Aruna Chakravarti, in an interview with ERAM AGHA, talks about her latest novel and how it’s different from other books on the subject
Aruna Chakravarti’s work, Jorasanko, deals with women in the Tagore household and how they could make space for themselves, both within the family and outside. “Debendranath Tagore believed in educating women but also kept them in zenana,” says the author, who is inspired by the attitude and achievements of three women in particular.
“Jnanadanandini was seven when she got married. Despite being from an ordinary family, before shifted to the Tagore mansion, she developed herself as the first modern woman of India. Women prior to her used to wear sarees without chemises or blouses; they just made a knot, tucked and gathered a ghumta. She was the first person to introduce jacket. As a wife of the first civil servant, Satyendranath Tagore, son of Debendranath, she was bold enough to go to Governor’s party on her own. She also travelled to England on her own at the age of 26,” reminds Chakravarti.
Then there was Kadambari, sister-in-law of Jnanadanandini. “Kadambari was Rabindranath Tagore’s muse as well as critic. She goaded him to perform better. Rabindranath’s wife Mrinalini has been sidelined, but one cannot ignore her. She was not just an ordinary wife and mother. She understood that her husband needed space to read and write, and thus became a buffer. It was she who financed Shantiniketan by selling off her jewellery,” says the author.
But to get all this in a narrative was a task laced with challenges. So much has been written about Rabindranath Tagore, yet so much is left unexplored about the women of his household. “Benaglis deify Tagore; everything on him has been read... I wanted to write on women. During my research I found that loads of books have been written on Tagore, but not much on women.”
Then, there was another problem. “No matter what I read about women of the Tagore household, it had everything positive to say about their lives. I was not convinced about this dimension. That’s when I started to read between the lines, linked one thing with another and then built the narrative that was not so positive,” says Chakravarti.
The book is a mix of fact and fiction. But what remains true is that the girls brought to the Tagore household through marriages were very young, some of them broke their milk tooth at their in laws’ place. “They would go looking for holes to place the broken tooth for the mouse to take away and give them a new one. That’s one way of bringing a daughter-in-law closer to her husband’s younger brothers. They were friends and family both,” says she. Chakravarti, however, wants to ward off speculations surrounding Rabindranath and Kadambari — that they were lovers!
“This can’t be true because it was Kadambari who chose the bride for him. To say that she committed suicide because of his marriage is untenable because she had attempted to take her life in the past as well. What I feel must have happened is that Kadambari loved her husband but he neglected her. He was a playwright, a musician, an entrepreneur, a person with a lot of activities and enthusiasm in different directions. There was a strain of melancholia in her nature. Tagore was a friend. They both discovered poetry together, and later he dedicated his work to her. Maybe he too got busy and gave little time to her,” she says, adding: “Women and men both suffer from melancholia but traditionally women have led suppressive lives so they didn’t have direction to vent it out. Men went to whore house and let off steam, women brood. So the tendency to go off the edge is more in women.” Kadambari died at a young age of 23.
What impresses us the most about the book is its simplicity. “I write in a spontaneous way, no convolution, and I avoid difficult words, can’t stand it. Even if I have a big word to use, I ensure I replace it with its simpler meaning,” adds the author of Jorasanko.