It is primarily the story of Sotish and Sabitri who are in love but succumb to the social barrier of caste and creed. Along with them we find Upendra, Surabala, Kironmoyee and Sarojini trying to make meaning out of life and love.
Though in the novel we get to see the socio-economic panorama of Chattopadhay’s time, and the novelist raises pertinent questions against the ills of the then society, yet I find it to predominantly be a saga of love and love of particularly four women, namely Sabitri, Kironmoyee, Surabala and Sarojini. An interesting image that emerges out of the plot, that didn’t escape a first time reader of the novel, as I was, is that these four women can be paired into two sets of alter egos. Sabitri and Kironmoyee. Surabal and Sarojini. We can also call these sets the coming together of two polarities.
Let us first look at Sabitri and Kironmoyee. Sabitri, born in a Hindu Brahmin family, and thus of a higher caste, widowed at nine, is forced to take up the role of a low class household maid for a living. Kironmoyee too, a high caste woman, is married of as a child, and becomes a widow when Haran dies. Both are educated. Both are self-willed and full of self-respect. But the similarities end here. While Sabitri remains uncorrupted by the lustful men and their tempting offers, Kironmoyee’s ineer world falls prey to the luring of her outer world. Unloved by her husband and denied of all conjugal bliss, this lonely woman leaves her ailing husband in his sick bed to enjoy the bitter-sweet company of his family physician, Dr. Ananta. Sabitri falls in love with Sotish, a high caste staunch Brahmin, who equally loves her but she, throughout the novel, keeps herself away from him for his well-being. She denies herself the love of Sotish, pretends to love another man, Bipin babu, and stays away from Sotish, only so that Sotish does not ruin his life and his social well-being by associating himself with a base woman like herself. On the other hand, Kironmoyee, in love with Upendra, and rejected by him, seeks revenge for being spurned in love, pretends to love Dibakar, and elopes with him, only so that she can hurt Upendra and tarnish his social iamge. While Sabitri is an idol of pure, selfless and unconditional love, Kironmoyee is the image of vengeance and impure passion. Thus they become the alter egos to each other.
Coming to Surabala and Sarojini. Unlike the other set, there is hardly any similarity between the two. Surabala, wife of Upendra, is a devout and religious woman, and a dedicated lover to her husband. She is uneducated, unlike Sarojini who is convent educated. Surabala is deeply rooted in her own religion, voraciously reads religious texts like the Mahabharata and believes every word written in them. Sarojini, on the other hand, is brought up in a Western culture, wears Western clothes and mixes with like-minded men. She is the woman who is uprooted from her roots, her religion and who adopts a culture and lifestyle foreign to her soil. She debunks Hindu religion, mocks religious texts and questions the usual social norms of a staunch Hindu society. She even laughs at Surabala’s blind faith in her religious texts.
But interestingly, these four women, strikingly opposite to one another, are brought together by Sarat Chandra, in the way they respond and finally submit to love. Surabala loves only one man throughout her life, that is her husband Upendra. She even dies in his arms. Sarojini too, though her alter ego, when falls in love, she loves only one man, and that is Sotish. Even when she is mixing with men like Shashanka, in her heart she keeps loving Sotish. While Surabala is an epitome of marital love, Sarojini’s fate too culminates in her betrothal to Sotish.
On the other hand, Kironmoyee, after all her attempts to hurt Upendra and avenge his rejection of herself, comes a full circle when she returns to him in his deathbed and falls at his feet in tears. Sabitri too remains unflinchingly devoted to Sotish, and her unconditional selfless love for him ultimately makes her accept his marriage to Sarojini and go away from him for his betterment.
All these four women, different from one another in their lifestyle and ideologies, divided by their strikingly opposite walks and talks, finally emerge as mirror images of one another in the way they love their men and are devoted to them.
But there is one point of contention. Often it is said that Sarat Chandra portrayed women as much ahead of time in their belief systems and lifestyle. It is believed that he was a strong supporter of women’s liberation. True in a way. He portrays Sabitri as a self-willed woman, full of self respect and pride, working for a living and loving a man after her widowhood, a phenomenon unthinkable by the widows of Chattopadhay’s time. Another widow, Kironmoyee, is an educated woman, vociferously questions the social norms and religious institutions, denounces the idea of God and deconstructs the notion of morality and sexuality. She, as a married woman, has the guts to love another man, Upendra, and as a widow, has the courage to elope with another man, Dibakar, much junior to herself. She is a woman much ahead of her own time. Sarojini too is portrayed as someone much out of social conformity and ahead of her time in her thoughts and lifestyle. She rebuts Sotish’s ideas of religion and society, submerges herself in a foreign, and thus a tabooed culture, to the point that her mother has to worry about who will marry her.
It is true that Chattopadhay initially sketches these women as modern and liberated. But one wonders where this leads to. At the end Sabitri can’t break the taboos of the society and embrace Sotish. She shirks away from him and his passionate love for her, worrying about the social repercussions of Sotish’s marrying a low caste woman like herself. Therefore, at the end, dear readers, isn’t she giving into the social barriers of caste creed and taboos? Kironmoyee too, who once questioned the idea of God and institutionalized religions, the basis of morality and propriety, is seen, at the end, to go for ‘Ganga-snan’ every day to wash away her sins in the holy river, and goes to offer prayers at Kalighat for Upendra’s recovery. Love makes her lose her sanity and run after institutional religious leaders asking them if God exists and if he will listen to her prayers. Sarojini, the social outcast and rebel, in love, dons a traditional sari and cooks for Sotish. She, who once scorned Sotish’s society and his orthodox social and religious ideas, gives into him in love. Surabala remains from beginning to end an ideal replica of social conformity, religious fervor and blind faith in socio-cultural institutions.
So, at the end of the novel, one may tend to become bewildered by the fates of Chattopadhay’s so-called liberated leading ladies. Individualistic and enlightened in the beginning, they all fall into line in love. While one expects liberation and socio-cultural salvation of these woman, Chattopadhay sadly brings their redemption through their giving into what they first questioned. One wonders why Chattopadhay didn’t uplift his women in their journey and destiny of love but makes them literally ‘fall’ in love.
Ms. Nivedita Dey is a Post Graduate in English from Stella Maris College, Chennai and has been working in the films and television industry since 2006 as a story and script writer and creative consultant. Nivedita has written for TV programs for channels like Star Jalsha, Life OK, Star Plus, Channel 8 etc. Nivedita has spent quite a few years in Mumbai working in the entertainment Industry there and is currently based in Kolkata and is working as a writer and creative consultant for Kolkata’s leading Production House Shree Venkatesh Films.
Nivedita has keen interest in literature, cinema, social and political issues and enjoys expressing her views by way of guest blogs and articles in popular columns and web portals.