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Chokher Bali: A reader's progress

Speaking Volumes

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

Fidelity, in film as in real life, is a desirable but tedious virtue. The filmmaker and the translator face the same challenge. What's needed is not a faithful transliteration, but a translation in the widest sense of the term.

When dealing with Rabindranath Tagore's Chokher Bali, played around with the text and the structure of the novel "" but he takes only those liberties that he feels the text itself would permit.

Chokher Bali can be translated variously as A Grain of Sand or Dust in the Eyes. It was Tagore's first serious attempt at a novel, with his preparation for the task consisting of, "a brief meteor-shower of short stories".

Writing in 1903, Tagore's theme was familiar to his audience "" widowhood, with all that implied for the curtailed lives of so many women of the time.

Chokher Bali actually features three widows "" Rajlakshmi, who has indulged her son to the point of spoiling him; Annapurna, the aunt who observes the proscriptions placed on widows and will retreat to Kashi in time-honoured fashion; and Binodini, rejected by Rajlakshmi's son Mahendra, married to a much older man, and widowed early.

What drives the plot is a sequence of attachments and misunderstandings between Mahendra, his young girl-wife Asha, his friend Behari, and Binodini, who enters his home as a widowed relative when she could once have entered it as his bride.

Binodini is a remarkable creation, especially when you consider that this was Tagore's first attempt at fleshing out a character at novel length: passionate, indignant, intelligent, her ideals always at war with an insistence that she should have rights too.

Tagore took the easy way out when he ended the novel with a humble Binodini repairing to Kashi to meditate on the tangle she has caused in all their lives.

It wasn't an ending he was entirely comfortable with, and by reworking it, Ghosh is exercising his rights not just as a creative filmmaker but as a committed reader.

If there's one aspect of the novel that will be almost impossible to translate onto film, it's the running commentary on the practice of reading and writing. In Tagore's first novel, he chose to use writing and reading as strong motifs for all its characters.

Asha is unlettered, and it is Mahendra's insistence that his paternalistic handling of her education supersede her duties as a housewife that draws the wrath of his mother.

Binodini is as articulate, in speech and in her writing, as Asha is tongue-tied, unable to put a name to the emotions she experiences.

litter the pages of this novel. In the village, Binodini leaves volumes of Bankim and Dinabandhu by the bedside of her guests.

Much later, when she has accompanied Rajlakshmi back from the village to Mahendra's house in Calcutta, a key exchange occurs when Mahendra finds her reading Bankimchandra's The Poison Tree.

As Tagore and his audience knew very well, The Poison Tree also deals with the fate of widows. Its protagonist, Kundanandini, is a young widow who catches the eye of a rich man, Nagendra.

He marries her over the protests of his wife, who deserts him; when she returns to the home eventually, Kundanandini kills herself.

Other works by Bankim have a part to play in Chokher Bali "" Binodini reads aloud to the household from Kapalakundala and Anandamath, for instance "" but the significance of The Poison Tree is inescapable.

"Don't fritter your heart away on fictitious characters," Mahendra castigates Binodini lightly when he discovers her furtively reading the book, and when he learns what she's reading, he is amused at the secrecy.

The Poison Tree with its conventional ending, is a perfectly respectable book ""Mahendra misses the echoes that Kundanandini's predicament raises in Binodini's heart.

Later, it will be the letters that Binodini ghostwrites for Asha that allow her to declare her interest in Mahendra.

Asha's inexperience and illiteracy blind her to the nuances that Mahendra reads correctly; he knows that his wife could not have written with such fluent passion, he guesses rightly that this is Binodini's work, and their relationship changes, with interesting consequences for everyone involved.

It's left to Behari to voice a different point of view. Mahendra wants to abandon his wife for Binodini; she demands to know why she has no right to a life of her own, why Asha's needs must be placed before a widow's desires.

And Behari responds in this exchange (apologies for the rough translation): "You've spoken as plainly as possible, now let me speak plainly too. The actions you've engineered today, the words you've spoken are derived from the you read. Three-fourths are from plays and novels." Binodini exclaims: "Plays! Novels!"

Behari continues: "Yes, plays, novels. And that too not of a very high standard. You believe these are all your own ideas-they're not. They are echoes of the printing press. If you'd been an unperceptive, stupid, simple-minded little girl, the world might still have had some sympathy for you and found a place for you. But the heroine of a play is attractive only under the floodlights, she has no place in a family."

Behari's view finds echoes in literature everywhere. His argument is that none of Binodini's emotions are her own, that she is attempting to make herself the heroine of her own melodrama "" in other words, that her reading has propelled her into an unreal world.

But the argument also reflects the unease among many of Tagore's contemporaries, who agreed that a woman should be educated-up to a point.

A woman's education was supposed to fit her for the duties of the household, not to enable her to question the fixed scheme of things and her place in that scheme.

Binodini never directly repudiates Behari's charge "" I suspect she can't, because it is partly true. Reading is not an especially useful activity, and to look to for instructions about the real world is to waste your time.

It is also to do authors a disservice ""writers are under no obligation to be moral instructors. But reading, or even the business of putting your thoughts into words, as so many of the characters in Chokher Bali do in their criss-crossing letters, is dangerous.

Binodini has no escape from her thoughts; reading acts as a stimulus on her, forces her to question and re-examine the role she is supposed to play as a young widow.

Tagore is ambiguous; he gives you Behari's opinion, but never reveals his own thoughts about the effects of literature on an impressionable mind. But then, he was not just a consummate writer "" he was a passionate reader, too.

First Published: Tue, October 28 2003. 00:00 IST