlaxmi left the house due to her overgrowing dissatisfaction and sentiment and went to her birthplace where Binodini lived after her husband’s death. There these two women came very close to each other and seeing Binodini’s ambidexterity Rajlaxmi greatly regretted her son’s refusal to marry her. However some months later Rajlaxmi came back to Calcutta and Binodini came with her. The novel takes its main turn from here as from the very first day Binodini was clear about her motives of entering into the house. She began to play her game in a very cunning way. At first she befriended with Asha and took her into her spell. Then making naive Asha her pawn, Binodini skilfully introduced herself to Mahendra. Mahendra got gradually attracted towards her beauty, smartness, eloquence, and sensuality and finally fell madly in love with her. Binodini became successful to meet her goal though she never loved Mahendra back. She only wanted to show him what great blunder he had made by refusing to marry a woman like her. Bihari understood Binodini’s real motives and tried to dissuade Mahendra to save Asha from Binodini’s politics. On the other hand Binodini hold a strong fondness for Bihari but he did not comply with her feelings. However the story moved on and we see that Asha left the house with Annapurna and went to Kashi; Binodini also left the house with Mahendra; the annoyed Bihari engaged himself in social welfare. At the end of the novel Rajlaxmi fell into her deathbed; Mahendra came back to his home and to Asha realising his mistakes; Binodini also came there to seek forgiveness to everyone; Bihari made the situation easy for her. At last everyone forgave everybody; Mahendra reunited with Asha, Rajlaxmi died, Bihari decided to continue his social work; and Binodini got ready to leave and live the rest of her life in Kashi with Annapurna.
Renowned literary critic and writer E.M.Forster once said that “the novel tells a story”. Indeed novels have always depicted the complex human psyche and conscience in the resort of stories and become the mirror of contemporary society and time. Tagore’s “Chokher Bali” is also of no exception. Critics have considered it as the first modern novel in Bengali Literature. Through the characters like Binodini and Bihari, Tagore opened the flood gate of self-realisation and self-discovery which have got prominence in the works of future generations writers. “Chokher Bali” is the introducer of that new trend in Bengali novel where pragmatism plays an important part. It breaks all the barriers of prevalent societal Puritanism and takes the character centric approach. Binodini became the first representative of the early 20th century modern Bengali Renaissance women who were never afraid of voicing their choices and rights and dared to redefine their roles as decision makers. Tagore has created an eternal space in the novel which is universal to the human race. This makes the novel classic in its approach. The mutual love-hate relationship between Binodini and Mahendra is the main focus of the novel. Binodini could never forget the fact that Mahendra married illiterate and stupid Ashalata rejecting her superiority and brilliance. So after being widowed when she entered into Mahendra’s house, she became furious to snatch all the happiness of Asha by luring Mahendra towards her sensual beauty and witty attitude. Thus simultaneously she became the vamp in the felicity of Mahendra and Asha and the heroine of the novel as it is her character which Tagore portrayed multi-dimensionally and developed gradually from loneliness through vengeance to self-realisation. “Chokher Bali” means a sand particle inside the eye which causes continuous irritation if it is not removed. Binodini acted like such sand particle inside the love-eye of Mahendra and Asha. The novel is a modern classic for more than one reason. It first ever shows that sexual urge plays an equally important part in human life as the other emotions like love, respect, understanding, trust, affection, or care. In the novels of earlier writers, if any woman voiced her passion, she got at once stigmatised as characterless or slut and had to meet a disastrous and ignominious end. But Tagore didn’t do that. He made Binodini an upfront woman who though having been widowed never got afraid of voicing her choices and passion. She was manipulative to meet her goal. She was so strong of a character that no one could ever ignore her presence physically or psychologically. Her wit, brilliance, smartness, eloquence, sensuality, and moreover her mesmerising beauty received everyone’s awe and attention. She dared to speak for herself as she knew very well that no one would speak for a widow in a society which is regressive for women. It is Tagore who showed that women are also human being. They too have feelings, longings, and pine for fulfilment in every aspect of life.
But not always great things are flawless and neither is Tagore’s this iconoclastic creation. Though he skilfully merged human sexuality with plurality of modern thoughts and psychological sensibility in the larger context of life and became somewhat successful in his endeavour as he portrayed his protagonist in a novel manner, the ending of the novel undid almost all his efforts which he brilliantly knitted all though his work. At the end we see Binodini decided to go to Kashi with Annapurna and settle there. In earlier days (or even today) widows used to go there to expiate as if it was their sin that their husbands died. At the time of societal renaissance when widow remarriage was gradually being accepted, Tagore sent her heroine to Kashi to espouse the age old stagnant tradition of sin and redemption. He failed to keep Binodini in the main stream only because she fearlessly voiced her choices which posed danger to the hypocrisy and orthodoxy of the society. The same Mahendra who once was sexually frantic for Binodini, compelled to bow down before her in fake respect and reverence just to comply with the societal norms. At last Tagore placed Binodini in such a higher level that society would see her as a goddess who must be devoid of any human emotion and feeling because he knew that a widow’s demands could never be met in patriarchy. He even did not allow the union of Binodini and Bihari and sent the latter to the eternal banishment. Tagore though heartily wanted to speak for the women actually ended up speaking for the men who rule in a patriarchal set up. The same privilege which has been given to men is refused to women. As Simone de Beauvoir truly felt that “one is not born a woman but becomes one”, Binodini also fell victim, she also became one. Tagore has denied the logical longings of the widow yet youthful Binodini only to match the tune of patriarchy which might be somehow there inside his own psyche. His own position as a great litterateur did not at all help him to give Binodini her deserving position in life. At the end he not only made Binodini’s life futile but also threw her into eternal fireplace where she had to be relentlessly burnt with her unfulfilled desires. He finally very surprisingly showed that the women like Asha who complied with the prevalent patriarchal system and got ready to remain as “The Angel in the House”, got all the praise and acceptance, and the women like Binodini who wanted to kill that angel image and spoke for themselves, their rights and desires, got ill-treatment and banishment from the society. Tagore had done severe injustice to Binodini by sending her to Kashi in her youthful days. He has greatly failed himself and thus must take all the liabilities of Binodini’s misfortune and always stand at the end of criticism.
I would like to conclude the review by quoting Ezra Pound who said that “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rule, or fits certain definitions … It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” Indeed “Chokher Bali” is also such a classic which has surpassed the time and place and has become eternal in its appeal and relevance. It can always undoubtedly be enjoyed with ever growing delight and understanding.
Prosenjit Ghosh, M.A in English Literature, an assistant teacher in a Govt. aided school, creative writer, and book reviewer from West Bengal, India