[Parenthetical notes are the translator's]

Ritual and Reform

Rabindranath Tagore

Translated from Bengali by Prasenjit Gupta

In his notebook, Chitrogupto (clerk to Jomraj, god of death) keeps account, in large letters, of many sins that are not known to even the sinners themselves. Similarly, other sins occur which only I recognize as sins, no one else. The one I’ve sat down to write about is of that ilk. To admit one’s guilt in advance, before having to account for it to Chitrogupto, is to reduce the measure of the offense.

It happened yesterday. It was a Saturday, and the Jains in our neighborhood were celebrating some festival. I had gone out with my wife Kolika in the motor-car--we had an invitation to tea at my friend Noyon-Mohon’s house.

My wife’s name, Kolika (“flower bud”), was given by my father-in-law, I’m not responsible for it. Her nature is not suited to her name--her opinions are quite fully blossomed. When the people of her group went out to Borobajar to picket against English fabrics, they respectfully gave her the name Dhrubo-brota (“constant in her resolve”). My name is Girindro (“chief of mountains,” the Himalayas); the group knows me as my wife’s husband, they don’t consider the significance of my own name. By God’s mercy, I have my father’s wealth and hence some small measure of significance too. This attracts the attention of the group when it comes time to raise funds.

Husband and wife often get along better if their natures do not match, like dry earth and water. My nature is extremely easy-going, I don’t cling fast to anything. My wife’s nature is extremely tenacious, whatever she holds on to she’ll never give up. It is because of this dissimilarity that peace is preserved in our world.

There is only one area where a difference of opinion persists between us, where we have not been able to compromise. Kolika believes that I do not love my shodesh (my own country). Her belief in her own beliefs is unshakeable--and so no matter what proofs I offer of my deep love for my country, I have never been able to get her to acknowledge this love, because my proofs do not match her symbols and definitions.

I have loved books since boyhood; whenever I hear of a new book I go and buy it. Even my enemies will admit that I have read those books; my friends know well that after I read the books I never stop arguing about them. As a result of all these discussions my friends began to sidle past me on the street, until in the end there was only one man left, Bon-Bihari (“frolicker in the forest,” Krishna), with whom I sat down on Sundays. I called him Kon-Bihari (“frolicker in his corner”). We would sit on the rooftop terrace, talking about books sometimes until two in the morning. Because we were thus engrossed, it was not an auspicious time for us: the police of those days, if they saw a Gita in someone’s house, would take it as proof of sedition. And the nationalists of those days, if in someone’s house they saw a British book with its pages cut, would declare him a traitor. They reckoned me born on the white man’s island and merely coated with a dark color. Even Shoroshshoti’s whiteness made it difficult for her to get prayer offerings from those nationalists. The water of the lake where her white lotus bloomed, that water wouldn’t put out the fire devouring the nation’s future, it would make it worse--such was the rumor.

In spite of my virtuous wife’s fine example and her endless urgings, I did not wear khoddor (home-spun cotton); and this was not because it had any faults or because it had no virtues, or because I was fashionable or fastidious about my attire. Quite the contrary: I have many offenses against the Shodeshi ways (the Shodeshi movement, a nationalistic avoidance of foreign goods), but neatness isn’t one of them. Coarse, dirty clothing worn in unkempt fashion--that is my habit. In the age before Kolika’s Shodeshi inclinations, I used to wear broad-toed shoes from China Bajar, sometimes forgetting the daily application of blacking; I was miserable wearing socks; I felt comfortable wearing panjabis rather than shirts, and if one or two buttons went missing from those panjabis I didn’t notice it--and for all these and other such reasons there had arisen the possibility of a complete estrangement between Kolika and myself.

She’d say, “Look here, I feel ashamed to go out anywhere with you.”

I’d say, “You don’t have to depend on me, leave me here and go out on your own.”

Now the times have changed, but my luck hasn’t. Even now, Kolika will say, “I’m ashamed to go out with you.” I hadn’t put on the uniform of the party that Kolika belonged to in those days, and I am unable to accept the uniform of the group that she now associates herself with. My wife’s shame with me has remained. This is a fault in my nature. No matter which party it is, I am reluctant to disguise myself. I have never been able to overcome this diffidence. And for her part Kolika has never been able to accept this as a difference of opinion and let it go at that. In the way a powerful river pushes again and again at a large rock, roaring at it forever and always to no avail, Kolika too cannot restrain herself from pushing, as she comes and goes, day and night, at habits that are not the same as hers; it is as if the slightest touch of something different creates an irresistible itch, makes her immediately restless.

Yesterday, before we went out to tea, Kolika raised a hundred and one objections to my un-khoddored dress, and in her tone of voice there was no sweetness at all. Because of my pride in my intellect, I could not accept her scolding without argument--man’s nature incites him to such worthless efforts. So I, too, made my caustic comments a hundred and one times: “Women will insist on pulling the ends of their saris over their God-given eyes and only doing what they’re told. They’re more comfortable obeying than they are thinking for themselves. It relieves them to move all of their life’s acts out of the free arena of taste and intellect and hide them behind the purdah of ritual. And they’re delighted now that the wearing of khoddor, too, is becoming such a ritual, like the religiosity of wearing a garland and a tilok in this nation of ours, with its decayed and corrupt notions of good conduct.”

Kolika was so angered that she couldn’t sit still. Listening to her voice, the maidservant in the next room must have thought, It seems the husband has cheated the wife out of her full measure of jewellery. Kolika said, “Listen, the day that wearing khoddor becomes a holy ritual for our nation’s people, like bathing in the Ganga, that day the nation will be saved. When judgment combines with character, that gives rise to good conduct. When considered thought is tied together with appearances, that is ritual; and then people can work on with their eyes closed, effortlessly, and not vacillate with their eyes open.”

These sentiments are the thoughts of the teacher Noyon-Mohon; their quotations marks have been lost; Kolika considers them her own conclusions.

Whoever said “The dumb man has no enemies” surely was not married himself. Seeing that I didn’t offer any response, Kolika became doubly enraged. “You object to caste discrimination with your mouth, but you do nothing to remedy it. By our insistence on khoddor we have covered that difference with this indivisible white; by removing differences of attire we have taken the hide off the differences of caste.”

I wanted to say, “Certainly with my mouth I found discrimination unacceptable the day I accepted chicken curry cooked by a Muslim. But that was no sentiment that came merely from my mouth, it was an act of the mouth, with its movement inward. Covering caste differences with cloth is an outward act; that is merely covering it up, not removing it altogether.” But I hadn’t courage enough to express this argument. I am merely a timid man, I stayed quiet. I know that whatever arguments the two of us start between us, Kolika will take them to her friends’ houses and bring them back thrashed and wrung out like a washerman’s laundry. Having gathered counter-arguments from the professor of philosophy Noyon-Mohon, she will turn her blazing eyes upon me, and they’ll say in their silent language, “Now how do you like that!

I had no desire to go to Noyon’s for tea. The ritual and the free intellect of Hindu culture, the relative positions of custom and judgment, and how that fine balance had given our nation an edge of excellence over all others--I knew for certain that with all these subjects at the tea table, our finely crafted arguments, fine as the steam rising off hot tea, could turn the atmosphere soggy and overcast in an instant. And here my new books, ornamented with gold lettering, fresh from the shop, pages still uncut, were awaiting me by my pillow; only the auspicious look (as between bride and groom in a Hindu wedding ceremony) had taken place, but their wedding veils of brown paper had not yet been removed; my love for them, despite our lack of acquaintance, grew stronger within me every instant. Still I had to go; because if the torrent of Dhrubo-brota’s (“constant in her resolve”) wishes is checked in any way, it takes the form of certain eddies and whirlpools in her utterances and her silences that are not very healthy for me.

We had only gone a little way from the house when, past the water tap at the side of the road, under the tiled roof of the pot-bellied Hindustani confectioner’s shop where various kinds of oil-fried, forbidden foods were being created, I observed an uproar. Our neighboring Marwaris had just emerged, carrying various precious pujo gifts and offerings. And then they had come to a standstill here. I heard shouts of Maro, maro. I thought, some pickpocket’s being punished.

When the motor-car, with much horn-blowing, reached the center of the excited crowd, I saw that it was the aged Government mathor (one of the sweeper caste) of our neighborhood who was being beaten mercilessly. A little while earlier he had bathed himself under the roadside tap, put on clean clothes, and was walking along with a pail of water in his hand and a broom under his arm. On his chest a checkered merjai, his wet hair combed; and walking along with him, holding his hand, had been his grandson of about eight or nine years. Both looked handsome and healthy. In that crowd they must have brushed against someone or something. And that was the beginning of this ceaseless beating. The grandson was crying and pleading with everyone, “Don’t hit Dada.” The old man said with his hands clasped, “Didn’t see, didn’t understand, please forgive.” And the anger of this crowd, virtuous men sworn to non-violence, kept growing. Tears ran from the old man’s frightened eyes, blood through his beard.

I couldn’t bear any more. It wasn’t possible for me to get down and dispute with them. I decided that I would take the mathor into my car and prove that I wasn’t of the same opinion as those religious-minded people.

Kolika saw my restlessness and understood what I had in mind. She clasped my hand tightly and said, “What are you doing. He’s a mathor!”

I said, “So what if he’s a mathor, is that any reason for him to be beaten without reason?”

Kolika said, “It’s his own fault. Why does he walk down the middle of the street? Would it have cost him his dignity to walk along the side?”

I said, “I’m not concerned with all that, I will take him into the car.”

Kolika said, “Then I’ll get down immediately, right here. I can’t take a mathor into the car--- a haridom I might have understood, but a mathor!”

I said, “Can’t you see he’s bathed, he’s wearing washed and bleached clothes? He’s a lot cleaner than some of them.” “That’s as it may be, but he’s a mathor!” She called to the chauffeur, “Gongadin, drive on, quickly.”

It was I who lost. I am a coward. Noyon-Mohon had arrived at some profound argument based on sociological formulations, but it didn’t reach my ears, and I didn’t respond.

[Madras, 1928 (1 Joishtha, 1335)]

Glossary and alternative transliterations

Chitrogupto, Chitragupt
Dhrubo-brota, Dhruva-vrata
Girindro, Girindra
Gongadin, Gangadin
Jomraj, Yamraj
khoddor, khaddar
Kolika, Kalika
merjai, a garment similar to a waistcoat
Noyon-Mohon, Nayan-Mohan
panjabi, Hindi kurta, a long-sleeved, collarless, shirt-like garment
pujo, puja, religious ceremony
Shodeshi, Swadeshi
Shoroshshoti, Saraswati, goddess of learning
tilok, tilak, a mark (often religious) on the forehead

The original story [sa.nskaar*] by Rabindranath Tagore is a part of galpaguchchha [Collection of Stories] published by Visvabharati Publications.

Translated by Prasenjit Gupta [Proshenjit Gupto. ] Prasenjit Gupta is a translator and writer living in Iowa City. (more)

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* To learn more about the ITRANS script for Bengali, click here .