Delightfully evocative tale of love, loss, and longing

Book: The Bard & His sister-in-law
Author: Late Mallika Sengupta
Translator: Lopamudra Banerjee
Published by: Black Eagle Books


Late Mallika Sengupta’s ‘Kobir Bouthan’ (tr. The Bard and His sister-in-law by Lopamudra Banerjee, published by Black eagle Books, USA) is an extensively researched work where the author has depicted the pioneering efforts of the Tagore family members in enriching Bengali life, culture, and literature. It is a gracious and acute chronicling of the illustrious Tagore clan, replete with high politics, romance, tragedy, and endurance of its unforgettable members. The chemistry between the principal characters, the ease with which they could intermingle even in those conservative times, is indeed fascinating. Sengupta has done an immense amount of research to flesh out the characters- both men and women. Even the lesser known members of the family have been etched out beautifully and provides interesting details about both their lives and times. Theirs was a family synonymous with wealth, fame, and glamour, but it has also had its shares of scandals.

Chaitali Sengupta
In her foreword Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta notes: “...despite the use of the singular in the title, ‘sister-in-law’, the young Rabindranath Tagore who was blossoming into a phenomenal creative writer, had in fact two sisters-in-law vying for his complete attention. Young Rabi was irresistibly handsome and extremely talented. Young women, including white British teenagers were attracted to him instantaneously. Yet as time evolved, Rabindranath increasingly expressed a passionate and intense love for his younger sister-in-law Kadambari. This aroused the wrath of his elder sister-in-law, Gyanadanandini.”

 It is indeed true, that one significant aspect of Tagore's life that often piques curiosity is his relationship with Kadambari Devi, who served as his muse and played an influential role in shaping his poetic journey. Kadambari was not only Rabindranath's sister-in-law but also a source of inspiration for his creative endeavors. Their bond went beyond familial ties and ventured into the realm of artistic companionship. Despite the opposition of Satyendranath and his wife Gyanadanandini, Kadambari “stepped inside the illustrious mansion of the Thakurbari, decked up in a vermillion-red cheli, adorned with heavy jewels” [Page 65] as the wife of Gyanada’s favourite brother in-law, the handsome, intellectual, prince-like Jyotirindranath. Both she and her husband believed that Kadambari could “never be a good match for Jyoti in any respect.” [Page 65] This antagonism in the heart of the feisty Gyanada only increased as time went by. Kadambari, the young bride, however enamoured Jyotirindranath with her dusky, beautiful looks. When her grooming started, it was discovered that she was quite a “diligent and meritorious student” and soon transformed into “a mature, intelligent bride of the Thakurbari. With her natural housekeeping, culinary skills, and her intelligence, she won the hearts of not only the boys including Rabi, but also the women of the household.” [Page 69]

Lopamudra Bannerjee

            Slowly, with the passage of time, the new bride forged a deep connection both with Rabi and Jyoti, much to Gyanada’s frustration. Her bond with the young Rabi was filled with mutual admiration and intellectual stimulation. As time went by, young Rabi’s heart craved for affection and appreciation from her, “the dearest person in his life”: “And the woman who has crept in my very being, making my life miserable is nobody’s wife, nobody’s sister-in-law. That mysterious woman is Hecate Thakrun. She is the Beatrice of my poetry.” [Page 216] She was his muse, while in Kadambari’s eyes he was “still an uninitiated teenager.” It was her husband who “occupied her entire heart as her man, her Lord.”

And so, when her husband abandoned her, and ran away to the other woman Binodini, the actress, childless and alone, Kadambari felt herself to be a “discarded, neglected wife.” From here on, Kadambari’s descent into devastating emptiness as she found herself trapped within the four walls of the Jorasanko mansion that forced her to confront her ghosts and the loss of her own identity wrenches our heart. Through her eyes, we see the cloistered, confined and almost invisible andarmahal of Tagore women. The point where she discovered Binodini’s letter informing Jyoti that within her “there is a tiny seed of yours that is growing slowly, gradually”, spells doom for Kadambari. It is the moment of her confrontation with her own infertility, her failure as a woman and wife.  

            It is believed that Kadambari's unfortunate suicide had a profound impact on Tagore's poetry, leading to introspection and exploration of themes such as love, loss, and longing. It not only influenced Rabindranath personally but also shaped his artistic expression. It added layers of complexity to his works, making them resonate with readers on a deeper level.

This ‘translation cum transcreation’, carefully done by competent translator Lopamudra Banerjee is valuable both for its impeccable research, content, and subject. You read it because you’re interested in the lives and times of the Tagores. You read it also because this book gives a comprehensive look at the complicated yet interesting relationship between the main characters. The subject matter is alluring and that itself is another incentive to delve deep into this book. The appeal of this book also lies in the way it traces the rich cultural history, drawing it from documents, letters, and memoirs.

Here is also a translated work where you feel more than you read because Sengupta is a master at capturing human emotions. Her writing is suffused with astute observation and relentless reflections on the protagonists. With her thoughtful, intimate prose, she focuses more on the complex, challenging lives of the Tagore women. Lopamudra’s translation is a fascinating read and does full justice to the award winning work by late Mallika Sengupta.

Bio-Note: Chaitali Sengupta is an accomplished writer and translator, skilled in crafting fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Her latest book “The Crossing-poems on war, migration & survival has received critical acclaim by poetry press in the Netherlands. She garnered recognition for her debut collection of prose poems, “Cross Stitched Words,” which earned the ‘Honorable Mention’ award at the New England Book Festival in 2021. Her expertise in translation is evident in her notable work, “Timeless Tales in Translation,” which received the special jury award at the Panorama International Literature Festival in 2023. With three translation books to her name, Chaitali has been a consistent contributor to both online and print media.

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