(This piece titled ‘Epistolary Moments’ appeared in The Hindu: Literary Review. We would like to thank Prof. Malashri Lal for allowing us to reproduce the piece here for our readers)
Rabindranath's story “Streer Patra” (Wife's Letter) is a perennial favourite among readers for exposing the patriarchal baggage of landowning, upper crust families in Bengal. Tagore was artistically using the subterfuge of the epistolary form to enter the mind, voice and experience of Mrinal, who places her critical comments at the ‘lotus feet' of a blissfully unaware husband. Pouring anger against a system that allows women to be neglected, abused and abandoned, Mrinal decides that she will not return to a home that denies her dignity or intellectual space.
In his own life, Rabindranath Tagore wrote hundreds of letters, in Bengali as well as in English, not quite expecting that they may cohere into aesthetic patterns or reveal personal details after his death. Letters are perhaps the most intimate tools of self expression. Famous people write them without considering that they may turn into public documents. As India celebrates the 150th birth year of Tagore, these letters become as much a part of his literary legacy as any consciously crafted fiction, poetry or prose.
Here I offer glimpses into letters Rabindranath wrote to two women, his Argentinean host Victoria Ocampo and his wife Mrinalini Devi with the intention of highlighting his deep engagement with issues concerning the place of women in society. He was deeply attached to both women though the closeness was vastly separated in time and different in quality. With Victoria, it was almost a romantic interlude; with Mrinalini, it was a steady companionship.
Victoria, the bideshini (foreigner/ stranger), came unexpectedly into his life. In 1924, Rabindranath Tagore fell ill during a voyage in South America and had to unexpectedly break journey in Argentina. He spent two months as the guest of Victoria Ocampo, a wealthy and ardent reader of Tagore, who arranged a villa for his rest and recuperation. It was a most unusual relationship, part romance, part adulation. Tagore was 63 years old at the time, a widower of long duration. Victoria Ocampo was 34. He was a celebrated poet, she an aspiring litterateur. Victoria was married to Bernando de Estrada but had left him, without a formal divorce, for a lover, Julián Martínez. Tagore's accompanying secretary was the suave Englishman, Leonard Elmhirst, himself engaged to be married in a few months. The stage was set for a fascinating play of cultural contrasts and aroused emotions.
Rabindranath and Victoria wrote numerous letters to each other, beginning in 1924 when they are in the same city of Buenos Aires, sometimes in the same estate, and their letters continued sporadically till Tagore passed away in 1941. Their early friendship offers glimpses of mutual attraction, diffidence, friendly banter, and a strong longing for emotional fulfilment. Rabindranath renames Victoria, ‘Vijaya' (Bengali for Victorious), and teaches her the one Bengali word that is important — ‘ Bhalobasha' or ‘love'. In his Indian-English, and in her French and Spanish inflected English, they carry on expressing their need for each other — except that they cannot give this relationship a label or a name. ‘Vijaya' speaks often of the night, and actually writes one letter at 3.00 a.m. and another at 6.30 a.m. Rabindranath confesses to the ‘enormous burden of loneliness' he carries within himself . He is puzzled about gender issues in the East and West and discusses what may happen when ‘modern feminists want to compete with men in an open field of work.' She is occasionally peeved because he doesn't acknowledge the ‘intellectual' woman.
Here are a few samples drawn from Ketaki Kushari Dyson's book, In your Blossoming Flower-Garden:
Victoria: “Can you forget your Indian sky, even if you had no chances of seeing it again”…. “…let me drink your pain. I have nothing to offer. I can only long for the shelter of your ‘poorness' in the partaking of your pain” (20/21 November 1924) .
Victoria: “Gurudev, I have gone through such joy and such sufferings all these days! Joy because I felt near you; suffering because you ignored my nearness”. November/December 1924)
And what were Rabindranath's feelings?
In his first letter to Ocampo he writes with amazing candour, “It is difficult for you to realise what an enormous burden of loneliness I carry about me...My market value has risen high and my personal value has been obscured. This value I seek to realise with an aching desire…This can be had only from a woman's love and I have been hoping for a long time that I deserve it.” (14 November 1924)
Rabindranath Tagore shares his theories of gender psychology with Victoria. “The modern human females are never tired of accusing us of violence and tyranny, they do not know that it is a perverse expression of our inherent contemplative placidness repressed and tortured through the compelling necessity for us to be the useful members of society.” (5 January, 1925).
On leaving Argentina, Tagore yearned to explain himself to Vijaya; to remain in contact with her, yet pursue his own dreams in Shantiniketan. He wove ‘Vijaya' into his poetry sequence titled Purabi, explaining that it was about ‘the East in its Feminine gender.'
Could Tagore share the same kind of companionate relationship with his wife Mrinalini Debi whom he fondly addressed in letters as ‘Bahi Chuti', or ‘Bhai Choto Bou'? Was the wife and mother in an Indian home to be treated differently than the ‘ Western woman' even in the epistolary mode? Theories apart, it could not have been easy to be the wife to Rabindranath. He was married when 22 years old, to 10-year-old Bhabatarini, the daughter of an employee in the Tagore estates (1883). The family went about renaming her Mrinalini, appointing tutors to rid her of her Jessore accent in Bengali, and teaching her the civilities and manners of a premier household. She was also sent to Loreto School to learn English. In this makeover, Mrinalini developed her own unique personality as the mother of five children, a caregiver to all those who came asking for help, including a Punjabi darwan who needed a constant supply of wheat for his chapattis. She was known for her culinary skills, improvising the exotic recipes that Rabindranath brought to her. (It is believed that he helped her cook, at times). She assisted in the elaborate dressing up of women in the Tagore household but neglected her own appearance. One evening when she was persuaded to wear showy earrings, she quickly covered up her ears when Tagore appeared on the scene!
Rabindranath wrote several letters to Mrinalini from 1890 to 1902, the year of her untimely death. But what did he speak about? Mostly about functional household matters: how were the children Beli and Khoka; was the estate doing well; had money been paid to so and so; what happened to 15 seers of ghee that had been purchased? If there is any personal note, it is to ask Mrinalini if she is taking regular walks or is she indulgently reading novels. Occasionally there is a peeve, that she does not answer his letters fast enough. He misses home, he occasionally dreams of his family…but love towards his wife is lumped with the love towards his children and the larger context of the household. There is only one letter in which Tagore yields to tender emotion when he reports a dream, “ I caressed you a little and said I left my body and came to see you…” (29 August 1890). Mrinalini's letters to her husband have probably not been preserved, but we know of her devotion to his ideal of the Shantiniketan school and her extending a maternal care to the young brahmacharis who came to live in the ashram. She gave away all her jewels to meet the financial needs of the school, Rathi Tagore reporting that “ma” was left with only a few gold bangles on her wrist.
Mrinalini passed way in 1902, a devoted wife, mother and partner in Tagore's struggles. But she was never his Muse. In his last letter to her, Rabindranath writes, “It is my hope that we will discipline all our uncontrolled desires and surrender ourselves to god's supreme wish.” He saw duty towards his children, and a commitment to social causes as the greatest contribution that he could make as a householder, scholar and institution builder.
Rabindranath stayed faithful to her memory and never married again, but did he continue to see the Western woman as the emancipatory ideal for women in India to aspire towards? Such thoughts were expressed in essays such as “Woman and Home” and “The Indian Ideal of Marriage”. Yet the fact remains that “ Streer Patra” is his published story about protest, but the husband's letters remained in the realm of the private.
Malashri Lal is professor in the Department of English at the University of Delhi.