“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.


Notes:
  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.).    

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