‘A Single Night’ is a realistic romance or dramatic short story penned by Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore also known as Gurudev. The story is simplistic and centers around the narrator’s role in life or existence. The narrator, a young eighteen plus boy, seeks to find a reason for his existence. He tries to find it while participating in the activities of the Indian National Movement. He tries to imitate or aspire to be like the Italian revolutionaries Garibaldi and Mazzini, much admired by the Indian youth who took part in the Indian National Freedom Struggle. When he is forced to take up a job mid-way between his studies, he gets the position of an assistant master in a school where he aspires to teach future students who would fight for the independence of India. However, he ultimately realizes that his existence is trivial. The narrator was seeking to find his role in life. He realizes ultimately, after reflection, that his whole life was insignificant, except for one stormy night when he and his childhood sweetheart Surabala had left their homes to be near each other. According to him, because of that silent meeting, he realized the reason for his existence. At the end of this story titled ‘A Single Night’, the narrator realizes that it was for that one single night that he was given life. He felt that he had touched the eternal that one night while a storm raged not only in the environment but also in his heart and desires. Through his reflective yet potent prose, Tagore brings out the passion in the hearts of two childhood friends who almost broke convention to be united to each other. Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore penned this short story in 1892 and described the situation of romance and nationalism in India and the Bengal of that era.
The narrator of this story is not named; however, we are aware that he left home to study in Calcutta to become a legal officer. This he wishes to do because of the revered status of such officers in Bengali society. Subtly, Tagore mentions the bribes given to these legal officers in money, fish, and vegetables as if they were gods. In his naivete, the narrator of this story wishes to go against his father’s wishes and become a legal officer. He always aspired to be someone great or estimable in life. We notice throughout the story that his yearnings kept him unsatisfied, so he kept on searching for the reason for his existence. His father wanted his only son to be a land agent and wished to train him in estate management. Probably, the narrator would have earned more money from this profession and would have been able to marry his childhood sweetheart Surabala. However, because of the new trends in Indian society and the growing clerical and white-collar job ambitions of the Indian middle class, the narrator wished to leave his home and go to Calcutta to study and seek his destiny.
The narrator is someone who is searching for meaning in his life. Notice that this does not indicate an existential crisis but that the narrator was looking for an ultimate goal or bliss that he could acquire from something he cherished in life. At first, he thought that he would find the reason to live in Calcutta. Here, Tagore describes the political activities of the rural youth who took time out from their studies to participate in the national movement. They went from house to house collecting subscriptions, arranging chairs and tables, and circulating political hand-bills. Tagore participated in the National Freedom Struggle and inspired Indians, especially Bengali Indians, to fight for independence from British Rule through his literature and art. Tagore’s significant influence would be seen in 1905 during the anti-partition activities in Bengal after the partition of Bengal.
Tagore brings out the determination and passion not only of the narrator but also other youth of India for the freedom of their colonized country. The narrator was no different and worked and studied hard to achieve greatness if not for himself, at least for the sake of his country. He was ambitious and actively trying to make an identity for himself. In the meantime, he missed the bus where marriage was concerned to his old flame, and Surabala gets married to another man named Ramlochan Ray. He is a lawyer but much older than the narrator and Surabala. The narrator is indeed aware of the situation, but he is so caught up in the activities of Calcutta and his studies that he does not realize how much the loss of Surabala would mean to him. The day his father dies, he has to leave his studies mid-way to seek out a living to support his mother and two sisters. Here, he shows himself to be a dutiful son ready to sacrifice his goals in life for the sake of the welfare of his family. While working as an assistant schoolmaster, he tries to find a reason behind the demotion of his position in life. He may not have exactly left his studies and political activities willingly, but he was someone who respected his parents and so compromised his dreams of nationalism.
It is while being a master that he reencounters Surabala. The fact that he goes to meet her husband indicates that under the surface of his psyche, he is indeed preoccupied with thoughts about Surabala. With no political activities or studies to keep him busy, he passionately falls head over heels in love with his childhood sweetheart. Latent sexual desire is more than evident in this part of the story titled ‘A Single Night’. The romantic and sexual passion and desire to unite with Surabala make the narrator yearn for her day and night. Notice in the text it is mentioned in several hidden or veiled instances that Surabala longed for her old childhood friend too, especially the devoted way in which she stared at him from the window of her husband’s home and the fact that on that stormy night, she too had left her home to seek the narrator.
This is a fact in the text that we can’t overlook. It is evident that Surabala too left home and met the narrator midway between each other’s abodes. The tension in their meeting is veiled for nineteenth-century upper-caste convention’s sake, and so their ‘desire’ for each other is described in the form of the storm, floodwaters, and the winds howling in the night. Tagore uses the seasons and weather conditions to bring out the emotional and turbulent aspects of his stories and novels, which pushes the plot forward. He is no different from the other nineteenth-century Indian writers of his time. They were all following convention in the best way possible yet creating excellent literature. Surabala and the narrator meet midway outside during the storm. It is evident that they still yearned for each other. Surabala, it seems, is daring enough to leave her home when her husband was not present to seek the solace of an unmarried man. This was not done in Bengali Hindu society and would be highly frowned upon. The passions in his heart and the weather elements were having a tussle where the narrator is concerned. We as readers are left in suspense for a while, wondering if by any chance Tagore would show the last wave of the flood dashing the couple together in a romantic embrace, never to be separated. However, good sense and conventions win in the end. They return to their homes, and the storm of desire subsides. The narrator, however, regards those few moments spent in the company of his paramour to be the most blissful moments of his life. He goes to the extent of stating that that feeling was something heavenly in nature because they were truly meant for each other. On that night, the narrator obtained an answer for his trivial existence and probably no longer searched for his goal in life again. It also indicates that Surabala and the narrator were never in the same position again after that stormy night.
Coming to the other themes in this story, we realize that when dealing with a Tagore short story or novel, we cannot overlook the hidden social and cultural messages the author conveys through his prose. That Surabala and the narrator were destined to be together and were a ‘couple of lovebirds’ from childhood is made clear at the beginning of the story. In the introduction, Tagore tries to indicate that readers should always see the narrator and Surabala as a couple. There is a sort of hidden masculinity in the story where the narrator attempts to rule over the young Surabala, probably as indicated in the text, physically abusing her, which she accepted as a token of his desire and love for her. There is a tendency among those couples devoted to each other from childhood to endure the violence of each other’s passions calmly. Surabala seems to have liked the violence of the narrator because she thought of herself as his property. The narrator seems to be a proud person right from childhood. He yearns first in his youth for a name in society, later as a teacher, and then as a lover. Tagore indicates that if nothing else, everyone in the world would realize that their lives were worth the struggle if they could win the love of at least one person. This is brought out in a veiled manner in this short story titled ‘A Single Night’.
Surbala was a beauty, which probably enhanced the narrator’s passion for her to a sort of lustfulness, as described in the portion where after becoming a teacher, he yearned to be with Surabala. The narrator frequently tried to go to the lawyer’s home to be closer to Surabala. He tends to pretend that he does not care for her or hides or dismisses it. This is especially seen in that part of the text where he tells the reader as an afterthought that he forgot to mention that Surabala and her husband lived in a house close to the school where he resided. It is not that he did not notice it. He was undoubtedly aware of it, and the proximity of two young people together in an otherwise not so populous region enhanced the desire to be with each other. In most of Tagore’s prose stories and poems, women are portrayed as having a tendency not to forget their childhood lovers. Even here, Surabala still loves the narrator and is unmindful that her marriage is in danger. Her husband, Ramlochan Ray, is unaware of the couple’s secret admiration for each other. However, the tension of passion between the two young people is developing, and it was a brave thing on their part to meet each other on that stormy night.
Coming to the theme of nationalism, Tagore is determined, like most other nineteenth-century Indian writers, to either bring up the topic of India’s Freedom Struggle or create an awareness in the minds of his readers about the social milieu and culture of his time. In this story, he narrates the activities of the Bengali youth during the Freedom Struggle. You notice that the rural youth, like the narrator were more dedicated to political activities than the urban youth because they felt the brunt of the colonial rule. Compared to the flamboyant city dwellers they were humble and simple-minded and dedicatedly did the allotted jobs. Calcutta was the hub of all national activity towards the end of the nineteenth century. Due to this, Lord Curzon was determined to partition Bengal to create a division between the Hindus and Muslims in that region, which he failed to do. One would say that these early stories of Tagore were a prelude to his major works during and after the partition of Bengal and the rise of the Congress.
The urban youth of Bengal looked down on the narrator and his rural comrades, but that did not deter them from their nationalism or their political activities. In the choices that the narrator made regarding his studies and life, we see the very change that we would witness in India at the turn of the twentieth century, that is a shift from the rural to the urban that has lasted to this day. Then comes the death of the narrator’s father and the narrator being forced or coerced to leave his education and take up a teaching job. He found the job to be dismal. Being unmarried, he was forced to reside alone in the school premises to protect the structure from catching fire. Tagore takes the trouble to describe the struggle of a school master’s life akin to that of an ox or a donkey in the fields. Tagore symbolizes such white-collar middle-class workers to be ‘dull individuals’. The narrator realized that for all his vainglory and dreams of future greatness, for the time being, he was destined to be a mere school teacher, something that he was only doing to earn a living and to educate as it were the future citizens of a free India. It becomes more of drudgery after he starts yearning for Surabala’s company. Notice their young age and the child-marriage factor highlighted by Tagore in this story. The narrator’s father thought that the narrator was already past his prime as he was unmarried at eighteen! Child marriage is a repeated theme mentioned in most of Tagore’s nineteenth-century stories because of the prevalence of that social evil in Indian society.
The last topic is based on the inner voice of the narrator that is, his guilty conscience, and his desire to speak, which makes him feel miserable regarding his relationship and lost chances with Surabala. The inner conscience present in most of Tagore’s dramatic and romantic stories occupies a prime position wherever physical intimacy cannot be permitted in the text. The narrator’s inner voice leaves him in tatters, wondering what he should do to quench his thirst or unquenchable love for Surabala. That so-called ‘thirst’ is ‘quenched’ in the storm of that night where the narrator and probably Surabala herself achieved eternal bliss in their indirect intimacy. The narrator’s inner voice before the stormy night makes him suffer and increases the tension and storm in his soul for Surabala, which is narrated quite decently by Tagore. Ultimately, convention and social norms win, and the narrator is not intimate with Surabala. Unrequited love is another central theme in Tagore’s short stories, which most Bengali youths had to undergo for propriety’s sake.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘A Single Night’ by Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore. I hope to re-read, review, and analyze more of Tagore’s writings shortly. If you wish to read my reviews of Tagore’s short stories, you can check that out here. If you are interested in reading a multiple-award-winning contemporary Indian novel, you can check out my book Amina: The Silent One. I hope to read and review more short stories of Indian writers in the coming weeks.
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