A widow with nothing to lose seduces her friend’s husband in colonial 19th century Bengali society. This is the storyline of a novel written by Rabindranath Tagore called Chokher Bali(Grain of Sand). The book was made into a movie and the dangerous widow, Binodini, was played by none other than the lovely Aishwarya Rai, Miss World, and considered a rising star internationally, according to Time magazine.
Though the movie makes crucial departures from the book which the author could not have done due to early Victorian period that it was written in, yet the movie remained true to the theme of exploring a frustrated woman’s psyche that deliberately goes down the road of self-destruction hurting the very people who love her.
Binodini is a young widow who is brought back to Calcutta by her mother’s best friend from an obscure village and she quickly befriends the daughter in law. As time passes she uses her beauty and wit to seduce the man of the house (Mahendra). But once he is ensnared in her web she treats him with utmost disdain.
Having conquered the heart of a man she turns her affection towards his friend Bihari; man of noble character and integrity whose philanthropic spirit and calm attitude seem a direct contrast to Mahendra’s self-absorbed and churlish personality.
Knowing that her affections would not be reciprocated by the elusive Bihari and having been thrown out of the house by Mahendra’s mother on account of her ruining Mahendra’s marriage, Binodini returns to her village a frustrated widow with a craving for riches that she had grown accustomed to while living in Calcutta.
Bewitched by her beauty and vivacious personality Mahendra leaves his docile wife and ill mother behind and follows Binodini around as she journeys through northern India. Blinded by insatiable desires he stalks her every step hoping and praying for a moment when she would weaken and let him seduce her.
Binodini, however treats him more like a piggy bank sponsoring her trips as she searches for Bihari and remains aloof to his amorous gestures, making him more obssessive in his desire to posess her.
Ashalata is the naïve wife who finally grows into a self-assured woman due to the tragedy the falls on her. Newly married she merely lives to please her husband and having lead a sheltered life falls prey to Binodini’s false gestures towards friendship.
Once her husband leaves her for another woman, she shows inner strength to rise beyond her own sufferings and looks after her grief stricken mother-in-law and earns respect not only in the eyes of her mother-in-law but also the servants.
As one progresses through the book the comparison between Binodini and Ashalata begins to tilt in favor of the latter. Not because Ashalata is the victim but because she possesses a giving heart despite lacking in the department of wit and education.
Tagore clearly points out that while brains and beauty are qualities that one should cultivate yet they are wasted if the bedrock is a heart filled with anger and envy. He also indicates that a woman should have a mind of her own and there is no reason why a wife should treat her husband as her god which was a novel idea considering the period the book was written in.
Ashalata maintains her distance from her wayward husband when he visits his mother on hearing that she had taken to bed. She clearly sees him for the immature, spoilt jerk that he is and shows quiet dignity which Mahendra is unable to deal with and finds wanting in Bidoni who behaves more and more like a shrew.
The book ends with Mahendra returning home a changed man though still immature in many ways. He returns home to find a wife who would treat him like an equal instead of an idol and a mother on her death bed who still loves him but is no longer blinded to his faults.
Binodini reconciles with her widowhood and realizes that despite Bihari’s reciprocation of affection she couldn’t marry him due to the social stigma attached to widow re-marriage. She decides that the best alternative would be for her to be the mistress of her own fate and asks Bihari to let her run one of his charities so as to have a purpose in life.
Rabindranath Tagore was the first Asian to win a Nobel in literature and is well known in the West more for his poems than his short stories and novels. He was sometimes seen as an apologist for the British Empire, but he returned his knighthood in protest against British excesses, particularly the horrific Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. He was a key proponent of education, and even wrote 2000 songs, forming the main corpus of modern Bengali classical music. His song, “Jana Gana Mana” is the national anthem of India. (Tagore books on Project Gutenberg)
Apart from Chokher Bali, the other book of his that I thoroughly enjoyed was Gitanjali, whose introduction was provided by W B Yeats. Both the books proved to be light reads and the movie a sultry, exotic watch thanks to breathtaking Aishwarya Rai.