Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Friday, May 20, 2016

"A Wife's Letter" by Rabindranath Tagore

"A Wife's Letter" by Rabindranath Tagore (1922, 5 pages)

Real Wisdom from Asia's First Nobel Laureate
রবীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর

"My mother was always very troubled by my intelligence; for a woman it’s an affliction. If she whose life is guided by boundaries seeks a life guided by intelligence, she’ll run into so many walls that she’ll shatter her forehead and her future".

Gandi came to Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941-Calcutta) for moral counseling.    Einstein pondered at length his metaphysics.    W. B. Yeats stood in awe of the depth of his wisdom.    He reshaped the Bengali language and revitalized a 1000s of year old literary tradition.   Born into truly kingly wealth he wrote in deep sympathy with the poor and especially the women of India.    He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1914).   Tagore was, happily for us, a prolific writer of short stories.    "A Wife's Letter" will be the 8th short story by Tagore that I have posted on and I think it is my favorite so far.

"A Wife's Letter" is, not surprisingly, in the form of letter from a wife, in this case a minor second wife, to her husband, addressed  as "To Thine Auspicious Lotus-Feet".
The wife opens the letter by saying in fifteen years of marriage she has never written a letter to her husband even though they have shared many confidences.   The wife is deeply religious.  I was very moved by these lines:

"I am Mejo-Bou, the second bride in your joint family. Today, fifteen years later, standing at the edge of the ocean, I understand that I also have other relationships, with the world and the World-Keeper."

It is almost as if her acceptance of her role as second wife is so deep within her psyche that she almost sees her relationship with the World-Keeper (an expression I like a lot) as a form of infidelity.

Her husband's first wife was considered quite plain, so plain his mother insisted that he redeem the family name by taking a beautiful second wife.      Mejo-Bou is considered incredibly beautiful by all, even the envious other women of the household.  She never has any sense of her own beauty.    These lines are heartbreaking:

"Long ago, in my childhood days--in the days when my preordained marriage to you was known only to the Omniscient One who writes our fates on our foreheads--my brother and I both came down with typhoid fever. My brother died; I survived. All the neighborhood girls said, “Mrinal’s a girl, that’s why she lived. If she’d been a boy, she couldn’t have been saved.” Jom-Raj is wise in his deadly robbery: he only takes things of value."

Even death does not want a young girl.

As she writes the letter she is alone on a religious pilgrimage.    Her husband is so devoted to his work that he cannot leave Calcutta.    She talks about how lonely she was when she first went to the house of her husband.   (She was 12, the first wife was 27 and not really happy about this new arrival!)    For a long time her only friends are three cows.  

The wife has a curse,  she is intelligent:

"That I had beauty, it didn’t take you long to forget. But you were reminded, every step of the way, that I also had intelligence. This intelligence must have lain deep within me, for it lingered in spite of the many years I spent merely keeping house for you. My mother was always very troubled by my intelligence; for a woman it’s an affliction. If she whose life is guided by boundaries seeks a life guided by intelligence, she’ll run into so many walls that she’ll shatter her forehead and her future. But what could I do? The intellect that the other wives in the house lacked, the Lord in a careless moment had bestowed upon me; now whom could I return the excess to? Every day you all rebuked me: precocious, impertinent girl! A bitter remark is the consolation of the inept; I forgive all your remarks."

To quote once more,  there is so much beauty and depth in this story:

"My daughter was born--and died. She called to me, too, to go with her. If she had lived, she would have brought all that was wonderful, all that was large, into my life; from Mejo-Bou I would have become Mother. And a mother, even confined to one narrow world, is of the universe. I had the grief of becoming a mother, but not the freedom."

An interesting and dramatic development is revealed in the letter and I will leave it unspoiled for potential readers.

"A Wife's Letter" was translated from Bengali by Prasenjit in 2009.

You can read it online HERE.

I think this might make a good first Tagore.

To me the short stories of Tagore are a world class treasure.

Please share your experiences with Tagore with us

Mel u


Debbie Rodgers said...

I think you're right - a world-class treasure. The Wife's Letter was mesmerizing and I think you very much for introducing me to it.

Deepabali said...

he truly was a genius....his sense of thinking was quite ahead to the times...that wat makes him "bishwa kabiguru" for us........

Pavel Shetra said...

I think you've misunderstood a narrative detail of the story, Mrinals husband does not have multiple wives rather she is the second daughter in law in the sense that she is the second woman married into this family, the other wife in this family is married to her husbands brother, we can see evidence for this when we consider that Mrinal suggests her husband was not as bad as her brother.