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Psychological and Social Realism in Tagore's Stories

Tagore is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern Bengali short story and is credited with introducing colloquial speech into Bengali literature. He was the first Bengali writer to elevate the short story to a serious art form. The state of Bengal woke up to renaissance after Tagore had entered the literary world. As a short-fiction writer, he was a practitioner of psychological and social realism. In fact, Tagore’s fame as a poet has perhaps dimmed his stature as a storyteller. As critic after critic observed that Tagore should get the Nobel Prize for his short-stories, it is indeed my privilege to look at how Tagore really lifted the relevance of short-story writing by a sheer beauty of underlying philosophy which is the hallmark of his genius. “Stolen Treasure and Other Stories” is a collection of stories translated by a panel of translators to retain the delicate beauty of the original. The short stories included in this collection are varied, psychologically reflective and socially representative. A true picture of Bengal with all her natural beauties is presented to the readers through the stories. Human pathos is, undoubtedly, the pick of the collection. Tagore penetrates deep into the psychology of characters and correlates the human's psyche to social realism. Further, these 18 stories capture Tagore’s innate humanism, social prejudices, hypocrisies and blind superstitions wrecking the lives of innocent people in 1890s-largely dominate the collection. Overall, psychology and social realism constitute an important element of writing in the collection.

Tagore’s stories reveal the fact that he had great insight into woman’s heart. K.R. Srinivas Iyengar writes about Tagore’s women, “The women in his stories, of course, are splendidly womanly, frail and fair, yet wise and strong; always – or almost always – more sinned against than sinning. Tagore plumbs the depths of the womanly heart, and behind the seeming viles and the helpless gestures he sees ‘reserves of devotion and sacrifice’. (77) True to his observation, women occupied the central roles in Tagore’s stories. ‘The Post Master’ is one such story that dramatizes a delicate human situation where in an innocent fatherless village girl develops reverential affection for her master. In his loneliness and in the dark dampness of the rains, the post master needed a little tender nursing. He longed to feel the touch of soft hands on his head, to imagine the presence of loving womanhood, the nearness of mother and sister Ratan ceased to be a little girl. She at once stepped into the post of mother; called the village doctor, gave the patient his medicine at the proper times, sat up all night by his bed. When the post master resigned his job and was going home, he found in Ratan the despairing face of a village girl who seemed to represent to him the great unspoken sorrow of Mother Earth herself. But Ratan had no such wise arguments to comfort her. She wandered about the post office with the tears streaming her eyes. It may be that she still hoped in some corner of her heart that her Dada would return, and perhaps that is why she could not tear herself away. Such is human nature. One finds Tagore’s philosophical twist of life in the story. Useless hopes and dreams are not easily overcome by reason and commonsense. One clings wildly to some vain hope until a day comes when it has sucked the heart dry and then it breaks the ropes that bind it and flies away. After that comes the misery of awakening but before long, one is filled once more with a desire to return to the same mistakes.

the grief – stricken face of a mere village
Girl seemed to express a great, mute heartache
pervading the whole world. Nobody belonged
to anybody on this earth’.
         The Post Master, 170 – 171)

Tagore’s mastery of handling sensitive short – stories is seen in the story “Subha” wherein the dumb girl Subha lay like a silent weight upon the heart of her parents. Their minds ached with anxiety night and day. The mother looked upon her as a deformity. Any mother considers her daughter as a closely intimate part of herself. So any defect in her is a source of personal shame. But Subha’s father Banikantha loved her better than he did to his other daughters. Her mother treated her almost as a stain upon her own body. Through the dumb character, Tagore exemplifies that the language of the eye is always superior to the language of the spoken word. The eyes of dumb people are endless in expression, of thoughts and feelings. In her silent heart, Tagore sounds a voiceless weeping soul which only God can hear.

“She missed the faces, familiar from birth,
of those who had understood a dumb
girl’s language. There was an endless,
voiceless weeping in her ever – silent heart 
of the girl. Nobody except God could hear it”
                    (Subha, 59)

In “The Wife’s Letter”, Tagore probes like a feminist the psychology of a woman stifled and dwarfed in a man’s world. A wife’s letter is narrated by a women writing to her husband describing the many injustices imposed upon married women. The story is an intermingling of psychology with social realism by presenting the core issues of society in which woman takes the center stage of affairs.

In the microcosm of the household, a mother 
creates her own macrocosm, encompassing 
the whole world. I suffered the anguish of 
motherhood, not its liberation.
                    (The Wife’s Letter, 15)

Life and death are intertwined in the psychological accounts. Tagore perfected the art of probing a woman’s soul through the wife’s letter.

“What is our life that we have to fear death?
Those who are nurtured with loving care
and are bonded to life may be unwilling
to die. If Yama had pulled me, I would 
have come out with all my roots the way
a piece of turf comes off loose soil. Bengali
women talk of dying a hundred times a 
day. What is so great about death?”
                     (The Wife’s Letter, 15)

All domestic barriers get sunk into the death of flute – which ultimately buries the lives of human beings. Tagore presents the image of life in its true psychological but philosophical write-up.

But death’s flute has started playing – where 
are those mason – built walls, the barbed wire
fences made by your domestic laws? For what
suffering and humiliation can they imprison 
human beings? Look, life’s standard of victory
is fluttering in the hands of death.  
                     The Wife’s Letter, 28)

‘The Wife’s Letter’ strongly calls for the emancipation of women from rigid Indian customs which are purely self – imposed. William Radice in his introduction to Tagore’s selected short stories states: 

we find in Tagore’s stories ample evidence of his reflections on child – marriage, and dowry system; bigoted orthodoxy or casteism; changing land – lord tenant relations, the growing gulf between town and country, man’s intimate relations with nature, ruinous litigations, dehumanizing poverty, cruel and corrupt officialdom” (14)

‘Bolai’ is the story that highlights how the world has lost its reverence for life – something we desperately need today. Tagore is a crusader for protection of Nature. He is an environmentalist who strongly pleads for forest preservation. As a visionary, he calls for planting of saplings to protect from environmental degradation. His love for Nature is visible in the following description:

‘The tree, the vanguard of life on the path of
Evolution, with its hands folded in the direction 
Of the sun said:

“I’ll stay, I’ll live, I’m an eternal traveler.
I’ll make a pilgrimage to the shrine of endless
life through death after death, come sun and
shower, day and night. This cry of the trees
is still ringing in the forests in the mountains
and plains. In their branches and leaves,
the life of the earth is saying: I’ll live. The silent
mother of all life on earth, the tree has been
milking the heavens for ages. It collects
for the earth’s store house of nectar, the energy,
sap and beauty of life; and floods the sky
with the eager message of the life of universe:
I’ll live: somehow Bolai heard that message in
his blood”.
                         Bolai, 32)

“Yagneswara’s Yajna” condemns class and caste barriers. Yagneswar, a poor father, was proceeding to conduct his daughter’s marriage to a boy of rich family. A sort of class discrimination and a struggle between haves and have-nots portrays the theme of story. When it was finally decided that the daughter of Yagneswar was to be married off to a boy called Bibhutibhushan, the financial status became the sole criterion for the wedding arrangements. The boy’s side demanded the event to be a memorable carnival. A ruined and pale – faced Yagneswar found Nature’s fury as well to his persistent spell of woes. He has never expected a July-deluge in April even in his wild dreams. Flustered, he could not decide whom to seat and where amidst the downpour of rain. Cursed as Yagneswar was, each of the guests picked up the plate and threw it over his shoulder into the slush behind. Yagneswar broke down to say “I am a small man, not worthy of your stature (Yagneswar’s Yajna, 66). The village elders repeatedly told Yagneswar:

Shame on you. If you had married your daughter
to somebody in a family of your own level, this would
not have happened.            
                       (Yagneswar’s yagna, 66).  

Tagore portrays through the story of Yagneswar’s Yajna a kind of social struggle between human dignity and class distinction.

‘Give and Take’ touches upon the age-old practice of dowry demand and subsequent harassment. The story is a scathing indictment of the dowry system. Dowry has come to exist as a mandatory social custom ever since 18th Century. Ramsunder Mitra, who tried many boys before, had at last come upon the only son of a renowned Raibahadur. A sum of ten thousand rupees as sundry and other gifts was agreed upon to settle the alliance. But the dowry amount could by no means be arranged. Ramsunder fell short by six to seven thousand rupees. As the marriage day was fast approaching, he had to borrow money at a high rate of interest. The pleadings of Ramsunder with the father of bridegroom could not materialize. They insisted the dowry to be paid in full before the event took off. Much to the shock and disappointment, the groom defied his father:

I don’t understand this haggling. Since I have
come to marry, I shall complete the ceremony and 
                      Give and Take, 78)

The marriage ceremony passed off gloomily. Troubles really started for the daughter after she had entered the in-law’s house. Even the servants looked down upon her. Meanwhile, Niru’s in–laws went on flinging caustic remarks at her day in and out. Shockingly, the girl enjoyed no freedom there. She was not permitted to visit her parents even during the Durga Puja festival. Her in-law’s place turned into a bed of thorns for Niru. Meanwhile, her husband was promoted to the post of Deputy Magistrate soon after his marriage. Niru’s meetings with her parents was totally forbidden. She fell seriously ill around this time. She did not take care to protect herself from winter, did not have the meals regularly. Let us see how her mother-in-law commented in a tone of teasing.

She is a Nawab’s daughter. She can’t eat
the food served in a poor family’.
                      Give and Take, 83)

When Niru’s health condition turned from bad to worse, her mother-in-law said that it was all put on. Nobody would believe that a doctor was called in for the first time the evening. Niru was struggling for breath and that was his last visit, too. She died and the funeral rites were performed with great pomp. Her husband, who was the Deputy Magistrate, had no knowledge of death. He wrote to his parents;

I have made all arrangements here. Send my
wife immediately’
                 (Give and Take, 84)

His mother wrote back saying:

‘My son, we have selected another girl for you.
come home, securing leave at once.
This time the dowry was twenty thousand
rupees and they would pay cash down
                   Give and Take, 84)

The evils of dowry have played with the lives largely of poor & innocent women. Truly, it is an attack purely on the social evil of barbaric dowry system. Tagore condemned the practice of inhuman torture and harassment in the name of dowry and which in our times reflective of continued illegal practice of giving dowry and making the society bereft of social values.

‘Stolen Treasure’ deals with havoc superstitions of society. Tagore effectively exposes how such blind beliefs hold people for ages. The age-old belief of horoscope-matching, gods and goddesses, influence of planets and stars constituted the main plot of the story. We are living in the scientific age where marriage alliances are settled subject to horoscope-matching. Do planets really influence such events? ‘The protagonists’ age-old belief of marriages echoes strongly in the following statements.

‘When we are born, our true partner is fixed there 
And then’
‘How will I recognize my true partner?’
‘The stars themselves have signed the document”
                 (Stolen Treasure, 6)

Such beliefs in horoscope deter people from getting prospective alliances. Sunetra was rescued from the tangled web of her horoscope. The story is largely reflective of contemporary times where people, on one hand, still stick to age-old beliefs and on the other, hold scientific temperaments. The story ‘Kabuliwalah’ is a poignant tale of human relationships. It concerns a man who appears brusque, crude, and violent to the extent that he is in prison-but is so sentimental about his faraway daughter that he cherishes a crumpled piece of paper because it is smudged with her fingerprints. Many of Tagore’s stories focus on the struggles of women in traditional Indian society and explore prescribed roles and society’s expectations. ‘Broken Nest’ revolves around the sensitive story of Charumati who is caught in an inescapable stasis. The story is noted for a longer narration and centers around Charumati’s life-history, personality and progressive traits.

‘The Hungry Stones’ is about a man staying in an old palace who becomes enchanted by invisible ghosts. Do ghosts really exist? People of age-old beliefs strongly believe in ghosts and fantasies. Tagore rightly focuses on the weaknesses of society while the same belief of superstitions runs into the story in ‘Living or Dead’ where in a woman, thought to be dead, regains consciousness during her funeral only to be regarded by her family as a phantasm, and to prove that she is truly alive. The story ‘A Problem Solved’ unmasks the hypocrisy of the virtuous whereas in ‘The Renunciation’, Hemanta defies his father and refuses to abandon his wife even under the threat of losing his caste. In Yagneswar’s Yajna, the hero makes his class-proud father and the mocking men of the bridegroom’s party eat dirt.

In conclusion, I firmly hold that Rabindranath Tagore championed the cause of society by probing deep into psychology and social realism. The story collection ‘Stolen Treasure and Other Stories’ strongly reflects Tagore’s profound humanism. His all-embracing humanitarian vision can empathize with an illiterate deaf-mute and stick up for the rights of a woman wronged by society. Written mostly during the 1890s, these stories convey a variety of themes, showcase Tagore’s reflections on contemporary rural and urban life, and serve as a commentary on the social issues of the time.

Works Cited

Tagore Rabindranath. Stolen Treasure and other stories, Trans. New Delhi: Rupa & Co. 2008. Print.
Iyengar, K.R. Srinivasa. Indian writing in English, New Delhi: Sterling Publications PVT Ltd, 2001. Print 
Tagore, Rabindranath. Selected short stories, Trans. William Radice, London. Penguin 1994. Print.


More by :  Dr. P.V. Laxmiprasad

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