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Book Excerpt: The Bard and his Sister-in-Law

Excerpt from The Bard and His Sister-in-law, providing a glimpse into the inner workings of Jorasanko Thakurbari

Update : 17 Sep 2023, 04:39 AM

At the magical moment of dawn, Rabi woke up from sleep, and sat near the river Ganges. There were tears in his eyes, flowing like the raindrops that he saw all around the place, in his voice, the lines of Vidyapati, the poet, came alive. 

“E bhara badar, maha bhadar, shunya mandir more…” (In the fullness of the monsoon season, the temple of my heart is barren, empty…) 

The fishermen rowed their boats in front of his eyes. Rabi absorbed it all -- their vague movements, the hurried preparations of cooking in the garden at the back of the house. His Notun Bouthan would be cooking at the garden today for an impromptu picnic that had been arranged. “Rabi, Rabi!” He was summoned from somewhere in the garden. Perhaps he was being called for having breakfast. 

Rabi’s heart was filled with unbridled emotions, but he reprimanded himself quickly. He knew he wasn’t doing the right thing, and such unbridled emotions would embarrass him a lot, especially in the presence of Notun Bouthan and his Joyti dada. Rabi couldn’t stand it if they made a joke out of his present feelings. In fact, there was no better weapon than music in hiding his emotions which threatened to spill out. Rabi started humming the tunes of a melody composed by Vidyapati and sat in the garden.

Under the Bakul tree, a hearth made of bricks was burning. The utensils, masalas and condiments, vegetables for cooking were scattered all around. The maids were in terrible haste, arranging for the cooking, cutting the vegetables, grinding the turmeric into a fine paste in the shil nora, the ubiquitous pair of griding stones. Kadambari seemed to be the busiest person around, seated in a stool, supervising the whole affair. 

Fruits and desserts for breakfast were arranged in a table along with a chair made of cane, placed just beside the stool where Kadambari was seated. Jyoti was seated in another chair like a majestic king, dressed in lose-fitted satin pajamas, a long sky-blue coat, embellished with fine Lucknow Chikan embroidery, and a dupatta finely pleated on his shoulders. Jyoti was quite a famed personality for his quintessential charm and his handsome features. 

In his student life, when he used to sit at the stairs of Presidency college, waiting for his vehicle to arrive, he attracted quite a crowd, all of whom wanted to catch a glimpse of him. Rasaraj Amritlal, who was a few years junior to him narrated his version of the story, explaining how he himself, a student of Hindu School would stand transfixed and ogle at Jyoti’s features, as sharp and exquisite as a Greek sculpture. In Rabi’s eyes too, his Jyoti Dada was the ideal one in handsomeness, with his excellence in music and literature.  

“Are you going to Kolkata, Jyoti dada? Why so early in the morning?” Rabi asked, curious. 

Jyoti didn’t answer his younger brother and sipped grape juice casually, nonchalant. “What were you singing, Rabi? Sing it again, a bit louder please.” He requested Rabi. “The tune sounded familiar, and also a bit unfamiliar. Is it by Vidyapati?” He asked. 

Rabi sat on a chair and replied: “The lines are of Vidyapati, but the tune is improvised by me in a new way. Hence, you can’t recognize it fully.” Rabi started humming the song again. 

It was raining outside, and the canopy over their heads made for a marvelous sight. Vidyapati’s romantic, pensive verse added to the beauty of the cloudy day. Jyotirindra sang along with Rabi and Kadambari listened to the rendition mesmerized, with closed eyes. 

Rabi wasn’t keen on tasting the grape juice, he stretched his eager hands to pick up the coffee cup instead, suiting his disposition perfectly amid such a rainy day. His hair was drenched in the rain, and his attire was wet too. In his eyes, there was a glint of his impending doom. 

“Are you crazy? Have some food first!” Kadambari scolded him in her characteristic way. 

“But I don’t wish to eat anything, Bouthan!” Rabi replied. Looking into his eyes, Kadambari could sense the premonition of the strong gust of Nor’wester winds. She was noticing the unusual restlessness brewing within Rabi for quite some days now. Her bosom palpitated with unknown anxiety for the boy. What had happened to him? Would she be able to control his emotions? 

She tried to joke with Rabi, not letting him know her innermost thoughts. “Well, you didn’t sing that well either, Rabi. Perhaps because it’s a rainy day, your Jyoti dada loved your rendition more.” 

Rabi failed to understand why Kadambari was never fully satisfied with whatever he did. She seemed to overlook any talent he truly had, any art form that he tried. He wanted to fight with his Notun Bouthan regarding her attitude. “You are jealous of my talents whenever Jyoti dada says anything good about me. That explains why you never praise anything I do.” 

Jyoti laughed, listening to this conversation. “Ah, you both flight with each other so childishly! Rabi, sing another song for me, will you? I started the day while listening to you singing, let’s see how the rehearsal goes today!” He said. 

“Well, the drama is done now, everyone is praising it so much…Why do you still need to go to these rehearsals?” Kadambari pouted her lips like a demanding child. “Such a rainy day demands khichri, fried fish and music, isn’t it? Do you really have to leave us?” 

“No, I have to go now, they will be waiting for me. But I will return early, so you can keep the khichri and music for the night; meanwhile, just enjoy singing and poetry with Rabi.” 

“Who will wait for you, may I ask? Is that Binodini?” Kadambari asked, in a rather nagging tone. She looked at Jyoti with her sharp, piercing eyes. 

“Ah, you are such a suspicious woman!” Jyoti replied, annoyed, and stood up. “Well, I’ll have to catch the nine-o-clock steamer, so I’ll better leave now. Rabi, take care of your Bouthan meanwhile.” He said while leaving. 

As Jyoti left, Kadambari sat with a grim, sulking face. Rabi looked at her face, her demeanour and thought to himself: This woman who sits in front of me and feeds me, fights with me, pines for her husband is my very familiar Notun Bouthan. And the woman who has crept in my very being, making my life miserable is nobody’s wife, nobody’s sister-in-law. That mysterious woman is Hecate Thakrun. She is the Beatrice of my poetry. 

Rabi tried to attract the attention of the sulking Kadambari. “O my Beatrice, when the golden rays of your Jyoti have sunken, why don’t you give some thought to this new, rising sun in front of you?” 

“I don’t appreciate your jokes all the time, Rabi!” Kadambari retaliated. “Can’t you see, your Notun Dada is getting so immensely attracted to the theater actresses he is working with? See how he left me alone, in such a romantic rainy day! Why, we could have well stayed in Calcutta then! Why did he have to take me here?” 

Rabi replied: “Bouthan, you know, the banks of this river seem to be the most suited to your pangs of separation that you feel for your husband now! Though he has left you, you’re not alone. You have the company of the river, your garden, your fawn, your beloved Rupkumari, and look at me, seated beneath your feet like the poor chataka bird, in the faint hope of receiving your merciful attention!” 

“O my, so are you comparing yourself with your Jyoti Dada?” Kadambari looked at Rabi, her eyes burning in an unexplained sarcasm. “I don’t see any special beauty or talent in you, not yet. You are just a seventeen-year-old child in my eyes.” 

Kadambari’s words bruised the new, blooming masculinity in Rabi. A glint of tears was visible in the corner of his eyes. ‘I know Jyoti dada occupies a treasured part of my heart, but you are dearer to me! Can you hurt me so cruelly, just because I keep begging for your affection and love, Hecate Thakrun?’ He complained. 

“Now, now, don’t cry like a baby again! And don’t irritate me when I’m angry.” Kadambari moved away to her room. Dejected by this gesture, Rabi sat all alone. To whom would he explain the agony of his broken heart? Rabi was still an uninitiated teenager in Kadambari’s eyes, while Kadambari herself was almost his age. And ironically, she didn’t feel the need to know how the teenager Rabi had ripened, in body, mind and spirit. Why would she even care about him, when Jyoti, her husband had occupied her entire heart as her man, her Lord? The agonized Rabi entered a few lines in his notebook, in the form of a soliloquy. 

“My beloved sakhi, I thought I would gain your affection if I would cry,

But in crying, I provoked your ire. 

I beg mercy at your feet, sakhi, forgive me please…

Or else, how would I quench my inner fire?”

Translator’s Note: 

The vernacular Bengali literature of my own ethnic lineage that I largely grew up on was a fertile ground of unforgettable stories, exploration of language, cadence, and lyrical and metaphorical truths of myriad human experiences. As a sensitive reader exposed to this rich literary world, I was not only intrigued by these classic masterpieces, but day after day, I kept feeling that as a translator, I could act as a cultural bridge, connecting the diverse trajectories of the poetic and fictional worlds of the vernacular authors par excellence and the global readers who want to taste those intriguing poems, stories, narratives.

‘The Bard and His Sister-in-Law’ is my English translation of a historical Bengali novel/biographical nonfiction originally titled ‘Kobir Bouthan’, a much-acclaimed literary work by feminist author/poet Mallika Sengupta, award-winning poet, author and academician of Kolkata, India. The book focuses on the multifaceted history of the illustrious Jorasanko Thakurbari, Kolkata, the birthplace of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (mentioned in the book as ‘Rabi’) and how the interpersonal relationships between men and women inside that mansion become historically significant in terms of gender and culture studies of the pre-independence era in India and also in terms of the development of Tagore’s poetic persona. Through this important translation work, which is a deeply layered narrative, I have tried to unfold the subtle nuances of the socio-political history of Bengal in those times, while retaining the original flavor of the characters and the daily rigmarole of their lives through this period piece set in the backdrop of the Renaissance in India, and particularly, in Bengal.

My translation of this classic work will, I believe, enhance the emotional and creative landscape of this beautiful original book, as I hope to convey the fluidity between languages, continents, and cultures. This is my humble gift to the global readers interested to know the diverse cultural history of the illustrious Thakurbari, the rich legacy of Bengal, and the dramatic and inspiring transformation of women during the Renaissance period in India with special emphasis on Bengal.

Mallika Sengupta (1960–2011) was a Bengali poet, feminist, and reader of Sociology from Kolkata and a celebrated literary figure whose "unapologetically political poetry" has been critically analyzed in India and abroad. Lopamudra Banerjee is an author, poet, translator, and editor with eight solo books and six anthologies in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She lives in Texas, USA with her family. 

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