Do failed relationships reach a point when they snap? Or is the end gradual, like the loss of magnetism of two bodies that do not attract or even repel each other, but simply exist in a shared space? What remains when a relationship ends? Once it is all over, is it possible to ever truly forget what existed?
These are difficult questions to which there are only tantalizing possibilities and not any concrete answers. But we can start to ponder on a rainy evening in the waiting room of railway station in a small town by the name of Rajpur. Rajpur was like thousands of other mofussil towns, fortuitously near rail lines, but where no one would ever think of disembarking unless they had some definite purpose. As might be expected, due to the lack of passengers under normal circumstances, the waiting room of the railway station was seldom used. But, as the lone woman sitting in a corner of the waiting room on that rainy night was about to discover, it was not a normal night and these were not normal circumstances.
Like the train that had brought a woman to this small town, another one had cut through the rain and had stopped at a desolate platform with just enough time to allow a man to disembark from it. The man had no intention of stopping at Rajpur railway station, but as often happens due to some mishap, he was now resigned to the fact that he too would have to spend a few hours inside the waiting room while he waited for the next train.
When the man, Satadal, entered the waiting room of the railway station he froze. The woman he was now forced to share a waiting room with was Madhuri, who had been his wife for seven years. After those momentous years, Satadal and Madhuri had divorced and gone their separate ways for five years without ever keeping in touch with each other. How would they react to their forced presence in the waiting room? How would they bear each other’s presence and ultimately reintroduce themselves?
This waiting room closeted physically by rain is the setting of the masterful short story, Jatugriha (“Lac house”) written by Bengali author, Subhodh Ghosh. In this short story, Ghosh poses questions on a failed marriage and its aftermath and offers open-ended possibilities. The title, Jatugriha, refers to an episode in the Mahabharata in which the righteous Pandavas are tricked into staying in a house made of lac and other flammable materials by their perennial foes, the Kauravas and their allies. Alerted by their uncle, Vidura, the Pandavas escape, while the house burns to the ground.
Subodh Ghosh wrote the story over fifty years ago, in what was, in my view, the Golden Age of the Bengali Short Story. This was the post-Tagore era when masters like Bibhutibhusan Banerjee, Tarasankar Banerjee, Narayan Ganguly, Samaresh Basu, Saradindu Banerjee, Premendra Mitra, and Ashapurna Debi were breaking free from the well-crafted idealistic template created by Rabindranath Tagore, and experimenting with form, style, and modern language. Among these stellar writers, personally, I would rate Subodh Ghosh and Premendra Mitra worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as greats of the short-form in other languages like Chekhov, Borges and Anderson.
Ghosh had a checkered life from which he drew a seemingly infinite set of interesting stories. In the preface of a slim volume of collected works, he wrote that he drew upon his experiences as a circus-performer, bus conductor, hotel-manager, mica-mining prospector, confectioner, butter merchant, sadhu, political worker, district-board health-inspector, poultry farmer, and union volunteer, before settling on the relatively relaxed life of assistant editor of Anandabazar Patrika.
Both Mitra and Ghosh are perhaps best known outside Bengal through cinematic works; Mitra’s stories formed the core of Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar and Kapurush and an episode in Gulzar’s Khushboo, while Ghosh is credited with Bimal Roy’s Sujata, Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik, Basu Chatterjee’s Chitchor and Tarun Majumdar’s Thagini.
The short-story Jatugriha is the subject of at least two movies, for which Subodh Ghosh received credit, the Tapan Sinha-directed Bengali classic Jatugriha (1964), starring Uttam Kumar and Sinha’s wife, Arundhati Debi in the leading roles; and the Gulzar-directed Hindi art-house movie, Ijaazat (1987), starring Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha in the primary roles of Mahinder and Sudha (and there is also a third character Maya, played by Anuradha Patel, in a role unique to this version).
All three versions of the story share the same basic framework: a man and a woman who were once in a socially-sanctioned relationship are forced to confront each other, their failed marriage, and their separation, 5-7 years later inside the waiting room of a railway station. In introducing the subject of the story and its similarity to the lac house of the Mahabharata, Subodh Ghosh writes:
This was the Rajpur Railway Station, not a court. Here there were no judges, no lawyers, no witnesses, no lines formed by unblinking, judgmental eyes. There were no devious lines of inquiry by an appointed third party simply because there were no secrets to be unearthed. Still, the secluded familiarity of being together in the same waiting room was suffocating. It would have been nice to have escaped: it would have been proper to have escaped.
(Jatugriha, this and all subsequent translations from Bengali are my own)
The earliest cinematic interpretation of the story is Tapan Sinha’s black-and-white Jatugriha, produced by Uttam Kumar. This version employs a linear narrative in which the back-story dealing with the actual divorce is the subject of most of the movie, leaving the chance encounter at the railway station for the last twenty minutes. The movie is quite ambitious in scope, weaving together many different characters, allusions, and sub-plots that feed into the central examination of why Satadal and Madhuri, portrayed, respectively by Uttam Kumar and Arundhati (and I will refer to these characters in the movie by the actor to avoid confusion with the short-story) were unable to salvage their marriage. Sinha introduces us to two other original families along the way to underscore the unfolding tragedy. A loveless, yet well-to-do couple, perpetually quarrels in front of their child and others puts the audience in an uneasy situation with the pained poignancy of Francois Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups; and an idealistic subordinate of Uttam Kumar has a growing family, but is extremely poor and cannot afford their upkeep. Trapped between these two families are Uttam Kumar and Arundhati, who never openly express their hostility in the way of the former, but can also not communicate their love freely like the latter either.
The movie explores the taboo subject of infertility in quite a bit of detail, as well as its impact on the marriage. The problem explicitly stated through the movie, which forces the couple to get divorced is that Arundhati is incapable of having children and that Uttam Kumar is incapable of accepting this as reality. Unwilling to see their relationship end bitterly, Arundhati offers Uttam Kumar “release” from their marriage. She leaves him and a life of luxury to take up work as a teacher in a village school. Uttam Kumar finds out that his victory is hollow: he falls into a self-destructive spiral, fixating on the family of his subordinate who has children, and at one point offering them the dream-house he has been building for years. The subordinate refuses to take the house and Uttam Kumar’s defeat is complete: he realizes that he has absolutely nothing to offer, not to himself, not to anyone else. Thus the stage is set for the encounter years later.
Gulzar’s Ijaazat is unlike Sinha’s Jatugriha in that the substantial back-story, in this case, a love-triangle, is told primarily through flashbacks. In this story Mahinder (the Satadal character, played effortlessly by Naseeruddin) meets Sudha (the Madhuri character, portrayed with uncanny restraint by Rekha) at the railway waiting room. Given the requirements of the narrative, there is quite a deal more exposition between these two characters in Gulzar’s version than in the other two stories. There is also a third completely unique character, Maya (Anuradha Patel, in the role of a lifetime) madly and inexplicably in love with Mahinder, but too much of a free-spirit to give in to conventional expectations of love, marriage, and family.
At the outset, Mahinder comes clean with Sudha telling her about his infatuation with Maya, but she decides to marry him anyway, partly because she was already betrothed to him, and partly out of gratitude to Mahinder’s grandfather who helped her family. During their marriage, Sudha plays the role of a dutiful wife, but her marriage with Mahinder implodes as he is forced to rescue Maya from her destructive tendencies at every turn. As the story unfolds, a set of ill-timed, perfect (almost too perfect) series of tragedies befall Mahinder and Sudha by way of Maya, impacting the marriage. And then, Sudha decides to “free” Mahinder. How the marriage is officially terminated is not spelled out in detail, but how Mahinder finds himself to be alone when he meets Sudha again five years later is.
Ijaazat is a thoughtful, visually-expressive movie, filled with numerous scenes and conversations of immense beauty. The movie also has four of the most lyrically-expansive songs in all of Hindi filmdom, penned by Gulzar himself, composed by the inimitable R.D. Burman, and sung with grace and feeling by Asha Bhosle. The movie also succeeds in pulling off a remarkable feat: Maya, is not the subject of revulsion, like the “other woman” character in Hindi movies generally is, but an object of pity as a perpetual child-like woman who hurtles toward an inevitable, tragic end. Maya’s demise, though expected, is unfulfilling and deprives the movie of an additional layer of wonder and magic realism. Perhaps, she could’ve just disappeared leaving the audience wondering if she ever existed?
Of the three versions of the story, fifteen years ago, I would have articulated most passionately in favor of Ijaazat. The reason I enjoyed Ijaazat so much when I first saw it in India (apart from the exquisite songs and the imagery) is obvious to me today. At the core, Ijaazat is most certainly male fantasy. A rather plain-looking man with middling qualities has two very beautiful, graceful women vying for his attention!
Ijaazat is also a story that reinforces patriarchal stereotypes that are deeply engrained in South Asian societies. The preconceived assumption reinforced throughout the movie is that Sudha will be available should Mahinder decide to return to her. No matter what his moral lapses are, no matter that he is clearly still in love with his paramour, Sudha will take him back. Even though a twist in the story, unique to Gulzar’s version disallows this possibility, the movie requires this artifact to reinforce the male ego and fantasy: the ijaazat (permission) that Sudha needs to take is from Mahinder: having committed no transgression throughout their relationship, she is required to touch his feet and asks for permission to move on with her life. I don’t know if I am more enlightened than I was decades ago, but even though I still enjoy Ijaazat immensely, I find reinforcement of this gender asymmetry disheartening.
Sinha’s Jatugriha also reinforces male patriarchy too, but there is some semblance of balance: it is Arundhati Debi, who cannot conceive and who must go away to free Uttam Kumar, though this fact is well established early on after their marriage (and I wonder how the audience would have reacted if their matinee idol, instead was infertile). But, at least here there is no acquiescence: even though it is glaringly obvious that Arundhati still loves Uttam Kumar when they meet five years later inside the waiting room, she does not make herself available despite their being no legal or moral impediments: she does not return to him. After all, as she points out in the ending seconds of the movie, the same physical and emotional barriers that caused their separation five years ago remain. In her mind, there is no turning back the clock. And while this is not the convenient answer that would’ve satisfied audiences longing for a reunion, it is the realistic one.
As a cinematic reworking of a very short-story, Sinha’s Jatugriha is a masterpiece, and it is a shame that this movie is not well-known today. Arundhati Debi’s performance exudes kindness and dignified silent suffering. Uttam Kumar might have been a matinee idol, but here he is no hero: he personifies impotent rage. When they meet in the waiting room five years later, Sinha’s couple are wizened, but more importantly, they are wiser. Unlike in Ghosh’s story or Gulzar’s recreation, there is no rain or dark night forcing them to share the waiting room: their interactions happen during the illumination of the day. There is no profundity in their speech or any outward animosity. There is only the subdued grace of a trivial conversation. Note the exquisite tenderness:
Uttam: (Opening tiffin carrier) Have you eaten anything? Won’t you eat?
Arundhati: I don’t eat anything bought outside.
Uttam: Oh yes. I had forgotten…. [Turns around] Waiter?
Arundhati: What will the waiter do?
Uttam: I forgot to bring water.
Arundhati: I will give it to you. [Walking up and pouring water into a glass]. What’s this? You bought food from the bazaar? You always used to get sick eating food from the bazaar… Should I see what is available?
Arundhati: [Returning minutes later] I asked for two eggs to be poached. I have some buttered bread which you can eat… We are meeting again after seven years, isn’t it?
Arundhati: You’ve become thinner. You also look very tired.
Uttam: It is not a short amount of time. Seven years. And I’m getting old.
Arundhati: What is your age you have to call yourself old?
Uttam: That I don’t know. I always feel exhausted. You still look the same.
Arundhati: [Without responding, putting buttered bread on a portion of the tiffin carrier]
Uttam: I’m hungry. You’ll have to give me a few more slices.
Arundhati: I only brought four slices. If I knew I would be meeting you again, I’d bring more.
This is an exceptionally trivial conversation, but this is exactly how a husband and a wife who are in love talk to each other. While this interaction was occurring, I found myself frozen in my seat: hidden inside these trite words of poached eggs and toasted bread were various permutations and combinations of hurt- there was a world of lost possibilities.
We stood with Mahinder as Sudha took permission to leave. We watched Uttam and Arundhati share intimate, fleeting moments together. It is perhaps fitting that we now return to the waiting room, one last time to meet the original Satadal and Madhuri- the characters in Subodh Ghosh’s short story.
In stark contrast with Sinha’s Jatugriha and Gulzar’s Ijaazat, the short story offers no explicit reason for why the couple divorced. Consider the passage from the story:
It was yet another Sunday. Madhuri got dressed for their evening sojourn together, like any other Sunday. In another room, Satadal paid no heed to this ritual: he continued to sketch a building resembling a Chalukya temple. Not for a moment did it occur to him to stop and think that it was Sunday evening- the time when they always went for a walk. Madhuri did not disturb him. She sat next to the window, with her eyes fixed on the evening sky. She thought about the ephemeral red tinge and the billowing clouds that would soon pass beyond her view, and about the sheer pointlessness of it all. It would soon turn dark everywhere. Why the cruel charade? Why could the sun not set instantaneously?
One by one, a parade of ill omens made it clear to Madhuri and Satadal that their love had evaporated. Or maybe there never was any love to begin with, and that was why the signs were visible? Who knew the truth? If they had made an effort, maybe they would have been able to find out. Maybe they did make an effort and they did find out. Maybe they didn’t. In the midst of this knowing and not-knowing, one thing was clear in their minds: they would not be able to blame one another. It is possible that they both knew why and kept quiet. It is also possible that neither of them made any effort to find out the reason.
When I first read this passage in the story, I immediately felt that I was witnessing the craft of a self-assured master. Think about the significance of this short passage: Subodh Ghosh wrote a story half a century ago in which he made it perfectly clear to his readers that he would not blame either party for the failure of their marriage or offer any kind of explanation. Ghosh wrote a story for a desi audience that still feels the need to always know why, a society that always needs to blame someone (and in my limited knowledge, usually the woman is the convenient culprit when there are no other answers). It is as if Ghosh says in the nicest possible manner, “it is none of our business. We have no stake here; we are here to observe, not to blame. Let us move on.”
Ghosh also makes it amply clear that the possibilities for reunification are limited. Both Satadal and Madhuri in his story are now married to other people. There is no turning back.
As the time for the trains to arrive and take Satadal and Madhuri approaches, Ghosh heightens the tension. In a moment of supreme weakness accentuated by the isolation of the surroundings, Satadal grasps Madhuri’s hand. With his voice quivering he blurts out, “I have not forgotten you. I could not.” He needs to say it like a drowning man needs oxygenated air. Men are hardly perceptive of subtle signs, but with the uncanny intuition than women possess in matters of the heart, Madhuri remains unmoved: the sudden pronouncement is superfluous to her. Of course, she knows. He does not, and the question begins to burn within him.
Satadal needed to know. Was the sky that rose for seven years completely fictitious? Was it possible to forget everything? Will Madhuri not offer an answer to his question?
What is love, even dying love, even love fizzing with the with last remaining embers, if it does not cruelly exact pain from the object of affection– an acid tear, a pound of flesh nearest to the heart? Madhuri does not need words, but Satadal needed to hear it from her. Did she forget him? He must know. Did she still love him? Did she still think of him? The time was short. This was, after all, a waiting room.
The urgency was palpable. There was no escape from the lac house.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the pendulum would have shifted back to predictable melodrama. The reader expects the only answer that is right: after all, marriage is a bond forged across seven lifetimes. Subodh Ghosh shows remarkable restraint and does not offer easy payout. Madhuri does not answer, but rather asks that she be given an opportunity when she can exploit his vulnerability and ask a similar question. She is his equal, after all.
With lack of resolution, the tension escapes like air leaking from a balloon. The trains have now arrived. We, the readers, must also take leave. The Rajpur Railway Station waiting room has served its purpose. The story closes focusing on the one physical reminder of the encounter.
The train to Kolkata had arrived at the platform on the other side. There were two trains now on either side, headed in opposite directions. There were no witnesses to the exchange of history of the two passengers who briefly cohabitated the waiting room.
But if you looked closely, there was still one piece of evidence.
Inside the waiting room, on a table was a tray with two cups. Two people came from two different corners, briefly sat here, and quenched their thirst with tea. Before Rajpur Railway Station retreats into slumber again, someone will enter the waiting room to remove those two cups, wash them, and place them in the station pantry- one cup on one end of a cupboard and another, perhaps, on the other.