Tagore’s novel on lust, jealousy, entangled fate and sacrifices, Chokher Bali takes us into the heart of a Bengali household. When Mahin decides to marry the meek and gentle Ashalata, his relationship with everyone else including his best friend Bihari suffers a strain. But Mahin, engrossed in his newfound marital bliss doesn’t notice these changes. As Binodini, a young widow enters the house (as a guest), she overstays her welcome and forms a very strong friendship with Asha. Asha’s aloofness brings Binodini close to Mahin and this widow who has seen innumerable hardships in life starts dreaming about a life full of love and happiness with a true and loving companion.
A complex character study that at times runs parallel to the societal norms, while sometimes defying the traditional diktats, ‘Chokher Bali’ gives us a lot to think about. Binodini’s lust for Mahin, her intrusions in Asha’s marriage and her need for control and attention at all times can be attributed to the life of seclusion she has been leading as a widow. Her character peels off in layers, finally revealing a girl who is kind and caring, who dreams of a better life and still has the innocence of her childhood self intact.
Mahin, on the other hand, emerges as an egoistic and self-centered man you would come to despise. His sudden bursts of emotions and is unreliable nature distances him from everyone in his life but he is too engrossed in himself to notice. His friendship with Bihari, a mature and loving soul disintegrates throughout the story. Ashalata’s change from a dreamy girl to a responsible adult takes a lot of time, but when it does, it helps bring some order in their chaotic life. Subsequently, their relationship with Rajalakshmi (Mahin’s mother) also faces a crisis, with each of them abandoning her except Binodini.
Tagore’s portrayal of each of there characters is distinct. They are meant to stay with you and through the story, they morph into someone new and different with every passing moment. Each character has a distinct character arch, and they all stand in a grey zone making it difficult to categorize them as good or bad. The author also captures emotions in the truest and raw form. Mahin’s immense love for Asha, Asha’s need to look up to Binodini for comfort and guidance, Binodini’s confrontation with her sexuality, Bihari’s constant dilemma while being around spontaneous characters, etc. are few instances where emotions are brought to life, and we find ourselves resonating with the character’s thought process.
The translation by Radha Chakravarty is precise and clear. Certain Bengali words are kept intact in the final translation to give us an idea of the culture and relationships as we see in Bengal. While I found the narration to be at a pace that was faster than I expected (a sudden shift in scene, most of the times), I found myself immersed and enjoying the story at all times.
Just like Tagore, I wish this story had a different and a more empowering and feminist ending, I have to make peace with the given plot keeping in mind that the society then was not as tolerant as it is now.
Blurb (as on Goodreads):
The literature of the new age seeks not to narrate a sequence of events, but to reveal the secrets of the heart. Such is the narrative mode of Chokher Bali, Rabindranath Tagore, Preface to Chokher Bali explores the forbidden emotions unleashed when a beautiful young widow enters the seemingly harmonious world of a newly married couple. This path-breaking novel by Rabindranath Tagore weaves a tangled web of relationships between the pampered and self-centred Mahendra, his innocent, childlike bride Asha, their staunch friend Bihari and the wily, seductive Binodini, whose arrival transforms the lives of all concerned. Radha Chakravarty’s translation brings the world of Tagore’s fiction to life, in lucid, idiomatic prose.