To Thine Auspicious Lotus-Feet:
Today we have been married fifteen years, yet not until today have I written you a letter. I’ve always been close by your side. You’ve heard many things from me, and so have I from you, but we haven’t had space enough to write a letter.
Now I’m in Puri on a holy journey, and you are wrapped up in your office work. I am Mejo-Bou, the second bride in your joint family. Today, fifteen years later, standing at the edge of the ocean, I understand that I also have other relationships, with the world and the World-Keeper. So I find the courage to write this letter. This is not a letter from your family’s Mejo-Bou. Not from the second wife.
If you hail from a bengali family like I do, you all must have grown up reading and qouting Rabindranath Tagore.
I have always been fond of the character ‘Mrinal’ from Rabindranath Tagore’s Short story, A Wife’s Letter. Mrinal is a strong-minded, opinionated woman whose intelligence became an affliction to her own husband. She was not appreciated rather she was perceived as someone to be aware of.
It is one of the strongest character Tagore portrayed who eventually called out the evil of patriarchy after fifteen years of marriage.
“The wedding flutes wailed, setting the skies to mourn; I came to live in your house”.
“That I had beauty, it didn’t take you long to forget. But you were reminded, every step of the way, that I also had intelligence. This intelligence must have lain deep within me, for it lingered in spite of the many years I spent merely keeping house for you. My mother was always very troubled by my intelligence; for a woman it’s an affliction.
And I had something else, outside all the domestic duties of your household, something that none of you knew. Secretly I wrote poems. No matter if it was all rubbish, at least there the boundary wall of the inner compound could not stop me. There lay my freedom, there I could be myself. Whatever it was in me that kept your MejoBou detached from your family, you didn’t like it, didn’t even recognize it; in all these fifteen years none of you ever found out that I was a poet”. – Mrinal
Mrinal writes to her husband how the society has always been treating them, how the patriarchy played out his role, labelled and judged every women for holding opinions. She finally pointed out how her intelligence, her passion, her dreams became a misery for her husband, how he never found out her dream and passion for writing poems.
“Like an evening star my daughter glowed bright for a moment, then set. My daughter was born and died. She called to me, too, to go with her. If she had lived, she would have brought all that was wonderful, all that was large, into my life; from Mejo-Bou I would have become Mother. And a mother, even confined to one narrow world, is of the universe. I had the grief of becoming a mother, but not the freedom”.
“Life would have passed, slipping on in that way to the end, and today there would have been no need to write you this letter. Into the set arrangements of my world a tiny speck of life flew from who knows where, and that started the crack”.
My elder sister-in-law’s sister Bindu, mistreated by the cousin she lived with after the death of her widowed mother, came to your house to seek refuge with her sister. That day all of you thought, Why did this misfortune have to land at our doorstep? I drew Bindu into my room. Didi said, “The girl comes from a simple home, and Mejo-Bou is going to spoil her.” She went around complaining to one and all as if my actions were putting the family in great peril. But I am sure that deep inside she was greatly relieved. Meanwhile, my care and attention for a girl like Bindu struck you all.
In the end, not strong enough yourselves to make Bindu leave, you sought the shelter of the gods of matrimony. I didn’t know who the groom was; I heard from you all that he was worthy in every respect. Bindu came to me, and sat at my feet and cried. “Didi, why do I have to be married?”
I had wanted the wedding to be conducted at our house. But all of you were firm: it must be at the groom’s house; it was their ancestral custom.
The matter became clear to me. The gods of your household couldn’t bear it if any of your money was spent on Bindu’s wedding. So I was forced to be quiet. But there’s something none of you know. I wanted to tell Didi but I didn’t; she might have died of fear. Secretly I gave Bindu some of my jewellery, made her wear it before she left. I thought Didi would notice it; perhaps she pretended not to. Do—in the name of kindness—forgive her that.
Before leaving, Bindu threw her arms around me. “So, after all, Didi, you are abandoning me completely?”
I said, “No, Bindu, no matter what your condition may be, I’ll never abandon you in the end.”
Mrinal writes to her husband how she set fire to her clothes and killed herself, how they could never see anyone beyond caste and creed. Bindu was a liitle girl who came to her elder sister’s house to seek refuge and they couldn’t bring themselves to do that at least. I saw Bindu sitting huddled in a corner after you forced her to marry a insane person.I couldn’t save her cause she ran away while I was arguing with you all.
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. He who smiles at this unloved face of mine is in front of me today, looking at me with the sublime expanse of His sky. Now Mejo-Bou dies.
You think I’m going to kill myself—don’t be afraid, I wouldn’t play such an old joke on you all. Meera-Bai, too, was a woman, like me; her chains, too, were no less heavy; and she didn’t have to die to be saved. Meera-Bai said, in her song, “No matter if my father leaves, my mother too, let them all go; but Meera will persevere, Lord, whatever may come to pass.”
And to persevere, after all, is to be saved.
I too will be saved. I am saved.
Removed from the Shelter of Your Feet,
The woman ‘Mrinal’ portrayed by Rabindranath Tagore is one of my favourite character from Tagore’s stories. She is calm, epitome of endurance, strong, fierce and opinionated. She let herself dream after 15 years of long suffering.
Mrinal’s daughter glowed like an evening star for a moment but she became a mother even after losing her daughter. In my opinion, she loved bindu just like her daughter and when her family couldn’t let her stay even after knowing the truth about Bindu’s insane husband, Mrinal couldn’t live anymore in her husband’s home. How could she?
Bindu died and so did Mejo-Bou. Bindu has made her realize what Mrinal wants and she let herself dream and never went back to her husband’s house. Mrinal pointed out in her letter, how the world wants the wife to be always submissive to her husband and how she will not allow that to happen. Not anymore.
I hope, we could justify Rabindranath Tagore’s Mrinal.
Picture Courtesy: Nivedita Nandi Ghosh
Fun Fact about this shoot: We shot this look at the Bagbazar Rajbari themed Durga Puja Pandal in North Kolkata.