Fashioning the Feminine: Gender, Sexuality and Conjugality in Samapti
Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Sampati (The Conclusion) is perhaps best known for its cinematic adaptation by Satyajit Ray in Teen Kanya (The Three Daughters). Ray’s 1961 film strings together three short stories, Postmaster, Monihara (The Lost Jewels) and Samapti, written by Tagore in the 1890s. As the title of the film suggests, Ray chose to read these stories as Tagore’s fictions of the feminine focusing on the exploration of the complex ‘psychology’ of two adolescent girls and a young woman. Among the three, Samapti is perhaps the least disturbing because of its conventional ‘romantic’ closure and the establishment of the rites/ rights of conjugality.
The last scene of Samapti
in which the bedroom door of the couple bangs shut in the face of the bemused and nonplussed mother panting up the staircase provides the comic closure of this carefully orchestrated film; it is an appropriate ‘conclusion’ to diverse tales of female desire. Of course as any Bengali reader familiar with Rabindranath’s text knows, this is not quite how the short story ends:
He [Apurbo] was about to get into the bed, when suddenly a pair of soft arms accompanied by the tinkling sound of bangles, encircled him in a tight embrace; a pair of petal-soft lips fell upon his own like a bandit, leaving him no scope to express his surprise at the wet tearstained passionate kiss. Apurbo taken aback realized that a venture once interrupted by giggles had finally found its fitting conclusion in tears. ( Samapti p.s 176)i
Indeed, as is often the case in the Tagore-Ray relation, the films have to devise visual semiotics distinctively different from the nuanced and subtle play of words that characterizes the ending of the stories. A famous case in point is the marked difference between the ending of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nastaneer (The Broken Nest) and Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata based on the novella. Aware perhaps that there could be no visual equivalent of Charulata’s poignant and rueful utterance ‘na thak’ (No, let it be) Ray chose to end his film with a freeze shot, the close up of the extended hands of Bhupati and Charulata which do not meet signifying the irreconcilable distance between them.
However, my essay is not concerned with the vexed question of the fidelity of Ray’s cinematic adaptation to Tagore’s ‘original’ literary work, though there will be occasions to compare the two. I began by referring to Satyajit Ray’s film—particularly the ending - in order to facilitate a close, deconstructive feminist reading of Rabindranath’s short story. This is not to suggest that there is a conscious feminist agenda in the fiction, a claim that could be made for Tagore’s stories like Payela Nambor, (Number One)
or Streer Patro (The Wife’s Letter)
, in which strong willed, sensitive, moral and emancipated women challenge the dominant patriarchal ideology of marriage, often posing radical and daring alternatives. In fact nothing could be less true of Samapti
in terms of its ideological underpinnings—it is conservative (not necessarily in a pejorative sense) in positing marriage as the ideal and desired condition of companionship, a realization that slowly dawns on Mrinmoyee, the adolescent heroine. Her transformation into a woman capable of romantic emotions is hinged on her acquiring normative femininity befitting a young wife. My submission is that this creates a disquieting note in a story which begins by celebrating the joie de vivre
of an adolescent village girl whose manner and behaviour flagrantly flouts norms of gendered conduct.
The concept of an adolescent girl who behaves in a tomboyish mode would seem outlandish if not bizarre in the context of late 19th
century prescriptions about proper feminine behavior in rural communities. How did a novel idea suggest itself to Rabindranath? The clue to the genesis of the story lies in a letter in Chhinapatra
(1895) an edited selection of remarkable letters that he wrote to his favourite niece Indira who recognizing the merit of the epistles, wrote them down in her khata
or note book and presented it back to her uncle, Robikaka.
Many of these letters were written during his early rural sojourn when his father Maharshi Debendranath entrusted him with the management of the Tagore estates. The zamindari sprawled over several districts of undivided Bengal. Since in the late nineteenth century the Bengal administrative province included the present state of Orissa, the landholdings were considerable. It may have been a huge risk taken by the patriarch and a daunting task for his son, the twenty-eight year old Rabindranath who had not yet displayed any entrepreneurial or managerial skills. However, time would prove that the Maharshi’s decision was not only wise but even a providential one: these twelve years (1889-1901) spent overseeing the family estates in Selaidah, Shazadpur, Patisar proved to be the crucial in terms of shaping young Rabindranath as a burgeoning writer of fiction and non-fiction.
He spent a major portion of his time on the family ‘boat’ (a well equipped bajra
or budgerow as the British termed it) on the river Padma meandering through the fertile flat lands. This provided ample scope for the young artist to keenly observe from close the life of the villagers, to ponder on the beauty of the moonlit nights or soak in the ambience of lazy languorous afternoons. It was during this period that he started writing these epistles, the Chinnapatra
referred to earlier. Tagore was acutely aware of the significance of these letters especially as a kind of creative biography. This is evident in the way he introduces the English translation of a selection made from Chinnapatra
and published as Glimpses of Bengal
The letters translated in this book span the most productive period of my literary life, when, owing to great good fortune, I was young and less known. Youth being exuberant and leisure ample, I felt the writing of letters other then business ones to be a delightful necessity. This is a form of literary extravagance only possible when a surplus of thought and emotion accumulation…. Letters that have been given to private individuals once for all, are …characterized by the generous abandonment. It so happened that selected extracts from a large number of such letters found their way back to me after they had been written. It has been rightly conjectured that they would delight me by bringing to mind the memory of days when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest freedom my life has ever known.ii
The letters provide the reader a tantalizing glimpse into the very process through which the shaping spirit of imagination works upon the writer’s memory of events or encounters transforming them into short stories originally published in prestigious literary journals like Hitabadi, Sadhana, Bharati and Sabuj Patra and later brought out as collection of short stories or Galpaguchha (literally a bunch of stories). Here is a selection from a letter which contains the clue to the genesis of the idea of the unconventional adolescent heroine of Samapti:
There is one girl in this group who attracts my attention in particular. She would perhaps be about twelve or thirteen but being rather buxom and healthy she could easily seem around fourteen or fifteen. Her face is winsome, rather dark yet good-looking. Her hair is cut short like a boy’s and that becomes her face with its intelligence, its frank and innocent expression …. It is this half-boyish, half-girlish manner that rivets the attention; the boyish lack of self consciousness blends with a feminine charm to create an entirely novel kind of girl. I had never expected to encounter such type among the village folk in Bengal.iii
Evidently this village belle had left a lasting impression on the mind of Rabindranath; within two years he wrote Samapti in which the unknown village belle, sans her hair cut, makes her appearance in the avatar of the story’s heroine.
Mrinmoyee had a dark complexion; her short curly hair reached till the middle of her back. The expression on her face was frank like a boy’s. There wasn’t a trace of shame, fear or guile in her large dark eyes. She was strong, well-developed and healthy but it didn’t occur to anyone to ask her age. Had they been curious people would have inevitably censured her parents that she was not yet married. (Samapti,164)
It is not simply that Mrinmoyee’s looks do not conform to notions of the feminine her unmannerly ‘tomboyish’ behavior is source of great consternation among the women in the village community:
She was quite infamous in the village. The men affectionately referred to her as crazy, but the women were worried and petrified of her. She played only with the boys of the village, shunning and treating girls of her own age with contempt. In the children’s world this girl was a veritable marauder, a borgi. ( Samapti p164)
Taken together these two excerpts may be seen as the ‘problematic’ that Tagore posed in the story about the fate of this unusual adolescent girl: Would it be possible to imagine a situation in which this curiously de-gendered young girl would find a groom? How, then would she fit into the conventional codes of the feminine expected of the typical Bengali wife? The first few chapters of Samapti may be read as a response to this problematic of the first query: the only possible solution would be through a romantic liaison, to have a young man capable of recognizing and responding to what Tagore hypothesized as the ‘wild undisciplined female nature open and free as the fleeing forest deer’( p165).
My first submission is that this is clearly in the mould of ‘Romantic’ sensibility and ideology, a celebration of the ‘natural’ as opposed to the ‘artificial’ social one which was seen as imposing debilitating restrictions on the joie de vivre that characterizes human beings. The series of encounters between Apurbokrishna and Mrinmoyee indicate that Tagore took this typically ‘Romantic’ position, a curiously modern take on what constitutes heterosexual romance: Mrinmoyee’s aberrant ‘unfeminine’ behavior is represented as possessing an extraordinary charm to impress especially since it shown to advantage against Apurbo’s prospective bride, a younger girl, schooled and disciplined by the elder women of the household into becoming docile, dull and domesticated. ( p.166).
In the first of these Mrinmoyee breaks into peals of laughter as Apurbo newly arrived from Kolkata slips and falls on the muddy banks of the river(p.164), in the second instance the untamed girl arrives like a tornado in the house where Apurbo has come ostensibly to select a bride for himself and disrupts the social occasion ( p 166), and the culmination of this inappropriate behavior is when she steals his new slippers and then attempts to return them as Apurbo is carefully navigating his way back home along the muddy tracks.(p 167) It is the last occasion in which there is a close physical proximity between the two as Apurbo pins the hands of the miscreant and looks into her eyes which are like the ‘pure sparkling water of a spring dappled by sunlight.’( p 167).
Throughout these encounters and incidents what strikes the reader along with Apurbo is Mrinmoyee’s candour and her lack of inhibitions whose expression is her rippling, clear laughter. The college-educated sophisticated young man is smitten by the charms of this unusual rustic girl and insists, much to the chagrin of his doting widowed mother, that she is bride he has selected. This resolves the first of the two problematics: that of finding a groom for the adolescent girl who has been allowed to run wild and refuses to ‘grow’ up into femininity. The story underscores Mrinmoyee’s resistance to social processes of gendering both before and after her marriage. When her own mother and the elderly village women try to instill in her codes of proper ‘feminine’ conduct through severe admonitions about controlling her laughter, her gait, food habits and playing with boys, Mrinmoyee learns to regard marriage as a horror and like a, ‘naughty pony horse shakes her head and says’ I shall not get married.’ ( p.168)
is remarkable for several reasons not the least of which is ways representation of Apurbo’s love for Mrinmoyee as an emotion endowed with real transformative agency and it is this which makes the dynamics of conjugal relation strikingly unique. Apurbo’s longing for Mrinmoyee is clearly not fickle infatuation but a powerful emotion; he is an unusually caring and supportive of his ‘crazy’ wife and her apparent waywardness.
This is rather unique in the context of Tagore’s exploration of conjugality in the oeuvre of short stories, particularly those written during this time, in which scathing satire indicts male callousness and insensitivity, a typical husbandly behavior. As instance one could cite Khata
(The Note Book) written during the same time. Mrinmoyee’s lot is very different from that of nine year old Uma in the story Khata
(The Exercise Book) written around the same time. This lonely and miserable child-bride also has an educated husband Pyarimohan who exercises his husbandly prerogative to discipline and punish young Uma who commits the ‘unpardonable’ act of female disobedience: she brings to the house of her in-laws her favourite khata
or note book, in which she scribbles her thoughts or the lyrics of songs sung by itinerant female singers. Khata
, a poignant tale foregrounds what must have been the reality for many young girls: the trauma of marriage to men much older than themselves and the misery and pain of patrilocation in which they would be made to suffer in the hands of the mother or sister-in-law.
Tagore chose to represent matrimony as a condition of a wish fulfillment in several senses; not only does Mrinmoyee have a loving and supportive husband, she is not subjected to any oppression by her mother-in-law even when she takes it upon herself to educate Mrinmoyee into becoming a good housewife. Yet, since domesticity and ‘homeliness’ are an anathema to Mrinmoyee she attempts to escape from her patrilocation into the freedom of her pre-marital days several times. During one of these occasions, Mrinmoyee leaves her in-laws home on a monsoon night to meet her father, Ishan Majumdar, a petty clerk in Kushiganj who has not been granted leave even to attend his daughter’s marriage. This particular episode of Tagore’s story, missing in Ray’s film, has an uncanny resemblance with a real life incident which is worth quoting at length:
The year was 1888 or 1889. Suradhuni had been married at the tender age of six. Soon after the marriage, her husband went back to Assam, where he worked as a schoolteacher. Suradhuni was left behind with her in-laws. A few months had passed since the marriage. She was lonely and homesick and wanted to visit her parents who lived across the river in Nabadwip. But her in-laws would not hear of it. One day she slipped out of the house, went to the river ghat and asked one of the boatmen to give her a ride across the river to her parent’s house. The boatman recognized the unchaperoned girl, and advised her to go back. She pleaded with him, and against his better judgement he escorted Suradhuni to her parent’s house. When Suradhuni’s parents learned that she had come without her in-laws’ permission, they sent her back. But her in-laws would not take her in. Having left the house without permission, Suradhuni had left her kula. Her parents were afraid of the social repercussions of taking back a girl who had received such opprobrium; they had two more daughters to marry off. By taking a kulatyagi daughter they did not want to imperil the chances of marriage for the other daughters. So Suradhuni’s father took the little girl to Calcutta and abandoned her there.iv
This could have been the fate of Mrinmoyee too especially since she seems to be remarkably ‘unhomely’--- her affinities lie with the world outside her home which seems to be her natural habitat. Yet, not only is Mrinmoyee saved by the foresighted Bonomali, an elderly villager who brings her back to her in-laws, she also gets to meet her father. Keenly sensitive to Mrinmoyee’s longing it is Apurbo who secretly arranges to take her to Kushiganj. One could perhaps speculate that the lyrical description of the countryside and the pleasure in the quotidian that marks the couple’s boat-trip owe themselves to the experience of young Rabindranath who had enjoyed brief spells of domesticity with his wife Mrinalini and his young children on the boat.
It is in this newly experienced romance of domesticity that Apurbo longs for a kiss from Mrinmoyee on the eve of his departure to Kolkata: ‘I want you’, he tells her ‘to willingly, lovingly, give me a kiss.’ ( p 173). However, not only does Mrinmoyee fail to respond to the romantic yearning of her college educated ‘modern’ husband but finds this desire patently ridiculous. Indeed, each time she attempts to strike a solemn pose and approaches her husband’s lips she breaks into an irrepressible giggle.
Since the genre and ideological underpinning of this particular story does not accommodate any scope of coercive social processes of gendering, Mrinmoyee’s growth has to be framed within the paradigm of the natural, which I suggest is the crux of the second ‘problematic’: the naturalization of her transformation from a tomboyish adolescence into a woman capable of reciprocating her husband’s romantic longing. Thus unlike the ending of Ray’s film whose closed door merely provides a tantalizing hint of the intimacy between the couple Tagore’s short story has its heroine Mrinmoyee taking the sexual initiative to surprise her husband with a kiss. Tagore’ Samapti
positions the ideology of the natural involved in feminization through the incident of Mrinmoyee’s separation from her husband (p 173-175). Formalized and stylized in Vaishnava poetry as ‘biraha’ it is this experience that suddenly catapults her from her playful carefree adolescence into a mature femininity whose paradigmatic emotion is that of pain.
There is in fact an explicit metaphorical fairy-tale framing of the significance of Mrinmoyee’s laughter and her tears in this story tellingly represented as Apurbo’s musings as he stares at his sleeping wife bathed in moonlight:
He felt that someone had touched the princess with the silver wand and rendered her unconscious. If only one could lay hands on the golden wand it would be possible to awaken this somnolent soul and exchange garlands with her. The silver wand was laughter, the golden one was tears. (p 173)
The last line of this passage marks a slippage from Apurbo’s musings to an authorial intervention which is also a hermeneutic hint. Within the erotic economy of fictional conjugality it is befitting therefore, that the kiss signifying, as in fairy tales, the awakening of dormant female sexuality, take place when this laughter is transformed into tears.
It is evident that the central theme of the story is the female rite of passage from adolescence to adult hood, a period marked by the burgeoning of Mrinmoyee’s sexuality in which desire is fused into romantic longing for her absent husband. The significance of the title lies in condensing this experience into a climactic erotic expression--- Mrinmoyee kissing Apurbo with passion. The disquieting element in Samapti
is that Mrinmoyee’s ‘natural’ transformation into a loving wife capable of experiencing romantic longing for her absent husband is premised on her acquiring a femininity which was earlier alien to her subjecthood and identity.
i Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Samapti’, Galpaguccha, Vol.I, ( Kolkata Visva- Bharati,1999). All translations mine.ii
Rabindranath Tagore, Glimpses of Bengal: Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore 1885-1895
( London: Macmillan, 1921)s
Rabindranath Tagore, “Saturday 4 July 1891” in Chhinapatrabali
(Kolkata: Visva- Bharati, 2004), p 53.
Swati Chattopadhyay, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism and the Colonial Uncanny
( London and New York: Routledge, 2005) p225.