Wednesday, 31 October 2012


‘The Wreck’ (1921) translation by Rabindranath Tagore of his Bengali novel Naukadubi (1906) is based on the dilemma of mistaken identity resulting in a wife-swapping. It is a melodramatic story which has been delightfully told and diversified with descriptions of nature of extraordinary loveliness and is full of action and powerful human emotions. The Wreck has a cleverly constructed story strenghthened with philosophy and concluding on a positive note. The hero, Ramesh, has been set in a web of fate; he cannot do anything as per his wish. In the end he gets free from this web of fate after doing his duty properly.

This novel explores the emotional quotients of the main characters. A natural disaster changes the courses of 4 lives. Fate plays an ugly game with four lives, which coincidentally cross each other at intersections of life. Ramesh, Hemnalini, Kamala and Nalinaksha are torn apart by call of duty and the devotion of love. Conversations become insignificant as subtleties express the emotions. A trifle touching of feet creates a flurry of memories and passion runs high. A man caged by his commitment, a woman trying to accustom herself to the failed pursuit of love, a wife wooing her husband with her sweet nothings and a husband who is wounded but not bruised.

The story revolves around these four central characters. Ramesh, a Calcutta educated lawyer and Hemnalini a well-educated upper class woman who dabbles in rabindrasangeet as time pass. Their fates are relentlessly entwined but yet destiny plays a cruel trick on them. Ramesh compelled by his father and in certain measure owing to his own pity, marries a widow’s only daughter who is as her mother puts it- illiterate but expert at household work. He barely had a glimpse at his own wife when tragedy befalls. In a thunderstorm the boat they were travelling in, overturns. Ramesh loses his father in the accident but a few feet from where he regains consciousness he finds a woman in a bride’s garb. Thinking of her more as a duty than wife he takes her to his home in Calcutta and tries to be a responsible husband. Meanwhile, Hemnalini heart-broken at Ramesh’s sudden desertion, recoils into her own shell. Her father takes her to Kashi to help her recuperate from mental trauma where she meets the charming yet kind-hearted doctor Nalinaksha. Incidentally, Nalinaksha had lost his wife in a boat wreck. The criss-crossing of the lives of the four central characters at times becomes confusing and a tad too boring.‘The Wreck’ has to be seen from the point of that period’s conventional morality. Chastity plays a major role in the novel. Morality is very important.

Boat wrecks are famed to wreck havoc, and therefore, a fascinating point to begin a narrative. That element of thrill was also there on the first pages of the Tagore novel as well; but, lost wind as the story unfolded. The author has indeed mastered the art of imagery to describe the character’s emotions. ‘The Wreck’ opens beautifully and seductively, in a place we’d love to stay in, the book-filled and serenely comfortable Calcutta home where Hemnalini, a poised and lovely young woman, arranges flowers and sings a song of her dreams of a sweet married life soon to come. With the appearance of Ramesh, a perfect shape is given to a modern love relationship, a man and woman who are connected on every level, intellectual equals who tease each other about books they’ve both read and are also truly in love. The author successfully made us visualize the description of the Bengal's waterways from Kolkata to Benares. . In the later part of the novel where Kamala sentimentalizes on her victimization is simply nerve-racking. There is of course beauty and lyricism that come from the fact that Tagore was essentially a poet at heart. There is certainly an analytical and realistic approach, but being a lyricist, he applied his grand imagination to real settings. The Wreck is an example of a dramatic, incredible story, which almost seems like it was written with the intent of shaking up a complacent and custom-driven Bengali society. It's not hard to see it as quite bold and progressive for its times.

On the downside, Tagore's story uses too many coincidences at every point. Also, the actual background reference of boat-wreck is of devastation. However the wrecks within are insipid in depiction. Even if we understand Ramesh’s sense of binding obligation in front of Sushila’s widowed mother, we don’t fathom his reactions towards Hemnalini who he planned to marry without letting her know that he was already married. Similarly, Hem’s attraction for Nalinaksha in Benares and then moving back to Ramesh seem too staged.

About 100 years ago, Tagore’s fine idea must have been to adopt two kinds of plot situations, the shipwreck (and its consequences), and the “mistaken identity” tale, and use them to tell a totally Indian story, anchored in a familiar Indian situation, the arranged marriage: in a society where two strangers might be assigned to a lifetime together, what would it mean, and what could happen, if a man accidentally brings home the wrong bride from his wedding? A love-match disrupted, a shipwreck, a case of mistaken identity, people lost and then found, and amazing coincidences causing paths to cross and cross and cross again. ‘The Wreck’ has more to do with the potential for tragedy where actual identity is disregarded for the sake of tradition, and people are not able to live their lives as who they really are.

The ultimate psychological question associated with this story is, if the faith of a woman rooted in the everlastingness of her marriage, deep enough for her to break free from the spell of her first love (now a part of her subconscious)? But such questions do not have a universal answer. The novel looks at our deeply engrained sense of tradition and morality and what happens when it is in conflict with the dictates of the heart. Each character goes through this conundrum, and deal with it according to their individual situations in life.

T he theme is clearly about nature versus custom. Each of the characters is forced to momentarily bend to accepted tradition, but ultimately a satisfactory resolution is found. The boat-wreck in some ways could be a metaphor for nature asserting itself and ending what it deems as unnatural.

Hemnalini and Kamala are two women who belong to opposite ends of the social spectrum. Hemnalini has the privilege of wealth, education and an indulgent father while Kamala considers her self unfortunate and is totally traditional Indian-rural woman. Both experience the same kind of emotions, but their social background ultimately determines how they react to their situation. . Their lives are fatefully tied to the same man, a young law student named Ramesh. Ramesh is in love with Hemnalini. Under family pressure he marries a woman he has never met, Susheela, but ends up bringing home a third woman, Kamla, by mistake.

T agore wrote this novel on optimistic front as could be seen by how Hemnalini set out to survive her disappointment and get on with building a life; Kamla (who does not know she has the wrong husband) became determined to adjust and succeed as a wife in the marriage in which fate had placed her, even if it’s not what she expected. But, the portrayal of Ramesh lets you ache for the life he’s just lost, and also share the frustration of both Hemnalini and Kamla as long as neither one has what she longs for with him.

T he author has woven a story that is full of complicated emotions way beyond our comprehension; still I easily connected with all the characters. And what probably makes me feel so regular is that I understood what he wrote and was able to relate to it in a manner that no one else can probably get me to.

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