Book review of Tagore’s last novel by Meenakshi Malhotra on his death anniversary
Title: Four Chapters
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translator: Radha Chakravarty
With Char Adhyay (1934, Four Chapters), Tagore’s last novel, he returns to his critique of violence, an almost ubiquitous preoccupation in this last phase of his writing which had earlier witnessed the production of Ghare Baire (1916, The Home and the World) and his essays on nationalism. Both, The Home and the World and Four Chapters, share an underlying preoccupation about the limits of patriotism and the legitimacy of violence: does love for one’s own country justify violence and revolutionary terrorism? To put it in a philosophical vein: do the ends justify the means?
Like in The Home and the World , Tagore uses a triangulated relationship, if not a tripartite narrative structure. The plot could be summed up thus: Ela, a modern woman, looks for engagement, to give structure and meaning to her existence. At odds initially with her traditional but authoritarian mother, she grows up developing a strong sense of justice and a mistrust of blind superstitions and meaningless rituals, which hardly equip her to fit into a traditional marriage. After losing both her parents, she is under the care of her uncle and aunt, when she meets the charismatic Indranath, a disappointed scientist who has now turned to militancy and revolutionary terrorism. On the other side is Atindranath or Atin (also called Antu), with whom Ela forms a romantic attachment. In the last segment of the novel, we realise that Ela’s politicisation had also pushed Atin into militancy since Ela’s dedication to the cause had co-opted him into it.
Stylistically this novel is striking. It consists of little narrative but is dialogic for the most part. As such, as the editor-translator mentions, the work acquires a dramatic quality. Also, Four Chapters comes across as a vehicle for ideas and at times, the novel seems to be weighed down by the predominance of ideas. Thus ideas of national regeneration, selfless action circulate in the text without being directly co-related with the plot and story structure. The characters often are eloquent in their own praise. They seem to be mouthpieces produced as a result of clashing ideologies.
Four Chapters depicts the new, modern woman in all her complexity and confusion, poised on the brink of something new, yet unable to let go completely of the old. Torn between political zeal and romantic passion, Ela represents a model of womanhood which is recognisable and perhaps relatable. Displaying agency, she says she wants to “publicize the increase in women’s rights in the modern age.” Women , she feels, “don’t hesitate to speak the truth now”. In the “new literature, Bengali women’s characters are eloquent in their own praise. They have usurped the clay sculptor’s role of fashioning the images of goddesses.”
Both a scientist as well as a political leader, Indranath surveys human history as a continuing saga of oppression, death and destruction. His cold impersonality is contrasted with the romantic zeal and passion of Atin, who is devoted to Ela beyond doubt. Though Ela reciprocates his passion, she is committed to bow to the overarching cause of the nation and its freedom from subjugation. Yet Ela shows herself capable of great devotion as is evident in her impassioned exchanges with Atin. She tells him, “You are great. I can see your brilliance, dazzling as a flash of lightning.” Fully aware of his devotion and of his romantic idealisation of her, she contrasts the small details which preoccupy women to the dazzling brilliance of Atin’s mind. In all these exchanges, we see her intelligence shine through. Moreover, she realises the entrapment of women’s biology. Nature, she feels, “has humiliated women from the time of our birth.” “We enter this world bearing destiny’s purpose in our biology, our bodies.”
In contrast to the passionate and emotional Atin is the character of Indranath, who, seems cold, calculating and two-dimensional and driven by a single ideological narrative. Indranath, the political zealot is charismatic but professes to be impersonal, commands and considers herself pledged to the nation’s cause. It is he who wins Ela over to the nationalist cause.
Nationalism here serves as a veneer for his revolutionary terrorism. As Radha Chakravarty writes in the ‘Introduction’ to the translated edition, “The novel charts the volatile scenario that arises from the conflict between Ela’s forbidden love and her dangerous involvement with political violence. Through the relationships between Ela, Atin and Indranath, the narrative explores the interface between love and revolutionary politics”. She also adds that the first draft of the novel focused on the romantic plot and did not have the character of Indranath. The character of Indranath is supposedly based upon a scholar-activist who was criticised by Tagore. In a letter written in August 1934, Tagore wrote to Prafulla Nath Tagore, saying that the latter must be aware of his eschewal of violence: “You are aware that I am completely against the oppressive tactics of those who follow the path of terrorism…I have written a work of fiction that is cast as a protest against the terrorists.”
Tagore’s political views and novelistic stance elicited the wrath of many compatriots, political activists, extremists and nationalists who felt that this stance was expressive of his collusion with colonialism. Further, as Chakravarty phrases it, his “challenge to authoritarianism and insistence on freedom of thought” also aroused the suspicion of the British administration in India. Anticipating controversy, Tagore himself took steps to have it translated into English, though it took some time for the translation to see the light of day.
Radha Chakravarty’s recent translation captures the nuances of a complex text. It is one of the rare instances where the translation has rescued the occasional stiltedness of the original and thus fares better in some instances. The novel, which runs the occasional danger of collapsing under the weight of its own ideas in the original Bengali version, is modernised and through this particular translation, the narrative is made more empathetic to the needs of the contemporary reader. This is a translation of a difficult novel which serves to give a fresh lease of life to an important but not a very popular book, and restores it for the modern reader.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL