It is strange that I started reading Kadambari Devi’s Suicide Note while one of the most terrible cyclones that West Bengal has ever seen was brewing outside. Post finishing it, I felt that nothing could have been more apt a time to read the book, for a violent storm in the heart of a woman is nothing less than the storm outside; only one causes damage to a select few and the other to far-away lands. Decades went by since the Thakur’s of Jorasankho were on the heights of the aristocratic hierarchy, but the passion that bloomed in the fortress of Nandankanan lives on and would continue to do so every time one would recall the strength of a woman’s love through Kadambari Devi.
Born to a purchase officer of Jorasankho, Kadambari was married off to Jyotirindranath at the age of nine. She found solace only in the writings and company of her young brother-in-law, Rabindranath. Their relationship matured over the years through friendship, banters, jealousy, affection, care, and love. But do all those who love ultimately reach the end? I talk of a woman neglected since childhood, married off at a time when children are supposed to enjoy their childhood, overlooked by her husband, insulted by the members of the Thakur family for her lowly status; and yet who overcame the obstacles and became a strong icon in history, for she had the compassion that most people lacked.
Kadambari Devi’s Suicide Note is not just her life-story, nor does it border only around her relation with Rabindranath. It talks about the entire family where ‘all are starved of love and caress, in the Tagore household.’ Rabindranath and Kadambari had much in common – age, liking towards literature, and broad intellectual mind. They had the freedom to discuss with each other what they could not with other members of the household. But, an unbearable distance seemed to have crept into this blooming relation once Rabindranath got married, a distance so unbearable that it leads to dire consequences. The Note shows the members of the Thakur family in a different light. A conservative family with a powerful and feared patriarch where women were mostly subdued. In fact, the blossoming friendship between Robi and Kadambari became the talk of the mansion to such an extent that the decision was taken to marry off Robi quickly, and the responsibility given to his Kadambari- an order which stung her heart. For Tagore did pen down ‘Take your leave from here, O Olden days, For a new game that has now begun’.
Her story delves back and forth with numerous instances and memories. These memories show subtle care, love, and longing; something which was considered taboo in those days. A passion described through the nuances of Baishnob Padabali, the act of love through the eyes of Radha-Krishna of Indian mythology. One can in fact draw parallels between the two stories- both couples found love and respect in their incomplete unison which formed the basis of redefining love for generations.
Through Kadambari, one can get a sense of vastness almost like that of empty space filled up with loneliness. Often times while reading the book, my mind searched for an answer if she was the inspiration behind Tagore’s Nastanirh (the inspiration behind Ray’s Charulata), after all, the situation in both the cases were uncannily similar- that of a wife being drawn to her brother-in-law due to neglect from her husband. The want to belong, the right to be accepted, and the want to be loved and give love which Kadambari could never get in her life seemed to be aptly reflected through Charulata’s story years later.
It is not an unknown fact that Kadambari Devi committed suicide, which was masterfully hidden by the house patriarch. But today, there are legends about her death. Some say her room once locked post her death has never been opened to date. Some say they can still hear a female voice singing in the Thakurbari or that of footsteps along the corridors. Many such stories have reached my ears too. I do not know because I never felt anything amiss and I do not want to remember her as a weak deranged woman who ended up her life because of neglect. I would like to remember her as a strong woman who developed feelings despite taboo for one man and wanted to preserve those memories in her heart till her last breath. She wanted to stay true to her love even though she understood that post-Robi’s marriage things would not be the same anymore. He would obviously be closer to his wife as was the norm and she, as I see it, thought it best for the relation and her life to end with sweet memories of her beloved captured in her heart and mind forever. After all, through theatre, she did say ‘This world, the sun, and the moon are my witnesses, you are my husband and I would repeat a million times that I am your wife.’
The much-debated note lays bare her story through her eyes for the world to read and listen to. One can also contemplate how Tagore’s literary works had such feisty and progressive female characters in tragic circumstances. From Chitrangada (Chitrangada) to Binodini (Chokher Bali), from Giribala (Maanbhanjan) to Mrinmayi (Samapti) and many more seemed to be the reflections of the strength, determination, courage, and passion professed by his once-beloved Notun Bouthan? Did he find a way to immortalize her traits through his pen? Did he keep her alive through his works decades after she died?
Kadambari Devi’s Suicide Note by Ranjan Bandhopadhyay is one of the bestsellers of Bengali literature published by Patra Bharati. It has been recently translated into English by Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey. Both the books are available online and once we go back to good old days, in the bookstores.
Publisher: Bee Books (English)
P.S, If you have read the book, do tell me if you had visualized Konkona Sen Sharma as Kadambari and Parambrata Chatterjee as Robi, even if for a minute in your mind’s eye?