Tagore's progressive take on the plight of widows rebukes Chatterjee's retrograde portrayal of widow remarriage.
Like Rabindranath Tagore's চোখের বালি / chokher baali "A Speck of Sand in the Eye" (1903), Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's novel বিষবৃক্ষ / viShavR^ikSha, "The Poison Tree" (1873) takes as its subject the position of widows in Bengali Hindu society. The central situation of the novels is similar: a married man falls in love with a young widow living in his household. That is why, when Mahendra says that he is obsessed with Binodini, Bihari asks him whether he is reënacting Bishabriksha. This subject matter also explains Binodini's embarrassment and humiliation when Mahendra catches her reading Chatterjee's novel.
Chatterjee was one of the pioneers of the novel in India. His works were both tremendously popular and hugely influential. Tagore's examination of the plight of a young widow of necessity grappled with Chatterjee's earlier treatment of the same subject. The scholar Sudhir Chandra says:
So seminal and continuing became the influence of [Chatterjee's] fictional depiction of widows that no subsequent Bengali novelist of note ... could feel free from its weight while dealing with this theme. For example, in his Chokher Bali (1902), the first work to surpass Bankim's depiction of widows, Tagore alludes to Vishabriksha more than once as an aid to characterization, using it symbolically to denote and in the course of the narrative neutralize a particular attitude towards widows. (p. WS-56)
Tagore uses The Poison Tree as a foil to his own novel. He develops his progressive stance on the status of widows in explicit contrast to Chatterjee's reactionary one.
In 18th and 19th C. India, girls were often married off very young, even before reaching puberty. Typically their husbands were much older. After her marriage, a girl would continue to live with her parents until menarche, after which she was sent to live with her husband. Given the disparity in age between the spouses, a considerable number of girls were widowed even before reaching puberty, and an even greater number of young women lost their husbands while still in their teens. Social custom prevented a widow, even one who had never lived with her husband as a wife, from remarrying.
Through the efforts of the social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, widow remarriage was explicitly legalized in 1856. The action of Chatterjee's novel, written 17 years after the passage of the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act, demonstrates the gap between the putatively legal and the socially acceptable.
Plot summary of The Poison Tree
The wealthy and handsome Nagendra is married to Suryamukhi. As an act of charity, he also provides a home for a young widow, Kunda. Nagendra and Kunda fall in love. The self-sacrificing Suryamukhi encourages Nagendra to take Kunda as his second wife, but runs away from home immediately after the marriage. This causes Nagendra to realize how much he loves Suryamukhi, and he sets out to find her and bring her back home. The two are reunited, and feeling guilty at having come between them, Kunda commits suicide.
Relevance to Chokher Bali
In The Poison Tree, Suryamukhi is depicted as a devoted wife entirely subservient to her husband. While Kunda's bleak life as a young widow is depicted sensitively, Kunda herself is rather wet; Sudhir Chandra comments that she "lacks even the will to want her own welfare" (p. WS-56). Tagore's portrayal of the wife and the widow inverts Chatterjee's: Mahendra's wife, Asha, is practically illiterate and relatively placid. Binodini, on the other hand, is intelligent, lively, and talented. Her zest for life makes her position as a young widow even more poignant. These contrasts point to a deeper difference between the two novels' portrayal of the social situation of widows and the legitimacy of their desire.
Even though Nagendra in The Poison Tree is already married, his second marriage to Kunda would have been legal; in India, polygamy among Hindus was not barred by law until 1956. But marriage does not bring Kunda any happiness. It also blights the life of her husband and co-wife. Chatterjee casts a remarried widow as a poison tree who is unfaithful to the memory of her first husband, and incapable of being a good wife to her second.
Tagore, on the other hand, portrays Binodini with great sensitivity and psychological insight. Dependent on Mahendra's family for her material needs, she makes herself indispensable to them. Asha lacks the skill to manage the household, so all those tasks fall to Binodini. Blind to risk, Asha urges her husband to get to know Binodini better. Mahendra's sexual desire for Asha has played itself out, and he has nothing else in common with her. He finds himself drawn to the vivacious and spirited Binodini. Binodini eventually carries on a half-hearted affair with him, but she is quite clear in her own mind that the man she really desires is his friend Bihari. She even lets Bihari know of her desire.
While Chatterjee does portray the state of widowhood with sympathy, the widow herself is not presented as a complex human being. Furthermore, Kunda's desire is presented as dangerous, poisoning those around her. The only antidote is for her to poison herself. That is to say, Chatterjee's novel presents widows as passive; treats their desire as dangerous and illegitimate; and indicates that they are better off dead.
Tagore reacts to this deeply reactionary portrayal. He is no less sympathetic to the state of widowhood—Binodini is as wretchedly dependent on Mahendra as Kunda is on Nagendra. While Chatterjee blames Kunda for harming Nagendra's and Suryamukhi's marriage, Tagore shows that Mahendra and Asha are culpable for the failure of their relationship. The selfish, spoiled Mahendra pursues Binodini only because he has tired of his vapid wife. Tagore also skillfully underlines the power differential between Mahendra and Binodini. Even though she accedes to the affair, the disparity in their situations and her dependence on him makes the question of her consent moot.
At the end of the novel, Binodini turns down Bihari's proposal of marriage, since there is no living down the scandal that has erupted after her name has been linked with Mahendra's. She also makes it clear that she does not wish Bihari to marry her only out of charity, as a way of making an honest woman out of her. Instead, she accepts a job he offers her at a distant place, as an attendant at a medical sanatorium. The job is beneath her talents, but it affords her independence, a vanishingly rare commodity for widows in that society and era.
Paradoxically, although Chatterjee's novel shows an actual widow remarriage and Tagore's does not, Chokher Bali espouses the more progressive ideals. For Chatterjee, widows, particularly those who remarry, are a poison tree. Tagore shows that the poison tree isn't so much the widow and her desires; rather, the poison stems from the social norms that circumscribe Binodini's possibilities.
Sanskrit /v/ being assimilated to Bengali /b/, the Bengali script does not differentiate between the two letters. Likewise, the inherent or default vowel of Sanskrit, /ə/, becomes /o/ in Bengali. Hence the title of Chatterjee's novel is transliterated, interchangeably, Vishavriksha or Bishabriksha or Bishabriksho or Bishavriksha or Vishobriksha or, you get the idea.
- Chandra, Sudhir. “Conflicted Beliefs and Men's Consciousness about Women: Widow Marriage in Later Nineteenth Century Indian Literature.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 22, no. 44, 1987, pp. WS55–WS62. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4377663. Accessed 22 Nov. 2020.