Rabindranath Tagore and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay were contemporaries who were considered the sun and moon of Bengali literature. Both explored socially relevant themes through their novels and highlighted the role of women in society. Saratchandra’s The Final Question (translated from the Bengali Shesh Prashna) is indeed a remarkable work considering that it was written 80+ years ago. It raises issues of women’s liberation that are still considered ‘controversial’ in Indian society today.
The story is set in the close knit Bengali community in Agra. The arrival of Shibnath and Kamal stirs up this genteel middle class society as rumours have it that the newly arrived couple, though living together as a couple aren’t legally married. This is the set up for an intricate debate on women’s rights. Saratchandra puts across different points of view about women’s rights in the society of the 1920s, in the wake of the abolition of sati and the Bengal renaissance. The author also juxtaposes the debate about nationhood to make a combustible mix — should India have a modern outlook that apes the West or should we abide by our traditions and follow on the footsteps of our 5000 year old civilization in creating a society that values self-sacrifice, austerity and a strict social code for men and women.
Each of the characters have their unique take/perspective on women’s rights. Ashu Babu, the genteel England-returned advocate who lives with his adult daughter Manorama is a liberal at heart but also believes in the greatness of Indian culture and traditions. Haren-da is a good Samaritan and believes that the only way forward for the youth of the country is in understanding and following the principles of brahmacharya (ascetism). His good friend Akshay, with whom Haren-da is mostly at odds specially on the issue of the role of women in society is a fundamentalist at heart who believes in blasting the truth…or his own perception of truth. Ajit is a bit of a waffler — a liberal at heart but without the guts needed to be one. Shibnath is selfish to the core and uses women to his own ends. And Abinash Babu is the perfect hypocrite, hiding his true feelings under the garb of being egalitarian.
But it’s the women characters who are the real heroes of the book. Kamal, the half-caste Eurasian daughter of an European father and Bengali mother, who refuses to be a victim of her circumstances, is independent in her behaviour and thoughts and defies societal norms through the sheer courage of her convictions. Nilima, the widow is the complete antithesis of Kamal–she is the widow who is forced to lead her life according to the dictates of the males in her family and has done so with little rancour. Nilima admires the independent-minded Kamal and yearns to be like her. But she knows that not every woman can be like her. As she says at one point, “I’m burning from the injustice inflicted by a male built society–I can’t explain how I’ve been burnt. All that burning got me nowhere but I hadn’t recognised its true nature before I saw Kamal. ‘Women’s liberty’, ‘women’s independence’ are words on everybody’s lips these days; but they stay on the lips and don’t go any further. Do you know why? I’ve found out that liberty can be obtained neither by theoretical arguments, nor by pleading justice and morality, nor by staging a concerted quarrel with men at a meeting. It’s something that no one can give to another — not something to be owed or paid as a due. Looking at Kamal, you can easily understand that it comes of its own accord — through one’s own fulfillment, by the enlargement of one’s own soul. If you break the shell and release the creature inside the egg, it doesn’t win freedom; it dies. There lies our difference from her.”
Nilima’s words have a deep resonance in modern Indian society almost a century later when Indian men and women are still struggling to come to terms with ‘women’s liberation’ in the 21st century!
A word of caution for readers. The translation/transcreation is competent enough but could have been much better. And if you’re looking for pacy action or plot, this book will leave you cold. However, this is a novel of ‘ideas’ and the engaging debate was what kept me turning the pages.