By Meenakshi Malhotra
Romance and reality inevitably clash. While Tagore is not unconvinced about the existence of conjugal love in some of his stories, conjugality and romance make uneasy bedfellows in Farewell Song. Marriage is rooted in the humdrum, quotidian, everyday but romantic love dwells on another astral plane. It is the realisation of the gap between the two that informs the novel/la, a realisation that never the twain shall truly meet, manifesting itself in the pages of this complex narrative that folds into itself a romantic love story, social satire and literary criticism. The multiple strands are brilliantly woven into the plot of this novel, which could be classified as a prose-poem. Its very title, “Shesher Kobita”, literally meaning last poem and translated by Professor Radha Chakravarty as Farewell Song, is evocative of its lyricality.
Shesher Kobita is primarily a love story between two young people, Amit Raye and Labanyalata, both of whom express their love in the most lyrical vein imaginable. Labanya, like many of Amit’s compatriots in Calcutta, is an avid reader and staunch admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s writing, and her familiarity with Tagore’s work is evident in much of her conversation and in many of her perceptions. Amit, on the other hand, persists in citing the words of a ‘modern’ poet, Nibaran Chakrabarti, who is a persona created by Amit himself, to express his views about poetry. Readers see through this ruse quickly enough, and the third person narrative , often allows space for narrative commentary. As the translator, Radha Chakravarty points out, “Two schools of Bengali poetry, pro and anti-Tagore, are pitted against each other through the dialectic of the Amit-Labanya encounter.” Tagore cleverly plays out and into the literary /poetic debates of his later decades (1920s onwards) in order to prove his contemporary relevance and above all, the modernity of his work.
Amit, the protagonist, is from an elite and rich family, privileged enough to have gone to Oxford and wealthy enough to be under no compulsion to earn immediately. He’s a dilettante who is interested in the vagaries of style, which is seen as being a notch higher than fashion. Brilliant but restless, mercurial as quicksilver, he cannot commit himself to any one thing or relationship. Yet, getting away from the highly artificial social life of Kolkata, to the relatively pristine and pastoral world of Shillong, he falls deeply, unequivocally in love, with the quiet, studious but unassuming young girl, Labanyalata and establishes a soul-connection, as it were, with her. Yet this deep commitment pales and collapses in the face of the demands of the everyday social world. It is this space–“habitus”– which is occupied by Amit’s sister’s friend, Ketaki (Katy) Mitra. To quote from Radha Chakravarty’s introduction to her translation of the book, “Two forms of love are presented through Amit’s involvements with Katy Mitter and Labanya-one rooted in the material and the social, the other, embedded deep within the soul”
The expression of this soulful love dips into and is expressed through not only Bangla literature and poetry but is steeped in the idioms of English poetry, from Shakespeare to the metaphysical poets. Seeing a book of John Donne’s poems on Labanya’s table, Amit quotes, “for God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love.” And yet, his intense love seems doomed as an idealistic ephemeral bliss, to be swept away by the ‘real’. Not a keen observer of nature, Amit seems to indulge frequently in “pathetic fallacy”, appropriating aspects of the landscape in order to express his moods and feelings. The landscape is often symbolic with Amit and Labanya meeting for their trysts at the site of a waterfall, always a significant feature of Tagore’s landscapes. Mita (meaning friend) and Banya (of the forest) –the lovers’ names for each other– create a world of their own, full of poetry and lyricality. And yet, inevitably, inexorably, the social, material, everyday world presses upon them and the lovers part. And yet, as the novel draws to a close, we do not experience this parting/ estrangement as a tragedy but almost as much of a resolution and closure that the novel could offer.
For Amit Ray/e is an embodiment of the modern split subject, the divided self. He has made up a world of words, and it is in this world that his heart and mind dwell. It is this inner space-the still centre of the turning world (to quote from another modern poet) that Labanya inhabits. And this is what Labanya, intelligent and perceptive, realises. Labanya, in her own way, is the new woman- independent and emotionally self-reliant, reminding one of Kalyani in ‘Aparichita‘, translated by Aruna Chakravarti as ‘The Stranger‘. They are women who dream of a life beyond domesticity and conjugal felicity. For them marriage would be a slippery slope, not a nesting ground. In these versions of ‘modern’ love, each person, especially the women, are complete and self-assured in themselves. This is particularly true of Kalyani, where we get a sense that she towers over the suitors in her life.
Labanya is able to connect to connect with Amit as a friend. to Amit, the friendship acts as an anchor, a stay against the vacuousness of his urban existence. Such a soulful connection belongs to the realm of dreams and these connects are what dreams are made of. However, dreams often shatter, or worse, fester. When Amit is asked whether in marriage, partnership and companionship cannot combine, his reply is illuminating. Marriage is the finite to the infinity of love and romance. He compares his relationship to the westernised Ketaki/Katy, his girlfriend in England who later becomes his wife, after the interlude with Labanya. “My initial relationship with Katy was indeed based on love but it was like water in a pitcher, to be collected daily, and used up everyday.” In contrast, his love for Labanya “remains a lake, its waters not be carried home but meant for” his “consciousness to swim in”. This realisation creates no inner conflict because he also glimpses that Labanya is someone who lives in his dreams, “in the twilight of gleams and of glimpses” (Tagore’s lines from Gitanjali, a basket of song-offerings). In a serendipitious resolution, Labanya also finds her companion in domesticity, her father’s brilliant student Shobhanlal, who has yearned for her for years, only to be spurned. Thus the story becomes not a tragedy of betrayal, but an extended musing and discussion on love, romance and marriage of the modern subject, in a world where the ground beneath the feet of the characters is constantly shifting.
It is this sense of a world in flux and its nuances that Radha Chakravarty’s translation deftly captures. Translating a novel of discussion requires a constant awareness of key concepts and multiple contexts — literary, social, cultural and philosophical. As a skilled translator and litterateur with an extensive repertoire and many years of experience, the editor-translator has brought her many accomplishments to the task of translation. Translating poetry and its nuances is challenging; here, the translation conveys immense wealth of meaning and richness of detail. The novel, in a sense, is a plea for romantic yearning and aspiration, for reaching out to those “unheard melodies” that are far sweeter than those which are available for the asking.
Unlike Bankim, who had depicted the new woman in an unflattering light a few decades earlier, Rabindranath was essentially sympathetic to women. Women were often among his closest associates and companions, and his friendship with women like the Argentinian Victoria Ocampo not only spurred him into song , but made him rethink the contours of modern cosmopolitan womanhood. Well-read and accomplished, women like Labanya not only challenge traditional ideas of womanhood, but is reflexive and aware enough not to judge Katy Mitra. Torn between the pull of intellectual independence and the desire for surrender, Labanya also represents the emergence of the female subject in modern Bangla literature.
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
Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles
Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International