Kadambari Devi’s Suicide Note: A passionate memory of Love and Loss

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)

English version: Available on Flipkart / Amazon

Bengali version (through Patra Bharati): Available on Flipkart / Amazon

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?

There’s Gunpowder in the Air: Manoranjan Byapari translated by Arunava Sinha

‘Dripping from Rajat’s bullet-riddled chest the blood took on the shape of India’s map as it flowed down the wall’

Set against the backdrop of  Bengal’s Naxalite movement in the ’70s, There’s Gunpowder in the Air is a daunting description of the activities within the four walls of a correctional home.  What laymen understand to be a place for robbers, murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and those who have gone against the law; the jails, are a world on their own. The daily happenings within the precincts are elaborately described in the novel.

It all begins with the imprisonment of five Naxal revolutionaries. Young educated men, who stay away from regular jail gossips but definitely have a philosophy and determination of their own to fight against the injustices brought upon them by feudalism. When a petty thief Bhagoban is sent in as a spy by the jailor to be amongst them, and to take note of their vicious plans, does the story pick up pace. However, what happens when Bhagoban starts having a change of heart upon meeting the young comrades?

The novel is complete with all the small nuances of prison life. The story of a bandaged ghost called Bandiswala keeps everyone on their feet, especially on full moon nights. In fact, the poor ghost was found easier to blame for anything that went awry rather than suspecting living men. His story has often been reiterated and discussed along with the lack of ritualistic initiatives to cordon off the evil spirit. If a wicked ghost wasn’t enough, stories of pilferages with the common rations and smuggling substances of abuse were not far behind. Gossips always pointed a finger towards ‘abc’ or ‘xyz’ including both jail guards and prisoners.  But hardly could anyone ever be caught in the act; and even if one was, there were ways to move out of trouble.

Amidst all the comic and witty turns, what Byapari explores the best throughout the novel is human emotions.  Hunger and poverty were always common reasons leading to one becoming a petty thief or a rogue. Outside the disciplined walls, each had their own families. Though they were allowed to meet them, many were disowned and many were shameful of their children being called ‘children of the criminal’. These pent up emotions along with severe ideological affiliations often led them to act on chance. Sometimes leading to their success and at other times, brutally crippling their will, for the rest of their lives or worse, curbing their lives itself.

There’s Gunpowder in the Air is just not the name of the novel, but holds much significance as a symbol of revolt, freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice and duty. Gunpowder is usually used for rifles, guns and the likes which are used for various illegal purposes upfront; but to me, it signifies rebellion – an act put together by many. Every individual taking part in the rebellion or its trial suffers from extreme emotional upheaval but their decision to take part in it or not; and to live up to the expectations of other comrades is their decision alone. Freedom, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, sacrifice; and duty are the results of the actions that one performs during a rebellion. Each individual holds great significance and their contributions can never be compared to one another.

Byapari weaves a lucid tale of Naxal prisoners in erstwhile Bengal fighting for their Rights and Motherland by radical means. But Rebellions owe as much to Fate as to the individuals who take part in it; and their success or failures are divided between both. Only time will tell the story of the Naxal prisoners and their Fate during their imprisonment.

Definitely a must-read whether in Bangla- Batashe Baruder Gandha-or in English to understand the psyche of the perceived rebels. The book is bound to raise questions about the pre-conceived notions about the Naxalities and make you revisit the era and re-interpret the ideologies in a new light.

No. of pages: 162

Publisher: Eka, Westland

Available on:Amazon/ Flipkart

Translated from: (Bengali) Batashe Baruder Gandha

Calcutta Nights: Hemendra Kumar Roy translated by Rajat Chaudhuri

Calcutta is beautiful. Wherever you place a camera, you get a vision. – Pradeep Sarkar

While Kolkata has long transformed into the city of Coloured stills; one cannot dismiss that Calcutta Nights still has a large part of it residing in the Black and White era of the past. Written originally by Hemendra Kumar Roy under the pseudonym of Meghnad Gupta, and translated by Rajat Chaudhuri decades later, Calcutta Nights explores the dark underbelly of the city which existed time immemorial untouched by the development of the society. ‘From Chitpur bordellos to Chinese opium dens, the darkest secrets of the city of palaces’ have been exposed by the writer-translator.

From the lives of prostitutes to the trafficking rackets as depicted by modern-day Crime Shows all find a mention in the pages of the book. It is interesting to note that the book was written way back in 1923, however, incidents, instances, and mindsets of the people have hardly changed from back then. Women have been acutely objectified with the use of words like ‘dish’, ‘merchandise’, ‘goods’  with a recurring usage of the phrase ‘fallen women’ to denote sex-workers. Standing on the other side of the journey many have accepted this profession as fate, many rebel day and night to leave the web of sexual abuse, and many enter willingly and have a zeal to thrive. But most often than not ‘Her laughter is the veil for sorrow’.

Chinatown today is quite well-known for Chinese restaurants, Chinese New Year celebrations, Dragon Dance, Chinese Temples; but do people remember the once-thriving opium dens of the Chinese neighbourhood -an addiction bred by many gentlemen to relieve themselves of their burdens through opium and more.

The narrative takes the readers through the Nimtala Ghats, the famous burial grounds in the city known for its sacredness and ritualistic importance. But do the residents of the ghats acknowledge it thus? Or is it a monotonous job that they have long stopped to care about except smiling profusely and telling the history of the place to tourists to earn a few extra notes?  These and much more seemingly ‘normal’ and ‘historic’ places are dwelling houses of the sins. Stories and instances narrated by the author tell the readers how intriguing the underbelly of the city actually is and how this whole new world has been created by the people of the city themselves – or rather their desires!

A chapter on the playhouses – theatre- of Calcutta truly illustrates how theatres played with the emotions of the people. Whether it be the start of an illicit affair; or keeping a mistress; whether it be a man or a woman running away with the actors; or starting a lustful relation; these became the natural backstage nuances at a playhouse. Remember Tagore’s Manbhanjan? Not everything is fiction!

Calcutta Nights takes the readers on a journey through the seasons, the festivities, the social hierarchy, and the economic classes keeping in mind always the psyche of the situation or the person in question. The description of every chapter is like a scene unfolding in front of one’s eyes; similar to the old photographs/hand-drawn scenes one sees in a museum. From the baijis singing in the goondas den to the silent sneaking away of preys to a dark corner on a moonless night; to the loud glamour of the deprived to find a prey and earn a penny, to the unraised brows of the workers on seeing women in places of significance, alone and searching . . . . . . . Calcutta Nights is a collection and depiction of the emotions of the night. But what was written decades ago holds true for society even today. The narrow lanes of the sex-workers’ gully or the plush hotels outside which one would find ladies waiting till midnight; the modern Babus in suits visiting opium dens or ghats to relieve their stress; the entwined web of  willingness, unwillingness, fate and above all the emerging crime from the darkest nights of all times.  . . . . . the story of Calcutta Nights that is here to remain . . . . . . .

Publisher: Paper Missile, Niyogi Books

No. of pages: 131

Available on: Flipkart/ Amazon