Choker Bali meaning Grain of Sand, Tagore’s marvelous work is the quintessence of love and everything that is wrapped around its intricate enfold. Simple love, tempestuous desire, impatient longing, and agitating seduction are only some of the strokes that Tagore’s masterly brush paints within this brilliant book, within our tender hearts.
The protagonist of the story is Binodhini - (my most favorite female protagonist ever) a widowed young woman, who is set to seduce Mahendra, a married man whose home she was given refuge in after her husband’s demise. Mahendra’s wife is Asha, a naïve but pleasing wife, considerately befriended by Binodhini whom Asha trustingly finds a friend and confidante in, blissfully unaware of her “Choker Bali’s” scandalous motives. The tale is a progression of seductive arrows dangerously aimed by Binodhini at Mahendra, when her passions are enflamed, and until they are relinquished- only after she is sacredly surrendered to Bihari, Mahendra’s respectable and stable childhood friend.
Mahendra’s mother Rajalakshmi visits her birthplace to embrace a widowed and hapless Binodhini, whom she much loves and brings home with her. Thus a voluptuously youthful Binodhini finds her place in the previously harmonious household, devoting herself to Rajalakshmi’s service. But the unbounded Binodhini doesn’t end only in so much; Binodhini is an untamed ocean of desires and passions. Envious of the conjugal bliss that Asha and Mahendra are immersed in, a love-starved Binodhini is spurred - her longing for love, security and fulfillment all which she was so soon deprived of, sprints through her soul like a tumultuous torrent. Forbidden feelings parch her blistering heart, setting course for an adulterous relationship, manipulative friendship, intense love, clashing emotions and a range of other deep complexities.
Binodhini uses the magic of her spectacular charm, profound character and striking sexuality to allure Mahendra - all this becoming like a powerful drug for him; leaving him intoxicated and fervently lusting after Binodhini. But Binodhini is more than only so much; a trail of conflicts swim through her soul - She discovers that Mahendara is disinclined from his first depiction as the supreme. Unstable, loose and fickle, he is far too limiting for Binodhini and no longer magnet to her wholesome heart. For Binodhini is a perennial river, fit to be poured in the infinite oceans.
That vast infinity in the novel is portrayed by Bihari. Akin to a real son to Rajalakshmi and a true well wisher of the household, Bihari is a man with his head safe over his shoulders. A man of true character and dignity he is the one for whom Binodhini is struck with utmost respect, pure love and true devotion. Mahendra she would spurn, but to Bihari she was surrendered. For Bihari she would adorn herself, on his ownership she would meditate, to his remembrance she would bow. The gist of the novel is just about this much, but Choker Bali is a tale that is so intense, so deep that it could hardly be summarized in a few words.
Binodhini in the novel, represents to me the ephemeral conflicts of any ardent woman- She is substance and not shallow, passionate and not rash; untamed - not unnatural. Bound to the world outside with her obligations to it on one hand, and a heart with her own passions and feelings on the other. Tagore portrays both the men and women in his novel, in two different lights, as they exist. While Mahendra is the ordinary man, deeply delusional with his sense of power, Bihari is portrayed as the true man, with his enormous respect for women, immense internal control, and ingrained idealistic values - he is most hard to conquer. While Asha is the ordinary but agreeable housewife, still learning the skills of womanhood and maturity, Binodhini is the wholesome woman; drowned and awakened in her passions, she is most desirable.
The fact that Tagore was truly ahead of his time stares at you through the novel. Tagore’s writing and intensity can never be expressed fully, but what is extraordinary is the translation of this Bengali work (by Radha Chakravarthy). Done so spectacularly, I cannot imagine anything that could convey it as more perfect, not even the original language.
This is a journey of strong, conflicting emotions for both, those within the novel and we outside who read it. In the end, Mahendra travels from an indecisive and vacillating man, to a more stable and realized man who returns to his wife. Asha, through the tests that she’s put through is also evolved into a more strong and intelligent woman. Bihari retains his place which is highest, which is further elevated by Binodhini’s worship for him. But this journey is Binodhini’s - the sorceress who will allure you and keep your heart captured; She will take you through her dangerous passions, forbidden desires and objectionable actions, and she’ll still show you a love and womanhood more sacred than what you ever knew it to be.
Read this one, for her.
Note: The above novel Choker Bali was adapted into a film by Rituparno Ghosh in 2003, with Binodhini stunningly fit by Aishwarya Rai. The movie has its differences and is not an identical adaptation of the novel’s story, but is great nonetheless and definitely worth a watch!