Daughters Of Jorasanko, Author: Aruna Chakravarti, Publisher: Harper Collins
The world may not know of Jorasanko, but to Bengalis it's the epoch of extraordinary creative output now known in history as the "Bengal renaissance". For Jorasanko, a neighbourhood in north Kolkata, was the Tagore family seat and home to Asia's first Nobel laureate.
Rabindranath is the most recognised, but he was merely the brightest spark in a family of remarkably talented members, many of whom were pioneers in their own right.
Their contributions no less important, but now only known to specialists. His father, Debendranath, for instance, was the founder of Brahmo Samaj, his sister Swarnakumari was one of Bengal's first women writers, sister-in-law Jnanadanandini was credited with improvising the modern style of wearing the sari, and many others whose achievements could cover the whole page.
The family was full of creative energy, but the Tagore women had an ambivalent existence-liberated and limited at the same time; speaking English and playing the piano like memsahibs, but having no say in whom they married or if mistreated by their husbands.
This is the world in which Aruna Chakravarti sets Daughters of Jorasanko, a historical novel about life in Jorasanko Thakurbari's "andar mahal". Like its bestselling prequel, Jorasanko, published in 2013, this one too has the poet as its protagonist.
The novel starts in 1902, where Jorasanko ended-with his wife Mrinalini dead, the poet was left to care for his three remaining kids, while also managing his family's vast estates, writing and dealing with the pressures of his increasing fame. It ends with his death in 1942.
But Chakravarti's protagonist is a far cry from the revered Gurudev that Bengalis continue to invoke. He is believably flawed, a fallible father who, despite noble intentions, messes up the lives of all his kids. His daughters, especially, suffer due to his ham-headed choice of husbands-all indolent spendthrifts who had no qualms living off their wives, without giving them the care and consideration they needed.
Madhurilata, his first born whom he fondly called Beli, was assaulted by her younger sister, Meera's husband and in the resulting trauma, suffered a miscarriage. Instead of supporting her and upbraiding Nagendra, the poet remained silent, fearing else, Nagendra would ill-treat Meera and their new-born son.
This caused a permanent breach between father and daughter, made worse by Beli's jealous husband Sarat. Isolated from everything familiar, and depressed at her inability to conceive, she contracts TB and dies-but the poet remains helpless.
There's a delicate line between fact and imagination in such books, especially when they concern venerated figures like Gurudev. Here Chakravarti is aided by the fact that the reality of the Tagore family was often stranger than fiction. Like the story of the poet's bond with Ranu Adhikari, whom he, then nearly 60, first saw naked as a girl of 12.
This episode will shock, given the times, the implied romance between two people so far apart in age and the fact that both are historical figures (Ranu, later Lady Ranu Mukerjee was a famous cultural figure and philanthropist). But there's evidence of it - in Ranu's unpublished memoirs - as with many stories the author recounts.
Truth, in this case, needs but a light cloak to recast into fiction.
The writer is a book critic
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