I eagerly look forward to Sharjah International Book fair every year. A book fair is like Aladdin’s cave for a book nerd like me. The timing of the book fair is also perfect as it comes about three to four months after I have returned from India and am itching to go to a bookstore for new haul. I have picked many books from the fair some very popular, some relative obscure, some which were a chore to read and some which I fell in love with, just like Jorasanko. Jorasanko was an impulse purchase, the cover looked familiar, but the main selling point was author Chitra Banerjee’s (my favourite) appreciation on the tittle page. Turning the book back I realized why the title and cover looked so familiar. The cover design has “Head Study” by Rabindranath Tagore and the book was all about the Tagore’s!!!
The book starts with the author’s note describing the reasons for the start of Pirali Brahmin clan and its customs leading to how the Thakur’s of Kolkata became the Tagore’s of Jorasanko. After laying the groundwork the story starts with Genu (full name Jnanadanandini, a mouthful) coming into the Tagore household in Jorasanko as a child bride of seven years. The story then follows the lives of the huge household from 1859 to almost the turn of the century. The rules of abarodh, their breaking down, the tradition of child marriage, its ills on young girls, the rise of Brahmo Samaj and the Bengal Renaissance. All this is painted through the inhabitants of Jorasanko which was a crucible for the start of new customs, traditions and even fashion.
The main protagonists of the book are the ladies of the house. Sarada Sundari, lazy and indolent, devoted to her husband, entrapped by the rules and customs she was brought up in. She measures her value with her beauty/fairness and her fertility, the two parameters which later become her benchmark for giving or withholding love to her daughter-in-law’s. Jnanadanandini, her second daughter-in-law, who grew up under Sarada Sundari’s critical gaze and was always found wanting. She finally became a trail blazer, breaking the traditions of abarodh and stepping out of the house. Being the wife of the first Indian ICS officer, Satyendranath Tagore, she had an enviable position and influence on the rest of the women of Jorasanko. She is also credited with devising the way saree is worn in the modern times. Kadambari, the fifth daughter-in-law of Sarada Sundari, forgotten by her husband who never realized her true worth and always eclipsed by Jnanadanandini. Mrinalini, the youngest daughter-in-law and wife of Rabindranath Tagore. Quiet, placid Mrinalini who always supported and was extremely devoted to her husband.
Even though the story spans long years, it moves quickly drawing the reader into the world which is alien and yet very familiar. The women of today might have stepped out from their homes but are still bound by the rules of society which values them on their beauty, complexion and the ability to bear sons (at least in India), just like the women of Jorasanko. The characters are well-etched, not always likeable but yet stay with you even after you have closed your book. The author paints such a vivid picture of life in Bengal of those times that once or twice I actually thought I was in that era. There is a beautiful description of Kadambari making “paant” and I could actually taste the tamarind in it. You can also imagine Sarada Sundari, sitting on her four-poster bed, chewing paan and playing cards.
There is however an underlying sadness/darkness in the book. The women are more liberated and progressive than the rest but still not completely free. They are still constrained by their husband’s or their father-in-law’s rules. If Jnanadanandini was lucky enough to have Satyendranath Tagore, who actively encouraged her to break the taboos and step out to come into her own, there was also Tripura Sundari who was denied her husband’s property for being a childless widow. The pathos and the anguish in Kadambari’s life is heartbreaking. The men even though brilliant in their respective fields are somehow lacking as husbands (like Jyoti or Robi) or even empathy like Debendranath.
However the fact of the matter is all the characters, good, bad and the grey in between ensnare you. You realize how brilliant, talented and powerful the Tagore men and women were. Starting from shipping magnate Dwarkanath Tagore, who had the Midas’s touch with money, till his youngest grandson the great Rabindranath Tagore; they were an exceptional line of people.
The author has managed to create a slice of history disguised as fiction. You see the Bengal renaissance, the breaking down of rules regarding women, new fashion etc. in this book. Since all the characters are entwined in Indian History you sometimes forget that the book is a fictional account. Even though the incidents might have actually taken place the circumstances or events or even the behavior of characters of that time is unknown. That is where the difficulty for the reader comes in since the book has been so well written that you actually have to keep reminding yourself, its fiction!!!
In fact after reading the book I felt like wanting to go to the mansion in Jorasanko and seeing for myself where the palki of Genu must have been set down.