‘Profit and Loss’ penned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, is a story based on the evil of dowry debt. Ramsundar Mitra, who has one girl of marriageable age, gets her an educated, broad-minded husband. However, the boy’s in-laws are vicious and greedy for easy money, and what better way to procure such money than by forcing a huge dowry of ten thousand rupees along with other gifts upon the family of their daughter-in-law. Rabindranath Tagore focuses on how poor Ramsundar’s daughter is treated as a money bag by her in-laws. The Bengal of Tagore’s time was one of the British Raj’s wealthiest areas where rich regal zamindars or landowners of high repute resided. Ramsundar was keen on getting his daughter married off to a good, well-off family. When he found that a particular Raybahadur family was looking for a prospective proposal for their highly educated son, a Deputy Magistrate, Ramsundar immediately took his chance and promised to pay the huge and absolutely astronomical dowry for his daughter Nirupama. The young groom is not interested in a dowry because he is modern and highly educated. However, notice that he does not interfere in the abuse meted out to his wife despite his insistence that a dowry or no dowry would not make a difference to his marital relations. He seems somewhat of an aloof and highly self-centered person to not take a more significant part in protecting his wife Nirupama and his father-in-law’s family and honor. As the story goes, Tagore brings out the cruelty of the dowry debt system of Bengal and India, which is, of course, one of the main reasons why rural families in India even today prefer a male rather than a female child. They do not wish to go bankrupt trying to pay such a girl’s dowry debt.
Tagore’s story’s title called ‘Profit and Loss’ is befitting where the content of this story is concerned. To Nirupama’s in-laws, getting a girl to marry their highly qualified son is an investment in squeezing money out of the girl’s maiden family. Therefore, before the marriage, Nirupama was a ‘profit’ to the family. However, with Ramsundar unable to pay the dowry debt of around 6,000 to 7,000 rupees and the well-wisher who was supposed to pay on Ramsundar’s behalf going missing, Nirupama’s in-laws downgrade the girl’s family. They threaten Ramsundar with an ultimatum that no marriage will take place between his daughter and their son until he pays the remaining dowry amount. Ramsundar is desparate. It was the wedding day of his daughter when the dowry issue was taken up. Fortunately, his son-in-law does not like the haggling and bartering at the wedding regarding something as inconsequential as a dowry and forces the marriage to continue. The groom’s family is furious at this and realizes that their investment has flown out of their hands, at least for the moment. If they have to get their due amount and respect in Bengali society, they would have to torture Nirupama and her family members until her father paid the agreed amount for the dowry plus extra gifts. Thus, as it seems for the significant part of the story, Nirupama was a ‘loss’ to her in-laws. With her death due to neglect and self-starvation, the fact is sealed for them that their son’s first marriage was a dead investment. This despite the fact that it was they who mentally, emotionally, and psychologically tortured the bride.
Note the harshness of the whole scenario depicted by Tagore in realistic social-issue fiction form in this story. Ramsundar and Nirupama’s abuse is painful to read because this social evil is still part of Indian society . In fact, often than not, a dowry issue continues between families until the maximum possible is forcibly and torturously squeezed out of the girl’s family. Sometimes, cars, electronic items, flats, jewelry, property, land, etc., are pawned or mortgaged to pay dowries. Either that or the goods are given as ‘gifts’ to the groom’s family gratis. Most of the time, however, young wives newly wedded into the family are killed, raped, sold as a prostitute, or simply burnt in ‘kitchen accidents to teach their family their place in the social hierarchy, which is akin to being sub-human. This issue of the dowry crisis in India was at an all-time high in Bengal in the pre-Independence period. Dowry gifting and giving were part and parcel of the marital process and could hardly be escaped. In ‘Profit and Loss’, after Nirupama’s marriage, her in-laws don’t allow the girl to eat properly, to wear decent clothing, to meet her father, to live in peace, etc. The person responsible for Nirupama’s well-being, her husband, was working as Deputy Magistrate in another part of the country. He was working out a way for her to reside where he was stationed. However, he was too late as Nirupama starved and wasted herself away as a sacrifice to rid her poor father of the dowry debt he owed to her in-laws. With Nirupama’s death, the dowry issue ceases. Ramsundar mourns for his daughter while her in-laws prepare their son for a second marriage, this time making sure that double the price is paid, cash down before the marriage day. Indeed, they only seek ‘profits’ in the relationships they wish to cultivate and no ‘losses’. It is ironic that most of the time, if not always, the wealthy and elite sections of Bengali and Indian society spread social evils like dowry debts and bride killing and bride burning.
Conventions prevailing in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century Bengal stated that a girl’s family should pay a handsome dowry to her in-laws. Notice in the story how the elders of the wedding feast mourn the broad-mindedness of Nirupama’s husband for going ahead with the marriage despite not receiving the total amount for the dowry. Where they were concerned, the dowry was more important than the girl getting married. After the wedding, Nirupama’s in-laws sulk and do not allow Ramsundar to meet Nirupama. Ramsundar tries ways and means to pay back the Raybahadurs by pawning goods, borrowing, taking loans even the contemplation of selling his own home just for the sake of keeping face and protecting the interests of his daughter. The textual description of the three thousand rupees Ramsundar procures for his daughter’s father-in-law as his own three ribs depict pictographically how painful the process was to borrow such huge amounts. One also notes the whole absurdity of the entire social custom where Ramsundar, in the name of keeping face with his in-laws, nearly brings his family to the streets and neglects his own patriarchal duties in the bargain. He is willing to go to any extreme to pay the dowry debt. He vaguely realizes that this crisis where the dowry was concerned was not going to end because the Raybahadurs now wanted more money and gifts since they were ‘tricked’ into getting their son married to a pauper’s daughter. They want more from Ramsundar, and he is aware of that. Yet, he wants to safeguard his daughter and his family’s respect in society, and so does everything in his means to pay back his dowry debt. He grows pale, grey-haired, weak, and thin. He is transformed bodily into a shape that always cowers, which makes Nirupama sorrowful to see what her father has been reduced to on her account.
Still, she keeps her calm even though she is abused at her in-law’s place in the absence of her husband. She is ill-treated ironically by another woman, her own mother-in-law. The elderly woman should have had some consideration for the bride. However, like most atrocities committed against women in India, it is noticed that most of the time, the fiercest enemies of abused girls are typically other women themselves. Nirupama’s mother-in-law abuses Nirupama every step of the way, including ridiculing her in front of outsiders and grudging the girl food and clothing. She does not even allow Ramsundar to meet his daughter. This is an age-old blackmailing ploy used by corrupt Indian families to get at their in-laws. Let us not forget that compared to the groom who remains with his own family, in India, especially in Hindu society, the bride has to leave her father’s home, sometimes permanently, to settle down forever in her in-law’s place. There are ceremonies conducted in the marriage to that effect. Where Ramsundar, however, was concerned, he was close to his daughter and wanted to meet her desperately and as often as possible. However, most of the time, the father and daughter were not permitted to spend even five minutes together in each other’s company because of the dowry issue.
Then comes the month of Asvin or the Autumn season in Bengal. This season, temple ceremonies, new year ceremonies, and the Durga Puja are held; it is a very sacred time. It is a holy time for Bengals per se and for Rabindranath Tagore. In his prose stories, when any time the season of Asvin comes closer, something momentous is about to take place in the story, and even here in ‘Profit and Loss’. For Ramsundar decides to sell his own home, bring his family to the streets as paupers but pay back the dowry debt he owed to the Raybahadurs. However, his son Haramohan finds out the game plan of the father. He takes the trouble of going all the way to Nirupama’s home to pray Ramsundar to not go ahead with his awful and insane plan of action. Nirupama then declares to her father that she did not want him ever to pay a single paisa more to her father-in-law. The girl could not bear the thought of her maiden family being on the streets. It is evident that if not Ramsundar, then at least Nirupama was heartbroken to see her nephew beg his grandfather for a pushcart as a gift on the occasion of the Asvin puja holidays. Like most tragic female protagonists in Rabindranath Tagore’s stories, Nirupama starts to let go of her attachment towards not only her maiden home but also of reality, hope, the future, and life itself. She does not mind sacrificing her life to rid her poor father of this cursed dowry debt that almost ruined him.
Like most Tagore’s female protagonists, Nirupama wastes herself away until she dies. Her in-laws do not bother about her illness and call the doctor when it is too late. The regality of Nirupama’s in-laws missing at her wedding was seen again at her funeral. To show the power and clout of the Raybahadurs, they cremated Nirupama with great grandeur with expensive sandalwood logs to light her pyre. Her husband was unaware of his wife’s death, and the abuse meted out to her. He did not even have the decency to enquire about her until he was confident that his position was secure in his place of work. Unaware of her death, he calls for Nirupama, at which time he is informed that he will have to marry again. Convention states in Bengal society that when a wife dies, her husband must procure another wife as soon as possible. However, when a husband dies, it is better than his wife remains a despised and ostracized widow for the rest of her miserable life. If you want to read up on one such widow, then you can check out my analysis of the short story ‘The Living and the Dead’ by Rabindranath Tagore. The story of ‘Profit and Loss’ ends with another dowry to be fulfilled, and the vicious circle continues; it continues even today. Tagore, using part irony, satire, and realistic descriptions, highlights the plight of the dowry issue of his time. It was the Independence struggle period, and the pane of dowry debts was being spoken about by progressive modern and Western-educated Indians. However, the enthusiasm of Congress and intellectuals during this time was not enough to quell the increase of dowry debts in later years.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘Profit and Loss’ by Rabindranath Tagore. I hope to read and review more stories and writings of Tagore in the coming days. If you are interested in reading stories concerning the abuse of the girl child in India, you can check out my novels titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One. I hope to read and analyze more Indian short stories shortly.
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