Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore is set in Colonial Bengal during the twilight of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. It was the time when western education and western ideas was taking grip over the young minds. Many were trying to accept west without rejecting the east or without condemning everything that was Indian. In the process the old customs, beliefs, ideas, practices, notions and institutions came in to scrutiny and question. The initial chapter of Quartet portrays, in a more matured form, the conflict between the reformist liberal attitudes and orthodoxy; and between modernity and the old world of traditions of the Bengali society.
Quartet is mainly the story of Sachish an English-educated bright and a very handsome young man; his reactions to the varied influences exerted on him; his strife to break free of all influences and attachments, and to move towards absolute freedom. His story is narrated by his friend, ardent admirer and follower Sribilash, another English-educated young person. The intellectual and the emotional dilemmas of Sachish are presented against the cross currents of religious and reformative movements that rocked the Hindu society in Bengal during the second half of the 19th century. The story unfolds the conflicts between western atheistic humanism and orthodoxy; between rationalism and devotional cults; between mysticism and harsh realities of life.
The story starts with the acquaintance of the narrator Sribilash with Sachish; and moves on to descriptions of Sachish’s uncle Jagamohan and Sachish’s father Harimohan. Jagmohan, is a well educated staunch atheist, humanist and Utilitarian. He is a typical rationalist, the likes of whom enlivened Calcutta in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. Jagamohan rejects every social and religious norm and practice that lowers human dignity. He is willing to sacrifice his family ties and inheritance to be able to pursue his ideals of service to the underprivileged and the outcaste.
Sachish was brought up by Jagmohan as his virtual-son. Sachish imbibes the ideas and idealisms of his Uncle and follows him in every manner. Sachish’s friend Sribilash was a ‘believer’; and, initially was pained to know that Sachish was an atheist. And yet, in deference to his affection for Sachish he adopts his friend’s attitude. Following that, Sribilash too comes under the influence of Jagmohan and turns agnostic.
Sachish scandalizes the family by offering to marry a young widow seduced and made pregnant by his cavalier brother. The young mother unable to face the shame and also the separation from her betrayer - lover commits suicide. This heart breaking incident is soon followed by a major tragedy. Sachish’s uncle Jagamohan – his friend, philosopher, guide and guardian- succumbs to plague while serving its poor victims.
Devastated by the twin disasters - a helpless woman’ssuicide and the beloved uncle’s sudden death - Sachish is totally disoriented and becomes rudderless. The ground under his feet is totally swept away. He aimlessly wanders and eventually drifts in to a religious cult following devotional practices. The cult represented everything that his Uncle hated; and which, following his Uncle, he too had condemned. Now, Sachish had crossed over to a faith that was diametrically opposite to the views he professed while he was under his Uncle’s tutelage. Sachish turns in to an ardent and a fanatical devotee of religious Guru Swami Leelananda. Following him, his friend Sribilash too joins the cult and becomes the Swami’s disciple.
While at the Ashram the two friends are attracted by a beautiful and vivacious young widow Damini who true to her name (lightening) is sparkling.Damini had been given away by her dying husband, along with all her property, to his guru Swami Leelananda.She is worldly, outgoing and bold. She has definite likes and dislikes. She is not afraid to hurl disturbing questions even at Swami Leelananda that he cannot answer. He, for some reason, seems to be afraid of her. Damini questions Swami’s right to accept her custody without asking whether she agreed to be taken care of.
Damini falls passionately in love with Sachish,and is not afraid to express her physical desire;moans: 'Oh, you stone, you stone, have mercy on me, have mercy and kill me outright !'. Sachish too falls intensely in love with the young widow – whom he calls ‘the artist of the art of Life’- but is afraid either to face it fully or to acknowledge his love. He is at a loss how to respond or to react to her love.He wants her to keep away, but he wants her to be near too.
Sachish is thrown in to an abyss of doubt, confusion and indecision. He is much agitated and is unable to reciprocate Damini’s love. He comes to view Damini and her sexuality as a distraction enticing him away from his path of attaining True Freedom. Finally, he begs her forgiveness and to set him free from the bonds of her love. 'My need for Him whom I seek is immense, is so absolute, that I have no need for anything else at all. Damini, have pity on me and leave me to Him’. Damini in the nobility of her heart resolves the situation; releases him from her love, and accepts him as her Guru.
Sachish disillusioned with the Swami and his faith becomes a recluse, takes up to contemplation and meditation in solitary places and furrows his own path.
Damini agrees to Sribilash’s proposal and marries him. Sribilash returns to working-life; and the couple continue social service activities on the lines of Uncle Jagmohan’s ideals. After a few years of happy-married life Damini dies of an unknown pain in her chest, which she sustained in a cave while she desperately hankered for Sachish.Her last words to Sribilash were ‘May you be mine again in our next birth- (sadhmitila na, janmantare abar yena tomake pai) ’.