Book Talk

Naukadubi

by Rabindranath Tagore


Birdy

Bengali writers fascinate me, as I have mentioned before, and Rabindranath Tagore, is nothing less. Based on a friend’s recommendation I read his book ‘The Wreck or ‘Naukadubi’ as it is more popularly known by its Bengali eponym. Here is a summary:

‘The Wreck’ is one of Tagore’s early novels originally published in 1906. It starts off with a boat overturning due to a storm and the mistaken identity which is its result. Ramesh picks up a survivor of the tragedy thinking her to be his newly wedded wife whose face he has never seen. He brings her home and showers her with affection. When she discovers that Ramesh is not really her husband she leaves him. Interposed with exquisite descriptions of nature The Wreck is a moving story of complicated human relationships told with power and feeling.

A few glances. Unspoken feelings that are only felt and an unwilling marriage. A storm and a boat wreck. There is much action in the first 15-20 pages. Ramesh is half in love with Hemnalini, his neighbor, but both have never exchanged words or promises other than through glances and mutually felt warmth towards each other. So when Braja Mohan, Ramesh’s father, says that he has decided the girl his son should marry, Ramesh has nothing to counter it with.

“Father, I really can’t marry this girl, I’m bound by a promise to someone else.”

Braja Mohan. “You don’t say so! Has there been a regular betrothal?”

Ramesh. “No, not exactly, but…”

Braja Mohan. “Have you spoken to the girl’s people? Is it all settled?”

Ramesh. I haven’t actually spoken about it, but…”

Braja Mohan. “Oh, you haven’t? Well, as you’ve said nothing so far you may as well keep quiet a little longer.”

After a short pause Ramesh shot his last bolt. “I should be doing her a wrong if I married any other girl.”

“You would be doing a still greater wrong,” retorted Braja Mohan, “if you refused to marry the bride whom I have chosen for you.”

A lack of firmness on the part of Ramesh, hinting at vacillation, is evident right at the outset. His dithering takes more shape as the book progresses and almost becomes the force driving the core of the story. Ramesh ends up marrying the girl his father has chosen without even seeing her face. On her part, Kamala too hasn’t seen the man who she got married to either. After the boat gets wrecked he espies a girl lying unconscious dressed in bridal finery. 

He assumes that this is the girl he married and they live together for a while. Later, when he does find out, he hesitates to break the news to her because he knows that Kamala has grown attached to him. Thus begins Ramesh’s efforts to solve the problem in such a way that he doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings and everything is resolved in the best manner possible. But in his quest to do so, he causes much anxiety, hurt, suspicions to rise and puzzlement.

The character studies of Ramesh, Hemnalini and Kamala are interesting. While Ramesh is a “typical Bengali male” as one of my friends put it, in that he wants to achieve the impossible task of keeping everyone happy, Hemnalini and Kamala are strong women in their own rights. Kamala comes across as childish, extremely pliant and highly reluctant to ignore authority. 

We do see flashes of her spirit now and then but not enough that she makes life easier for herself when she can. As for Hemnalini, she is a stronger woman, given to more opinions and following her mind. Even in her adoration of Nalinaksha or in her refusal to believe anything negative about Ramesh, we see a certain steely spirit in her.

‘The Wreck’ gives us a glimpse to the society of early 1900s India, with its beliefs and customs. Quite a few have remained unchanged. Parents deciding their children’s life partner for instance. Even today, many young Indians don’t have a say in who they will marry. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is that they at least see the person’s face!

The book can be slightly dragging in many parts and the language is excessively poetic and flowery. Perhaps it’s the translation but after a point I felt Keats had co-written the novel. It also felt like I was reading a play and the dialogues were more theatrical than natural. I have read more mature works of Tagore, written later in his life, and they were definitely different.

Nevertheless, it’s an interesting read mainly because of the contrasting characters of Ramesh and the two women. I just had one question – So who was the lady Ramesh was really married to? We only know her name is Susila and that mystery is never solved.