Chokher Bali, by Rabindranath Tagore

It is strange, isn’t it when a book that’s regarded as a classic fails to have any impact on you save for mild annoyance?

I’d like to believe that Rabindranath Tagore’s Chokher Bali got lost in translation. Rather, I want to believe so. Tagore’s Parrot’s Training still remains one of my favourite short stories of all time, but to my mind the authors of the two can scarcely be the same person.

I bought/started reading this book in 2009, and abandoned it after the first few chapters. Abadoning a book just seems so wrong, unless the book is so bad (cough *50shadesofgrey* cough) so I gave it another go.

Chokher Bali (grain in the eye) is a story about a husband and wife whose lives are turned upside down with the arrival of a young widow, who is far more beautiful and intelligent than the wife. As a result, the husband falls for her. Although she played along, she realizes that this man is an arrogant pain in the places-that-were-not-talked-about-in-the-period-this-book-was-written-in. Chokher Bali is the name that Ashalata (the wife) and Binodini (the widow) give to their friendship (yes, they were friends).

Let’s talk about the characters. Mahendra/Mohin, the husband mentioned above is an insufferably arrogant young man. Spoilt by his mother to an extent that he still throws tantrums like a child. But because he is a grown man, the tantrums are more of the passive-aggressive kind. He falls for Ashalata, a girl meant for his best friend Bihari, at first sight, and because of the power and dominance he has over Bihari, he snatches the girl from him without so much as a “May I?” With Mohin, it’s all “Yeah, this is mine. This too. And that. Plus this.”
Ashalata is a simple girl. Too simple, silly, unaware of the ways of the world. She is such a simpleton that when she finds a friend in Binodini, she tells her the tales of all her trysts with her husband, thereby evoking Binodini’s passions and desires that ultimately lead to the mess.
Binodini, on the other hand, is the one character I liked. She is supposed to be a character with negative shades, but how can you not sympathize with her – rejected by Mahendra (before he married Asha), rejected also by Bihari (who she was thrown to as a crumb when Mahendra rejected her) and then widowed at a young age. Add to that the fact that she considers herself superior to Asha, but sees both the men in the story desire Asha, and not her. It is a frustrating scenario, irrespective of the time the book was written in.

Let’s now talk about the writing, or the translation. The first and foremost – scenes end abruptly for no valid reason! You’re talking about something, say, a conversation for instance, and suddenly – bam – it’s over and we move to something completely unrelated, and you’re wondering, “Ok, but what happened to what we were talking about earlier?”
The women in this book cry all the time. Women – why do you cry so much in this book? Why are you always crying? Is life so hard? Sometimes you cry for no reason at all. Are you that silly? Why are you crying even when you’re happy. Why are your tears of joy also described as something painful that no one would ever want to experience? Binodini, you’re being shown as a strong woman – but you too are too much of a weeper.
We know about Binodini’s “awakened passions” only because of the blurb on the back. As a reader, I know Binodini’s frustrated only because we are told she is trying to flirt with Mahendra, and she does. But her reasons, her anger, her resentment, her regrets are not explored as well as they could have been. It’s rather inarticulate, and we are just supposed to assume, “The woman is pissed.”

It all dwindles to the most frustrating endings of all time. It may have been pertinent to the time it was written in, but if you apply the scenario to a more modern setting, I feel it is unjust and almost cruel. Without giving out too many spoilers, all I am gonna say is to forgive isn’t always divine, or even necessary.

Rating: 2/5

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24 thoughts on “Chokher Bali, by Rabindranath Tagore

  1. I haven't read it.. So can't say much..maybe I'll grab a copy and see if I agree with what you have to say..Sometimes classics don't cut it with me for the very same reasons as I can see in this review… But then I'm no expert 🙂

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  2. Well, I don't pick up classics usually. I find them too slow and too descriptive to be read at a fast pace, and I'm almost always short of reading time. As for this book… the plot does seem interesting, but it looks like it isn't presented so well. Or maybe, as you say, the story got lost somewhere in translation. I would hate to read about weeping women too though. Too much like Ekta Kapoor's TV serials.

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  3. I have felt the same way about several books that were over-hyped. However, I feel that in this particular case, it might be the translation. Can't say for sure as I have not read this one.

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  4. Even I've heard a lot about it. I am guessing it was some kinda landmark book in its time, because widows were generally oppressed back then, and here we have one daring to steal another woman's husband with no regard for society! She could have been a Scarlett O'Hara kinda heroine had she not been so weepy and had the writing/translation not been so weak.

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  5. Overhyped books, movies, all end up bugging me somehow. That's why I usually don't buy books that are on bestseller lists.
    I too wanna believe in this case the translation was bad. I've read only one other work of Tagore's and that was superb.

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  6. Yes, translated books are often disappointing. I've read the translations of a few popular Malayalam books, and they have fared no better, though those who have read the originals say they're brilliant pieces of work.

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  7. I had almost similar thoughts after reading this book. I picked it up because of another of Tagore's novel, 'Home and the world' and some short stories that I found very beautiful. Specially the poetic language and detailed descriptions of the inner world of his characters. Thought it was trademark Tagore! Maybe this book was indeed 'lost in translation':(
    I am planning to read 'Gora' next. Do you have any recommendations for translator?

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  8. One of his short stories called “The Parrot's Training” is one of my all time favourites! But sadly, I don't know who the translator is.
    As for this one, it looks like only Sukhendu Ray wrote the translation. Don't know of any others. So when you pick up Gora, maybe avoid him and hope for someone better?

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