‘Oh, disgraced Radha
Rascal Krishna mounts the riverside Kadam-tree,
Dear girl, step not into that river.
Not the fair, not the village, not the ghat,
Step not for your shame
The mother-in-law names you disgraced Radha.
Dear girl, step not into that river’ (trans. mine)
Kalankini Radha (disgraced Radha) a folk song from the bhawaiya musical tradition of North Bengal takes the path of the river that flows into the popular and with it one of the sung stories of Radha’s moment of transgression. Boundaries necessitate transgression almost as if one derives its identity from the other, like this song reminding of the forbidden gently urges Radha towards the location of her desire. It is of course to be remembered that the transgression is a recurring theme in Indian mythical and folk narrative forms, named adultery in socio-legal terms.
Adultery has been a central anxiety, disrupting through the site of marriage the very foundation of order and governance. However every story of stepping over boundaries is not a story of transgression. In these three novellas translated from Bengali and brought out by Penguin, the predominant idea is that of sin and adultery yet none quite delve into the realm of transgression towards desire rather remaining in the peripheries.
Located firmly in a comfortable middle class universe, Maloti begins an intimate first person narrative which begins with her act of transgression and travels back deeper into her neatly divided worlds of lack and fulfilment. “It’s over-it happened-there’s nothing to say… How did it happen? Easy. In fact I don’t know why it didn’t happen before.” Beginning with these words, as the narrative alternates between the story and the arguments of Maloti and Nayanangshu and the instances that build a picture of a exalted idea of love and marriage necessitated with a negation of their own sexuality.
Buddhadeva Bose’s It Rained All Night, translated by Clinton. B. Seely was first published in Bengali in 1967. It is also important to note that there was an obscenity court case against Basu in 1970, which goes to show that this narrative even though it depends on the established masculine and feminine roles threatened the moral order of patriarchal society. “This is why I love you so. You speak out your desire, you’re not timid, you’re not even careful- you play with your cards face up on the table, and that’s why no one has been, or will be able to hinder you. The traditional gender roles are firmly rooted in Maloti’s imagination as she voices the realisation of her individuality through the necessity of desire within the idea of love but the narrative never quite looks at the possibility of desire without love as a qualifier.
However the interesting portrait which emerges in It rained all night is through the voice given to the husband Nayanangshu. So you realized you were on the verge of real danger, Maloti-why weren’t you more careful? But what could I have done. Everything was out of my hands…On the one hand you claim to be a person with independent will, yet you want to place the responsibility on your husband? In it’s narrative style Nayanangshu’s voice is the constructed voice of an intellectual with an intense sense of propriety, which has no space for sexual gratification. His is a fear of the body almost as if the body can disrupt order. Maloti’s body, his own body, Goyna’s body, Kusum’s body, the woman’s body, lower middle class bodies. Real bodies bring out fear of disruption in Nayanangshu as opposed to Botticelli’s Venus, which remains aesthetic and unreal, never quite disrupting any moral, social order. Nayanangshu’s is a construction of the Bengali gentleman, ‘bhadralok’ dating back to the reform movement where his primarily vocation is the fashioning of his wife and his marriage as a model of new modern patriarchy.
Taking off from where Tagore’s Ghaire/Baire (trans. Home and the World) started, Nayanangshu’s narrative is that of the University professor moulded by the world of literary tropes and western education yet unable to negotiate desire within his immediate social/ moral universe. Ridding oneself of the conservatism of the middle class family structure in the 1970’s, Nayanangshu attempts at self-fashioning and Maloti’s understanding of her identity both tell a tale of politics filtering into the intimate, spaces which are usually silent and almost never uttered in own’s voice. A larger question is of-course raised about the basic premise on which marriage is based, that of ownership. A contract, which defines itself by trapping bodies as properties within the institution they inhabit. Love in such a context becomes like the only legitimate narrative carefully clothing desire and making transgression easier to accept. In any other case, guilt is the only thing that holds the possibility of redemption.
When she thought of Debashish she felt uncomfortable looking at Sachin. She couldn’t look at her children either…She even feared her own shadow. There Was No One At The Bus Stop by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay looks back at the burden of an adulterous relationship between Trina and Debashish carried by both into their respective psyches. Written in 1974 and now translated into English by Arunava Sinha, There Was No One… does not step into any uncomfortable territory in the choices taken by the characters. Trina lives in a house haunted by her guilt of her affair along with the gaze of knowledge and disregard of her family. Debashish, on the other hand struggles with the memory of his bad marriage, his wife’s suicide and his son’s memory of his dead mother. Somewhere in the loneliness of their urban affluent lives, both try to hold on their tumultuous affair, which can at best stay a guilty aberration. No, there would be someone. Debashish. He was quite mad. He called her in a way that made everyone know of it. Sachin knew, the children too. Trina’s heart trembled all the time. Sometimes in the excitement of a forbidden relationship. Sometimes in fear. Sachin and the children didn’t consider her any better than a whore. And Debashish? Did he think of her as anything but a fallen woman?
Trina continually wallows into perceptions of herself that others hold limiting the possibility of a real transgression in her own terms. Instead she steps out only to return. In recovering from an ailing childhood and adolescence of which Debashish is the only witness Trina could never form an identity of her own which made her visible to the others around her. Her doing of the forbidden then becomes the only way she can claim her existence. All the three novellas equate love with desire and marriage with the lack of it hence resulting in infidelity making it easy to relate to in the popular imagination.
The possibility of sex without love as in Dibyendu Palit’s Ilicit can only meet with disappointment. Ilicit, also translated by Sinha, appeared in Bengali in 1989 but did not shatter any real conventions or established ways of looking at sexuality. Rather it posits sexuality primarily in the domain of the masculine with Jeena, the protagonist realising the contractual nature of her illicit relationship. He was deceiving Gayatri, neglecting his official work. Why! Because he would take something in return. If Jeena gave it up willingly, fine-otherwise by force. Love could conceal the physical factor-but once the factor was over, what did that leave? An illicit train journey is undertaken by Jeena from Calcutta to Puri in the absence of her husband to meet her lover Partha; a journey which begins with Jeena voicing her disinterest in her marriage stripped of sex and ends with the reality of violence. The failure of one’s attempt to fulfilment in physical relationships outside of the legitimate is what the narrative seems to suggest finally.
Neither Mukhopadhyay nor Palit manage to do what Budhhadeva Bose does in his novel which, despite its limitations attempts to address intimacy and gender roles in a way rarely talked about in Bengali prose of that time. However all three in translation also make it possible to access a cultural and linguistic space across three decades and its value systems. But neither of the three stories look at the really ambiguous where desire escapes the stereotypes of sin or love, or the dichotomy of social and individual, spaces often unapproachable through realism in writing. Love of course is another story, which is oft evoked in the three narratives in an attempt to qualify relationships into neat known boxes easier for readers to relate to Maloti, Debashish, Jeena or Trina. Love is yet another trope, a much needed word to make it all acceptable and reinstates the order or as Catherine Belsey, points out, ‘And true Love, too, itself another kind of fundamentalism, has legalized prohibitions, expropriations and transformation of people into private property’. Going back to the song, Radha’s transgression into the forbidden continues to be sung, along with the name given to her, that of the disgraced one. More often anxiously.
Rupleena Bose is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.
# Belsey, Catherine. “Postmodern Love: Questioning the Metaphysics of Desire.” New Literary History. Vol.25, No. 3. (Summer, 1994)