“Punishment”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Punishment” (“Shasti”, 1893) [1] was the basis for the eighth episode of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015).  The series was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, but this particular episode was directed by Debatma Mandal. The story concerns how a domestic crime that erupts in the collective household of two brothers and their wives is addressed .

Although Tagore’s stories were separately written over a wide timespan and were not linked with respect to their content, the series creators’ penchant for linking up the series episodes led to a dramatic connection between this episode and the previous one, “Kabuliwala”.  The young woman Mini turns out to be a key dramatic personage in both “Kabuliwala” and “Punishment”.  But this linkage is only an incidental and distracting artefact, and the two stories told are in other respects quite distinct [2].

One thing notable about this episode is the high quality of the acting, particularly that for the role of the older sister-in-law, Radha. Although the acting over the course of this series is generally very good, it reaches a high point on this occasion. They make the dramatic events in this story come alive with feeling.

The story of “Punishment” begins by depicting the married lives of two brothers, Devendra and Upendra, who jointly operate the thriving tea plantation that they inherited from their father.  Devendra is married to Radha, an incessantly crabby nagger who makes life difficult for the people around her.  Younger brother Upendra has recently married Mini, who as a child in the previous episode had been the object of the Kabuliwala’s attentions, and she is now struggling to accommodate and fit in with her bad-tempered sister-in-law.  But Radha persistently complains that Mini is not conforming to the norms of a proper housewife and attending to her  domestic chores.  However, Upendra comforts his sensitive young wife by reminding her that he is madly in love with her and that she will always be the center of his devotion.

Despite the semi-turmoil on the domestic scene, the two brothers seem to be enjoying prosperity with their tea plantation operation.  However, one day a British attorney comes to inform Devendra that the brothers have lost the title to their tea plantation property.  It quickly appears that this is a coercive swindle, and this passage suggests that exploitative elements within the British Raj corruptly manipulated their imposed legal mechanisms to routinely deprive “brown-skinned” natives of their rightful property.  The brothers are powerless to stop the takeover, and they suddenly find themselves in poverty.

Note that this sequence of events depicting British duplicitous exploitation of innocent Indians was not part of Tagore’s original story, which depicted the two brothers just as common day laborers [1]. But I think it is an interesting addition to the narrative, which is, after all, about societal norms, guilt, and punishment. 

Anyway, this situation that the two brothers now face naturally distresses them, particularly older brother Devendra, who had managed their affairs and is now struggling to get them out of debt.  And his disturbed state is only exacerbated by his wife Radha’s perpetually bitchy complaints.  One day when he encounters one of her storms of vituperation, he loses his temper.   He angrily smacks Radha with a vase, and she unexpectedly falls backward out of their second-story window to her death.

Devendra, Upendra, and Mini are all horrified by what has happened and are in a state of shock.  But  Upendra recovers himself enough to tell Mini to stay silent when the authorities arrive and let him do all the talking.  When the police come, Upendra tells them that it was Mini who quarreled with Radha and killed her.  Mini is stunned to hear her husband say this, but she dutifully remains silent.  Upendra reassuringly whispers to her that she should not worry and that he will take care of everything to keep her safe from harm.

After the police arrest Mini, Upendra, in justification of his actions, confides to the still stunned Devendra that he knows that he can always get another wife, but he could never get another brother. Such are the mores of many traditional societies, according to which blood family ties and fealty always take precedence over those towards a woman who has joined a family by marriage.  For Upendra, Mini is a beautiful toy that can be replaced.

Now in jail, Mini stays loyal to her husband’s command and remains silent when she is questioned.  She recalls her father’s adjurations when she got married that now she must selflessly devote herself to her new husband and his family that she has joined. 

When the court case takes place, Mini is accused of murder and warned that she faces execution if what her husband has said is correct.  Still the stunned woman holds her tongue.  Now finally overcome with guilt at what he is causing, Upendra rises from his seat in the audience and announces that he, himself, committed the murder.  Upon hearing his brother’s sacrificial confession, Devendra then stands up and insists that it was he who committed the murder. 

The judge now has three conflicting accounts as to who committed the murder.  But he is procedurally oriented and has only one person before him who has been formally accused of the crime.  He turns to Mini and asks her to give her account as to what really happened.  Again the stunned girl, still confused about her proper duties, remains silent.  So the judge, taking Mini’s silence as a confession of guilt, condemns the woman to be hanged.  The story ends with Mini silently and tearfully facing the gallows noose.

This is a sad story about justice and punishment.  An accidental death has occurred, and “justice” demands punishment.  Mini has been made to feel guilty and obliged throughout her marriage, and in the end she assumes the guilt for a crime she didn’t commit.  Given the misogonystic social norms under which she lived, the deck was always stacked against her. 

The ending here differs somewhat from Tagore’s story, in which the accused wife, in order to punish her husband with guilt for falsely casting the blame on her, publicly proclaims that she did commit the murder.  At the end of that story, the condemned wife bitterly rejects her husband before she is executed.  I like the ending here in this filmed episode better.  It makes the woman’s sad fate even more poignant.


Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore , “Punishment”, (1893), Shawkat Hussain (trans., November 2016), Gitanjali & Beyond. 1. 203. 10.14297/gnb.1.1.203-213.
  2. Durgas, “Punishment – Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (4)”, Writersbrew, (6 August 2015).   

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