“Mrinal ki Chitthi”, Stories by Rabindranath Tagore - Tani Basu (2015)

Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Streer Potro”, (“Strir Patra”, “Wife’s Letter” [1,2] (1914), concerns an age-old problem in traditional societies – the customary suppression within the family household of a woman’s personhood.  This story served as the basis for the 19th  episode, “Mrinal ki Chitthi”, 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 Tani Basu

Tagore’s story is about the stifling climate for women in religiously conservative Indian households and how this climate suppresses the most elemental aspects of her existence.  The story is actually in the form of a long letter written by a young woman, Mrinal (played by Amrita Bagchi), to her husband while she is away from Kolkata visiting the Lord Jagannatha temple in Puri.   Since this is the first time she has been separated from her husband in the fifteen years of their marriage, this is the first letter she has written to him.  This filmed version of the story  adopts the same format, beginning with the commencement of the Mrinal’s letter-writing and shifting from time to time into flashbacks concerning past events she is describing.

Early on we see that Mrinal’s married life is relatively arid.  Her husband seems cold and aloof, and he is only interested in her when he needs her to attend to him for things like sewing some buttons on his trousers.  She was married as a child-bride not for her dowry or social status, but for her good looks.  Her mother-in-law had selected Mrinal, who was from a poor family in a remote village, for her son in order to have a pretty ornament in their family and thereby offset the plain appearance of Mrinal’s older sister-in-law.  Any further attributes of Mrinal were of no interest.  When she was first married, she had noone to talk to, and so her only companions turned out to be two cows that were owned by her husband’s family.

But Mrinal was actually very articulate and intelligent.  In order to find a private way to express herself, she took to writing poetry.  However, when her husband came across one of her poetry-filled notebooks, he scolded her and told her that her poetry was rubbish.  He wanted her to only concern herself with her wifely chores.  But Mrinal continued to write poetry in secret anyway.

On another occasion Mrinal’s husband discovered that she had corrected some arithmetical mistakes in the family’s accounting log.  Mrinal smiled and said that since she was skilled in these things, she could offer him some assistance.  But this offer only made her husband angry, and again he insisted that activities in this area were forbidden to women.

When Mrinal became pregnant, she found herself subjected to the traditional prejudice that late-pregnancy women in India are considered “unclean” and are not fit to live with the rest of the household.  So she wound up having to undergo her birthing labor in a shed that was so filthy it probably contributed to the baby’s dying as soon as it was born.  Thus Mrinal was denied the chance of having the one person around her with whom she had a chance to have meaningful interactions and on whom she could bestow her maternal love – her own child.

Finally Mrinal described the time when her older sister-in-law’s niece, Bindu (Jannat Zubair Rahmani) first came to their home one night in the pouring rain.  Bindu, who was an orphan of about thirteen years of age and has been working as a servant for another household, had been severely beaten and scarred by her masters for breaking a vase she had been assigned to clean, and so she had run away.  Despite her sister-in-law’s hesitancy, Mrinal said they would offer Bindu refuge in their home.

Mrinal’s family was not happy with their new resident, though, and they gave Bindu every menial chore they could think of.  They scorned her for her poverty-stricken background and even for having a dark complexion, which was considered lower-class.  And when anything in the household was mislaid for a few minutes, they immediately wrongly presumed that Bindu had stolen it. 

But meanwhile Mrinal was looking after Bindu with maternal affection, and when she saw that Bindu was forced to sleep in the outdoor kitchen shed, she invited the girl to come sleep on a mat in her own bedroom.  Bindu had never been given kindly attention like this before, and she became infatuated with Mrinal’s beauty and tenderness.  In fact the two neglected young women fell into a platonic love for each other, with, for example, Bindu begging for the opportunity to dress and comb Mrinal’s luxurious hair.  Now for a time these women could have meaningful interactions with another person.

But this happiness would not last.  The family was eager to get rid of Bindu without losing face, and they setup an arranged marriage for the girl with a groom they never even took the trouble to meet.  For the family, the only factor of importance was that the impending groom’s family didn’t even require a dowry.  Bindu didn’t want the marriage, because she didn’t want to part from Mrinal.  But Mrinal, much to her later regret, talks Bindu into accepting the marriage proposal, arguing that this may be the best for Bindu’s long-term future.  After all, she points out to Bindu, women don’t have much choice, and the proposing family couldn’t be worse for her than Mrinal’s family, could it?  So Bindu accepts the wedding proposal and goes off to live with the new family.  With the departure of her only companion, Mrinal has to resign herself to renewed loneliness.

However, after a short time, Bindu, looking bloodied and disheveled, reappears before Mrinal and reports that her new husband is insane.  She begs for refuge once again.  Mrinal assures Bindu that she will help her, but Mrinal’s larger family rejects the idea of helping Bindu.  The mother-in-law, brother-in-law, Mrinal’s husband and even the sister-in-law who is Bindu’s own aunt insist that Bindu is now the “property” of her new husband and must be returned to him immediately.  While Mrinal is engaged with vehemently arguing with all of them on Bindu’s behalf, the frightened Bindu sees the handwriting on the wall and runs off again.  Presumably Bindu will be recaptured by her new husband’s family.

Now the story approaches the very recent past, as Mrinal arranges for her pilgrimage to Puri. She convinces her conservative, religious-ritual-minded  husband to let her go to Puri with her brother by arguing that her attendance at the temple will be in order to prey to the gods to let her give birth to another child.  But actually her intent is to run away with Bindu, and for the two of them to flee their oppressive conditions.  She arranges for her resourceful brother to somehow convince Bindu to consent to being spirited away from her new husband and brought to the train station, where she and Bindu will join up and travel together to Puri. 

Mrinal is then shown leaving her home and waiting anxiously in the train station for her brother to bring Bindu.  But when her brother shows up, he brings the agonizing news that Bindu had already committed suicide by setting her clothes on fire.  The only thing that her brother can bring her is the burned fragment of a message that Bindu had written to Mrinal.  Mrinal is shattered by this tragic news. It seemed that the light of her life had been extinguished.  But she goes on alone to Puri and writes the letter to her husband.  Not only is this the first letter she has ever written to him, it will also be the last, she informs him. 

Now, she says, she wants to leave the narrow confines of his home and family and embrace the vast richness of life.  This is something that Bindu had opened up for her, and she feels Bindu’s life had ultimately acquired some meaning by her desperate act of liberation.  To provide further illumination on these thoughts, let me quote Tagore’s own words concerning Mrinal’s thoughts expressed in her letter to her husband about Bindu [2]:
“And I’ve seen also that even though she was a girl, God didn’t abandon her. No matter how much power you might have had over her, there was an end to that power. There’s something larger than this wretched human life. You thought that, by your turn of whim and your custom engraved in stone, you could keep her life crushed under your feet forever, but your feet weren’t powerful enough. Death was stronger. In her death Bindu has become great; she’s not a mere Bengali girl anymore, no more just a female cousin of her father’s nephews, no longer only a lunatic stranger’s deceived wife. Now she is without limits, without end.

 . . .

The day that death’s flute wailed through this girl’s soul and I heard those notes float across the river, I could feel its touch within my chest.

 . . .

The dark veil of your custom had cloaked me completely, but for an instant Bindu came and touched me through a gap in the veil; and by her own death she tore that awful veil to shreds. Today I see there is no longer any need to maintain your family’s dignity or self-pride."
For Mrinal, her relationship with Bindu opened up the opportunity for her to discover life’s richness and her own authentic personhood.

This is a poignant tale that is beautifully told.  Unfortunately, the English subtitling is not up to top standard; but the production is otherwise excellent, with Bappa Mir’s cinematography standing out, as usual.  And the film is further graced by the sensitive performances of Amrita Bagchi and Jannat Zubair Rahmani in the roles of the two leading characters, Mrinal and Bindu, respectively.
½

Notes:
  1. Rabindranath Tagore, “A Wife’s Letter”, Part 1 (Prasenjit Gupta, trans.), Translation, Parabaas, (1914/2009).  
  2. Rabindranath Tagore, “A Wife’s Letter”, Part 2 (Prasenjit Gupta, trans.), Translation, Parabaas, (1914/2009).           

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