The Renunciation by Rabindranath Tagore
It was a night of full moon early in the month of Phalgun. The youthful
spring was everywhere sending forth its breeze laden with the fragrance of
mango-blossoms. The melodious notes of an untiring papiya (One of the
sweetest songsters in Bengal. Anglo-Indian writers have nicknamed it the
"brain-fever bird," which is a sheer libel.), concealed within the thick
foliage of an old lichi tree by the side of a tank, penetrated a sleepless
bedroom of the Mukerji family. There Hemanta now restlessly twisted a lock
of his wife's hair round his finger, now beat her churl against her
wristlet until it tinkled, now pulled at the chaplet of flowers about her
head, and left it hanging over hex face. His mood was that of as evening
breeze which played about a favourite flowering shrub, gently shaking her
now this side, now that, in the hope of rousing her to animation.
But Kusum sat motionless, looking out of the open window, with eyes
immersed in the moonlit depth of never-ending space beyond. Her husband's
caresses were lost on her.
At last Hemanta clasped both the hands of his wife, and, shaking them
gently, said: "Kusum, where are you? A patient search through a big
telescope would reveal you only as a small speck-you seem to have receded
so far away. O, do come closer to me, dear. See how beautiful the night
Kusum turned her eyes from the void of space towards her husband, and said
slowly: "I know a mantra (A set of magic words.), which could in one
moment shatter this spring night and the moon into pieces."
"If you do," laughed Hemanta, "pray don't utter it. If any mantra of yours
could bring three or four Saturdays during the week, and prolong the
nights till 5 P.M. the next day, say it by all means."
Saying this, he tried to draw his wife a little closer to him. Kusum,
freeing herself from the embrace, said: "Do you know, to-night I feel a
longing to tell you what I promised to reveal only on my death-bed.
To-night I feel that I could endure whatever punishment you might inflict
Hemanta was on the point of making a jest about punishments by reciting a
verse from Jayadeva, when the sound of an angry pair of slippers was heard
approaching rapidly. They were the familiar footsteps of his father,
Haribar Mukerji, and Hemanta, not knowing what it meant, was in a flutter
Standing outside the door Harihar roared out: "Hemanta, turn your wife out
of the house immediately."
Hemanta looked at his wife, and detected no trace of surprise in her
features. She merely buried her face within the palms of her hands, and,
with all the strength and intensity of her soul, wished that she could
then and there melt into nothingness. It was the same papiya whose song
floated into the room with the south breeze, and no one heard it. Endless
are the beauties of the earth-but alas, how easily everything is twisted
out of shape.
Returning from without, Hemanta asked his wife: "Is it true?"
"It is," replied Kusum.
"Why didn't you tell me long ago?"
"I did try many a time, and I always failed. I am a wretched woman."
"Then tell me everything now."
Kusum gravely told her story in a firm unshaken voice. She waded
barefooted through fire, as it were, with slow unflinching steps, and
nobody knew how much she was scorched. Having heard her to the end,
Hemanta rose and walked out.
Kusum thought that her husband had gone, never to return to her again. It
did not strike her as strange. She took it as naturally as any other
incident of everyday life-so dry and apathetic had her mind become during
the last few moments. Only the world and love seemed to her as a void and
make-believe from beginning to end. Even the memory of the protestations
of love, which her husband had made to her in days past, brought to her
lips a dry, hard, joyless smile, like a sharp cruel knife which had cut
through her heart. She was thinking, perhaps, that the love which seemed
to fill so much of one's life, which brought in its train such fondness
and depth of feeling, which made even the briefest separation so
exquisitely painful and a moment's union so intensely sweet, which seemed
boundless in its extent and eternal in its duration, the cessation of
which could not be imagined even in births to come—that this was
that love! So feeble was its support! No sooner does the priesthood touch
it than your "eternal" love crumbles into a handful of dust! Only a short
while ago Hemanta had whispered to her: "What a beautiful night!" The same
night was not yet at an end, the same yapiya was still warbling, the same
south breeze still blew into the roam, making the bed-curtain shiver; the
same moonlight lay on the bed next the open window, sleeping like a
beautiful heroine exhausted with gaiety. All this was unreal! Love was
more falsely dissembling than she herself!
The next morning Hemanta, fagged after a sleepless night, and looking like
one distracted, called at the house of Peari Sankar Ghosal. "What news, my
son?" Peari Sankar greeted him.
Hemanta, flaring up like a big fire, said in a trembling voice: "You have
defiled our caste. You have brought destruction upon us. And you will have
to pay for it." He could say no more; he felt choked.
"And you have preserved my caste, presented my ostracism from the
community, and patted me on the back affectionately!" said Peari Sankar
with a slight sarcastic smile.
Hemanta wished that his Brahmin-fury could reduce Peari Sankar to ashes in
a moment, but his rage burnt only himself. Peari Sankar sat before him
unscathed, and in the best of health.
"Did I ever do you any harm?" demanded Hemanta in a broken voice.
"Let me ask you one question," said Peari Sankar. "My daughter—my
only child-what harm had she done your father? You were very young then,
and probably never heard. Listen, then. Now, don't you excite yourself.
There is much humour in what I am going to relate.
"You were quite small when my son-in-law Nabakanta ran away to England
after stealing my daughter's jewels. You might truly remember the
commotion in the village when he returned as a barrister five years later.
Or, perhaps, you were unaware of it, as you were at school in Calcutta at
the time. Your father, arrogating to himself the headship of the
community, declared that if I sent my daughter to her husband's home, I
must renounce her for good, and never again allow her to cross my
threshold. I fell at your father's feet, and implored him, saying:
'Brother, save me this once. I will make the boy swallow cow-dung, and go
through the prayaschittam ceremony. Do take him back into caste.' But your
father remained obdurate. For my part, I could not disown my only child,
and, bidding good-bye to my village and my kinsmen, I betook myself to
Calcutta. There, too, my troubles followed me. When I had made every
arrangement for my nephew's marriage, your father stirred up the girl's
people, and they broke the match off. Then I took a solemn vow that, if
there was a drop of Brahmin blood flowing in my veins, I would avenge
myself. You understand the business to some extent now, don't you? But
wait a little longer. You will enjoy it, when I tell you the whole story;
it is interesting.
"When you were attending college, one Bipradas Chatterji used to live next
door to your lodgings. The poor fellow is dead now. In his house lived a
child-widow called Kusum, the destitute orphan of a Kayestha gentleman.
The girl was very pretty, and the old Brahmin desired to shield her from
the hungry gaze of college students. But for a young girl to throw dust in
the eyes of her old guardian was not at all a difficult task. She often
went to the top of the roof, to hang her washing out to dry, and, I
believe, you found your own roof best suited for your studies. Whether you
two spoke to each other, when on your respective roofs, I cannot tell, but
the girl's behaviour excited suspicion in the old man's mind. She made
frequent mistakes in her household duties, and, like Parbati (The wife of
Shiva the Destroyer), engaged in her devotions, began gradually to
renounce food and sleep. Some evenings she would burst into tears in the
presence of the old gentleman, without any apparent reason.
"At last he discovered that you two saw each other from the roofs pretty
frequently, and that you even went the length of absenting yourself from
college to sit on the roof at mid-day with a book in your hand, so fond
had you grown suddenly of solitary study. Bipradas came to me for advice,
and told me everything. 'Uncle,' said I to him, 'for a long while you have
cherished a desire to go on a pilgrimage to Benares. You had better do it
now, and leave the girl in my charge. I will take care of her.'
"So he went. I lodged the girl in the house of Sripati Chatterji, passing
him off as her father. What happened next is known to you. I feel a great
relief to-day, having told you everything from the beginning. It sounds
like a romance, doesn't it? I think of turning it into a book, and getting
it printed. But I am not a writing-man myself. They say my nephew has some
aptitude that way—I will get him to write it for me. But the best
thing would be, if you would collaborate with him, because the conclusion
of the story is not known to me so well."
Without paying much attention to the concluding remarks of Peari Sankar,
Hemanta asked: "Did not Kusum object to this marriage?"
"Well," said Peari Sankar, "it is very difficult to guess. You know, my
boy, how women's minds are constituted. When they say 'no,' they mean
'yes.' During the first few days after her removal to the new home, she
went almost crazy at not seeing you. You, too, seemed to have discovered
her new address somehow, as you used to lose your way after starting for
college, and loiter about in front of Sripati's house. Your eyes did not
appear to be exactly in search of the Presidency College, as they were
directed towards the barred windows of a private house, through which
nothing but insects and the hearts of moon-struck young men could obtain
access. I felt very sorry for you both. I could see that your studies were
being seriously interrupted, and that the plight of the girl was pitiable
"One day I called Kusum to me, and said: 'Listen to me, my daughter. I am
an old man, and you need feel no delicacy in my presence. I know whom you
desire at heart. The young man's condition is hopeless too. I wish I could
bring about your union.' At this Kusum suddenly melted into tears, and ran
away. On several evenings after that, I visited Sripati's house, and,
calling Kusum to me, discussed with her matters relating to you, and so I
succeeded in gradually overcoming her shyness. At last, when I said that I
would try to bring about a marriage, she asked me: 'How can it be?' 'Never
mind,' I said, 'I would pass you off as a Brahmin maiden.' After a good
deal of argument, she begged me to find out whether you would approve of
it. 'What nonsense,' replied I, 'the boy is well-nigh mad as it were,
what's the use of disclosing all these complications to him? Let the
ceremony be over smoothly and then—all's well that ends well.
Especially, as there is not the slightest risk of its ever leaking out,
why go out of the way to make a fellow miserable for life?'
"I do not know whether the plan had Kusum's assent or not. At times she
wept, and at other times she remained silent. If I said, 'Let us drop it
then,' she would become very restless. When things were in this state, I
sent Sripati to you with the proposal of marriage; you consented without a
moment's hesitation. Everything was settled.
"Shortly before the day fixed, Kusum became so obstinate that I had the
greatest difficulty in bringing her round again. 'Do let it drop, uncle,'
she said to me constantly. 'What do you mean, you silly child,' I rebuked
her,' how can we back out now, when everything has been settled?'
"'Spread a rumour that I am dead,' she implored. 'Send me away somewhere.'
"'What would happen to the young man then?' said I.' He is now in the
seventh heaven of delight, expecting that his long cherished desire would
be fulfilled to-morrow; and to-day you want me to send him the news of
your death. The result would be that to-morrow I should have to bear the
news of his death to you, and the same evening your death would be
reported to me. Do you imagine, child, that I am capable of committing a
girl-murder and a Brahmin-murder at my age?'
"Eventually the happy marriage was celebrated at the auspicious moment,
and I felt relieved of a burdensome duty which I owed to myself. What
happened afterwards you know best."
"Couldn't you stop after having done us an irreparable injury?" burst out
Hemanta after a short silence. "Why have you told the secret now?"
With the utmost composure, Peari Sankar replied: "When I saw that all
arrangements had been made for the wedding of your sister, I said to
myself: 'Well, I have fouled the caste of one Brahmin, but that was only
from a sense of duty. Here, another Brahmin's caste is imperilled, and
this time it is my plain duty to prevent it.' So I wrote to them saying
that I was in a position to prove that you had taken the daughter of a
sudra to wife."
Controlling himself with a gigantic effort, Hemanta said: "What will
become of this girl whom I shall abandon now? Would you give her food and
"I have done what was mine to do," replied Peari Sankar calmly. "It is no
part of my duty to look after the discarded wives of other people. Anybody
there? Get a glass of cocoanut milk for Hemanta Babu with ice in it. And
some pan too."
Hemanta rose, and took his departure without waiting for this luxurious
It was the fifth night of the waning of the moon—and the night was
dark. No birds were singing. The lichi tree by the tank looked like a
smudge of ink on a background a shade less deep. The south wind was
blindly roaming about in the darkness like a sleep-walker. The stars in
the sky with vigilant unblinking eyes were trying to penetrate the
darkness, in their effort to fathom some profound mystery.
No light shone in the bedroom. Hemanta was sitting on the side of the bed
next the open window, gazing at the darkness in front of him. Kusum lay on
the floor, clasping her husband's feet with both her arms, and her face
resting on them. Time stood like an ocean hushed into stillness. On the
background of eternal night, Fate seemed to have painted this one single
picture for all time—annihilation on every side, the judge in the
centre of it, and the guilty one at his feet.
The sound of slippers was heard again. Approaching the door, Harihar
Mukerji said: "You have had enough time,—I can't allow you more.
Turn the girl out of the house."
Kusum, as she heard this, embraced her husband's feet with all the ardour
of a lifetime, covered them with kisses, and touching her forehead to them
reverentially, withdrew herself.
Hemanta rose, and walking to the door, said: "Father, I won't forsake my
"What!" roared out Harihar, "would you lose your caste, sir?"
"I don't care for caste," was Hemanta's calm reply.
"Then you too I renounce."