Tagore’s Chokher Bali (A grain of sand)

I was introduced to Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s literature through one of his short stories – Kabuliwala which was etched in my mind forever. Since I was more of a comic’s book reader in my school days, I was yet to connect with literature. It is only after reading books of Dickens, R.K.Narayan, Ruskin Bond and Mark Twain, my mind diverted towards matured reading. Except Kabuliwala I hadn’t read any of Tagore’s works. I came to know about Choker Bali only through Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh’s movie adaptation based on Tagore’s novel bearing the same title. The movie adaptation boasted of acclaimed actors like Prosenjit, Raima Sen and Aishwarya Rai as Binodini, the lead protagonist with grey shades. While browsing through books at an old book store, I stumbled upon Chokher Bali book. It was a translated version by writer Sukhendu Ray. As I started reading Chokher Bali, I discovered what a genius Gurudev was. He was way ahead of times. Today we read about extra-marital affairs, infidelity and adulterous relations in news, TV series and movies. Did such things exist even in 19th century? Chokher Bali is story of tangled relationships, deception, expectations and heartbreaks. The novel is centered on four characters – Mahendra, Ashalata, Bihari and the young widow Binodini.

The newly married life of Mahendra and Asha turns upside down when Mahindra’s mother brings a young widow Binodini in their house. It is the same Binodini whom Mahendra had previously rejected before getting married to Asha. The young widow’s sexual frustration inflames when she sees the happy marital life of Mahendra and Asha. Binodini not only befriends Asha but also attracts the attention of Mahendra through her intellectual skills and seductiveness. She captivates Mahendra to such an extent that Mahendra agrees to sacrifice his married life to settle with Binodini. On one front, Binodini not only breaks a marital life, but also creates a misunderstanding between Mahendra and his friend Bihari. Binodini is a vamp who not only alienates Mahendra from his family, but also tries to attract Bihari. In this turmoil, Asha is devastated. The events lead to confrontations, misunderstandings and an unexpected climax.

Tagore’s character Binodini is a fusion of several literary characters like Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley and Lolita. She is flawed, yet compassionate. She is misunderstood, but yet a sympathetic person. She is conscious of her guilty actions but finds devilish pleasures in shattering marital lives. Every character in this novel is somewhere flawed. Apart from Binodini, it is Mahendra who too has grey shades to his nature. An over pampered, egoistic and reckless natured is Mahendra who neglects his loving wife Asha for the vamp Binodini. He even accuses Bihari of having an affair with Asha. Earlier it was Bihari who was supposed to marry Asha but Mahendra craftily weds Asha. The tangled relationship gets more tangled with confusions and misunderstood deceptions. My heart reached out for the innocent Asha who becomes the victim of Binodini’s vengeance. Bihari is one more sympathetic character who is constantly ridiculed by Mahendra. The real meaning of word Chokher Bali is mote in the eye. ‘Chokher Bali’ is the title of friendship between Asha and Binodini.

Chokher Bali is one of the acclaimed works of Tagore and his first novella in world of literature. Apart from writing short stories, Tagore has written other novels like Nauka Dubi (Wrecked boat) and Home and the world. Chokher Bali is set in the times when widows weren’t allowed to remarry. Though new reforms took place in Bengal and widow remarriages got social acceptance, it was not fully implemented in society. Binodini, the protagonist of Chokher Bali is victim of this social injustice. Like every young woman, she also aspires for marital happiness.

Through Binodini, Tagore has sketched out the misery of young widows during 19th century. Binodini’s misery is similar to the literary character Lady Chatterley who is deprived of physical intimacy by her husband. Like Lady Chatterley, Binodini targets Mahendra to fulfill her erotic needs. Whether Binodini was a demoralized woman or a victim of her wretched destiny is left up to the readers to judge. Had Binodini been happily married, she wouldn’t have destroyed the happy marital life of Mahendra and Asha.

Translator Sukhendu Ray succeeds in capturing the poetic flair of Tagore in the English version of Chokher Bali. His translated version transports readers to the 19th century Bengal, its culture, tradition and mindset of the people living during that era. Tagore’s Chokher Bali (A grain of sand) is an acclaimed classic that cannot be missed by the reader who loves Bengali classics.