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

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Sampatti Samarpan”, aka “The Trust Property” [1] (1891-92), is a mordant tale of madness and desolation brought about by overweening greed.  This story served as the basis for the 16th episode, “Waaris”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

This could almost be considered a horror story, but one that is more focused on the plane of human  feelings rather than on external circumstances.  It begins by showing middle-aged Yagyanath Kundu (played by Rammakant Daayama) laughingly playing with his four-year-old grandson Gokulchandra.  At the same time, Yagyanath is carelessly unmindful of the life-threatening medical condition of his son Vrindavan’s wife in the same household.  A village doctor comes and prescribes some medicine for Vrindavan’s wife, but the selfish and stingy Yagyanath refuses to spend the money on it.  The woman soon passes away, and horrified by his father’s unfeeling behavior, Vrindavan announces to him that he is going to take his son, Gokul, with him and leave the home.  But Yagyanath is unfazed by his son’s departure – it will just mean that he can save some money on his household expenses.  And Yagyanath’s village neighbors, steeped in the traditional customs, are equally unsympathetic towards Vrindavan and think that the son should  not have moved away from his father.  After all, one of them tells Yagyanath, “if your wife dies, you can always get another wife, but you can’t find another father”.  (A similar traditionally misogynist sentiment was expressed in another Tagore story in this series, “Punishment” [2].)

Although Yagyanath is miserly and hardly a good social companion, he misses playing with his little four-year-old grandson Gokul. That’s the one kind of unbalanced relationship he was able to cope with.  Now he is lonely and miserable.  As time passes (which we can discern by the greying of his hair), he becomes a crotchety and eccentric old man, known for his miserly and antisocial ways.  Increasingly he appears to be a lunatic, and he finds himself an object of derision by naughty young village boys, who run by and poke him as he walks down the road.

One day Yagyanath observes among his youthful tormenters a new rascal who seems to be their new leader and who is even more impudent than all the others.  This cheeky boy, Nitai, even boldly comes up to Yagyanath and rips the man’s garment as a rude way of insulting him.  But since the boy is willing to talk to Yagyanath, the lonely man invites him to his home.  Soon Yagyanath  learns that Nitai has away from home, because his father wanted to send him to school.  So Yagyanath invites the impertinent boy to stay with him, and Nitai readily agrees. 

Nitai enjoys being spoiled by Yagyanath, but after awhile he becomes bored and threatens to leave.  Yagyanath panics over the idea of losing his only companion and offers the boy everything he has if he will only stay.  Later a neighbor warns Yagyanath that a man named Damodar Pal has been looking for his runaway son, Nitai, and if the authorities discover the boy at his place he could go to jail.  It is Nitai’s turn to panic now, but Yagyanath assures the boy that this very night he can hide the boy in a place where noone can find him.

Then in the middle of that night, Yagyanath wakes the sleepy boy and ushers him out into the jungle.  He takes Nitai to an abandoned temple and upon entering the main chamber loosens a floorboard, which turns out to be a hidden trapdoor to a secret chamber below.  After the two of them climb down a ladder into the dark, hidden room, Nitai can see pots full of jewels and gold coins.  This is where the miserly Yagyanath has been hiding his great wealth!  And now this will be Nitai’s undiscoverable hiding place.      

But in this connection Yagyanath has a crazed plan.  He madly intends to convert Nitai into a tantric yaksha nature-spirit to guard over his hidden wealth [3].  So he coercively orders the sleepy boy to repeatedly recite a mantra-like declaration that if his grandson, Gokul, or any of Gokul’s heirs, ever appears at the temple and wants the hidden treasure, Nitai  must hand it over to  him.  Nitai is now frightened by these ghostly developments, but he is now in something of a trance and is repeating his mantric declaration over and over.  Then with Nitai still chanting, Yagyanath climbs the ladder and exits the secret chamber.

In the morning, Yagyanath is awakened by his son Vrindavan, whom he hasn’t seen since Vrindavan and Gokul departed his home years ago.  Vrindavan tells him that he is looking for Gokul, who recently ran away from home and who, rumor has it, may now be staying with his grandfather.  He also reveals that, because of Yagyanath’s embarrassingly bad reputation in the area, he had changed his name to Damodar Pal, and he had changed Gokul’s name to Nitai.

With this news – that the naughty boy that he had condemned to be a yaksha in the temple dungeon was actually his beloved grandson Gokul – Yagyanath slips into complete madness.  He absently looks off into space, asking to noone in particular if anyone can hear a child calling.  At this, Vrindavan, in turn, panics and runs off in the wrong direction searching for his lost son.  As the story ends, Yagyanath continues to stew alone in his delirium.

At the close of Tagore’s original story “Sampatti Samarpan”, it is clear that Nitai did not survive his grim imprisonment, but in this filmed episode, “Waaris”, Nitai’s fate, though dire, is left somewhat open.  We are just left to mull over the vengeful trick fate has played on Yagyanath and his demonic scheme. 

Indeed this ironic twist at the end constitutes the appeal of this story, which otherwise suffers from the weakness of having a deranged main character with whom it is difficult to empathize.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Trust Property”, Mashi and Other Stories, The Literature Network, (1918).   
  2. The Film Sufi, “‘Punishment’, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Debatma Mandal (2015)”, The Film Sufi, (6 March 2018).  
  3. Malabika Roy, “Chapter - III: Myths, Symbols and Imagery of Tagore’s Short Stories”, The Poetic Counter-point in Rabindranath Tagore's Short Stories : a Critical Study, University of Gauhati, (Guwahati, Assam, India) (PhD, 2011).  

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

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Tyaag”, aka “The Renunciation” (1892) [1], concerns the eternal conflict between what feels right in the heart and what is dictated by social customs. In this case it is a matter of romantic love up against the rigid constraints of the Indian caste system.  This story served as the basis for the 15th  episode, “Tyaag”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

This Tagore story, which was scripted for the screen by Samrat Chakraborty, not only features the emotional urgings of romantic love in conflict with the traditional caste system; it is also laced with strains of personal revenge.  Much of the story is told in flashback, as a newly married couple come to face a crisis associated with their marriage.

The story begins with Hemant Mukherjee at home expressing his rapturous love for and to his new wife, Kusum.  But Kusum has a troubled look on her face and doesn’t express what is worrying her.  Then we move into a flashback relating how the two of them met each other. 

The distinctions between when we are in the “present” and when we are in the past in this presentation of the story are often obscure and poorly signaled.  The primary telltale indicator here is that Hemant in the present sports a mustache, while he is clean-shaven in the flashback scenes.  Here we see in flashback the clean-shaven Hemant immediately smitten when he first sees Kusum on the street in a rickshaw.  He soon starts following her around on his bicycle whenever he sees her rickshaw.  These lyrical sequences of their cautious flirtation via furtive exchanges of glances are the highlight of this episode. They are accompanied by evocative music, notably the beautiful “Come, O’ Monsoon Shower of the Night”, which I believe is a song by Tagore.

Then back in the present, we learn what was troubling Kusum.  Unbeknownst to Hemant, who belongs to an orthodox Brahmin family, Kusum is not a Brahmin – she is a Kayasth, which is a lower caste, and it is forbidden to orthodox Brahmins to marry outside their caste.  Hemant had believed when they were married that she was a Brahmin, and she had been meaning to tell him ever since about this lie.  But before she could muster the courage to tell her husband, he is informed of the problematic situation by his father, Harihar.  Harihar orders his son to immediately cast out Kusum from his home, insisting her presence is polluting their entire family.  Already the father of his sister Hemlata’s fiancé, Sumont Banerjee, has cancelled their upcoming wedding because of this supposedly scandalous situation.  When Hemlata asks Sumont what he is going to do about this edict, Sumont meekly tells her that he will abide by his father’s’ wishes.

Now in another flashback we learn about Kusum’s background.  As a very young girl, after her parents had passed away, Kusum was adopted and raised by a kindly Brahmin, Biplavdas Chatterjee. Everyone always assumed that she was Chatterjee’s legitimate daughter and therefore a Brahmin, too.  But now that Kusum has come of age, the elderly Chatterjee has started to worry about Kusum’s future.  His relative Pyarishankar, however, urges Chatterjee to go off on a long put-off religious pilgrimage and that he, himself, will look after Kusum while Chatterjee Baba is away.

During this time Pyarishankar sees that Hemant and Kusum are enamored with each other, and he arranges for them to get married, with Kusum presented as being a Brahmin.  When Kusum expresses misgivings about this lie, Pyarishankar tells her that
“a lie that can unite two hearts is better than a hundred truths”. 
When Chatterjee returns from his trip, Pyarishankar convinces him, too, to let the marriage go ahead in the name of true love.  So Hemant and Kusum were then married in a sumptuous and traditional ceremony.

Now we return to the “present” again, and Hemant is shown to be greatly troubled about having been deceived about Kusum’s background by Pyarishankar.  Pyarishankar explains to him that his marriage was arranged in order to take revenge on Hemant’s father, Harihar, whom he had known earlier.  Years earlier in a Bengali village where Pyarishankar lived, Harihar had led the locals to banish Pyarishankar from the area for the crime of funding his son-in-law’s study abroad, something forbidden to orthodox Brahmins.  Pyarishankar was accused of polluting Brahmin purity.  Although as a penance Pyarishankar had offered to douse his house in river Ganges holy water and force his son-in-law to eat cow dung, his pleas for forgiveness were rejected, and he had to leave the village and move his family to Kolkata.

Later when Pyarishankar saw that Harihar’s son was in love with a non-Brahmin, he saw his chance to take revenge and pollute Harihar’s family.  Then after the unholy marriage took place, he wrote a letter to Sumont’s father informing him how Hemant’s blasphemous marriage had polluted the Mukherjee family and had consequently rendered Sumont’s marriage to Hemlata untenable.  It was all done not to support true love but in the interests of revenge.

In the final scene, Hemant sees Kusum, having been ordered out of their home by Harihar, packing her bag to leave.  Harihar tells Hemant that it is necessary for him to forsake Kusum in order to salvage Hemlata’s intended wedding to Sumont.  But Hemant, having thought things over, tells his father that he will forsake his wider family and his caste before he will forsake his wife.  He is going to stick with Kusum, come what may.  And at this point Hemlata informs them that she doesn’t want to marry Sumont, anyway.  She, too, it seems, stakes her future on true love above traditional ritual.

Then in the very last shot, there is a knock on the door, and Pyarishankar is shown getting in his last vengeful dig.  He has come with some Ganges water and cow dung to give to the still-stubborn Harihar so that the man can serve penance for his sins.

That final shot was tacked on to the tail of Tagore’s story to give what I think is an unhelpful sarcastic twist at the very end.  However, another, and in my view more productive, addition to the tale was an amplification of Hemant’s sister Hemlata’s role in the narrative. This expansion ties up something of a loose end that was left unattended in Tagore’s original story.  Overall, this is a slight tale, but it is eloquently told.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “THE RENUNCIATION”, (1891), The Hungry Stones and Other Stories, ©. F. Andrews, trans.), The Project Gutenberg, (2013).   

Abdellatif Kechiche

Films of Abdellatif Kechiche:

“The Secret of the Grain” - Abdellatif Kechiche (2007)

One of the more highly lauded French films of recent years was the Franco-Tunisian production The Secret of the Grain (La Graine et le Mulet, 2007), which in English is also known as Couscous and Mullet and Couscous.  Written and directed by Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche, this film received César Awards (the highest film awards in France) in 2008 for Best French Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Most Promising Actress (Hafsia Herzi).  Perhaps because the film has a cultural perspective of particular interest to the French – the nuances of French-Arab social and cultural relations – it has attracted a particularly enthusiastic response from the French public and critics.  But English-language critics have also been generally highly supportive [1-5], although not uniformly [6].  From my own perspective, I would say that there are some interesting positive and negative peculiarities about the film, which I will discuss below. 

The film’s story concerns events surrounding a Tunisian immigrant, Slimane Beiji (played by Habib Boufares), who is an elderly dockside worker in the French Mediterranean seaport town of Sète.  Very early on in the piece, the viewer learns that the 61-year-old Slimane is a rather deliberate (and hence not quick enough) worker and that, due in part to declining import traffic at the port, his work is of reduced value to his employers, and so his hours are to be reduced.  Slimane suspects that soon he may even be let go.

Slimane has been working in the Sète docks for thirty-five years and presumably immigrated to France during the wave of Tunisian immigration that began in the 1960s following Tunisian independence.  His six children, being second-generation Tunisians in France, are much more comfortable with French and the French way of doing things.  That and the fact that Slimane is a particularly stoic and laconic individual mean that much of the film’s focus turns out to be on Slimane’s family and acquaintances.  They are a varied lot, the most prominent of whom are listed here:
  • Souad (Bouraouïa Marzouk) is Slimane’s vigorous ex-wife and the mother of his six children.  She is an excellent cook, and couscous is her specialty.  Every Sunday evening her extended family comes over to her home to feast on it and gab with each other.
  • Latifa (Hatika Karaoui) owns a tiny dockside hotel and is Slimane’s current partner.
  • Rym (Hafsia Herzi) is Latifa’s twenty-year-old daughter by an earlier marriage.  Because of her mother’s relationship with Slimane, she feels filial affection for Slimane and wants to help him.
  • Karima (Farida Benkhetache) is a married daughter of Slimane and Souad and has two little kids.
  • Olfa (Sabrina Ouazani) is a younger, but still adult, daughter of Slimane and Souad.
  • Majid (Sami Zitouni) is Slimane Souad’s eldest son.  Although married and with a young  son, he pursues adulterous sex with other women.
  • Julia (Alice Houri) is a Russian immigrant and is Majid’s neglected wife.
  • Riadh (Mohamed Benabdeslem) is Slimane and Souad’s youngest son.
A key weakness of The Secret of the Grain, however, is its generally slack narrative.  Instead of keeping an eye on the primary issue, which concerns what should be done about Slimane’s situation, it often gets sidetracked and wallows at times into various situations with Slimane’s family members, which seem little more than distractions.  And so what we often wind up with are extended sessions that, although featuring dramatic intensity, slow things down.  Paradoxically and at the same time, though, some of these intense encounters are what we take away as the film’s most memorable moments.

Overall, we can consider the narrative to be divided into three general sections.
1.  Slimane and his family
The first part of this section starts with an overview of Slimane’s dockside situation.  But then it moves, rather quickly and without much narrative motivation, over into a surveying coverage of his extended family.  The main vehicle for presenting the family together is Souad’s weekly couscous feasts, and the family are seen gathered around the table and enthusiastically gorging themselves on Souad’s cooking.  This is all shown using extreme wide-angle closeups, often with disruptive jump-cuts.  And it is all done with a shaky handheld camera.  This has a strange, disturbing effect, because the extreme facial closeups place the invisible viewer much closer to the faces under scrutiny than would be the case for someone occupying a place at the table.  Instead the viewer is placed almost on top of the respective person in view and is subjected to uncomfortably observing their eating in all its lip-smacking squishiness.  This is presumably intended to establish intimacy with the subject matter, but it didn’t work for me.  In fact the shaky handheld, wide-angle cinematography throughout the film is atrocious and is a considerable detriment to the overall viewing experience.

2.  Slimane’s project
After awhile Slimane decides to leave his dock-working job and use his redundancy payments to start his own business – a seafood/couscous (“la graine et le mulet”) restaurant to be situated inside an abandoned cargo ship at the dockside.  The featured food will be Souad’s couscous.  All of the family members pitch in to help with this project in whatever way they can.

A major problem to be surmounted with this project is securing all the licenses and permits that are needed from the government, and much of the focus of this section of the film is on this issue.  In this connection Rym comes to Slimane’s rescue as she passionately and patiently guides him through complex pathways of the government’s bureaucratic channels.  It is during this phase that Rym emerges as the real star of the film.

3.  Opening Night
After failing to get all the required permits, Slimane and his family resolve to hold a party at their new, not-yet-commissioned restaurant and invite all the city officials, including the recalcitrant ones.  They hope to wow their guests with good food and thereby get them to approve their remaining permit requests.  This turns out to be a lavish affair, and again the focus is on food.  But there is also on display the interesting contrast between French behavior (the guests) and Tunisian (the servers).  However, a serious problem arises when Majid’s narcissistic perambulations cause the crowning dish of the evening – Souad’s couscous – to go missing.  There ensues desperate efforts on the part of several principles to rectify the situation.  Some people try to find the missing dish, while others set about the arduous task of making a second batch.

Meanwhile, the hungry guests are waiting for their main dish and getting seriously impatient.  So Rym decides to entertain them all by performing an Arabic belly dance.  The passionate earthiness of Rym’s dance highlights the contrasts between French and Tunisian culture, and it arouses the rapt enthusiasm of the no-longer-bored dinner guests. 

So now the film is suspended in unbearable tension.  The guests are waiting.  The servers are scrambling.  And Rym is dancing.  What will happen?  Kechiche draws out this tense situation for an almost unbearable length of time.  In fact he seems to extend it indefinitely, as you will feel if you watch the film’s conclusion.

As I mentioned, there are some intense individual dramatic situations focusing on a single character that Kechiche dwells on for extended periods. 
  1. Julia engages in a long tearful tirade about her sufferings brought on by her irresponsible and unfaithful husband, Majid.
  2. Rym implores at great length for her jealous mother, Latifa, to attend Slimane’s opening night party, even though the featured food has been prepared by her paramour’s ex.
  3. Rym’s lengthy, exhausting, and fleshy belly dance.
These moments in the film hold the viewer in an extended emotional storm that has its own peculiar fascinations, irrespective of their pertinence to the overall narrative.  And they do exhibit a certain degree of moment-extending skill on the part of Kechiche and his actresses.

I have already alluded to three major themes in The Secret of the Grain – food, family, and Franco-Tunisian cultural contrasts.  There is a fourth theme worth mentioning – womanhood.  All of the women in this story are relatively responsible and ready to take the initiative.  The men around them are mostly powerless, and sometimes irresponsible.  This reminds me of another “food film”, The Fish Fall in Love (2006), in which the principal women had more initiative and more emotional fortitude than the men they encountered.  I wonder how much this is generally the case in food films.  In any case, your response to the film will depend on the degree to which the film’s presentation of these four themes resonate with your own feelings.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Secret of the Grain”, RogerEbert.com, (21 January 2009).    
  2. Philip French, “Couscous”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  3. Peter Bradshaw, “Couscous (La Graine et le Mulet)”, The Guardian, (22 June 2008).   
  4. Wesley Morris, “The Secret of the Grain: No Secrets”, The Criterion Collection, (27 July 2010).   
  5. J. Hoberman, “The Secret of the Grain”, The Village Voice, (24 December 2008).   
  6. Louise Keller and Andrew L. Urban, “SECRET OF THE GRAIN, THE”, Urban Cinefile, (n.d.).   

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

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Chutti”, aka “Chhuti” or “The Homecoming” (1892-93) [1], concerns something that most all of us are familiar with but which all too rarely attracts our sympathies – the confused awkwardness of early teenage boys.  This story served as the basis for the 14th  episode, “Chhooti”, of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015), which was under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode having been directed by Debatma Mandal

The problem with boys of this age period (12-14-years-old) is that they are in-betweeners – no longer children, but not yet adults.  Thus they are no longer given the accommodating tolerance that little kids get, and at the same time their often confused early adult-like assertiveness is not tolerated and given gentle refinement, either.  This story “Chhooti” is about one such boy and his struggles.  In connection with this awkward age for boys, Tagore made these explicit authorial comments in his story [2,3], which were not included in the filmed episode under discussion:
“In this world of human affairs there is no worse nuisance than a boy at the age of fourteen. He is neither ornamental nor useful. It is impossible to shower affection on him as on a little boy; and he is always getting in the way. If he talks with a childish lisp he is called a baby, and if he answers in a grown-up way he is called impertinent. In fact any talk at all from him is resented. Then he is at the unattractive, growing age. He grows out of his clothes with indecent haste; his voice grows hoarse and breaks and quavers; his face grows suddenly angular and unsightly. It is easy to excuse the shortcomings of early childhood, but it is hard to tolerate even unavoidable lapses in a boy of fourteen. The lad himself becomes painfully self-conscious. When he talks with elderly people he is either unduly forward, or else so unduly shy that he appears ashamed of his very existence. “
Tagore goes on to say that what a young teenage boy in these circumstances needs – and what he for the first time in his life feels a craving for – is love [2,3]:
“Yet it is at this very age when, in his heart of hearts, a young lad most craves for recognition and love; and he becomes the devoted slave of any one who shows him consideration. But none dare openly love him, for that would be regarded as undue indulgence and therefore bad for the boy.”
Note that the anglicized version of the title of Tagore’s story “Chutti” is usually given as “The Homecoming”.  However, it is my understanding (using Google Translate) that the word ‘Chutti’ could be translated into English as ‘Holiday’, and this rendering seems meaningful at this story’s end.

The filmed version of this Tagore story, as is characteristic of the Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series, once again makes excellent use of closeups and slow-motion sequences to shape the subjective ambience of the main character.  In addition the cinematography by Abhishek Basu (Anurag Basu’s brother) and film editing also effectively contribute to the emotive psychological atmosphere and is very well done throughout.

The story of “Chhooti” begins with a gang of young boys engaged in rambunctious game-playing in the sylvan outskirts of a rural village.  Their boisterous leader, Phatik Chakravorti (played by Suyash Shivaji Shirke), is by no means an attractive or winsome lad; he is just a naughty, self-centered boy up to no good.  When his pestering young brother Makhan gets in his way, he rudely pushes him to the ground, which evokes Makhan’s vow to run home and report Phatik’s misbehavior to their mother. 

Once Phatik is home, his widowed mother, Shanti, harshly scolds him for his habitual bullying of his younger brother.  It is clear that she is used to punishing him for his perpetual naughtiness.  In the middle of this, she looks up to see the surprising appearance of her older brother Bishamber (Ravi Gosain), who has come to visit her after a long absence.  Feeling guilty that he has not been fulfilling his traditional Indian familial duties by looking after his unattended younger sister, and also seeing that her sons Phatik and Makhan are incessantly quarreling, Bishamber asserts his family authority and tells Shanti that he will take Phatik away with him to his home in Calcutta.  There he will raise the boy as a member of his own family and enrol him in a proper school.  Phatik is delighted to hear this news, and Shanti, powerless to object, quietly submits to Bishamber’s intentions.

When they get to Calcutta, Bishamber introduces Phatik to his wife, Kumud, as their new son.  Kumud, though, is an urbanized woman and unabashed about expressing her displeasure over this new situation.  She complains that she already has two sons to look after, and she wasn’t even consulted about the idea of adding another one to her burden.  Her two sons, Sidhu and Kanai, are equally unwelcoming to Phatik and look down at the new arrival as an unsophisticated yokel to be laughed at.

Phatik, though, is at first oblivious of his unwelcoming surroundings, so dazzled is he over the wonders of the big city, Calcutta.  He is amazed that the city never seems to sleep; and he marvels at the way schoolboys spend so much time collectively chasing after and kicking a little round (soccer) ball.  But soon he begins to suffer from the scornful treatment he is getting from Kumud, Sidhu, and Kanai.  After he gets into a scuffle with Sidhu at school, Kumud angrily calls Phatik an uncouth illiterate; and she wonders aloud why he just doesn’t go away.  Later, from his bed at night, Phatik overhears Bishamber and Kumud vehemently arguing about him.  There are few things more disturbing for a child than to hear his or her parents, even if they are surrogate parents as is the case here. engaged in an angry argument.  Then Phatik also overhears from the adjoining bedroom Sidhu and Kanai expressing their shared wish to each other that Phatik would go away.

Despite these negative signs, Phatik begins penning a letter to his real mom.  At first he lies and asserts to her that everything is rosy with his life in Calcutta.  But when he starts recollecting how harshly he was treated by his aunt Kumud on the occasion of his losing his school bag, he changes his tone – he writes that he wants to return home.  He promises that he will be a good boy from now on and do whatever his mother tells him to do. 

Then Phatik goes to his uncle Bishamber and tells him he wants to be taken back home.  Bishamber, though, is busy, and, besides this is the middle of the school term.  He tells Phatik that the soonest he can take him back to his home village is when Durga Puja holiday comes, which is several months away.  Phatik insists he wants to go right away, but he gets nowhere with the authoritative Bishamber.  That night Phatik goes to bed and makes a decision.

The next morning Bishamber and Kumud learn that Phatik has run away during the night, and Bishamber notifies the police about the missing boy.  Now for the first time Bishamber, Kumud, Sidhu, and Kanai feel anxiety about their own culpability in Phatik’s disappearance. 

That evening in a pouring rain, the police carry the weakened-by-fever Phatik back to the Bishamber residence.  It is clear that the delirious boy is critically ill, and a summoned doctor is not optimistic.  Meanwhile, in his delirious state, Phatik has idyllic visions of his mother and little brother, evidently recalling, or dreaming of, some precious moments when he felt loved.

Soon Phatik’s mom Shanti, having been notified about her boy’s serious condition, tearfully rushes to his bedside and lovingly fondles his feverish head.  Phatik looks up at her, and in his closing words asks, “has the holiday finally come?”  Indeed it has.

The story is a sad one and reminds us that the awkward years of early adolescence, while exhibiting the first impulses of boastful assertiveness, also feature a newly intense, but unexpressed, need for love and affection.  It was love that Phatik so desperately needed but didn’t get.  And in the end Shanti, Bishamber, Kumud, Sidhu, and Kanai, having failed to express to Phatik their love, could only express their remorse.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “Chutti”, aka “Chhuti” (“The Homecoming”), (1892-93).  Available English translations:
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Home-Coming”, Wikisource, (1892-93/2014).   
  3. Rabindranath Tagore, “THE HOME-COMING/CHUTI”, Wattpad, (1892-93/n.d.).    

Sachin Deo

Stories by Sachin Deo:
  • "Wafadaar"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episode 11 – Sachin Deo (2015)
  • "Two Sisters"Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Episodes 17 & 18 – Sachin Deo (2015)

“Wafadaar”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Sachin Deo (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Khokababur Pratyabartan” (“The Return of Khokababu”, 1891) [1] features an interesting plot twist that triggers our consideration of several social themes.  It served as the basis for the 11th episode, “Wafadaar” (“Dutiful”), of the anthology television series Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (2015) created by and under the general directorship of Anurag Basu, with this episode directed by Sachin Deo.

This filming of Tagore’s story is relatively faithful to the original, but since many of the episodes in the Stories by Rabindranath Tagore series are sequentially linked, there are slight narrative adjustments that serve to accommodate these linkages.  With the case of “Wafadaar”, for example, rather than follow the original story’s third-person presentation throughout, the story’s first two-thirds are presented as a narrative flashback – “Wafadaar’s” main character recounts his experiences to a character from Episodes 9 & 10 (“The Broken Nest”), Bhupati Babu, who is here only a passive listener and has no significance to this narrative.

As the story unfolds, we can make out some issues associated with three social themes that are of interest:
  • Duty  
    What is the scope of duty and what are its boundaries?  To what extent is one’s very identity, both as perceived by him/herself or by others, characterized by his or her adherence to socially prescribed duty?
  • Nature vs. Nurture 
    To what relative degrees are we the products of (a) our biological inheritances compared to (b) the behavioral moldings of the environments in which we are raised? 
  • Class in India 
    What is the relative significance of class loyalty, as compared to more instinctual loyalties such as those of the family?
The story of “Wafadaar” evolves over three acts, the first two of which are told in flashback.

1.  Raicharan and “Little Master”
As a young boy, Raicharan is assigned, in accordance with some deal arranged by his father, to move into the house of an upperclass family and be both the servant and playmate of their son, Anukul, who is the same age as Raicharan.  Raicharan willingly and enthusiastically accepts his assigned role, and over the years becomes Anukul’s inseparable companion.  When Anukul finally gets married, Raicharan is fearful that his lifelong role is threatened, but he is soon overjoyed when Anukul and his wife give him the assignment of looking after their newborn boy.

When the infant boy is first uttering sounds, he calls Raicharan, “Channa”; and the young servant is thrilled to be given a name by the boy, whom he calls, “Little Master”.  Raicharan’s loyalty  to serving his master is so strong that he leaves his pregnant wife to be looked after by his sister in their home village, and he accompanies Anukul’s family when they shift to another town.  So here is an example of socially-defined duties taking precedence over more basic, primordial loyalties.

Raicharan lovingly looks after his Little Master, but one day while taking the little boy to the riverside, he momentarily loses sight of his charge, and the little toddler wanders off into the water and is presumably drowned in the river.  Naturally, both Anukul’s wife and Raicharan are overwhelmed with grief over this tragic event. 

2.  A Second Little Master 
Having now lost his self-defining role, Raicharan returns to his home village.  While he is still wallowing in drunken grief over what has happened, his wife dies giving birth to their son, who is given the name “Phelna”.  The still-self-pitying Raicharan doesn’t pay much attention to the infant, but one day he hears Phelna say, “channa”.  Raicharan is instantly overjoyed to hear this, because he concludes that his former Little Master has now forgiven him for his earlier neglect of his caretaking duties and has come back to him in the form of Phelna.  In other words, Phelna is taken to be the reincarnation of Little Master.

Raicharan immediately sells his few assets and property so that he can raise Phelna properly as the son of an upper-class family.  He takes Phelna to be schooled in Kolkata.

3.  Return to the Present  
The recounting of Raicharan’s experiences in flashback now comes to an end, and we see that in the “present” Phelna, aka (to Raicharan) “Little Master”, is now 18-years-old.  Because of Phelna’s always having been told the story that he is the son of an upper-class couple who died long ago in an accident and that Raicharan was assigned to look after him, the young man has grown up to be spoiled.  He looks down on his real father as a mere servant.  So it is evident that Raicharan has fashioned a snobbish upper-class playboy out of his own lower-class flesh-and-blood (although Raicharan, himself, fervently believes that Phelna is truly his original Little Master’s reincarnation).

However, at this point Raicharan’s resources are utterly exhausted, and his sister is threatening to tell Phelna who his real father is.  So Raicharan decides to return to Anukul’s wealthy household and “return” their son (which is what Raicharan takes Phelna to be) to them.  In order to get Anukul and his wife to accept this transfer, Raicharan falsely confesses to them that he had stolen their young son years ago when he was lost by the riverbank and raised the boy on his own.  With this gift Raicharan now hopes that he can return to being a servant in the Anukul home and be permitted to see his prized Little Master from time to time.

But although Anukul and his wife accept that Phelna is their real son, and Phelna accepts the idea that Anukul is his father, the couple flatly reject Raicharan’s request to return to their fold.  To them, Raicharan has committed a heinous crime and has been profoundly disloyal.  Phelna, taking pity on the menial servant who raised him, condescendingly suggests to his newfound “dad”, Anukul, that Raicharan can be made to go away for good if he is just given a little cash.

Seeing this complete dismissal of his very personhood after all his years of personal sacrifice, Raicharan is crushed.  He disconsolately wanders over to the riverbank where he had originally lost his Little Master and mournfully walks into the streaming waters.

So Tagore’s tale of “Wafadaar” is a sad one.  Duty and loyalty, and the way they affect personal affection, are manifested differently by the various characters in this story.  For Raicharan, duty and loyalty fueled the genuine love he felt for the people he served.  But in the end it is sad that all his sincere and innocent efforts to support the people he served, misguided though they may have been, did not have better outcomes for him.

  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Child’s Return”, The Literature Network, (1891/1918).