On The Occasion of the 150th
Birthday of Rabindranath Tagore
May 7, 1861
Tagore (1861 to 1941) was born in Kolkata, Indian into a family whose wealth and life style can now only be seen in movies. His father owned an estate so huge that at one point in his life Tagore traveled through it on a luxurious barge and was met on the river bank by tenants paying token rents to him. Tagore was raised mostly by servants as his mother died young and his father was very busy administrating the vast estates he owned. Tagore was educated in classical Indian literature and at age eight began to write poetry and ended up reshaping the Bengali Language. Later in his life he founded a school and devoted himself entirely to his writing and teachings. His moral authority became so great that he was able to write the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, give Gandhi the title of Mahatma (teacher), and had a status as a moral leader on a par with Gandi. He traveled to the west and met William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound and other notable literary figures. This was in a period when western writers were fascinated by Indian thinkers and Yeats wrote the preface for one of his first translations in English. He wrote largely in Bengali. His body of work is a great literary treasure. He was a Hindu Bengali. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first Asian winner and the only winner
from Indian to date.
(I have already posted on two of his prior stories, "Hungry Stones" and "Subha".)
"The Story of a Muslim Woman" is the very last short story that Tagore completed. It was completed in 1941 but not published until 1955. I do not know why it took so long to be published but it seems almost like a total prophecy of the events horrors caused by the 1947 partition of India and even the Bangladesh War for Independence in 1971.
The story opens in the home of an affluent of family. The niece of the husband is in the care of their family because her parents are dead. The wife hates her and wants her put out of the house, whatever it takes. She feels a beautiful young girl will attract rapists and thugs to their household. Daily life in the region had gone
to conditions of near anarchy and their was no real leadership anywhere.
These words say much about the history and lot of women in India:
" Kamala was very beautiful, though her parents were dead. The family would have welcomed her death too; but that did not happen. Her uncle Banshi brought her up with great affection and extreme caution till now.
However, her aunt would often complain to her female neighbours, "Look, her parents left her to add to my burden. Nobody knows what can happen to her any moment. I've children of my own, and among them she's like a burning torch of destruction. She can't escape the evil gaze of wicked fellows. She alone will sink my boat. For this reason I can’t sleep at night”
Her aunt wants her dead but she does at last receive an offer to become the second wife of a wealthy man of the same caste as her family. The offer is at once accepted even though women want to be first wives, not second, third or fourth. Her aunt is just so happy to be rid of her.
In order to get to the house of her soon to be husband she has to pass through lawless countryside. Her caravan is attacked and she is kidnapped by bandits. As she is quite beautiful she is taken as bounty to the home of the bandit leader. The bandit, a Muslim, allays her fears and tells her she will be allowed to live in peace in his house. She and everyone knows she can no longer marry a Hindu and will be considered a disgrace to her family and caste. In the culture of the time, if a woman was raped it was considered her fault, she was damaged property and would often end up thrown out of her own house and family. Her family would never believe that a Muslim leader would protect her and keep her totally safe in better fashion than her birth family ever would.
The house of the Muslim chief has apartments for eight wives. He allows the woman to live in peace totally unmolested. There is even a temple dedicated to Shiva which allows the woman to practice her religion. He never attempts to force himself on her and does not allow her to be disrespected in any fashion. In time she falls in love with a man from the leaders family. She repudiates her old faith and her caste saying she has found her destiny in her new home. She is proud to become a Muslim woman and falls in love with a man of her own choosing. (spoiler alert)-
As the story closes, years have gone by, the woman is along on a raid on a caravan. She discovers that in the caravan is her cousin, the daughter of the aunt who hated her and wished her dead. As a gesture of the sincerity of her face, she allows the young woman to proceed on her way to her arranged marriage to a man she has never met.
I can see this story as perhaps at one time offending the core audience of Tagore. That he would write such a story in 1941 shows deep wisdom and an incredible insight into the future of South India.
I am currently reading what maybe the book most worth reading on the short story, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (1963) by Frank Connors. I was very taken and I admit a bit shocked when O'Connor said the Indian Short Story was starting to surpass the current productions in Ireland.