Breaking Free: Is Rabindranath’s “Streer Patra” A Feminist Text?
“…A woman does not deserve independence” (… na stri svatantryam arhati)
(Manava Dharma Sastra IX.3 - Manu)1
Can “Mejo Bou theke Mrinal”(“From Mejo Bou to Mrinal”) be a possible sub-title of Rabindranath’s pathbreaking short story “Streer Patra”? Rabindranath had himself admitted that this short story was his first attempt in writing a pro-woman text.2 Indeed, the obvious agenda of “Streer Patra” is precisely about eliminating the role model beautiful-submissive wife “Mejo Bou” and registering the birth of Mrinal. This metamorphosis from being a non-entity to a person conscious of her identity does not happen all on a sudden. Rabindranath constructs a very sensitive narrative in which he systematically records Mrinal’s responses in her own voice that become gradually more assured and confident as the text approaches the decisive resolution not to return to her husband’s house, which never became a home for her, though she lived there for fifteen years- “But I shall not return to 27, Makhan Baral Lane ever again. I saw what happened to Bindu. I have realized the position women have in this society. I don’t want to go through it any more.”
Readers are reminded of the fact that Mrinal was twelve years of age when she was married, a child bride. This letter was written when she was twenty-seven. So the conservative contention that a bride identifies with the culture of her marital home more easily if she is married at an early age does not seem tenable. Mrinal herself is aware about what sets her apart. She categorically states that her intelligent mind had been a threat to the members of her in-laws’ household. So Mrinal writes, “It didn’t take you long to forget that I had beauty. But that I was intelligent, that is what you were reminded of at every step…My mother was always very anxious about this intelligence of mine. For one who has to accept the line of control, if she desires to follow her rational thinking then she is destined to stumble at every step.”3
Another remarkable feature of this short story is that the resistance and rejection comes in the form of a personal letter, the very first letter that the wife writes to her husband in a marriage of fifteen years. Mrinal hastens to explain that this is her first letter to her husband for since marriage she has been living in her husband’s home, so the need for letter writing had never arisen. Though they mutually experienced the micro politics of daily living, that Mrinal was drifting apart from her husband all the while, is a fact that her husband did not notice or chose to ignore construing it to be just another demonstration of feminine idiosyncracy. But what I want to emphasize is that Mrinal writes a letter. That is, we are dealing with a literate woman, literate to the extent to be able to quote from a song of Mirabai. Though the text tells us that Mrinal got married when she was twelve years old, she was not only literate but she even states that she wrote poetry-
“I had something that was beyond the precincts of your domestic drill.I used to write poetry secretly. Never mind if it was all nonsense…that was my freedom. There I could be myself…That I am a poet, that’s something you could not discover in the past fifteen years.”4 This proud submission of Mrinal’s that she had a secret source of pleasure in an environment of endless compromises leads us to the narratives of many nineteenth century Bengali women, who found release and relief from the rigours of patriarchy through their creativity.5
It may be interesting to review briefly the state of women’s education in India, specifically Bengal in this case, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.The report on the State of Education in Bengal in 1836 observed, “ A superstitious feeling is alleged to exist in the majority of Hindu families, principally cherished by the women and not discouraged by the men, that a girl taught to read and write will soon after marriage become a widow.”(Italics mine)6 Interestingly, Haimavati Sen’s memoir corroborated the official document as she recorded, “ But I had no right to education. Though I lived like a boy in every respect, in matters of education I remained a woman. It is a popular superstition in our country that women, if educated, have to suffer widowhood;”7
In 1849, the first girls’school was founded by Bethune in Calcutta. By 1854, there were 288 girls’ schools in Bengal mostly established by missionary societies. Later,the Hunter Commission Report on Indian Education in 1882 underscored the need for higher education for women and soon enough a few enterprising women educationists set up schools and structured curricula to meet the needs of female education in India. The aim of such institutions was to train women to become “ better wives and mothers in a modern world.”8
I am tempted to include here a reference to the first lecture tour of America made by a Bengali woman in 1927, a little over a decade after the publication of “Streer Patra”. This woman was introduced in America as the “niece of Tagore”. Indeed, Tagore’s niece Sushama, who made this historic tour, was a married woman, a mother of seven children and her husband was a barrister. However, though she could speak in English and was aware of colonial culture, her personal responses regarding the position of women in India were conventional and conservative-
“The supreme, traditional virtues of the Hindu woman are fidelity, sincerity and self sacrificing love. A wife subordinates her wishes to those of her husband”9 Also, in a lecture hall in New York, Sushama spoke with spirit and pride about Hindu culture, marriage and marital relationship- “Your idea of marriage, companionate marriage and love seems very strange to us. Your divorces startle us. We believe in the holiness of marriage, considering it a sacred and divine union of two souls. Our marriages are regarded as permanent; separation or divorce unspeakable, we stay married.”10
If this was the response of Rabindranath’s educated, cultured, English speaking married niece in 1927, can Mrinal’s letter therefore be regarded as exceptional? In this context we must remember that in Calcutta, Sushama’s friend Lillian Palit created a sensation by becoming the first Bengali woman divorcee. She later remarried a man of her choice. Also, the princesses of Cooch Behar married British husbands and one Hariprova Takeda married a Japanese man, and left for Japan in 1912. All this happened a little before or after the publication of “ Streer Patra”.
Rabindranath’s short story scripts the object/abject cultural conditioning of three women in their distinctly discernible spaces. “ Streer Patra” is a story about three women, all represented by the signatory of the explosive letter, Mrinal. As she represents herself Mrinal also represents the disturbing insignificance of Boro Bou, Mrinal’s elder sister-in law and her young sister Bindu. Mrinal’s acute observation, her astuteness, her independent spirit are scripted in each line of this letter of power that interrogates, destabilizes and finally rejects the oppressive and callous citadel of patriarchy.The epistolary narrative possesses a supreme merit, for the pervasive voice of the letter- writer establishes a sense of direct intimacy between the reader and writer and thereby creates a remarkable impression of authenticity. It is conversation held in absentia.The effectiveness of this mode is too well known to all who are acquainted with literature representing different cultures, whether of the past or contemporary times.
The subtle but sure thrust of the ironic tone of Mrinal’s letter to her husband of fifteen years is unmistakable. It begins with the traditional reverential address “Your Revered Lotus feet” “Sricharankamaleshu” but ends with supreme self assurance as Mrinal signs of with the subscription “Tomader Charantalasroychinno”, “Free from the shelter beneath your feet, Mrinal”. By signing her own name rather than the descriptive chronological nomenclature attributed to her as “Mejo Bou”, that is, wife of the second son, Mrinal is reborn as herself. The concluding celebratory line of Mrinal’s letter is a re-scripting of Mirabai’s song that is quoted by the wife who has discovered herself and her identity and becomes Mrinal from Mejo Bou- “ I too will live. I am safe now.”11
Mrinal’s political freedom in a male-authored text indicates that Rabindranath was able to herald and support the winds of change. I am not directly aware of Rabindranath’s familiarity with and response to Ibsen’s feminist play“Doll’s House” published in 1879.9 But it would be very strange if indeed Rabindranath had missed reading Ibsen. I am naturally thinking of that crucial moment in the text when Nora abandons the security of her husband’s home and shuts the door behind her. This ability to step out from the carapace of complacent comfort and undertake risks for an independent lifestyle choice has been associated with the emergence of the New Woman in Western culture. Educated Indians were not unaware of the suffragist movements and the New Woman concepts of the West. As a matter of fact educated women had been ridiculed, tortured and ostracized by the conservative caste society of the nineteenth century frequently for emulating the West. But then there was this major difference. The women of Thakurbari, as Rabindranath’s ancestral mansion is called even to this day, were all educated, many of them were creative writers, many adapted Western lifestyles selectively, and were known for their excellence in the performing arts. I shall urge readers to go through Chitra Deb’s seminal text Thakur Barir Andarmahal for a complete and composite collage of the extraordinary talents of these women who graced the Tagore home. However, the women of Tagore’s household generally conformed to traditional norms regarding marriage and fitted themselves into the expected roles of home maker and care giver as wife and daughter
Apart from Mrinal the two other women in the text are Boro Bou, the eldest daughter-in-law and her sister Bindu. Boro Bou was neither beautiful nor rich. She was married into the family by virtue of her blue blood.As a result, she endeavoured to withdraw herself as much as possible, as she was always painfully conscious of her lack of assets-wealth and beauty. When Boro Bou’s unmarried fourteen-year-old sister sought refuge in her sister’s marital home, she embarrassed Boro Bou greatly. In order to prove that Bindu was not an economic burden on the family, Boro Bou made her do all the strenuous household work. Boro Bou tried to project Bindu’s living in the family as significantly profitable at a minimum investment. Mrinal’s own daughter died soon after birth. Mrinal’s longing for a child was somewhat compensated by the arrival of Bindu in the family. She took upon herself the role of Bindu’s surrogate mother or a caring guardian.
Though initially shy and apprehensive, Bindu was so overwhelmed by Mrinal’s empathy that she fell hopelessly in love with her. Mrinal writes, “Bindu began loving me to such an extent that I felt scared. I had never known love like this before. I read about it in books- but that was between men and women…She couldn’t take her eyes off my face…The girl became absolutely obsessed with me…the intensity of Bindu’s love for me made me restless. Sometimes I would be angry with her for this, but I have to admit that through this love of hers I discovered myself in a way that I never will ever again in my life. That was my free self.”12 Mrinal’s sexuality and sexual attractiveness has been hinted at occasionally in the text. The above instance of romantic love between two women is a significant sequence with primacy given to the attractiveness of the female body. Romantic love between siblings, cousins and friends is a recurrent sub-theme of many Bangla novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, erotic love or lesbian relationship, or the possibility of such a relationship between two women have been systematically elided or omitted as a taboo subject in women’s fiction or fiction representing women. Sometimes that silences and absences resonate with remarkable impact.
So like most girls of Bengal, Bindu’s marriage was arranged. As she was neither beautiful nor rich, she discovered on the very second day of her marriage that the man she had married was mad and violent. She was absolutely petrified of him. She escaped from her husband’s home and Mrinal assured her that she would look after her. But as Mrinal’s husband and in-laws and husband protested, Bindu returned to her maital home only to escape again. This time she sought refuge in her cousin’s house but was forced to return. When Mrinal sent her younger brother Sarat to find out how Bindu was doing, he arrived with the news that Bindu had committed suicide by setting herself on fire. At this news, Mrinal’s comment seems to be shared by the author – “At last there was peace. The whole country was enraged. They kept on saying, ‘It’s become fashionable for women to commit suicide by setting their saris on fire.’ All of you said, “All this is dramatics”. Maybe. But how is it that the fun of drama is enacted on the saris of women and not on the dhotis of the brave Bengali men, that is a fact one needs to think about.”13
In “Streer Patra”Rabindranath has interrogated the system of arranged marriages and the entrapment and enslavement of women as wives. All three women, Mrinal, Boro Bou and Bindu have loveless marriages. Their husbands provide them shelter, security and sustenance. Adjustment and acceptance are the magic words that sustain the fabric of the patriarchal middle class family, there are no possibilities of equal partnership in this relationship between power and powerlessness. In the cases of Bindu and Mrinal there has been resistance to this appropriation of their power. Bindu commits suicide while Mrinal leaves in order to live. Foucault makes a succinct observation about such power relations that I feel need to be quoted in some detail,
“There cannot be relations of power unless the subjects are free.If one or the other were completely at the disposition of the other and became his thing, an object on which he can exercise an infinite and unlimited violence, there would not be relations of power… Even though the relations of power may be completely unbalanced or when one can truly say that he has “all power” over the other, a power can only be exercised over another to rthe extent that the latter still has the possibility of committing suicide, of jumping out of the window or killing the other.That means that in the relations of power, there is necessarily the possibility of resistance”14
Unaware of Foucault a Bengali Hindu woman Kailashbashini Debi wrote in 1864, “In a marital relationship if one person is superior and the other inferior, then the former will, in all probability be contemptuous and brush aside the other…There should be no marriage unless the husband and wife are both equal because there can be no unity unless both are equal and without it love cannot be achieved.”15 It would take another fifty years since the publication of “ Streer Patra” for a Bengali woman writer to script resistance and rejection in her pathbreaking novel Pratham Protisruti published in 1964. In the first novel of Ashapurna Debi’s trilogy, Satyabati can be regarded as a true younger sister of Mrinal, who is educated, assertive and has the courage of her convictions. Satyabati decided to leave her husband and home after thirty years of leading a married life. Married as a child bride of eight years of age, Satyabati experienced a rare sense of freedom has she told her husband, “ For thirty years I have been looking at you for everything, now at the fag end I want to look at myself.”16
The kinship between Mrinal and Satyabati is unmistakable and both these representations of women in Bangla fiction in 1913 by Rabindranath and in 1964 by Ashapurna Debi herald the promise of the emergence of empowered women as active agents of social change.17 Interestingly, in 1992, Taslima Nasreen wrote in Nirbachito Column- “ If you are a woman, you must traverse beyond living death in order to really live. They will teach you fidelity, the virtues of “ Sati”, they will preach to you about womanhood, they will describe the glory of motherhood. If you step into these evil traps of false education, they will kiss you, lifting you in their arms they will dance with frenzy, they will give you four walls, golden chains, they will offer you food as they do to their pet parrot.If you are a human being then just break off your chains and stand up…”18 Taslima’s hard- hitting prose seems too strident and aggressive but the essential message of her text does not deviate very much from the agenda of the previously discussed texts. As a matter of fact, I find a strange similarity of response in the texts of Rabindranath, Ashapurna and Taslima. These three texts interestingly span the entire twentieth century, comprising both colonial and postcolonial India. I consider “Streer Patra” to be as much a feminist text as Pratham Pratisruti and Nirbachito Column.
2 Quoted in Tanika Sarkar, “Mrinal Onyo Itihaser Sakhar” Desh, 5 August, 2005, p. 35.
3 “Streer Patra”, Rabindra Rachanavali, vol. 7 (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 1986) p. 647. Translations mine.
5 I am thinking of the autobiographies of Rasssundari Debi, Kailashbashini Debi, Kailashbashini Mitter and others. These have survived. But I also wonder about those notebooks and diaries that are lost or have been destroyed.
6 Geraldine Forbes, Women In Modern India (Cambridge University Press, India 1996), p.33
9 Chitra Deb, Thakurbarir Andarmahal (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers, 1983), p.153
11 Streer Patra op.cit. p.
14 Lois McNay Foucault and Feminism (California: Notheastern University 1992) p.173.
15 Malavika Karlekar, Voices From Within (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.59
16 Ashapurna Debi, Pratham Pratisruti (Kolkata: Mitra O Ghosh Publishers, 1964), p.433
17 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp.159-203
18 Taslima Nasreen, Nirbachito Column (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers,1992), p.128 (Translation mine)