I read a Hindi translation of this Bengali novel by Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay recently. It is a very finely etched story, too fine, in fact, for me. The emotions depicted in the novel are very fine, and I, whose emotions are too gross in comparison, could not relate with any definiteness to the story and the characters.
The novel is set in Bengali society of the early 1900's. The story has four main women characters – two major, Savitri and Kiranmayi, and two minor, Surbala and Sarojini. The former two are the ones on whom the accusation of being charitraheen (of loose character) is made. It is most interesting that all four characters are totally different. Savitri is born a Brahmin, but poverty has forced her to become a servant, doing tasks appropriate only for a 'lower caste'. She is, and remains, pure of character, and devoted to the man she loves – Satish. Surbala is Upendranath's wife. She is young, pure in character, pious to the point of blind faith in religious texts. Sarojini is educated in the Western style, and is forward-thinking, but hampered by familial circumstances and a forceful mother. She does get to marry Satish in the end, though. Finally, Kiranmayi is the most striking character of the novel. Young and extremely beautiful, she is also very intelligent and argumentative. Her emotions and desires have, however, always been repressed by a husband more intent on learning and on teaching her than on conjugal matters, and by a nagging mother-in-law. She surprises and impresses all the three main men in the novel – Satish, Upendra and Diwakar – but her life is ultimately reduced to a shambles by these unthinking men.
The three men play very important roles in the lives of the four women, but most of the time, their actions are detrimental to the women. They are orthodox, unthinking, and not in control of their emotions. Satish brings about Savitri's downfall and acts strangely with Sarojini till the end, when he brings about a final reunion of sorts on Upendra's deathbed. Upendra helps Kiranmayi a lot initially, but thinks the worst of her relationship with Diwakar, and actually causes Kiranmayi's compulsive elopement with Diwakar. Diwakar is weak-kneed and immature. An orphan, he is delighted by Kiranmayi treating him as her brother, and eventually shirks education. He acts totally irresponsibly after his elopement with Kiranmayi.
There is a redemption of all the women in the end, Savitri being considered a devii, Kiranmayi's compulsions understood somewhat and her ill-treatment regretted implicitly, Sarojini getting to marry Satish, and Surbala dying a natural death. But one feels that this redemption has come too late. Wrong done to the women cannot be righted just like that, even if the women themselves feel so.
The depiction of orthodox Hindu society in conflict with Western thoughts brought in by British rule is good. The character sketches are the best part, and their emotions, swinging from one end of the spectrum to the other, make for thoughtful reading.