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Showing posts with label Bengali Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bengali Literature. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Plot Summary of Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore


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) ’.

Majeed as an Existentialist Hero in 'Tree Without Roots'

Syed Waliullah portrays Majeed as an existentialist hero in Tree Without Roots.  Majeed combines the modernistic idea of self-consciousness and existentialist approach of meaninglessness of a human existence side by side. He neither gives a hope nor approves a sense of total refusal of existence. He prefers to remain open-ended in between two ambiguities. In a way, the novel mingles elements of both existentialism and modernism. Majeed is very much aware of the fact that the mazar is a fake and meaningless entity, he grabs this meaninglessness which can only make his future existence meaningful. This particular moment of Majeed’s life matches with the core argument of existentialist philosophy that expresses “Existence precedes essence” (Lavine 330). 

The old man of Earnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea declares ever courageous human nature while Waliullah’s Majeed from Tree Without Roots declares his urge to survive with pride. Majeed could leave his shrine for his safety but he did not because his ‘existence’ has no meaning without the shrine. Now, it is not only his physical existence but also his beliefs that need to survive. Though he is very much aware of the fact that the mazar is a fake and meaningless entity, he grabs this meaninglessness which can only make his future existence meaningful. This particular moment of Majeed’s life matches with the core argument of existentialist philosophy that expresses “Existence precedes essence” (Lavine 330).  It is Majeed’s consciousness that has created his individual value for his life. Following paragraph establishes Majeed’s self-created value or essence for his life:
.  .  . Is it wrong to lie if it’s done in a good cause? he pondered. There is no doubt at all in my mind that there’s little fear of God here, and that His name is hardly ever uttered. If I prevaricate slightly in order to implant fear of God and His holy name, I will surely be forgiven. (Waliullah 12)
On the other hand, it is Majeed’s existence which demands his consciousness to create a value which can support his worldly existence in Mahabbatpur. It is his survival which precedes everything even his values. He speaks to himself: “If, at the same time, I make a living, is there anything sinful in that? After all one must live. And I live to spread the word of God” (Waliullah 12). These two extracts have established Majeed as an existentialist character whose existence precedes essence.  The only contrast the character of Majeed has is that he believes in God whereas most of the existentialist heroes in literature do not believe in God.

In a parallel way, Majeed is a representative of gross poor Bangladeshi rural people who seek their existence in self-created religious identity. Instead of their severe poverty, they have to survive but for the living they have to have some kind of value to hold or to make their life meaningful. The narrator of the novel says:

Perhaps the reason there are so many white tupees in this part of the world is that the land cannot feed the men. Little food means more religion. God said: cover your heads when you pray to me, for this is the mark of the god-fearing man.  .  . There are more tupees than heads of cattle, more tupees than sheaves of rice (Waliullah 5).

But when this religious value cannot secure their existence they go to town for working. Work becomes their priority for their existence in the town as well as in some well-off villages like Mahabbatpur. Majeed’s observation about the villagers is:  “The only time they became deadly serious was when they were working” (Waliullah 12). It is an irony the novel poses that though Majeed does not like the villagers, he is actually an epitome of the common villagers. They change their values as their existence demands.

Majeed is haunted by the “individual human dilemma” (Morner, Rausch 74) of modern existentialist philosophy. However, the presence of self-consciousness and self-questioning qualities also depict Majeed as a modern character.  His dilemma about self-created illusion and a fear of being punished is revealed when he says “there was merely a vagueness, perhaps death and the day of judgment, but all distant and shapeless” (Waliullah 12). Eventually, he declares that he will be pardoned if he continues to spread God’s name though he thinks that Day of Judgment is a shadowy thing. It shows that he is still confused about his belief. His dilemma does not end here but is reflected in his rhetorical questions: “But did he, Majeed, really know any more than the rest of them?.  .  . Could he really say that he knew more than they because he knew that the power of the grave was a lie?” (Waliullah 52). or “Am I being punished? He asked himself,  .  .  .Did I not lead innocent people to pray to the spirit of an unknown man, a man who might well have been a sinner? My aim was a noble one, but does that justify my having deceived them?” (Waliullah 129) In the process of self-questioning, he often mocks and consoles himself.  Sometimes he boosts his morale for the sake of continuing to stretch his roots in Mahabbatpur. Waliullah has often portrayed him as a modern-hero to seize the reader’s sympathy for Majeed. He is in Mahabbatpur after he has been long struggling from his childhood with poverty, hunger and insecurity. He never had any home. He has always dreamt of a home, wife and economic stability. But his fate before here never supported him to have a smooth and well-off life. Like the villagers, readers are also enchanted by Majeed’s story-telling genius and by his ability to understand other’s psyche. All these characteristics Majeed possesses, makes him a modern hero.

 Existentialist term ‘angst’ or ‘anguish’ (Lavine 330) is Majeed’s dread for losing the power over the villagers in this particular novel. Majeed is always afraid of his “divine bounty might suddenly end” (Waliullah 42). In his angst, he often thinks that in future he may be questioned by the villagers about his phoniness and even his power could be questioned by someone. To his utter surprise a pir enters in his domain to shake his reign. In existentialist view this has depicted Majeed’s anguish in its full volume.  In consequence, he even wants to unveil his trick to the villagers to show how worthless they are:

‘Ingratitude,’ Majeed muttered to himself lying there in the dark, intolerable ‘ingratitude.’ In a cold rage he decided bitterly that this pompously decorated so-called mazar, the grave of a nobody, was just about what they deserved for their ingratitude. If I should ever decide I’ve had enough of them, then I’ll tell them the truth. I’ll tell them exactly how I’ve been making fools of them year after year. And then I’ll tear down the yellow canopy and the red cloth with its silver trimmings, and I’ll leave the country. (Waliullah 44) 

Existentialist philosopher named Macquarrie in Existentialism compares ”freedom” with “the child of necessity” as it “is determined by being” (179). Again Sartre in his Existentialism and Humanism says a “man is responsible for everything he does” (30).   Here the freedom of an individual is to choose his or her values consciously. Consequently he is not only free to chose but also responsible for his own choice of values.  In existentialist philosophy, there is no single value inherently good or bad in this universe but depends on choice. In a general view, Majeed’s value may seem to be an evil one, but his responsibility towards his choice of value establishes his existentialist freedom. Majeed’s individual responsibility has been shown by his own confession that he will never be able to reveal the truth as he has given his full conscience to the shrine “But in his heart’s heart Majeed knew that he would never do it. It was he who had created the mazar, and he could not destroy it. For he was now its slave.” (Waliullah 45) Here, in these particular lines Majeed is revealed as the slave of his own created value which is a representation of severe kind of responsibility towards his value. This slavery has been compared with mauvaise foi (bad faith) by Kaiser Haq in an article titled “Existentialism in Bangladeshi Village”.

In existential philosophy the individual realizes his aloneness. Despite having two wives and a powerful landowner as a friend, Majeed is very lonely indeed. Moreover, He can not share his secret with anyone, not even with his wives. Majeed thinks “We are alone, all of us, every man is alone in this cruel and friendless, intolerant, pitiless world” (Waliullah 59). At the beginning of Part Four of the novel Majeed mentions Khaleque as a ‘friend’ for numerous times. It shows that how Majeed was longing for friendly company but to his utter surprise he realizes that Khaleque has never considered him as a friend. It makes him to feel lonely and abandoned than ever in his life. More interestingly, this loneliness establishes Majeed also as a modern character.

One of the Minor characters of the novel named Tara Mian is also very existentialist in his character. He and his wife often quarrel but he had never any doubt about his wife. The quarrels had a kind of recreational value to their boring, monotonous life. But when his belief is shaken, his existence becomes meaningless to him. He loses his interest in his life because now he attaches no importance to his past life. Everything of this world seems to be meaningless to him. The realization of meaninglessness of his life without his value encourages him to bring an end to his life. Amena, another poor victim of Majeed’s enmity, consciously chooses to bring a change in her life. She had enough comfort in her life and could lead her life easily if she never wished to have a child of her own. However, her decision to improve her status by breeding a child in her family causes her ultimate downfall. A keen observation can assure us that both the minor characters have similarities with Majeed as both of them search a meaningful life.     

In this novel, Syed Waliullah uses stream of consciousness to build the structure of the novel. We do not see any direct connection between the first two chapters. One can never be assured that the muezzin from the Garo Hills is the protagonist of the novel, but can only guess that he is the same person. Majeed has all the paradoxical elements in his mind as a modern character Prufrock has. He mingles his past and present, his happiness and sadness, he is a modern character:

How hungry I was that wilderness day when I first came to this village! I had nothing then, owned no land, no home, no wife and no cattle. And now I am the guardian of the mazar. I earn money, I live comfortably, I command the people’s respect. Of course I have changes but, thanks be to God, for the better. I have no reason to be sad (Waliullah 76).

The structure, techniques and the character sketch often depict this novel as a modern novel while the ending suggests an existentialist view of a modern character. 

Actually, we do not know the future of Majeed as the novel remains open-ended.  But evidence shows that he has strongly determined to return in his shrine “even at the cost of his own destruction” (Waliullah 135).  Eventually it is a “border-line situation” for existentialist philosophy (Maksud 277) because fear, guilt and anxiety have their full effect on Majeed’s mind and he has been forced to choose between two possibilities or choices. Existentialism focuses as Britannica says: “They focused, first, on the problematic character of the human situation, through which man is continually confronted with diverse possibilities or alternatives, among, which he may choose and on the basis of which he can project his life” (25: 612). A life resembled Majeed’s past insecure life or an ultimate death embraces with dignity. Here, Majeed applies his freedom to decide among possibilities. In Existentialism and Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre defines existentialism as “. . . a doctrine that does render human life possible; a doctrine, also, which affirms that every truth and every action imply both an environment and a human subjectivity” (20). In the same way, Majeed proves himself as his own master by applying his own subjective choice. Actually, he does not have any existence without the shrine. Maybe the shrine is fake but it is the only point to continue his life. Though, Majeed knows that his return may bring his life at risk, he decides to uphold his value or essence as his existence will not have any meaning (here value or power) without his essence. As a result his existence at a certain point of life without his value (essence) is also meaningless. The reason behind this is an anxiety or fear of losing his essence or belief. Instead of any Pir, it is flood or natural calamity that carries anxiety back within Majeed to shatter his self-created value: “It is difficult for one to know whether one has sinned, and to what extent, Majeed told himself. But I do know that I am not frightened because of my sins. My fear is of having to go back to where I started” (Waliullah, 134). Probably it is the reason why Majeed decides to put his life at risk with the hope of retaining all his achievements he has gained in Mahabbatpur. Probably he fears his past poor powerless life. Now he knows that both of his past and present lives are meaningless but with his free will he has chosen his present life as more important.

Majeed is not an absurd hero but a person who uses religious superstition to stretch his roots among the common villagers. Gradually he becomes influential, powerful and dominant. He does not only enjoy economic stability but also takes pleasure of being authoritative. This new taste makes him the slave of his self-created sham identity. His return is a choice of submission towards his own dignity. A world without comfort and authoritativeness would be a meaningless place for him. As a result, he decides to sacrifice his existence and essence altogether at once. The Nihilistic ending suggested by the author does not conclude in meaninglessness of life rather a poetic justice to discourage illusion.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

An Analysis of the character of Majid in 'Tree Without Roots' by Syed Waliullah

Majid, the protagonist of the novel Tree Without Roots by Syed Waliullah, is a round character who undergoes changes in the course of the novel. Majid, who is a rootless, financially helpless and religiously corrupt person at the beginning of the novel, turns into a socially and economically strong and deeply rooted religious guru at the end of the novel.At the beginning of the novel we find Majid introduce himself as a savior of the people of  Mahabbatpur and earns their faith. Gradually he is able to send a message to the villagers that he is the person who can guide them to the spiritual salvation. He also gains material possessions by selling religious faith and becomes rich within a few years. He also fulfills his carnal desires by marrying two times. So, by the end of the novel we find a Majid , who is socially, economically and religiously very strong. But in some respects, Majid does little change till the end of the novel. Majid is very lonely from the beginning to the end. He also suffers from a sense of insecurity throughout the novel.

At the beginning of the novel we find Majid establish himself as a religious guide of the people of a backward village named Mahabbatpur. Majid, a poor man from a devout muslim background, comes to Mahabbatpur. He declares an old grave to be the majar  that of a pir (a Muslim saint), covers it with the traditional red cloth used for muslims , and establishes his stronghold on the life of the people using the reflected power on him of the supposed saint. Thorough his charismatic behavior Majid quickly establishes himself as a spiritual guide of the people, most of whom are illiterate and hold a blind religious faith. Tree Without Roots by Syed Waliullah published in 1948, but actually written before Partition of India, portrays the socioeconomic, political and religious context of Bengali-Muslims. Indian history then was marked by troublesome upheavals of religious, ethnic and gendered conflicts. The cultural, moral and ethical agenda in Waliullah’s text foregrounds the dubious nature of the pseudo-religious dogma grounded heavily on patriarchal assumptions and control. Like a parody of the Prophet, Majid, the middle-aged protagonist of Tree Without Roots, exiled in Mahabbatpur [the city of love] pretends to be the ‘bearer of the light’ to show the ‘rustic,’ ‘illiterate’ ‘non-believer’ inhabitants, the ‘right path.’ However, Majid had actually migrated to Mahabbatpur fleeing drought, famine and poverty, driven by a sheer need to survive and thereafter seeking a better life. Majid wholly capitalizes the religious faith of the poor villagers and soon earns the confidence of the village people. Like the villagers, readers are also enchanted by Majid’s story-telling genius and  by his ability to understand other’s psyche. In this regard , Majid is a representative of gross poor Bangladeshi rural people who seek their existence in self-created religious identity. Instead of their severe poverty, they have to survive but for the living they have to have some kind of value to hold or to make their life meaningful. The narrator of the novel says:

              Perhaps the reason there are so many white Tupees in this part of the world is that the land                   cannot feed the men. Little food means more religion. God said: cover your heads when you               pray to me, for this is the mark of the god-fearing man. . .There are more tupees than heads                 of cattle, more tupees than sheaves of rice. (Waliullah 5)

Majid represents the patriarchal power of the Bengali Muslim society of the 20th century.  As it has been shown in the novel, the patriarchal paradigms impose religious, political and social order of its making onto the community. Any challenge to such order is mercilessly neutralized. Thus the protagonist of the novel in his clever religious role with aids from the patriarchal superstructures is able to create hegemony in Mahabbatpur, while his wives continue their subalternity. After settlement, Majid marries twice: first Rahima, the widow, who is ‘wide hipped, strong and beautiful’; and then, Jamila, the young, lively and curious one. In the post-Hijra period of his life the Prophet too married two women, viz. Sawda and Ayesha: the elderly Sawda was suitable to take care of the family and the younger Ayesha remained under their care. Rahima and Jamila invoke the memory of the prophet’s two wives. However, such parallelism appears only to be the novelist’s trope to highlight his critique of the political context in which religion was being used to force a ‘partition’ on people who were otherwise not bothered by differences. Majid’s intention of offering ‘spiritual’ service to this community represents the agenda of re-appropriating the existing patriarchal religious hegemony to launch a counter-offensive, exemplifying competitive patriarchy. Those, already pushed first to a corner and subsequently marginalized, are not allowed to ‘speak’ but only be spoken for or be represented by Thereafter, Mahabbatpur becomes a site of contesting patriarchal practices.

Akkas is the representative of the postcolonial society endowed with modern education, and urban polish whereas Majid is the representative of the patriarchal order of the pre-colonial society. Their interests clash around the debate over the conflicting proposals to build a secular English school (though there were two maqtabs11) and a mosque for the spiritual upgradation in Mahabbatpur. Majid procures better support among the villagers in favour of a mosque and defeats Akkas on grounds of faith. Women, however, remain irrelevant in this debate. Notably, this incident takes place to diffuse the tragic overtone of the forced divorce between Khalek Byapari, the richest man in the village and his first wife Amina for her alleged ‘infertility.’ Actually Majid had begun to covet her and so he manipulated this divorce solely based on his unsolicited verdict. Majid declared her as ‘fallen’ and therefore unfit as Byapari’s wife. Amina was forced to leave her own family. This event accelerated several cases of desertion of supposedly ‘infertile’ women by their husbands on grounds of their suspected ‘chastity.’ These manipulations were executed amidst formidable silence and with calculated precision. As a self-proclaimed religious leader, Majid had imposed certain codes of conduct onto the community. Yet, his second wife, Jamila seriously challenges this order and intimidates Majid so much that she is physically gagged and left to die. However even in her death she threatens Majid’s authority - the feet of her dead body was poised desecrating the sanctum sanctorum of Majid’s place of worship. Patriarchal violence seems to be at a loss and somewhat flustered when confronted with such silent yet visible defiance.

Jamila also refuses to conform to patriarchal norms set for women. Her spontaneous outburst into the terrain of maleness, i.e. speech and loud laughter, disturbs the neatly crafted silence of Majid’s household near his ‘invented shrine.’23 He realizes that the bubble of fear that he created in the village is about to burst. Jamila is forbidden to laugh aloud. Her laughter transforms suddenly into profuse tears expressing the plight of a helpless Bengali Muslim woman. She overcomes and resists the fear of punishment. Jamila senses Majid’s agenda not only in the society that she shares as the macrocosm but also in her and Rahima’s personal lives as the microcosm. While this understanding empowers Jamila in her fight against patriarchy, her selfcontrolled restricted communication [or the lack of it] makes Majid insecure about his own agency.24 The essential unknowability is what qualifies her as the ‘Other’ in the text. Her mind remains absolutely impenetrable to Majid. She neither submits to Majid’s agency nor changes her way. She does not fit into the patriarchal paradigm of control and hence needs to be either silenced or removed. She has to go through a prolonged process of domestication prescribed by her husband but of no desirable consequences. However, her resistance is muted by her sudden but predictable death bringing back the equilibrium of fear designed by Majid as the representative of Patriarchy.

Waliullah has often portrayed Majid as a modern-hero. He has got the psyche, mental conflict and the existential crisis of a modern man. Though he is a fake religious guru, he earns the reader’s sympathy. He is in Mahabbatpur after he has been long struggling from his childhood with poverty, hunger and insecurity. He never had any home. He has always dreamt of a home, wife and economic stability. But his fate before here never supported him to have a smooth and well-off life. Like the modern people, he suffers from the existential crisis. The presence of self-consciousness and self-questioning qualities depict Majid as a modern, existentialist character. His dilemma about self-created illusion and a fear of being punished is revealed when he says “there was merely a vagueness, perhaps death and the day of judgment, but all distant and shapeless” (Waliullah 12). Eventually, he declares that he will be pardoned if he continues to spread God’s name though he thinks that Day of Judgment is a shadowy thing. It shows that he is still confused about his belief. His dilemma does not end here but is reflected in his rhetorical questions:“ But did he, Majeed, really know any more than the rest of them?. . . Could he really say that he knew more than they because he knew that the power of the grave was a lie?” (Waliullah 52). Or “Am I being punished? He asked himself, . . .Did I not lead innocent people to pray to the spirit of an unknown man, a man who might well have been a sinner? My aim was a noble one, but does that justify my having deceived them?” (Waliullah 129) In the process of self-questioning, he often mocks and consoles himself. Sometimes he boosts his morale for the sake of continuing to stretch his roots in Mahabbatpur.

Like a modern man Majid is very lonely. In existential philosophy the individual realizes his aloneness. Despite having two wives and a powerful landowner as a friend, Majid is very lonely indeed. Moreover, he cannot share his secret with anyone, not even with his wives. Majid thinks “We are alone, all of us, every man is alone in this cruel and friendless, intolerant, pitiless world” (Waliullah 59). At the beginning of Part Four of the novel Majid  mentions Khaleque as a ‘friend’ for numerous times.It shows that how Majid is longing for friendly company but to his utter surprise he realizes that Khaleque has never considered him as a friend. It makes him to feel lonely and abandoned than ever in his life. More interestingly, this loneliness establishes Majeed also as a modern character.

Towards the end of the novel Majid is a different man in respects of his social and economic position. He now holds a strong social power among the villagers. People respect him and the leaders of the village also listen to his advice before taking a decision. He has also bought some farmlands and domestic animals. Now, he is financially very sound. He does not have to worry about his foods. He gets religious gifts from the villagers and also has a handsome income from the farm lands.

Throughout the novel Majid seems to suffer from a sense of social insecurity. But it is towards the end of the novel, he becomes too insecured about his position both in the society and also at home. His second wife Jamila does not show him respect the way his first wife used to show. This disturbs him very much. He becomes worried and seeks help from his first wife. Majid is also afraid of losing the  power over the villagers in this particular novel. Majeed is always afraid of his “divine bounty might suddenly end” (Waliullah 42). In his angst, he often thinks that in future he may be questioned by the villagers about his phoniness and even his power could be questioned by someone. To his utter surprise a Pir enters in his domain to shake his reign. In existentialist view this has depicted Majid’s anguish  in its full volume. In consequence, he even wants to unveil his trick to the villagers to show how worthless they are:

                ‘Ingratitude, Majeed muttered to himself lying there in the dark, intolerable, ingratitude.‟ In                  a cold rage he decided bitterly that this pompously decorated so-called mazar, the grave of                  a nobody, was just about what they deserved for their in gratitude. If I should ever decide                    I‟ve had enough of them, then I‟ll tell them the truth. I‟ll tell them exactly how I‟ve been                     making fools of them year after year. And then I‟ll tear down the yellow canopy and the                    red cloth with its silver trimmings, and I‟ll leave the country. (Waliullah 44)

Thus, we see that Majid changes throughout the novel. A the beginning he was a poor, helpless religious person. But towards the end of the novel, he is a powerful religious guru, who has a control over the social, political,educational and spiritual life of the village people. But at te end, he also shows a sense of insecurity that was his characteristic at the beginning of the novel. Throughout the novel, he is also very lonely.

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Critical Appreciation of Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore


Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore. Jagmohan vs Harimohan. Passion vs reason. Eroticism vs asceticism. Sachish vs Sribilash. Ninibala and Damini.

Quartet, written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1915 and translated by Kaiser Haq in 1993, is  one of the masterpieces not only in South-Asian literature, but also in the world literature. It is a story of archetypal conflicts---between reason and emotion, orthodoxy and liberalism, mysticism and passion. This is a brief work -more a novella than a full -length novel-but it contains in an appealing narrative structure most of the representative themes of  Tgaore’s longer works. In this novel he drew both on the traditional culture of South Asia and that of Europe, a typical tendency of the South Asian writers. The novel is philosophical, but about love and passion too, and also shot through with humour and irony.

The Bengali title of the novel, Chaturanga , refers to a four-handed board game a little like chess. The English title Quartet is a simplification, but both refer to a quartet of characters; two young friends and the two young women they become involved with. However, there is no neat pairing off in couples. This novel actually revolves around two 'triangles'.

The title also alludes to the four chapter titles, each named after a different character: 'uncle'' ( the uncle of one of the young men), "Sachish' (the young man himself), 'Dhamani' (the second of the two women), and 'Sribilash' (Sachish's friend, the narrator of the novel).

 The novel is set in Calcutta in the early part of the twentieth century, among upper-class, well-educated Indians. Sachin and Sribilash meet at school, and they soon strike up a fast friendship. Sribilash is drawn to the brilliant charisma of  Sachish to the extent of idolizing him. When the narrator says in the second paragraph , 'I loved him', nothing homosexual is to be implied: strong friendships among men are common in cultures where heterosexual friendships are rare.

It is a cliché to think of India as a land in which religion  saturates the very air; but many highly educated Indians were skeptical of religion even in the nineteenth century. Remember that Tagore himself grew up in a religious atmosphere that criticized traditional pious practices and beliefs. The news that Sachish is an atheist is shocking to the other students, but not bizarre. Tagore's deep distrust of traditional popular religion is reflected in the way he recounts the good deeds of the atheist characters and the meanness and cruelty of the religious ones.

Sribilash's shock at discovering that the friend he regards as almost a god does not himself believe in gods is compounded by discovering that he belongs to a relatively lowly caste. The thousands of castes are broadly divided into four groupings called varnas. Sribilash belongs to the highest varna, the Brahmins, but his friend belongs to the much lower goldsmith's caste in the Vaisya varna.

If Sribilash were a traditional Hindu, he would have been expected to shun Sachish socially and especially to avoid eating with him. His mention that he was eventually to share a meal with him is a daring statement of his willingness to let his friendship override his upbringing.

Tagore also satirizes traditional beliefs suggesting that as a boy he believed the eating of beef to be worse than murder. Traditional cow veneration has strongly prohibited the eating of beef by Hindus for millennia. Here we notice the clash of bigotries, with the boys scorning Sachish's disbelief while they condemn the racial of their teacher.

Like another famous Indian writer , R.K.Narayan , Tagore was notably unhappy and unsuccessful at school, and both often portrayed teachers in a negative light. Tagore tried to compensate for his own childhood experience by setting up a sort of experimental school called Santiniketan, to the support of which he devoted much of his life and income. Among its students were two brilliant figures: the filmmaker Satajit Ray and Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India.

The contemptuous Prof. Wilkins is of course an Englishman who considers himself exiled to an ignorant , backward corner of the world. His treatment of the boys reminds us of the intimate ways in which the insults inflicted on India by colonialism were manifested in individual lives. Sachish battles Wilkins with weapons drawn from the teacher's own culture, the writings of English rationalist and positivist philosophers. Sachish would have read such British writers as John Stuart Mill (1806- 73)and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)-all mentioned by name in the novel. Positivists rejected traditional philosophy's obsession with the sort of abstract , spiritual issues traditionally called 'metaphysics'. They dismissed religious questions as meaningless and tried to create a rational, scientific basis for philosophy. The Englishman scorns his Indian students, failing to see that one of them has leaped beyond him by his insights into the teacher's own culture.

We then learn that Sachish has received his training in rationalism from the 'Unlce' of the chapter title; Jagmohan. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is famous for having been the first to discuss in detail the possibility of humanity outgrowing its food supply, which explains how Jagmohan was influenced by reading him to avoid remarriage after his wife died; this is his contribution to population control. The irony is that this childless man acts very much like a father to Sachish, much more so than the boy's own father , Harimohan. Certainly, they are emotionally closer, as the father lavishes all his affection on the less worthy of his sons, Purandar.

Harimohan is a pious Hindu, but it is established from the beginning that he is a self-indulgent , self-centered man. He and Jagmohan are natural enemies, leading eventually to literally divided household. Jagmohan's learning leads him to be compared to two famous English scholars. Thomas Babingon Macauly (1800-59) was an eminent historian who shaped the policies that aimed at creating an English-influenced upper class in India to serve the empire; and vastly erudite Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was the creator of the first dictionary in English. Kayastha who deal with the hides of dead animals, particularly insult cows, are among the most reviled of all in the traditional Hindu caste system; so it is not suprising that beef-eating Muslims would have taken to the trade of tanning. Jogamohan's friendship with them is a spectacular insult to his pious Hindu relatives.

When Jagmohan scornfully claims that the drummers he has hired to irritate his relatives are celebrating the dumping of his god ,he is referring to a custom by which a religious festival is concluded by dumping the image of the deity into the river to be dissolved back into the clay and straw of which it was made- a reminder to pious Hindus that the image is not the god, but here suggestive of Jogmohan's impudent rejection of gods altogether.

Nanibala is typical of the young widows whose maltreatment was attacked by both his Brahmo relatives and Tagore himself. She is absolutely defenseless against Purindar, whose exploitation of her is only worsened by the fact that he has seduced rather than merely raped her. As we all see , she actually loves the man who has ruined her life and cannot finally accept rescue at the hands of anyone else. The first quartet of the novel is composed Nanibala, Purindar, Jagmohan and Sribilash. It would be noted that , at the time , a maid impregnated by her master's son in Western countries would also have been summarily dismissed and abandoned to the streets. There is nothing exclusively Indian about Nanibala's fate.

 When Jagmohan decides to marry Nanibala to Sachish, we must remember he is going against the custom that rejected marriage with the widow. Although he may have selfish motives , he is nevertheless behaving in a heroic , almost saintly manner.

Young women caught in the throes of passion usually die in Tagore's fiction. This conforms to the conventions of the time , which required that most female 'fallen women' , no matter how guiltless , had to die,. It is a rare piece of Victorian or early-twentieth century fiction in  which a woman who comm9its adultery or has premarital sex, even against her will , is allowed to survive at the end of the story. But Nanibala's fate is also a reflection of the author's obsession with the suicide of his sister-in-law, Kadambari. In Tagore's world , good intentions and pious deeds cannot overcome the power of a fatal passion.

The opening of the second chapter, 'Sachish' , leaps from the death of Nanibala to that of Jagmohan, clearly a major turning point in the novel. Jagmohan's death results from an act of even more saintly generous than his offer to marry Nanibala and it confirms the pattern established early on of contrasting the nonbeliever's goodness with his sanctimonious brother's meanness.

In Hindusim , a Brahmin male should go through four stages (ashram) in life : celibate religious student (brahmachari) , married householder (grihastha), forest dweller (vanaprashtha) , and finally wandering ascetic (sannyasi). After having raised a family including at least one son, the devout Brahmin can choose to retire to a simple life of contemplation in the forest wilderness and eventually undertake the severe ascetic life of a beggar, ideally ultimately fasting to death.

Swami Lilananda, the guru who entrances Sachish and converts him is a sadhu devoted to the Vaishava practices surrounding Krishna as lover of Radha . His name refers to the rasa lila (dance of love) that the god performs with his lovers. Countless pictures , songs and dances represent the religious ecstasy in which the worshippers  seek to become one with the god they not only long for , but who equally longs for them. Rasa lila also refers to various erotic practices and arts that are reflected widely in South Asian poetry and fiction.

Although the metaphors of Vaishnavismm are intensely erotic, their practice is supposed to be severely ascetic. The rest of the novel consists of the pull of these two opposite ways of life on the central characters, with eroticism embodied in the second of the young widows in the work: Damini. The second quartet is therefore formed of Sachish , Sribilash, the swami, and Damini, with all three of the men being drawn powerfully to this young women who does not share the passivity and frailty of Nanibala (her name means literally ''puppet made of cream,'' implying one who is too delicate for hard labour). Religion guides them to enact the role of Radha in relationship to Krishna, but their maleness betrays them as Damini guilelessly plays the of Radha herself. It is not so much anything she does that is the problem; it is what she is: overwhelmingly attractive and charming.

The more serious object of Sachish's devotions is Brahman, here called ''the Universal Soul that inheres in all beings''. Hindus often believe that not only are all humans ultimately one, so are all living beings, including animals don to the lowliest insect. The loss of individuality in a blending with the spiritual reality of Brahman is the ultimate goal of the devout;but Sribilash is at first repelled by this idea. His Western-influenced education has led him to value his individuality far too much to find such a prospect attractive , and in this he is very like Tagore. The writer saw the divine spirit living within all things; but he remained attached to the particular, the individual, and resisted the Hindu impulse to shrug off the claims of this world for a larger nonphysical essence. In the context of his work, the conventional 'sin' of attachment is really a sign of loving devotion.

Damini acts as a distraction from their meditations without even being seen: the clink of her keys, the call of her voice to a maidservant, are enough to disturb the would-be ascetics gathered around their guru. She is the victim of a husband besotted with religion, who sold her jewelry to give to Swami Lilananda. To appreciate what a shocking deed this is , one must understand that although a woman usually has to bring a large dowry into a marriage , the jewelry she is given as a bride becomes her personal property, the evidence of her status as a respectable married woman. her insurance against disaster, to be disposed of in only the most dire necessity, and never without her consent. Shibtosh's act in 'liberating' her from the desire for gold is, as Tagore writes, ''brigandage in the name of spiritual devotion''. His death has left her not only widowed and unprotected, but impoverished. She depends for her survival on the guru who had enriched himself at her expense, but at first she takes her vengeance by cooking tasteless food and allowing the milk to go sour.

Hindu widows are expected to shun all jewelry and makeup., dress in plain white garments and generally project an air of asexuality. Damini defiantly remains an earthy, desirable woman. This is the more powerful side of her vengeance. Her abrupt conversation is most unexpected, and at first inexplicable, until we see she is drawn to join the Vaishnava worship sessions more by the magnetic charms of Sachish than by those of Krishna.

   Soon they visit a cave. But Sachish finds that he cannot escape the lure of Domini in this cave, for she enters his dreams as a fearsome serpent, then in reality kneeling at his feet, spreading her hair over him . She had earlier spread her hair over the Sawmi's feet, but we now understand where her true devotion is directed. Here failure to break through Sachish's resistance causes her to abruptly abandon her devotions;but her essential goodness is illustrated by her rescue of the kite and puppy. She can bring the most ill-assorted creatures together under her loving care. Having laid claim to her own will, she lays claim to her story as well: this third chapter of the novel is named for her.

When Guruji says of Damini that  she must die as the result of Krishna's hunt, he is speaking metaphorically; but the sinister foreshadowing of his words is inescapable. Sachish remains seemingly invulnerable to her appeal. But the very objects of his devotion torment him by constantly reminding him of her.

When he tells Sribilash that Damini is a beguiling agent of nature designed to distract men from their devotions, he is drawing on the Hindu concept of Maya: the physical world of nature that we mistakenly believe to be the ultimate reality , but in fact conceals the higher reality of Brahman. Maya is often personified as a woman, so Sachish is being very conventional indeed. Sribilash is more in tune with Tagore's views in insisting, ''We must   row the boat of life in Nature's current''. Human beings live in the physical world , whether we believe in it or not, and we ultimately have to deal with it on its own terms.

Damini does not surrender easily. She cleverly begins to devote herself to Sribilash, who gradually comes to understand that she does not love him, but is only using him to make Sachish jealous. Anyone who has ever been caught in such game playing can understand the pain that the narrator must experience, fascinated by her nearness but unable to capture her heart;but he does not express it openly. We are expected to understand without him pouring out his heart.

Damini also rebels by claiming the right to read modern secular literature- perhaps books like the one we are reading. Literature is frequently a vehicle of liberation for women in Tagore's works, either as readers or as writers. Her eventual sacrifice of her reading is all the more poignant when we remember how fiercely she had fought for it.

Although Damini's quick switches of allegiance may seem at first bewildering, the key to the consistency in them is Sachish's attitude toward her. She can subject herself to the whims of Guruji, whom she despises. The result is that she is thrust again as a troubling force into the center of Sachish's devotions, but ' he could no longer regard her as a metaphor for a transcendental mood. Damini didn't embellish the songs any more;the songs embellished her''. In fact, Guruji has been displaced from the center of his cult by Damini: it is she whom everyone looks to.
As if it were not enough to feature two abused women in one slim volume, the narrative is punctuated by the sensational story of Nabin's first wife's suicide after having arranged his marriage to her sister. Tagore seems determined in this book to touch on a wide variety of issues relating to women's problems: arranged marriages, spousal abuse, rape, discrimination against widows and polygamy.

The 'postscript' to Damini seems at first to be one of those abrupt leaps forward commented on earlier , but this turns out to be a sort of 'flash forward'', which will keep us intrigued until the end of the novel to find out how it will end.

Sribilash defiantly clings to the 'householder' stage we have earlier spoken of as the mode of perfect fulfillment for him. He goes beyond even the typical young man in insisting that he and his bride go into marriage with their eyes wide open. It was traditionally considered unseemly for the bride-to-be to look boldly in the face of her proposed groom before marriage, and in deal arranged weddings the first clear look the groom has of the bride is during the ceremony. Even couples who have not been so circumspect during the courtship, which amounts mostly to very public negotiation between the two families , enact this highly romantic moment at the ceremony.

The attitude expressed here is in contrast very Tagorean; fierce, open love of the world, embraced without reserve. Unfortunately for Sribilash, Damini does not feel the same toward him. It quickly becomes clear that he is second best in her heart- but Sachish , whom she prefers , will not embrace her in his quest for purity of spirit. His resistance to her is not entirely pure, however, as Damini clearly states when Sribilash unwarily says that those preoccupied with their spirits do not even notice women. Damini understands that the extreme lengths to which Sachish goes to resist her only reveal the strength of the fascination she exercise over him, but she also understands she will never have him.

In a sense, Sribalash can never really have her either, because her heart belongs to Sachish. Sachish can only embrace her by rejecting her embraces, turning her in his mind into a formless spirit into whose darkness he walks along the riverbank. In the end, Damini finds that the only loving thing she can do for him is to do as he asks and walk away from him.

Unfortunately , this proud woman has to sacrifice her own self-esteem and accept his image of her as dangerously seductive force. It is not clear whether in choosing to join herself to Sribilash she is taking refuge from the world or committing emotional suicide. Her despair is interrupted by a brief premarriage ''honeymoon'' period in which she at last recognizes Sribilash's good qualities: but her anxiety to have Sachish at the ceremony and to keep him near afterward make clear that she has not gotten over him.

Her longing finally consumes her, and she yearns for the shore where Sachish so memorably rejected her, which now represents death. She makes the ritual gesture of 'taking the dust' from her husband's feet as she leaves this life, suggesting she will be his fully only in some future existence, an existence we know Sribilash does not believe in. Like so many of Tagore's love stories , this one has ended tragically.

The novel has no simple lessons to touch. No one forms an ideal marriage. No one attitude toward religion proves fully satisfactory. Friendship and love have been at their most intense among these characters and the result has been heartache for all of them. A traditional Hindu conclusion would have stressed the need to move on, along the path of renunciation; but Tagore simply wants to show us the human heart, in all its fullness and make us sympathize with the suffering that fills so many lives here on earth.


References:

Birans, Paul. Modern South Asian Literature in English. Westport: Greenwood press, 2003.

A Talented Digger.  Edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek et all. Amsterdam: Australia Coucil for the Arts, 1996.

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