Introduction

Written by one of the stalwart author’s of Bengali Literature, Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) is the debut and sole English novel authored by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, who has also authored renowned works such as Durgeshnandini, Kapalkundala, Anandamath and the like, which paved way for him being titled as the Sahitya Samrat (Emperor of Literature) in the Bengali Literature circles. While the Novel wasn’t published in a full bound volume initially, being published as a weekly story in one of the leading Bengali Newspapers, the passages were later trussed together to display to the world the numerous talents displayed by any intellectually gifted Chattopadhyay, who went on to become one of the first among numerous Civil Servants in the then- colonial India.

Plot

A revolutionary novel that was way ahead of its time, the novel tells the story of Matangini, a beautiful Bengali who is married to the abusive Rajmohan, and falls in love with her brother-in-law, Madhav Ghose, who is married to her only sister Hemangini. The story begins with a description of Matangani’s interaction with another woman, who persuades her to draw water from external, despite repeated refusals from her end. Whilst returning from outside, the corpulent, ugly and barbaric Rajmohan spots her and her company, followed by Rajmohan trashing Matangini and accusing her of being promiscuous. This scene marks the reality of Matangini’s life, wherein there is no escape from reality.

Notwithstanding, pained by all the sorrow filled in her own life, Matangani redefines what a loyal Indian women is reminiscent of, as from the lens of Matangani, the reader is made aware of her love for Madhav Ghose, not only as a beloved relative but also in a romantic sense. While the readers in ordinary circumstances would display shock at such a brazen display of themes such as infidelity and betrayal, the author seemingly tries to induce an element of sympathy for Matangini in the readers to soften the blow of her uncharacteristic feelings for Ghose, which also belies the fact that Matangini is betraying her sister, and her husband. Madhav too reciprocates the feelings of Matangini, thus indicating infidelity from both the marriages.

After overhearing a plot made by her infamous husband to plan a dacoity on Madhav Ghose’s property in the dead hours of the night, Matangini decides to conjure courage and surreptitiously leaves her house and her husband whilst he was planning the dacoity. The reader is made aware that her loyalty and love lies both for Ghose, throughout her husband, as she is cognisant of the fact that one wrong move on her part could endanger both herself as well as her husband, who would get implicated for the serious, and grave moral and legal wrong. Regardless, Matangini reaches Madhav Ghose’s residence, manages to alarm her sister and Ghose approximately the dacoity and the plan is foiled in due time.

Notwithstanding, Rajmohan catches on to the fact that Matangini was the informant, and when Matangini reaches home after successfully foiling the debauched plan, Rajmohan pulls her by her hair, and is almost approximately to kill her when some of his accompanists surround him and accuse him of betraying them, giving Matangini the chance to escape. Matangini finds refuge in the house of Mathur Ghose, who struggles between his two wives, and shows unfliching loyalty towards the beautiful but evil Champak who wants Matangini out of her house, possibly viewing her to be a competition in her husbands’ affections, notwithstanding Tara, the first wife of Mathur Ghose, is more kindly towards the new entrant in the house.

The story now shifts to a forest of Radhaganj. The dacoits are inside the hovel, discussing approximately their next plan of stealing. Rajmohan arrives and tells them that he found Matangini. They then discuss on getting rid of Matangini, with Rajmohan saying that though he hates her, his wish of killing her is gone now. The Sardar then asks Rajmohan to desert his family, take Matangini with him and to join them as a fellow dacoit. Rajmohan initially hesitates to do so, but finally agrees due to the Sardar’s threats and due to his own wish of leaving Madhav’s neighborhood. After returning home and sitting down to have his lunch, Rajmohan asks his sister Kishori to call Matangini, only for them to return unsuccessful in finding her. Matangini remains missing for three days.

In the in the meantime, the dacoits accompanying Rajmohan restrain Madhav Ghose, demanding a will from him. All the three persons in the house are alarmed by a loud shriek, which manages to scare away the dacoits, leaving Madhav free to untangle himself from the clutches of the bondage by the dacoits. Madhav then is faced with Tara, the wife of Mathur Ghose, and a friend of Madhav. Madhav and Tara then combine to find the source of the shrieks, finding a hurt and starving Matangini in one room. Matangini then reveals that Mathur Ghosh had threatened to starve her unless she subdues to him, and accepts him. She, defiant and unnerved, strarves herself to withstand his advances.

Madhav and Tara decide to help Matangini escape the situation. The novel ends with a brief description of the destiny of all the leading characters. Matangini finally escapes from the clutches of her merciless husband, and goes back to her father’s house. It is further revealed that she died an early death. She does not reunite with her true love, Madhav Ghose. Rajmohan confesses his involvement in dacoity and is then jailed. The fate of other character remains unknown.

Review

Is infidelity okay?

The controversial aspect of the novel that grappled the attention of most readers was Matangini’s unfaithfulness towards Rajmohan, and Madhav Ghose’s towards Hemangini. While Ghose’s infidelity is largely ignored, the sole focus falls on the fact that a woman, that too in the echelons of conservative society of Bengal, is involved external her marriage with someone else, albeit not physically. While the intention of the author was to create a sympathetic angle with the cruelty displayed by Rajmohan throughout the novel, Matangini as a character has been criticised for this perceived flaw by numerous readers, with comments suggesting promiscuousness, lack of character and the like.

Is infidelity okay provided one is unhappy and cannot escape a relationship?

The general consensus about Matangini’s involvement outside her marriage has many facets, notwithstanding, it can be stated that Matangini is a woman of strong morals (refusing Mathur Ghose’s advances, did not seek shelter in Madhav Ghose’s house as did not wish to betray her sister by her presence in the house, stood up to Rajmohan’s brutality multiple times, and her unflickering loyalty towards Madhav Ghosh), however, her decision to betray her sister Hemangini was in naughty taste. While one can’t determine or choose who they fall in love with, and being trapped in a helpless relationship exacerbates the fleeting feelings of happiness someone else brings, her decision to betray her sister by engaging with Madhav and Madhav’s decision to betray his wife by reciprocating prove their lack of character. The characters seem to choose the easy way out, despite the novel being silent on any flaw in Hemangini as a person, Madhav too betrays her love and loyalty. So I personally do not agree with the characterisation of Matangini or Madhav Ghose as the protagonists, despite both of them having numerous formidable qualities to boast of.

Conclusion

The novel is a gripping read and keeps the reader hooked not only to the plot but to the various themes such a women’s rights, marriage, infidelity, betrayal and gender relations that marked the 19th century Bengal. This is one of the best Indian classics and one of the few to be published originally and marketed in English. Must definitely read.

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