“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.


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

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