From: Selected poems, translated by William Radice, Penguin classics, 1918
Click on the pictures to read the poem
How much of this poem is autobiographical I cannot know, but in 1902 Tagore’s wife died young, at 25 after having fallen ill (TB?), and even if the speaker in Deception should perhaps not be automatically referred to the poet himself, I feel there is enough realistic psychology in it for me to assume Tagore is speaking about himself. There is a fascinating document (A wife’s letter) in which his wife, Mrinalini, writes about a very special relationship she entertained with a relative of hers, Bindu, and there are many parallels to be drawn between the two texts. Tagore scholars probably know what to think about the comparison between the letter and the poem, but to me it’s clear that the poem is a fictitious transposition of the Mrinalini-Bindu story.
I chose this poem because the story it tells is so beautifully staged, and contains such an interesting moral lesson. Furthermore, the young wife’s character, Binu (this is the young wife's name in the poem - Bindu is her protégée's name in the letter), displays a very touching freedom and simplicity, which her impending death makes all the more precious. Finally the little narrative could easily be expanded into a movie (perhaps it has been the basis for one, does someone know?), and that’s why it finds its place here.
What’s striking is Binu’s happiness, her overflowing joy whereas she must have known that she was dying, or at least that she was very ill. True, she’s leaving the suffocating atmosphere of the family house for the first time in her life, and the novel impressions of the journey are a cause for elation. Being with her husband on her own could also have had a charm which their first years didn’t have; Tagore writes they could, at home, share only so much intimacy. Now she’s away from all the chores and responsibilities of her household. No nagging aunties, no pesky in-laws! Perhaps Binu was a pragmatist: she knew she only had a few months left and she was determined to make the most of them? But in fact I believe she’s simply a lover of life, and her illness had increased this love. Hence the joy. One feels she takes advantage of the present, and doesn’t let the darker future overshadow her spirits. The Hindu belief that a person’s soul belongs to a Life so much greater than the individual frees the self from any sense of ownership: a person doesn’t own his or her life. It is lent on lease and given back without regret.
Mrinalini Devi, Tagore's wife
Binu’s delight is wonderful to witness: she gives her money away to beggars (who are wailing at them, writes a reproachful husband); she points to a little plot of land close to a “steep-sided pond”, and marvels at how pleasant it must be to live there, in the simplicity of frugal means, and when they reach the town where they have to change trains, they realise they have to wait for 6 hours. Her husband feels he’ll never have the patience! But her answer rings out: “why? It’s good to wait”. Of course, for someone who’s probably always been hustled around, shouted at or disturbed at all times, what a luxury it must be to just sit and wait with nothing else to do! But Tagore’s line means much more: it’s good to wait because time itself is a gift, life itself is given to enjoy to the full, every second of it. How can you taste life if you are constantly busy or exhausted? Waiting in this respect means enjoying the flow of life in its purity, and being open for its essence to be noticed and shared.
And this is what happens! While the blasé husband lies down to read “an English novel [he] had bought” (3 ways to escape real life: Englishness, literature, money), his wife (who had been asked to “lie down and sleep” – as much as to say, metaphorically speaking: “die”) opens her ears and heart to a fellow-traveller on this Earth of ours. Not only will she not lie down, but she will rise to the level of a poor woman’s simple life, and be her listener, be her sister in her dire need. Nothing is said, but Binu is very simply putting in practice the highest degree of love, that of a neighbour in need, irrespective of rank, class, age or sex. Listening to Rukmini, she befriends Humanity itself. And here again, she takes the time to hear all her story – one should say, she “gives” the time – and when she calls her husband to let him know that the poor woman needs 25 rupees to marry her daughter, she insists that he hear all her story. What for? “It won’t hurt it to cut it short”, he suggests, feeling that it will certainly sound like so many other paupers’ lives.
When a person lives outside the circles of educated society, which writes the names of its representatives on its books and records, and of course even more when this person is dead, the only chance her life can hope to get its whole meaning is if other people transform it into a story. We can still relate to Binu’s life because Tagore has taken pains to write this delicate narrative about her. But Binu was a brahmin’s wife. What chance does a simple coolie’s wife’s life get to be remembered? Very little, because she’s one of so many thousands of similar people: her bones will soon become like the dust she used to sweep in the station waiting-room. Even her peers despise the effort of remembering her destination: “why should anyone know that?” say the people at the station when Tagore comes back in search of her. But the dying Binu gives her an immortal name. For Tagore who had her story forced on him and for us who read this poem written about her, Rukmini the coolie’s wife from Bilaspur rises from the dead because her story was long enough to make sense as that of an individual with a human need. When you see figures of poverty, whatever the size of these figures, they are only figures. But when a person’s story is told, a face emerges out of time, a voice can once again be heard, and imploring eyes be seen asking you if you belong to the same humanity.
It’s fascinating to follow Tagore’s bad conscience as it rises through the last stanzas of Deception. A bad conscience is good. It follows you like a shy little dog waiting for affection, and which, even if rebuked, won’t go away, because it knows you might change and give it what it hopes to get. But first, the crime, the sin: in front of his wife, a reluctant Tagore promises: “he’ll see what he can do” and then takes away the coolie’s wife into the recesses of deceit, where his wife (= his good conscience) won’t interfere:
I called the woman, took her aside,
And then I tore into her:
“I’ll make sure you lose your job!
Going around duping passengers? I’ll soon put a stop to it.”
When she burst into tears and clung to my feet
I gave her two rupees and had done with her.
Notice the verb: I tore into her. The havoc wreaked by Tagore is first a sundering of any ties that his wife’s humane weaving had patiently and joyfully carried out. He ruthlessly tears the woman away from a human community she thought she had been admitted to, and the age-old caste prejudice is there to uphold the brutal refusal: “The woman was probably a sweeper or something equally disgusting, cleaning out the waiting-room daily”. He had probably been pleased to enter a clean waiting-room! But her humble work is now what dooms her. And if this wasn’t enough, comes the eternal mistrust of poor people: “going around duping passengers”. Why do the rich always believe the poor are lying to them? And even if indeed they are, why don’t they understand they wouldn’t lie if they weren’t so much in need? The answer is only too simple: in them their bad conscience is telling them the poor are their brothers, the fellow human creatures of the same God, and if they accepted what their conscience is asking them, they should have to abandon their comfort and their money, and SHARE with these poor people. This is where Tagore’s anger comes from: that this powerless coolie’s wife is given so much power! A power which enters deep into his very soul and asks him to renounce his superiority and false ruling caste authority.
Tagore with eldest daughter
Before he is admitted to the light of repentance and moral truth, Tagore must go even deeper into the darkness: “the temple-light went dark, went out”. By this wonderful image, meant to evoke his wife’s departure into the other world, the poet evokes her divine envelope, her body compared to a temple and her person to the light shining within it. But he also describes his own moral gloom; the sentence comes just after the scathing “I had done with her”. And so clearly he is inflicting himself the punishment too long delayed: his beloved wife, so pure and lovely, is made one with Rukmini the floor-cleaner. “I had done with her” retrospectively can only too easily refer to Binu! He has indeed done away with his promise to her, and with the call of his own conscience. He now realises that what he’s done to one woman, he has done exactly in the same way to the other. The two women are only one woman; their destinies are intertwined by death and deceit (perhaps this is why Binu and Bindu are so so close). Tagore’s deceit has killed his wife more surely than her illness: for not only has her body turned to nothing, but her dreams and love. He has undone by his cheating what she had done by her loving. But by doing so, he has also dug his own grave. The hole in his soul deepens every day: “Even if I could give a hundred thousand rupees to Rukmini today, they could never fill that lack”.
And so it is his turn now to know “direst necessity”. Speaking of the importance for him to find where Rukmini has gone, he writes: “What seemed so trivial to them that day was for me direst necessity: to find the one person able to rid me of my burden of deceit.” It is as if Rukmini’s life-weight has now been passed on to him, for him to carry it. This is in fact exactly what Binu had wanted: she had hoped that he would relieve her of her burden. But whereas it could have been done almost effortlessly with those “absurd” 25 rupees, even 100 000 would not be enough now. Why? Wouldn’t Rukmini accept them? She could still be found. But what cannot be bought back isn’t Rukmini’s plight. What is priceless is time and love, the time and the love of the other Rukmini of the story whose soul had been, she said, “filled with the nectar” of purity and everlasting faithfulness. Binu’s words, filled with the trust and love of a soul on its way to Nirvâna, whose karma tied her down no longer to this Earth’s cycles of rebirth, cannot but weigh down her deceitful husband’s soul all the more. He’s now the pauper, and they are made rich; he is alone and lost, they are together having found one another.
Tagore has written this poem (called phãnki in the original edition) in 1918, many years after his wife’s death in 1902 (this remark of course is only valid if indeed he is speaking about her, but I have little doubt), so one has to wonder: why so long after? If what Mrinalini says in her letter (see link quoted above) is true, everybody in Tagore’s family was ferociously against her in her defence of her protégée, Rukmini. Including Tagore himself. So this would be enough to explain such a long delay. The maturation needed for such a turn-about concerning women would indeed be long. Because everything in the poem vindicates Binu/Mrinalini’s courageous attitude and avant-garde virtue. There is no trace left of any anti-feminine prejudice, of the kind Tagore’s wife charges her husband and his family with. Not only that, but his stay, his two-month stay with his wife out of the conventionality of the family home, becomes an “offering” (l. 117). He writes:
I am guilty of a dreadful omission from that two month offering (…)
Binu never knew I had pressed deceivingly into her hands
The two months that she took away with her.
I do not know whether the word “offering” has the same religious connotation in Bengali as it has in English – but one can confidently assume as much, because it comes shortly after an invocation to the “all-seeing God”. What Tagore is saying is that what his wife says has been his present to her, this “nectar which filled her soul” was really corrupted by his deceit, his selfishness and pride… But with this other offering, this poem which is offered both to her and to the world, one can say that he’s magnificently redeemed himself, and presented her with the most lasting gift he could conceive.
Tagore and his young wife