‘The Living and the Dead’ is a psychological and realistic short story penned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore to create awareness amongst Indians regarding social issues and feminist themes. ‘The Living and the Dead’ is a form of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Bengali fiction based on a feminist theme and deals with the various social and cultural issues concerning widowhood, especially the position of young widows in Bengali society. Tagore wrote this story to draw our attention to how a woman once termed a widow and childless by society is disregarded and her needs ignored. Society looks down upon her, and worse deems her a sub-human. Indeed, such a woman is as good as a corpse or ‘dead’ to the world because apart from her marital relations to her husband and husband’s family, she has no individuality or identity of her own in the misogynist society that prevailed in the pre-Independence period. Here, the volatile and rebellious widow Kadambini is bypassed by her in-laws for being childless and without a man in her life. She is only remembered because she was dispensable even though she seems to be the only person who adores her nephew Shatish and looks after him while his mother spends her time socializing and playing card games. She is so dispensable that the family’s patriarch does not even want a proper funeral for her and hastens the departure of the dead body on the shoulders of four Brahmin workers who care less for the dead body and more for tobacco. Thus, the story is a parody in an almost poetic form of a woman who ‘dies’ to the world physically and who was always dead to the world because she was an unwanted burden on her in-law’s family.
Rabindranath Tagore conveys several messages and themes in this short story. Tagore keeps on shifting beautifully between the words ‘living’ and ‘dead’ to indicate how Kadambini is hesitant to regard herself as in the world of the living or the dead. She is puzzled about this because of several factors. Her life in her in-law’s place was far from happy, and her only comfort was the little boy Shatish, the sole male heir to the property. When she goes into a comatose state after a bout of heart pain, she wakes up to find herself evacuated from her home and at the cremation grounds. She realizes that her family had not even decided to give her a decent funeral and have done away with her even though she was not exactly dead but was in a sort of suspended animation. She was dead while alive because she was a childless young widow in Bengali Hindu society. Now she was deemed dead by all the living males who made the rules for women like her, and suddenly she felt exhilarated and free from all social bonds and conventions. She decides after running away further from the hut where her ‘dead body’ was waiting to be cremated, that she will not go back to her in-laws. Since she had no more parental home, she would reside with an old childhood friend Yogmaya. Kadambini knows she is not wanted by her in-laws or her own parents. They either have passed away or have forsaken her because she was married. She, therefore, is willing to live like a wayward woman in the land of shadows, darkness, and the dead. Her station in society haunts her, and her bold action of being ‘alive’ when she was supposed to be ‘dead’ frightens even her. This indicates that women in the early twentieth century Bengal were not used to breaking the barriers that gender and patriarchy had set up for them from time immemorial.
Kadambini acts peculiar in the home of Yogmaya, who starts to detest Kadambini because the young widow is mysterious, like a shadow or darkness. In other words, Kadambini is unique and different, full of depth, and cannot be deciphered by society’s regular rules and norms. Kadambini’s ‘death’ is taken as a given by her in-laws, who do not even double-check with the four brahmins regarding the corpse they were sent to cremate. But Kadambini is shifting from ‘dead’ to ‘alive’ in every day and night she spends in the home of Yogmaya. Kadambini is psychologically disturbed and partly deranged by the fate of being half dead and half alive that she can’t be calm. She experiences terror and screams at midday when the Bengali populace takes their siesta. At the same time, at night, she seems to want to intrude on the marital bed of Yogmaya, asking her old childhood friend not to leave her alone.
Kadambini thinks she can go on being undead in a way, which highlights the Gothic elements in this story. Hence, the story can be categorized as a psychological thriller based on feminist studies in pre-Independence literature. Kadambini is frightened of her own shadow, and the servants and Yogmaya seem scared of every shadow in the home. However, the night Kadambini hears Yogmaya and her husband Shripati discuss the message from her home in Ranihat which stated that she had passed away a day before she came to reside with them she flares up. She crashes their discussion, saying that she was the same Kadambini, but now she is dead. Yogmaya screams, thinking that a vampire or ghost is standing in front of her malevolently when Kadambini is still playing on the words ‘dead’ and ‘living’. She was trying to state that with the hasty funeral arrangements, she had realized that she was dead to her in-laws even more than anyone thought. She existed, though in spirit she was dead. She is mentally frayed and tired of the hypocrisy of society regarding women like her. So, therefore, in spirit, she is dead though bodily she is alive.
Kadambini has been playing with her own mind regarding her status in society as a ‘living dead’. She decides to leave society and those with whom she is acquainted so long as she can visit her darling nephew one last time. Until she meets with her nephew, Kadambini considers herself dead. It is only when her nephew remembers her even in his bout of fever and calls her ‘kakima’ or ‘paternal aunt’ as he used to always do that she, at last, finds a reason to be ‘alive’ again. Even though everyone in the family thinks that she is a ghost or vampire, she insists that she is alive and is the same Kadambini who was their daughter-in-law. But she has been in hiding for far too long, and no one believes her. She is in hysterics and makes herself bleed by stabbing her forehead. The poetic climax ends the story of ‘The Living and the Dead’ with the hysterical and half-crazed Kadambini flinging herself into a tank attached to the Big House and drowning. She did so to prove to others and her loving nephew that she was alive and had not died before. By dying ultimately in the tank, she proved that she had earlier not died.
The story’s ending takes our breath away. We realize that society has never given a woman the freedom to declare whether she is ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ or whether she wishes to be ‘alive’ or ‘dead’ or something else. ‘The Living and the Dead’ is Tagore musing over the terrible life of women in Hindu society in the pre-Independence period. Child marriage, Sati, widow harassment, dowry debts, bride burning, purdah, polygamy, etc., are some of the many issues relating to women in Bengal during Tagore’s time. Tagore, like almost every fiction writer of that period, highlighted in their prose ways to emancipate the condition of women. This story is one such marvelous effort in that direction. Through the half-crazed Kadambini, we realize the taboo people in India have towards death, but more so, the taboo people have towards woman’s emancipation even till this day. Tagore also highlights the symbolism of the monsoon and Sravan season where turmoil exists, terrors lurk, tragedy strikes, conventions are left behind, and a new daring mission begins. Sravan is always a significant month in Tagore’s prose and poetry writing. He makes a lot of use of Sravan symbology in this short story. Concerning the tank symbology, it was at one tank that, after stopping to breathe, Kadambini is revitalized but is as good as dead. She regains her reason for existence by committing suicide in yet another tank to prove to all that she is alive. By this, she demonstrates that she is worthy of all the rights and dignities bestowed upon men. Kadambini’s death glorifies the darkness of a woman’s power over her body, soul, sexuality, and spirit, which men and other misogynists do not wish to see because they are afraid of a different world view towards life. This is a new idea that Tagore introduces in this macabre short story. Tagore highlights the mindset of the orthodox Hindu community in most of his prose, and he does so too here in this story.
The reanimation of Kadambini’s corpse is typical of a Gothic horror story akin to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, and other writers of this genre who lived during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and wrote macabre literature. Note the irony in the text where the four brahmins who rule the lives of Hindu women in India get terrified on seeing and hearing the rising from the dead of Kadambini’s body. So too did the feminist trend reanimate the Independence struggle and the feminist struggles in India, bringing forth brave women onto the cremation grounds of the old-world view.
There are several mentions in the text of a dead woman or dead body being useless and worthless. Kadambini is not exactly baffled by the fact that she has been so easily discarded by her in-laws, but she is psychologically stunned because she has started to believe the lies of her worthlessness that they have been trying for years to rub into her. Notice that only when her nephew lovingly calls her ‘kakima’ that she not feel worthless and useless or like a dead body anymore. However, the nephew Shatish, because everyone believes that his aunt is dead, rejects her, telling her to go away from them as, it seems, it was no longer right for her to be there with him, even though to his naive and innocent mind nothing could be better than being with his kakima. Therefore, Kadambini desperately stabs herself on the forehead to prove to her nephew that she is real and alive. She either could not take his rejection, or she committed suicide in desperation to prove that she was worthy of his love.
There is an indication by the murkiness surrounding the death of Kadambini at the beginning of the story that she was probably poisoned or murdered. That could be why the funeral was kept a secret and was hushed up. Also, a widow was a non-entity in the India of that era and would not be remembered, so why have an elaborate funeral and make a fuss when one could get easily caught during a post-mortem. Yogmaya, a primary supporting character in the story, is a traditional stereotyped woman who follows the norms of society, unlike her childhood friend, who does not even maintain a purdah. At the same time, she lives near Shripati, Yogmaya’s husband. Shripati seems fascinated by the beauty and mystery of his wife’s childhood friend but does not overstep the boundaries that convention has for the relationship of a man and a woman who were not blood-related living under the same roof. He goes to Kadambini’s in-law’s place and learns that Yogmaya’s childhood friend is dead, and probably an imposter or specter was residing in his home. He proves to be passive and more reticent a personality compared to Yogmaya, who is clueless. Psychological hysteria and severe stress-induced Kadambini to commit suicide. However, she was most alive when she wanted to commit suicide, a poetic paradox of great value to any reader. And thus, on a lyrical and cleverly managed note, the story ends with the loss of Kadambini—the woman who died, came alive, and died yet once again.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story titled ‘The Living and the Dead’ by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. If you are interested in reading my other reviews of Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories, you can check out my blog here. If you are interested in reading some award-winning short stories you can check out my collection of LGBTQIA short stories titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to review and analyze more of Tagore’s works in the coming days.
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