Author: Aruna Chakravarti
Jorasanko was published in 2013, but it has been the best book I read this year, especially relevant for understanding the violence faced by women in our society, the fear instilled in them by age old blind beliefs and customs. Authored by Aruna Chakravarti, a translator, writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner, the novel gives the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s family and the Nobel laureate himself — his wife, his inspiration, his daughters and the women who grew up within the manor of the same name in Calcutta.
What is fascinating is not just the compelling storytelling but the history of Indian women emerging out of abarodh and moving towards progress and education. Abarodh, literally means blockade, is the state of purdah among the Hindu women where we are told, they did not even have adequate woollens or shoes to face the winter as it was deemed unnecessary because they lived behind closed doors and never stepped out. It is an in depth telling, or a historical account one can say, of a change in the psyche of womenfolk in India, of the awakening of their strength and their sense of independence and also of Tagore’s own realisation of how much these women had impacted his life and creations.
It starts with Tagore’s grandfather, father, his brothers and then him. The story is not the Nobel laureate centric but women centric. We see Jnananandini emerge out of the young simple child Genu, the fashionable and Westernised mejoboudi* who evolved the modern day style of wearing the saree with a blouse; Kadambari, his sister-in-law who suffered from depression and yet was his inspiration and most importantly, Mrinalini or Chhuti, his own wife, a woman who metamorphosed into a butterfly from a caterpillar and the one who exorcised the ghost of Kadambari with her own vibrancy. Perhaps, one should not call Mrinalini a butterfly but a deep, caring, nurturing, kind and strong woman. She stood by her husband to her end.
I felt the book is really relevant in context of the current crisis faced by women where rape accompanied by murder seem to be on the rise in India.
The deeply patriarchal mindset prevalent in Tagore’s grandfather, Debendranath — who despite moving on to Brahmo faith, refused to countenance widow remarriage — can still be seen in the patriarchal statements made by earlier politicians in India about women’s safety and security and PM Modi’s stunning silence as rape and murder cases keep rising. Debendranath had perhaps a less patriarchal mindset despite his belief in abarodh and his opposition to widow remarriage as he does eventually cleave in to his grand daughter travelling to Mysore to teach in a school run by the Maharaja. That in the nineteenth century, men compelled women to stay home within ‘safe’ boundaries while they were free to indulge their whims and the women complied is well woven into the fabric of the narrative.
They advocated safety for women by keeping them in the house, and not by educating humans to treat women as equals and as more than vessels for bearing children and seducing men. That was actually the role of the woman as prescribed by Tagore’s mother who believed in, lived and died within the confines of the abarodh. We are told that she firmly believes, “Females… were required by society to perform only two functions. To serve as sex partners to men and to perpetuate their lineage.”
The call for change starts with Tagore’s generation. Satyandranath, Tagore’s elder brother, freshly returned with an ICS from England tells his father, Debendrenath —“…An educated woman will find it more difficult to stay within the rules of the abarodh. Education must go hand in hand with freedom. One without the other is meaningless.” When Debendrenath expresses his distaste for the changes his ICS son is making to the house and hearth as the women never complained, Satyandranath tells his father —“They don’t even know they have a right to complain. They’ve been conditioned, so thoroughly, to accept their lot in life that they have no idea that something is missing?”
Can this statement be still seen as true for some of the womenfolk in India and across the world? Can it be women are still pre-conditioned to look at themselves as helpless and disempowered when faced with masculine might?
As early as 1931, Begum Rokeya had written a novel called Abarodh Basini, which is said to be a spirited attack on women in purdah. Attempts are being made repeatedly to create an awareness and bring in a change. Things have definitely improved over the last century for women in general — though one is not fully certain looking at the violence and violation countenanced by them in the recent months if the perpetrators have evolved as humans at all.
The need for educating men and women to counter violence and violation of women is an ongoing issue. We find in these pages a powerful awareness among women wakening to the negatives of purdah and concealment, to the need for education and emancipation, to rebel against strong reinforcements of patriarchy.
This should be a book read by every man and woman. And then we should wonder — when will we all learn to be human … look beyond our animal needs and instincts and rise above them to have a humane world.