ARASH VAFA FAZLI
The book illustrates the author’s act of negotiation with the dominant patriarchal order of the time to have her voice heard.
As part of its Classic Reissue series, Oxford University Press has come out with a new edition of Swarnakumari Debi Ghosal’s An Unfinished Song with an introduction by C. Vijayasree. The novel was first published in Bengali in 1898 under the title Kahake (To Whom?) and was later translated by the author into English.
As the first Bengali woman novelist, Swarnakumari was an important figure in Bengali literature and a participant in the discourses of social reform and nationalism in 19th century India. Her participation however, was bedevilled by a forced ambivalence.
Critique of social issues
As a woman novelist she had to manoeuvre the dominant patriarchal order of the time to have her voice heard.
An Unfinished Song perfectly illustrates this act of negotiation. In the novel, the outward form of a love story becomes the Trojan Horse through which she smuggles her critique of contemporary social issues into the public domain — whether it be about the Age of Consent controversy, women’s education, the freedom to choose a spouse, the neglect of vernacular languages or the right attitude to the West.
As a novel, An Unfinished Song features the usual ingredients of a romance — love, separation, misunderstanding, coincidences and an unexpected ending.
The simple plot revolves around the love life of the narrator Mrinaline or Moni as she is also known. It begins when as a child she develops a deep attachment for her classmate Chotu. Her affection gets mingled in her memory with the haunting refrains of an unfinished song that she had heard him sing.
Years later, when as a young woman she hears the same song sung by Romanath, her brother-in-law’s friend, she feels strongly drawn to him. However, she decides to break up with him after learning of his aborted affair with an English girl. This break-up, and the fact that she was still unmarried at the age of 19, makes her and her family the object of social censure. Moni is left distraught.
At such a time Dr. Binoy Krishna enters her life as the physician who nurses her back to health. His gentleness, nobility and tenderness win her heart. Yet, just when she thinks she has found the love of her life, her father announces that she is to be married to Chotu.
With her heart intent on Dr. Krishna, this news comes as a new blow to her. The crisis is resolved through a happy contrivance at the end of the plot where Chotu and Dr. Krishna are revealed to be the same person.
On Moni’s sensitive soul, Swarnakumari traces the evolution of human love. It begins with a child’s infantile and possessive attachment to her parents, reaches it peak with the passionate devotion of youth between the lover and the beloved where there is both the desire to sacrifice as well as the need to see love reciprocated and it finally attains maturity when “the heart learns . . . to yearn after the supreme ideal.”
Her meditations on love are moulded by her feminist stand. She sees love as being intrinsic to feminine nature. “There is always the desire in the female breast to make another happy by self-abnegation, for love is woman’s whole nature, its desires and aspirations her lifeblood.”
While she advocates the complete self surrender of wife to husband, she demands that this devotion be mutual. Her vision of the ideal marriage combines, as Vijayasree observes “the virtues of the Western companionate marriage with the sacredness of the traditional Indian marriage.”
To the present-day reader the world of 19th century elite Bengali society described in the novel — where couples fall hopelessly in love with no more than a few words and glances exchanged — would seem quaint.
Vijayasree’s scholarly yet accessible introduction helps bridge this gap by locating the novel and its author in their proper historical and ideological perspective.