“She, my Queen, has died, and my world has shut against the door of its inner apartment of beauty which gives on the real taste of freedom.”
On a summer day in 1868, decades before Rabindranath Tagore wrote this in a letter to friend CF Andrews, 10-year-old Kadambari walked into the wealthy Tagore household and his life as a child bride. Not his, but his older brother Jyotirindranath’s. In the inner courtyard of the Jorasanko Thakur Bari, young Kadambari must have stepped out of her palki amid a sea of in-laws; wrapped in a red saree, petite next to a husband over twice her age. A recluse ‘Robi’, around eight years old then, must have peeked from behind an adult to catch a glimpse of his ‘notun bouthan’ — his new sister-in-law. In his autobiography, years later, he’d describe her as the girl with "thin gold bangles on her tender dark wrists", whom he "circled from afar, afraid to come close".
This was, of course, some 16 years before Kadambari was found dead in her chambers in the prime of her life, overdosed on opium, four months after Rabindranath married Mrinalini.
In a different century, where palanquins are out of fashion and child marriages are a crime, I stand on this courtyard with a camera in hand and slowly spin 360 degrees in an attempt to capture as much as I can of the Jorasanko Thakurbari — now a museum. Did they bring Kadambari's cold dead body down to this courtyard for last rites, or was she shipped off straight to the Ganges ghat before too many people found out? I head to the first floor of the museum to look for answers...
"My first great sweetheart..."
In the time period between her marriage and suicide, Kadambari grew up to become, in Tagore’s own words, his "first great sweetheart — my Muse". She was the first to lend an ear to his amateur poetry, his biggest fan and his fiercest critic. And this wasn’t just because she was a friend; Kadambari Devi, who had once timidly walked into the Tagore household from a ‘lower class’ family “practically illiterate”, had been raised to become a bright student of literature and more, an avid reader, a regular at the world of Bankimchandra’s Bangadarshan.
But while on one hand, Kadambari was encouraged to ride horses through the Maidan, openly interact with the Goras (the British) and study about the world, on the other, she was subjected to the sharp edge of gossip and criticism over her closeness to her husband’s brother, and, of course, her lack of children. Because, after all, for women, it always boils down to her fidelity and the ripeness of her womb.
In the millennium where I am alive, almost 150 years ahead of Kadambari's time, Maidan blushes with young lovers trying to catch a moment of privacy, while at the same time trying to record it on Instagram. Freedom is now more accessible than it ever was. But have the evolution of the humankind and smartphones actually given way to all relationships being accepted under the sun? Don't newspapers still come bearing the news of honour-killing?
And isn't it still women who — if not always but still most of the time — bear the brunt of social stigma?
The quiet afternoons on Jorasanko’s terrace between Robi and his 'Hecate' — a nickname he'd given Kadambari, after the Greek goddess of magic and witchcraft — found their way into many of Tagore’s writings long after Kadambari was gone. One may even catch a glimpse of them in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, a rendition of Tagore’s Noshto Neer. It almost feels as if Tagore was frantically looking for closure, or maybe solace, in the blank pages of his manuscripts as he scribbled on. In his twilight years, he would keep this search on with paint on canvas, painting portraits of an elusive face in various light. Did he ever manage to find what he was looking for, we will never know.
Just like we will never know how deep the waters of their relationship ran.
It offended one too many when Dan Brown wrote about Mary Magdalene being Jesus Christ’s “companion”. And it offends scores when one hints at the word ‘affair’ when discussing the relationship between Rabindranath and Kadambari. Like about many other things, Bengalis still haven’t made up their minds about what these two may have been — or which status of this relationship they would be most comfortable with — beyond the relationship forced on them by a child marriage.
In my mind, I couldn’t give a rat’s furry behind. Because it isn’t my god-given right to prod into the personal business of two adults who lived and died before my time.
But as a reader, as someone who fell in love with Kadambari through the eyes and allusions of Tagore, I fail to agree that social norms can contain and label every bond that can form between two hopeless romantics.
Sometimes, it spills over and makes a mess — and there is no way of telling what this relationship is or was meant to be.
But had she existed today, would Kadambari's fate been any different? How can we debate on that when we don't for sure know what led her to take her life in the first place? Some say it was her husband's infidelity, some say it was the gossips about her character, and some, of course, say it was Rabindranath's subsequent marriage to another woman. So basing on those assumptions, can we wonder if the possibilities and laws and rights that 20th/21st century have to offer would've given Kadambari an alternative escape?
Maybe. If we are talking in terms of dissolution of marriage or pursuing love interests outside social convention or suing loudmouths for character assassination. But then again, this is me assuming that it was an out that she was looking for — an escape. But what if what she was seeking was an end?
Modernisation still does not offer us a black-and-white fix for heartbreak and depression. It still does not give us an easy out from mental turmoil. So who is to say it would've been much different for her anyway?
Records show that Kadambari died on April 21, 1884. Rumours say the Tagore family hushed up and buried a tell-all suicide note and refused an autopsy. Irony lies in the fact that the woman Rabindranath had named after a goddess of magic and witchcraft, his ‘Shrimati He’, actually ended up being a whiff of a mystery. The reality, meanwhile, is, the room where Rabindranath Tagore died has been turned into an altar where one must walk barefoot and hold their silence; and the one where Kadambari, his self-confessed "Muse", took her life, for reasons that died with her, is locked away and isolated, out of bounds to visitors.
Like in life, even in death, Kadambari remains a well-kept secret.
I only hope that in a different life, she meets a better fate.