A Critical Appreciation of Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore
Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore
Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore. Jagmohan vs Harimohan. Passion vs reason. Eroticism vs asceticism. Sachish vs Sribilash. Ninibala and Damini.
Quartet, written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1915 and translated by Kaiser Haq in 1993, is one of the masterpieces not only in South-Asian literature, but also in the world literature. It is a story of archetypal conflicts—between reason and emotion, orthodoxy and liberalism, mysticism and passion. This is a brief work -more a novella than a full -length novel-but it contains in an appealing narrative structure most of the representative themes of Tgaore’s longer works. In this novel he drew both on the traditional culture of South Asia and that of Europe, a typical tendency of the South Asian writers. The novel is philosophical, but about love and passion too, and also shot through with humour and irony.
The Bengali title of the novel, Chaturanga , refers to a four-handed board game a little like chess. The English title Quartet is a simplification, but both refer to a quartet of characters; two young friends and the two young women they become involved with. However, there is no neat pairing off in couples. This novel actually revolves around two ‘triangles’.
The title also alludes to the four chapter titles, each named after a different character: ‘uncle” ( the uncle of one of the young men), “Sachish’ (the young man himself), ‘Dhamani’ (the second of the two women), and ‘Sribilash’ (Sachish’s friend, the narrator of the novel).
Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore is set in Calcutta in the early part of the twentieth century, among upper-class, well-educated Indians. Sachin and Sribilash meet at school, and they soon strike up a fast friendship. Sribilash is drawn to the brilliant charisma of Sachish to the extent of idolizing him. When the narrator says in the second paragraph , ‘I loved him’, nothing homosexual is to be implied: strong friendships among men are common in cultures where heterosexual friendships are rare.
It is a cliché to think of India as a land in which religion saturates the very air; but many highly educated Indians were skeptical of religion even in the nineteenth century. Remember that Tagore himself grew up in a religious atmosphere that criticized traditional pious practices and beliefs. The news that Sachish is an atheist is shocking to the other students, but not bizarre. Tagore’s deep distrust of traditional popular religion is reflected in the way he recounts the good deeds of the atheist characters and the meanness and cruelty of the religious ones.
Sribilash’s shock at discovering that the friend he regards as almost a god does not himself believe in gods is compounded by discovering that he belongs to a relatively lowly caste. The thousands of castes are broadly divided into four groupings called varnas. Sribilash belongs to the highest varna, the Brahmins, but his friend belongs to the much lower goldsmith’s caste in the Vaisya varna.
If Sribilash were a traditional Hindu, he would have been expected to shun Sachish socially and especially to avoid eating with him. His mention that he was eventually to share a meal with him is a daring statement of his willingness to let his friendship override his upbringing.
Tagore also satirizes traditional beliefs suggesting that as a boy he believed the eating of beef to be worse than murder. Traditional cow veneration has strongly prohibited the eating of beef by Hindus for millennia. Here we notice the clash of bigotries, with the boys scorning Sachish’s disbelief while they condemn the racial of their teacher.
Like another famous Indian writer , R.K.Narayan , Tagore was notably unhappy and unsuccessful at school, and both often portrayed teachers in a negative light. Tagore tried to compensate for his own childhood experience by setting up a sort of experimental school called Santiniketan, to the support of which he devoted much of his life and income. Among its students were two brilliant figures: the filmmaker Satajit Ray and Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India.
The contemptuous Prof. Wilkins is of course an Englishman who considers himself exiled to an ignorant , backward corner of the world. His treatment of the boys reminds us of the intimate ways in which the insults inflicted on India by colonialism were manifested in individual lives. Sachish battles Wilkins with weapons drawn from the teacher’s own culture, the writings of English rationalist and positivist philosophers. Sachish would have read such British writers as John Stuart Mill (1806- 73)and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)-all mentioned by name in the novel. Positivists rejected traditional philosophy’s obsession with the sort of abstract , spiritual issues traditionally called ‘metaphysics’. They dismissed religious questions as meaningless and tried to create a rational, scientific basis for philosophy. The Englishman scorns his Indian students, failing to see that one of them has leaped beyond him by his insights into the teacher’s own culture.
We then learn that Sachish has received his training in rationalism from the ‘Unlce’ of the chapter title; Jagmohan. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is famous for having been the first to discuss in detail the possibility of humanity outgrowing its food supply, which explains how Jagmohan was influenced by reading him to avoid remarriage after his wife died; this is his contribution to population control. The irony is that this childless man acts very much like a father to Sachish, much more so than the boy’s own father , Harimohan. Certainly, they are emotionally closer, as the father lavishes all his affection on the less worthy of his sons, Purandar.
In Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore, Harimohan is a pious Hindu, but it is established from the beginning that he is a self-indulgent , self-centered man. He and Jagmohan are natural enemies, leading eventually to literally divided household. Jagmohan’s learning leads him to be compared to two famous English scholars. Thomas Babingon Macauly (1800-59) was an eminent historian who shaped the policies that aimed at creating an English-influenced upper class in India to serve the empire; and vastly erudite Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was the creator of the first dictionary in English. Kayastha who deal with the hides of dead animals, particularly insult cows, are among the most reviled of all in the traditional Hindu caste system; so it is not suprising that beef-eating Muslims would have taken to the trade of tanning. Jogamohan’s friendship with them is a spectacular insult to his pious Hindu relatives.
When Jagmohan scornfully claims that the drummers he has hired to irritate his relatives are celebrating the dumping of his god ,he is referring to a custom by which a religious festival is concluded by dumping the image of the deity into the river to be dissolved back into the clay and straw of which it was made- a reminder to pious Hindus that the image is not the god, but here suggestive of Jogmohan’s impudent rejection of gods altogether.
In Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore, Nanibala is typical of the young widows whose maltreatment was attacked by both his Brahmo relatives and Tagore himself. She is absolutely defenseless against Purindar, whose exploitation of her is only worsened by the fact that he has seduced rather than merely raped her. As we all see , she actually loves the man who has ruined her life and cannot finally accept rescue at the hands of anyone else. The first quartet of the novel is composed Nanibala, Purindar, Jagmohan and Sribilash. It would be noted that , at the time , a maid impregnated by her master’s son in Western countries would also have been summarily dismissed and abandoned to the streets. There is nothing exclusively Indian about Nanibala’s fate.
When Jagmohan decides to marry Nanibala to Sachish, we must remember he is going against the custom that rejected marriage with the widow. Although he may have selfish motives , he is nevertheless behaving in a heroic , almost saintly manner.
Young women caught in the throes of passion usually die in Tagore’s fiction. This conforms to the conventions of the time , which required that most female ‘fallen women’ , no matter how guiltless , had to die,. It is a rare piece of Victorian or early-twentieth century fiction in which a woman who comm9its adultery or has premarital sex, even against her will , is allowed to survive at the end of the story. But Nanibala’s fate is also a reflection of the author’s obsession with the suicide of his sister-in-law, Kadambari. In Tagore’s world , good intentions and pious deeds cannot overcome the power of a fatal passion.
The opening of the second chapter, ‘Sachish’ , leaps from the death of Nanibala to that of Jagmohan, clearly a major turning point in the novel. Jagmohan’s death results from an act of even more saintly generous than his offer to marry Nanibala and it confirms the pattern established early on of contrasting the nonbeliever’s goodness with his sanctimonious brother’s meanness.
In Hindusim , a Brahmin male should go through four stages (ashram) in life : celibate religious student (brahmachari) , married householder (grihastha), forest dweller (vanaprashtha) , and finally wandering ascetic (sannyasi). After having raised a family including at least one son, the devout Brahmin can choose to retire to a simple life of contemplation in the forest wilderness and eventually undertake the severe ascetic life of a beggar, ideally ultimately fasting to death.
In Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Lilananda, the guru who entrances Sachish and converts him is a sadhu devoted to the Vaishava practices surrounding Krishna as lover of Radha . His name refers to the rasa lila (dance of love) that the god performs with his lovers. Countless pictures , songs and dances represent the religious ecstasy in which the worshippers seek to become one with the god they not only long for , but who equally longs for them. Rasa lila also refers to various erotic practices and arts that are reflected widely in South Asian poetry and fiction.
Although the metaphors of Vaishnavismm are intensely erotic, their practice is supposed to be severely ascetic. The rest of the novel consists of the pull of these two opposite ways of life on the central characters, with eroticism embodied in the second of the young widows in the work: Damini. The second quartet is therefore formed of Sachish , Sribilash, the swami, and Damini, with all three of the men being drawn powerfully to this young women who does not share the passivity and frailty of Nanibala (her name means literally ”puppet made of cream,” implying one who is too delicate for hard labour). Religion guides them to enact the role of Radha in relationship to Krishna, but their maleness betrays them as Damini guilelessly plays the of Radha herself. It is not so much anything she does that is the problem; it is what she is: overwhelmingly attractive and charming.
The more serious object of Sachish’s devotions is Brahman, here called ”the Universal Soul that inheres in all beings”. Hindus often believe that not only are all humans ultimately one, so are all living beings, including animals don to the lowliest insect. The loss of individuality in a blending with the spiritual reality of Brahman is the ultimate goal of the devout;but Sribilash is at first repelled by this idea. His Western-influenced education has led him to value his individuality far too much to find such a prospect attractive , and in this he is very like Tagore. The writer saw the divine spirit living within all things; but he remained attached to the particular, the individual, and resisted the Hindu impulse to shrug off the claims of this world for a larger nonphysical essence. In the context of his work, the conventional ‘sin’ of attachment is really a sign of loving devotion.
Damini acts as a distraction from their meditations without even being seen: the clink of her keys, the call of her voice to a maidservant, are enough to disturb the would-be ascetics gathered around their guru. She is the victim of a husband besotted with religion, who sold her jewelry to give to Swami Lilananda. To appreciate what a shocking deed this is , one must understand that although a woman usually has to bring a large dowry into a marriage , the jewelry she is given as a bride becomes her personal property, the evidence of her status as a respectable married woman. her insurance against disaster, to be disposed of in only the most dire necessity, and never without her consent. Shibtosh’s act in ‘liberating’ her from the desire for gold is, as Tagore writes, ”brigandage in the name of spiritual devotion”. His death has left her not only widowed and unprotected, but impoverished. She depends for her survival on the guru who had enriched himself at her expense, but at first she takes her vengeance by cooking tasteless food and allowing the milk to go sour.
Hindu widows are expected to shun all jewelry and makeup., dress in plain white garments and generally project an air of asexuality. Damini defiantly remains an earthy, desirable woman. This is the more powerful side of her vengeance. Her abrupt conversation is most unexpected, and at first inexplicable, until we see she is drawn to join the Vaishnava worship sessions more by the magnetic charms of Sachish than by those of Krishna.
Soon they visit a cave. But Sachish finds that he cannot escape the lure of Domini in this cave, for she enters his dreams as a fearsome serpent, then in reality kneeling at his feet, spreading her hair over him . She had earlier spread her hair over the Sawmi’s feet, but we now understand where her true devotion is directed. Here failure to break through Sachish’s resistance causes her to abruptly abandon her devotions;but her essential goodness is illustrated by her rescue of the kite and puppy. She can bring the most ill-assorted creatures together under her loving care. Having laid claim to her own will, she lays claim to her story as well: this third chapter of the novel is named for her.
When Guruji says of Damini that she must die as the result of Krishna’s hunt, he is speaking metaphorically; but the sinister foreshadowing of his words is inescapable. Sachish remains seemingly invulnerable to her appeal. But the very objects of his devotion torment him by constantly reminding him of her.
When he tells Sribilash that Damini is a beguiling agent of nature designed to distract men from their devotions, he is drawing on the Hindu concept of Maya: the physical world of nature that we mistakenly believe to be the ultimate reality , but in fact conceals the higher reality of Brahman. Maya is often personified as a woman, so Sachish is being very conventional indeed. Sribilash is more in tune with Tagore’s views in insisting, ”We must row the boat of life in Nature’s current”. Human beings live in the physical world , whether we believe in it or not, and we ultimately have to deal with it on its own terms.
Damini does not surrender easily. She cleverly begins to devote herself to Sribilash, who gradually comes to understand that she does not love him, but is only using him to make Sachish jealous. Anyone who has ever been caught in such game playing can understand the pain that the narrator must experience, fascinated by her nearness but unable to capture her heart;but he does not express it openly. We are expected to understand without him pouring out his heart.
In Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore, Damini also rebels by claiming the right to read modern secular literature- perhaps books like the one we are reading. Literature is frequently a vehicle of liberation for women in Tagore’s works, either as readers or as writers. Her eventual sacrifice of her reading is all the more poignant when we remember how fiercely she had fought for it.
Although Damini’s quick switches of allegiance may seem at first bewildering, the key to the consistency in them is Sachish’s attitude toward her. She can subject herself to the whims of Guruji, whom she despises. The result is that she is thrust again as a troubling force into the center of Sachish’s devotions, but ‘ he could no longer regard her as a metaphor for a transcendental mood. Damini didn’t embellish the songs any more;the songs embellished her”. In fact, Guruji has been displaced from the center of his cult by Damini: it is she whom everyone looks to.
As if it were not enough to feature two abused women in one slim volume, the narrative is punctuated by the sensational story of Nabin’s first wife’s suicide after having arranged his marriage to her sister. Tagore seems determined in this book to touch on a wide variety of issues relating to women’s problems: arranged marriages, spousal abuse, rape, discrimination against widows and polygamy.
The ‘postscript’ to Damini seems at first to be one of those abrupt leaps forward commented on earlier , but this turns out to be a sort of ‘flash forward”, which will keep us intrigued until the end of the novel to find out how it will end.
Sribilash defiantly clings to the ‘householder’ stage we have earlier spoken of as the mode of perfect fulfillment for him. He goes beyond even the typical young man in insisting that he and his bride go into marriage with their eyes wide open. It was traditionally considered unseemly for the bride-to-be to look boldly in the face of her proposed groom before marriage, and in deal arranged weddings the first clear look the groom has of the bride is during the ceremony. Even couples who have not been so circumspect during the courtship, which amounts mostly to very public negotiation between the two families, enact this highly romantic moment at the ceremony.
The attitude expressed here is in contrast very Tagorean; fierce, open love of the world, embraced without reserve. Unfortunately for Sribilash, Damini does not feel the same toward him. It quickly becomes clear that he is second best in her heart- but Sachish , whom she prefers , will not embrace her in his quest for purity of spirit. His resistance to her is not entirely pure, however, as Damini clearly states when Sribilash unwarily says that those preoccupied with their spirits do not even notice women. Damini understands that the extreme lengths to which Sachish goes to resist her only reveal the strength of the fascination she exercise over him, but she also understands she will never have him.
In a sense, Sribalash can never really have her either, because her heart belongs to Sachish. Sachish can only embrace her by rejecting her embraces, turning her in his mind into a formless spirit into whose darkness he walks along the riverbank. In the end, Damini finds that the only loving thing she can do for him is to do as he asks and walk away from him.
Unfortunately, this proud woman has to sacrifice her own self-esteem and accept his image of her as dangerously seductive force. It is not clear whether in choosing to join herself to Sribilash she is taking refuge from the world or committing emotional suicide. Her despair is interrupted by a brief premarriage ”honeymoon” period in which she at last recognizes Sribilash’s good qualities: but her anxiety to have Sachish at the ceremony and to keep him near afterward make clear that she has not gotten over him.
Her longing finally consumes her, and she yearns for the shore where Sachish so memorably rejected her, which now represents death. She makes the ritual gesture of ‘taking the dust’ from her husband’s feet as she leaves this life, suggesting she will be his fully only in some future existence, an existence we know Sribilash does not believe in. Like so many of Tagore’s love stories , this one has ended tragically.
The novel In Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore, has no simple lessons to touch. No one forms an ideal marriage. No one attitude toward religion proves fully satisfactory. Friendship and love have been at their most intense among these characters and the result has been heartache for all of them. A traditional Hindu conclusion would have stressed the need to move on, along the path of renunciation; but Tagore simply wants to show us the human heart, in all its fullness and make us sympathize with the suffering that fills so many lives here on earth.
References: Quartet by Rabindranath Tagore
Birans, Paul. Modern South Asian Literature in English. Westport: Greenwood press, 2003.
A Talented Digger. Edited by Hena Maes-Jelinek et all. Amsterdam: Australia Coucil for the Arts, 1996.
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