“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.
★★★½

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

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