Photograph via Flickr by Jessica Lucia


Nibaran’s domestic setup was extremely run-of-the-mill; nothing in it smacked of poetry. It had never occurred to him that there might be any need for such a flavor in life. Just as one slides one’s feet securely into one’s slippers automatically everyday, he would claim his place in the world that he knew without thinking about it, every day of the week. He would never engage in any reflection, debate, or philosophical analysis about his place in the world, even inadvertently.

Nibaran would get up every morning, sit bare-bodied by the front door of his streetside house, and smoke his hookah in an extremely unperturbed fashion. On the road, people would come and go, carriages and horses would pass, beggars and mendicants would sing out, and ragpickers would call aloud for old bottles. This mobile scenario would occupy his mind in a superficial way. On days on which a hawker selling green mangoes or topshi fish came around, there would be much haggling. Afterwards his household would gear up for a somewhat special kind of cooking. Then, at the appointed time, he would massage oil on his body and take a bath. At the end of his meal, he would wear a loose-fitting chapkan from the washing line, chew up an entire paan with a pinch of tobacco in it and then stuff another paan into his mouth as he left for his office. On his return from office, he would spend the evening relaxed and pensive at his neighbor Ramlochan Ghosh’s house. After dinner at night he would meet his wife Harasundari in their bedroom.

The brief exchanges that took place there were about sending food to the Mitras’s house for the aaiburo bhaat, the customary bachelor’s last supper prior to their son’s wedding, the insolence of the newly appointed maid, and the appropriateness of specific condiments and particular stir-fried vegetable preparations. These are not subjects that any poet has set to rhyme and meter to date, and Nibaran felt no regret on that account.

Her fever just wouldn’t abate. No matter how much quinine the doctor gave her, the fever intensified like a strong current that rushes forth with greater force the more it is obstructed.

However, in the month of Phalgun, Harasundari contracted a critical illness. Her fever just wouldn’t abate. No matter how much quinine the doctor gave her, the fever intensified like a strong current that rushes forth with greater force the more it is obstructed. For twenty days, twenty-two days, forty days, the ailment continued.

Nibaran had now stopped going to his office; he hadn’t been attending the evening gathering at Ramlochan’s place for ages, and he was at a loss about what could be done. He would once peep into the bedroom to ascertain the patient’s condition; at another time he would sit in the verandah, puffing at his hookah anxiously. He would change doctors morning and evening, and try out whatever medicines anybody recommended.

Despite the disorganized nursing that was the result of such concern, Harasundari recovered from her illness on the fortieth day. But she became so skinny and frail that it seemed as if her corporeal being could merely say, “I’m here!” from far, far away to feebly affirm its existence.

It was spring, and the southern breeze had started wafting in. And the moonlight on those warm nights tiptoed into the wide-open doors of married women’s bedchambers.

Just below Harasundari’s room was the back garden of the neighbors. I can’t say that it was a specially beautiful or romantic place. Once upon a time, somebody had consciously sown some croton seeds there but had not given it much attention thereafter or bothered to cast a glance that way. A pumpkin vine had grown over a scaffolding of dry boughs; there was a lot of undergrowth below the aging berry tree. The wall next to the kitchen was broken, and some fallen bricks lay in a pile of debris. And alongside, the burnt out remains of coals as well as ashes were heaping up day after day.

But in her uneventful life, Harasundari had never experienced the sense of joy that she now had all the time lying next to the window and gazing at that patch of land. When a country stream’s current weakens in summer and it lies shrunken on its bed of sand, it becomes very transparent. Dawn’s first light then pulsates through the deepest recesses of its body. The caress of a breeze delights its entire being. The stars in the firmament get reflected clearly like joyful memories on its crystal mirror. In a similar way, all of joyous nature’s fingers caressed the slender strand of Harasundari’s life though she couldn’t fathom the tenor of the melody that seemed to awaken within her.

At that time, when her husband would sit next to her and ask, “How are you?” tears seemed to well up in her eyes. On her face that was emaciated by her disease, her eyes would look extremely large. She would raise those large, grateful eyes, immersed in his love, towards his face, hold his hand in her own frail one and just sit there motionless. From somewhere deep within, a new, unfamiliar sensation of pleasure would gain access into his being as well.

Some days passed like this. One night, a large full moon shone through the quivering branches of the dwarfish banyan tree above the broken wall. Penetrating the sultry ambience of the late evening, a nocturnal breeze had suddenly started blowing. At this juncture, stroking Nibaran’s hair, Harasundari said, “We could not have any children—please, please marry again!”

This thought had been with her for sometime now. When intense happiness and love overflow one’s heart, the person imagines that she/he could do anything for its sake. At such moments, a desire for self-sacrifice wells up within. Just as the raging sea spreads itself on the shore with great force, an outburst of love and excessive happiness wants to surrender and pledge itself to noble self-denial or immense sorrow.

In such a state of mind, brimming with excessive elation, one day Harasundari decided, “I will do something very magnanimous for my husband. But alas! Do noble desires ever match the ability to do good? Is there anything within my reach that I can gift him? I have no riches, no intelligence, no talent—all I have is a soul. I would renounce that just now for something to which it could be dedicated, but would that be of any value?

“Also, if only I could gift my husband a cute baby, a baby as fair as the froth of milk, soft as butter, and beautiful like the infant god of love! But even if I were to die of that heartfelt desire, that is not going to happen.”

Then it crossed her mind that she must get her husband married again. She could not understand why wives felt so distressed by this—this was not such a difficult thing to do! It is nowhere near impossible for somebody who loves her husband to also love her co-wife. As she reflected on this, the thought made her heart swell with pride.

The first time Nibaran heard the proposal, he laughed it off. On the second and third occasions, too, he turned a deaf ear. Noting her husband’s disapproval and reluctance, Harasundari’s sense of conviction and gratification grew all the more and the more determined she became to fulfill her resolve.

On the other side, hearing this request many times made Nibaran dismiss the unfeasibility of it from his mind. And sitting at his doorstep chewing his tobacco, the blissful image of a home alive with children shone more brightly in his heart.

One day, he introduced the subject himself and said, “If I marry a girl child at my age, I won’t be able to bring her up.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Harasundari replied. “The responsibility of raising her properly rests with me.” As she announced this, the outline of a young, gentle, bashful, newly wedded bride, lately separated from her mother’s bosom, formed in the mind of this childless woman and her heart melted.

Nibaran added, “I have to work for a living; moreover, I have you to look after, so I won’t have time to pander to the whims of an immature girl.”

Harasundari repeated that he would not have to waste any time on that. And in the end, she said jocularly, “All right, I will see when the time comes how much work you will end up doing, where I will stand in relation to you and where you direct your attention.”

Nibaran didn’t think these words even merited a reply, and in a gesture of chastisement, he playfully tapped Harasundari’s cheek with his forefinger.

This, then, was the prologue.


Nibaran got married to a petite young girl wearing a nose ring, whose eyes brimmed with tears. Her name was Shailabala.

Nibaran mused to himself that the name was very sweet, and her face quite lovely. He felt like observing her expression, her appearance, and her movements with some special attention, but he just could not manage to do so. On the contrary, he had to pretend as if she was just a slip of a girl, that he had invited trouble by marrying her, and that he could get some respite only if he could somehow avoid her and attend to the sphere of duty that suited his age.

Observing Nibaran’s greatly distressed state, Harasundari felt very amused. On some occasions, she would press his hand and say, “Ah, where are you running away? She’s such a little girl, she’s not going to eat you up.”

Nibaran would assume a doubly busy manner and say, “Oh wait, wait—I have a rather important chore to attend.” But he would not find an escape route. Harasundari would smile, bar his exit from the door and say, “You won’t be able to shirk today.” Eventually, finding no way out, Nibaran would sit down helplessly.

“After bringing a strange girl home, you shouldn’t treat her with such contempt,” Harasundari would whisper in his ear.

Saying this, she would hold Shailabala and seat her to the left of Nibaran, and forcibly remove her veil. Holding her by the chin, she would raise Shaila’s bowed face and say to Nibaran, “Ah, see what a lovely face she has—just like a moon!”

On some days, she would seat both of them in the room and get up and go away on the pretext of some work. She would slam the door shut from outside. Of course, Nibaran knew that a pair of curious eyes would fix themselves to watch through some gap in the door. With an air of extreme indifference, he would try to sleep. Shailabala would pull down her veil, curl up, turn away from him, and retreat into a corner.

Ultimately, Harasundari gave up her mission as hopeless, but she was not terribly disappointed.

If one found a diamond, one felt like turning it around to view it from all angles. And here was the mind of a beautiful young person, like nothing he had seen before. One had to experience her in many ways—with touch, with affection, secretly, face-to-face, from the sides and from within.

When Harasundari let go, Nibaran took charge himself. This was indeed very intriguing, a profound mystery! If one found a diamond, one felt like turning it around to view it from all angles. And here was the mind of a beautiful young person, like nothing he had seen before. One had to experience her in many ways—with touch, with affection, secretly, face-to-face, from the sides and from within. One would at times rock her earrings to and fro and at others lift her veil slightly to uncover new levels of beauty in her; sometimes suddenly and startlingly, like a flash of lightning, and at other times lingeringly, like gazing at a star.

In the fortune of Srijukta Nibaran Chandra, the head clerk of the MacMoran Company, such an experience had never occurred before. When he had married for the first time, he was just a boy; when he entered his youth, his wife had become ever familiar to him, as if he had always been habituated to married life. Of course he loved Harasundari, but love had never gradually and consciously welled up in his heart.

Let an insect born inside a ripe mango, never having needed to explore and discover the fruit’s succulence or slowly relish the taste of its juices, be once set free in a flowering springtime meadow in full bloom. How eagerly it would then hover around the half-opened buds of the roses that are on the verge of blossoming! How infatuated it would become by imbibing their delicate fragrance and their subtle, sweet taste!

Nibaran would now and then buy a porcelain doll in western attire, a bottle of perfume or some sweetmeats, and secretly come and give it to Shailabala. A little intimacy was initiated between the two in this manner. Ultimately, one fine day, in between household chores, Harasundari came and spied through the hole in the door and saw Nibaran and Shailabala playing “ten twenty-five” with cowry shells.

An adult game indeed! Nibaran would eat his morning meal and pretend to go to his office, but instead of going to work, he would enter the inner rooms. Was this deceit necessary? Suddenly, somebody seemed to awaken Harasundari with a blazing thunderbolt. Its intense heat made her tears evaporate.

Harasundari said to herself, “It was I who brought her home, I who united the two—then why do they treat me like this? As if I am a thorn in their flesh . . .”

Harasundari used to train Shailabala in housework. One day, Nibaran proclaimed outspokenly, “She is just a child—you are driving her too hard. Her constitution is not that strong.”

A stinging reply formed in Harasundari’s mouth, but she did not utter anything, and lapsed into silence instead.

Ever since then, Harasundari did not let her co-wife touch any housework. She did all the cooking, serving, and overseeing herself. It came to such a pass that Shailabala became almost immobile. Harasundari served her like a maid and her husband entertained her like a jester in a play. She never learnt that the duties of one’s life include contributing to housework or being considerate of others.

There was an immense pride in the way Harasundari started working silently like a maid. There was no feeling of pettiness or wretchedness in her demeanor. “Go on—play like babies, both of you,” she seemed to say, “for I have taken upon myself the entire responsibility of the household.”


Alas, where was that strength today which had shored up Harasundari’s assurance that she could unreservedly give up half her claim to her husband’s love forever? Suddenly, on a moonlit night, as the high tide floods one’s life, overflowing its shores, one thinks of oneself as limitless. At that time, one commits oneself to a stupendous vow. During the protracted ebb tide of one’s life, it stretches one’s entire spirit to keep that vow. During a life of eternal poverty, we have to reclaim bit by bit, moment by moment, whatever we write off in one scratch of the pen during a sudden windfall. Then we realize that man is very poor, his heart extremely weak, and his ability extremely insignificant.

Emaciated, anemic, and sallow-complexioned after her prolonged convalescence, Harasundari was at that time like a thin sliver of the ascendant moon on the second day of its cycle. She floated very lightly through her household. She felt she hardly needed anything. As her body gradually acquired strength, and her blood regained its spirit, a group of cohorts appeared in her mind. “You may have written a letter of resignation,” they seemed to announce stridently, “but we will not give up our claim.”

The day Harasundari understood her own situation clearly, she gave up her bedroom to Nibaran and Shailabala and slept alone in a separate room.

She vacated after twenty-seven years the bed in which she had first slept on her wedding night, at the age of eight. Putting out the lamp, this young woman whose husband was still living landed on her widow’s bed with an intolerably heavy heart. On the other side of the street, at that moment, a youth with a musical flair was singing in the raga Behaag of a woman who tended her garden. Another was accompanying him on the bayan tabla, and at the end of each cycle of beats, his audience cheered appreciatively.

In the room next to Harasundari’s, that song of his sounded rather melodious on that silent, moonlit night. At that time, young Shailabala’s eyes were drooping with sleep, and moving his face close to hers, Nibaran cooed “Oh my beloved!” softly in her ear. He had already read Bankim Chandra’s Chandrashekhar and also recited the compositions of a few modern poets to Shailabala.

Thus jolted, the fountain of youth always suppressed in the lower registers of Nibaran’s being suddenly gushed forth at a very inappropriate moment. Nobody was prepared for this. Consequently, not only his common sense but all the arrangements of the household also turned topsy-turvy unexpectedly. That poor man had never known that there are such disturbing elements and such unruly, untamable passions inside man that upset all calculations and reckonings, all order and propriety.

Not just Nibaran but even Harasundari experienced something newly poignant. What yearning, what unbearable agony was this! Her heart had neither desired what she longed for now nor had she ever got it. When Nibaran used to go to work regularly and respectably, when they would discuss for some time the milkman’s accounts, the rising prices of things and their social obligations before going to sleep, there had been no trace of this upheaval within her. They undoubtedly loved each other, but there was no sparkle or intensity in it. That love was merely like fuel that remained un-ignited.

Today, she felt that somebody had always been depriving her of fulfillment in life. It seemed as if her heart had always been starved. Her woman’s life had been spent in dire poverty. She had spent these precious twenty-seven years just slaving away, shopping, procuring betel leaves, spices, and vegetables. And midway through her life, she saw today that in the room very next to her own bedroom, unfastening the lid of a treasure chest of resplendent wealth, a wisp of a girl occupied the throne of a queen goddess. Women are slaves by nature, but they are also queenly. But when the roles are divided so that one woman becomes a queen while the other remains a slave, it destroys the pride of the female slave, yet cannot sustain the happiness of the queen.

For even Shailabala did not get the happiness due to a woman’s life. She received such relentless affection that it did not spare a moment for her to express her love. Flowing towards the sea and immersing itself in the sea, I believe that the river finds a great sense of fulfillment. But pulled by the tide, if the sea constantly confronts the river, the river swells up within itself. The world perpetually advanced towards Shailabala with all the affection and connubial love it could proffer. It raised Shailabala’s self-esteem excessively, and yet it prevented her from showering her love on the world. She learned that everything was meant for her, yet she was never meant to do anything for anybody. This was a source of great conceit, but no gratification at all.


One day, the sky became overcast. It grew too dark to do any work inside the house. It was raining pitter-patter outside. Under the berry tree, the bushy undergrowth of vines and weeds was virtually submerged in water, and through the drain adjacent to the wall, a current of muddy water flowed by with a murmuring sound. Harasundari sat silently at the dark, desolate window of her new bedroom.

Swift as an arrow, Nibaran rushed up to Harasundari and in one breath, blurted out, “A few ornaments are required. You know there are some outstanding loans—the creditors are really insulting me. Some will have to be pawned, but I’ll be able to redeem them soon.”

Around this time, Nibaran appeared near her door like a thief, unable to decide whether to advance or return. Harasundari noticed it but did not say a word.

Swift as an arrow, Nibaran rushed up to Harasundari and in one breath, blurted out, “A few ornaments are required. You know there are some outstanding loans—the creditors are really insulting me. Some will have to be pawned, but I’ll be able to redeem them soon.”

Harasundari said nothing in reply, and Nibaran lingered there guiltily like a thief. Ultimately he reiterated, “One can’t have them today, I suppose?”

“No,” replied Harasundari.

Just as it is difficult to enter a room, it is also hard to get out of it without any delay. Nibaran looked here and there, hesitating. “Then let me go and try elsewhere,” he said, and left.

Harasundari fully understood whom Nibaran owed money to and where the ornaments had to be pawned. She realized that on the previous night, the new bride had inquired vehemently of the man she had tamed, the man who was now so nonplussed, “Didi has a trunk full of ornaments, but can’t I wear even one of them?”

After Nibaran left, Harasundari opened the iron safe and took out all the ornaments one by one. She then summoned Shailabala and adorned her in her own wedding sari. One by one, she covered her from head to toe in all her jewels. She plaited her hair nicely and lit a lamp to observe that the young maiden’s face was very sweet. It was flawless and luscious like a freshly ripened, sweet-smelling fruit. When Shailabala departed, her ornaments tinkling at every step, the sound chilled the blood in Harasundari’s veins for a long time. “There can hardly be any comparison between you and me today,” she mused to herself. “But at one time I was also of your age, and my youth had blossomed to its fullest. Yet, why had nobody ever communicated that to me? I never even gotten to know when the time came and when it was over.” Yet with what pride and arrogance Shailabala moved, creating ripples as she sauntered along!

She knew that from every direction—all service, all riches, all fortune—would naturally come to her; because she was Shailabala, because she was the beloved.

When Harasundari only knew domestic work, how precious these ornaments had seemed to her. At that time, could she have let them slip out of her hands so stupidly, in a single instant? Now, housework apart, she had uncovered the identity of something else that was vital; the price of jewelry and accounting for the future had all become trivial for her now.

And Shailabala strutted away towards her bedroom in her sparkling gold and rubies without pausing a moment to think how much Harasundari had given up for her. She knew that from every direction—all service, all riches, all fortune—would naturally come to her; because she was Shailabala, because she was the beloved.


Some people intrepidly traverse a very dangerous path in their dreams, without a moment’s anxiety. Many people are affected by such a perpetually dreamlike state even when awake. Oblivious of all, they advance through the narrow path of disaster without a care. Eventually, they awaken after landing in the middle of a terrible catastrophe.

Such was the condition of the Head Babu of the MacMoran Company. Shailabala spun like a relentless whirlpool at the center of his life, while many precious things from far, far away, drawn in by her attraction, were sucked into her vortex. Not just Nibaran’s humanity and monthly salary, Harasundari’s comfort and well-being or her dress and ornaments but even the MacMoran Company’s cash box felt this furtive pull. A few bundles of cash began to vanish from there as well. “I will repay it slowly, starting with next month’s salary,” Nibaran would resolve. But no sooner would he get the next month’s salary in hand than the whirlpool would pull at it, and the very last coin of his earnings would glisten tremulously and vanish with the speed of lightning.

Eventually, he got caught one day. This was a job that Nibaran had inherited from his forebears. The saheb boss was very fond of him—he gave him just two days to replenish the treasury.

Nibaran could not fathom how he had gradually depleted the treasury of two thousand rupees. Like a madman, he rushed to Harasundari and declared, “There’s been a disaster!”

Upon hearing the whole story, Harasundari turned pale.

“Take out your jewelry immediately,” he implored.

“But I have given them to the young bride,” she protested.

“Why did you give them to the younger wife? Why? Who asked you to give them to her?” Nibaran began to rant impatiently, just like a child.

Without giving a direct answer, Harasundari replied, “What is the harm in that? It’s not as if they have sunk.”

The cowardly Nibaran pleaded helplessly, “Then see if you can get the ornaments from her on some pretext. But swear by me you won’t tell her I am asking for them or why.”

With acute exasperation and disdain, Harasundari asked, “Is this any time for false pretences or a great display of conjugal love? Come on.” So saying, she dragged her husband into the younger wife’s bedroom.

The younger wife could not comprehend anything. To all they said, she only responded: “What do I know of that?”

Was there ever any contract with her that she might sometime have to worry about some domestic crisis? Everybody must fend for themselves, and collectively care about Shailabala’s comforts. It seemed to her a grave injustice that there should suddenly be an exception to this rule.

Nibaran now clutched at her feet and broke down. “I care nothing for all this. Why should I give what belongs to me?” Shailabala repeated again and again.

Nibaran realized that this frail, tiny, lovely, charming young woman was tougher than an iron safe. Observing her husband’s weakness at such a critical juncture, Harasundari felt devastated by her contempt for him. She tried to forcibly snatch Shailabala’s keys from her. Immediately, Shailabala threw the bunch of keys over the wall, into the pond.

“Then I will hang myself,” Shailabala announced with a calm exterior.

“Why don’t you break the lock?” Harasundari suggested to her dumbfounded husband.

“Then I will hang myself,” Shailabala announced with a calm exterior.

“Let me try something else,” Nibaran mumbled, and without more ado, rushed out in a disheveled state.

Within two hours, Nibaran returned, having sold his ancestral house for two thousand and five hundred rupees.

With great difficulty, he escaped arrest, but lost his job. His movable and immovable property now comprised two wives. Of them, the younger wife, who was terrified of any kind of distress, became pregnant, and immovable indeed. This small family now took shelter in a small, damp house inside a narrow alley.


There was no end to Chhoto Bou’s frustration and displeasure. She refused to understand that her husband had no resources. If he had no means, why did he marry her?

They had just two rooms on the upper floor. One was the bedchamber where Nibaran and Shailabala slept. Harasundari lived in the other one. “I cannot spend my entire day and night in the bedroom,” Shailabala would grumble.

“I am on the lookout for a better house; we will move soon,” Nibaran would reassure her dishonestly.

“Why, there is another room next to this!” Shailabala would point out.

Shailabala had never spared a glance for her former women neighbors. Pained by Nibaran’s current adversity, they came to pay a visit one day. Shailabala locked herself inside her room, refusing to open the door. After they left, Shailabala’s raving and ranting, weeping, fasting, and hysterics raised hell in the neighborhood. This kind of menace became a regular occurrence.

In her delicate condition, she was ultimately afflicted by a serious ailment—in fact, almost threatened by a miscarriage.

Clutching Harasundari’s hands, Nibaran pleaded with her to save Shailabala.

Harasundari began to tend to Shailabala, day and night. At the slightest lapse, Shaila would abuse her, but she would never answer back.

Shaila would object strongly to eating a concoction of sago, tossing the bowlful away. In her feverish state, she wanted to eat her rice with green mango ambal. If she did not get it, she would rant, weep, and raise hell. Harasundari would cajole her as if she was an infant, coaxing, “Come on, my dear,” “Oh please, my sister,” “Now, now, my little Didi!”

But Shailabala did not survive. With all the affection and marital love in the world, the young woman’s petty, unfulfilled, worthless life was snuffed out prematurely by extreme illness and discontent.


At first, Nibaran received a dreadful blow. Thereafter, he realized that an enormous bond had been severed. Even in the midst of his grief, he felt the joy of a sudden release. He felt all of a sudden as if a nightmare had been pressing down on his chest all these days. The awareness instantly made his life seem utterly burden-free. Was this tender life-string that snapped like a madhabilata creeper his beloved Shailabala? Sighing, he realized suddenly that on the contrary, she was the hangman’s noose.

And what about Harasundari, his eternal life-companion? He perceived that she alone occupied the memorial shrine of all the joys and sorrows of his life. Yet, there was a breach. It was as if a tiny, beautiful, gleaming but pitiless knife had carved a line dissecting the left and the right portions of his heart.

Late one night, when the city was fast asleep, Nibaran slowly entered Harasundari’s solitary bedroom. Silently, as before, he lay down, on the right side of his former bed. But this time, he intruded like a thief into what had always been rightfully his.

Harasundari did not say a word. Neither did Nibaran. As before, they slept next to each other. But between them, right in the middle, lay a dead young woman—neither of them could overstep her presence.

Excerpt is electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from The Essential Tagore, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty. Copyright © 2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

tagoreportrait-1.jpgRabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a Bengali poet, novelist, musician, painter, and playwright who reshaped Bengali literature and music. He is the first Asian Nobel Laureate and possibly the most prolific and diverse serious writer the world has ever known. Marking the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, this story is from The Essential Tagore (Harvard), the largest collection of the writer’s work published in English.

Nivedita Sen teaches in the English department at Hans Raj College, University of Delhi.

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