Reflections on reading The Wife’s Letter

Coming home to Tagore is always a revelation. I have probably owned this fine collection of short stories for over a decade now. My aunt had funded it when she saw me lurking in the aisle of the book corridor in Big Bazaar back when it still sold books, along with stationery. How little I must have understood of women’s plight and their predicaments, when I was a teenager if not a child, is dawning on me now. A great story is that which reveals itself anew whenever you pick it up to read. In short something which has repeat value. Tagore is a genius; every sentence has its place and importance in the narrative.

I never pick up Tagore lightly because I can never shrug off his words casually and carry on with my life pretending to be unaltered when the soul has registered change. Reading Tagore needs complete involvement of the brain and the heart, and I need to be on stable ground otherwise it would be tough to balance the emotions when I’m on uneven terrain. The emotions generated on reading the text will overwhelm me and teetering on the edge of a precipice isn’t good for my health.

Reading The Wife’s Letter I had to stop at a few sentences to completely understand them (I am not sure if it is brain fog or ageing in action) and compare it to the real world experience I have had in the last decade. My first hand experience might be very limited but observed or heard second hand experience is so much more. Women talk. Women share. Stories of friends, acquaintances, neighbours, stories from the media. A woman has empathy for all the women of the world (barring duplicitous mother-in-laws and conniving frenemies).

There is no doubt about that Tagore understood the female psyche and portrayed it in his writings better than any man could. I am really looking forward to reading another translation of Chokher Bali soon.

I already knew child marriage was rampant and being clever was a crime but women living in separate quarters even in Hindu households was news to me. In Odia a girl is called “duhita”(du=two, hita=good). A girl has to makes sure her parents are okay and also shoulders the burden of maintaining the peace of household she has married into. The wife is viewed as a slave expected to follow demands and obey rules of the household without question and is far far away from being an equal matching steps with the husband, which is what we strive for (mark the words that I use) in the modern world.The perfect argument against educating girls is that it will ruin their married lives- because otherwise they wouldn’t be subservient self-sacrificing automatons ready to give up their lives to keep the honour (or peace) of their families, would they?

Bengal was then not so different from Odisha. The radical reforms and it being the Capital changed everything whereas we (most of the population) are still stuck in the past expecting to uphold 19th century ideals and follow rules of a bygone era, which is irrelevant in the present context where most women are not confined to their households.

The working woman is a reality. She is not a mythical imagined creature like a centaur or a phoenix but a very common sight. Living in the world today it some times makes me think have we really come as far as we think we have? Though things are changing, most working women still continue to juggle their homes and workplaces with the men barely pitching in. It remains an unequal partnership and an unfair world for women. But I am proud of how they have managed to navigate the minefields and take the pitfalls in their stride and continue to flourish, changing the world, one woman at a time. Nothing was ever handed to them on a platter. They have had to fight for their life, their dignity, and their rights.

I do not want to be a part of this world but unfortunately I am. I continue to rebel in my own small way, to not accept the prevailing norms and, to question everything.

Lines from the story:

Neglect is like the ashes which cover a fire: perhaps keeping it alive, but preventing its heat from being outwardly felt. When self-respect dwindles neglect doesn’t seem unjust; for this reason, it causes no suffering. That is also why women are ashamed to feel pain. I say, therefore, if it is your decree that women must suffer, then it is best to keep them in as neglected a state as possible; in comfort, the pain of suffering becomes greater.

A mother even within the confines of her own family, belongs to the family of the world. I suffered only the pain of motherhood; I never experienced its freedom.

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