In North Kolkata, big gates lead into Rabindranath Tagore’s ancestral home, Jorasanko. Staircases lead up to wide verandas that skirt rooms with high ceilings, cold black and white marble floors and arched doorways with green louvered shutters. They all overlook a courtyard downstairs. Once, the big rooms were filled with men in their crinkly dhotis and kurtas holding animated discussions and debates on art, literature and politics. In the abarodh or the women’s quarters, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law held sway.
Like Tara of Gone with the Wind , or Manderly of Rebecca , Jorasanko drips atmosphere. The great house was packed to the rafters with people, yet there was always loneliness, fear and despair. Within its walls lurked insanity, abuse, infidelity and politics. Aruna Chakravarti gathers all these details and turns out a novel in which she recreates the world of 18th century Bengal, especially the privileged yet cloistered world of women.
Chakravarti’s heroes are the Tagore women. They step into Jorasanko as child brides knowing they will leave it only when they die. Yet, confined as they are, they influence, instigate and shape their famous husbands and each other. As the Tagore men plunge into the heart of the Bengal Renaissance, the women also grapple with the changes. While some of them slide into bewildered despair as the sacrosanct rules of the abarodh shift and slacken, others grab the opportunity to step out of their husbands’ shadows and become women of importance in their own right. But they are no gilded lilies, and Chakravarti describes them warts and all.
Of course, there are the milestone moments of Rabindranath Tagore’s life — his muse and his sister-in-law the melancholic Kadambari; his first composition; his relationship with his father, his struggle with western education; his marriage to Mrinalini…
Jorasanko spans the years between 1859 and 1902 and is a haunting narrative. It speaks of a luxurious lifestyle, but it also raises questions about the status of women, even those married to the Tagores. The Tagore women were complex. The bous or daughters-in-law, whose days were spent between their boudoirs and the kitchens were not above intrigue and politics. Some of them were devious and spiteful. They were also strong-willed and stubborn, like Digambari who refused to accept Western ways, even if her husband flirted with them; Jogmaya who took on the men and split the Tagore family; Jnanadanandini who entered Jorasanko as a child bride but who dared to step out and set up an independent household with her husband and children. She also set a fashion trend and showed the Bengali women a new way of wearing the sari! And, of course, Swarnakumari, acknowledged as a pioneer of women’s writing in India.
Then there were those who suffered. Some silently, others like Tripura vocally, and others like Kadambari who unable to bear the terrible loneliness and pain preferred to die.
The cast of characters and the Tagore family tree at the start of the book is helpful. But one wishes there was more about how Aruna Chakravarti went about the book. Did she meet any Tagores? She must have visited the Tagore home; what were her impressions of Jorasanko? The author’s note sadly has no mention of any of this.