By Chandrima Pal Aug. 11, 2019
Few characters have the kind of sway over Rabindranath Tagore’s followers as Labanya – arguably, his most complex and nuanced character – from Shesher Kobita (Last Poem). More than nine decades later, Labanya remains as relevant as she was when she first stormed into popular consciousness.
It’s impossible to talk about Rabindranath Tagore without talking about Rabindranath Tagore’s women. In his novels, plays and stories, Tagore created extraordinary characters, inspired by the many women he met in his lifetime. From Binodini in Chokher Bali to Charulata in Nastanirh and Mrinal in Streer Patra, each argued his case for a progressive, liberal, and inclusive society where women were empowered and had complete agency over their bodies.
But even then, no other character has the kind of sway over Tagore’s followers as Labanya – arguably, his most complex and nuanced character – from Shesher Kobita (Last Poem), a story about two people who are drawn together by their love for stimulating conversations. Perfectly matched in their intellect and wit, they eventually decide to stay apart in acknowledgment of their unbreachable differences. Until this day, Shesher Kobita remains one of Tagore’s most celebrated expositions of love, conjugal relationships, and a woman’s right to choose, even in a consensual relationship.
It’s been more than nine decades since Shesher Kobita was first serialised, but even then, Labanya remains as relevant as she was when she first stormed into popular consciousness. She is a woman who makes her own choices and lives by them, loves unconditionally, and expects her lover to do the same. She also refuses to lose her identity in an intense relationship, and does not expect her lover to do that either. “Space” and “taste”, both matter to her as much as it would matter to a man. On the week of Tagore’s death anniversary, it makes perfect sense to revisit it even as we grapple with the wave of toxic masculinity unleashed by the Kabir Singhs of the world.
Set in picturesque Shillong during the onset of monsoons, Shesher Kobita revolves around Amit Raye, an Oxford educated barrister, hobby poet, and a reckless socialite who loves to set off on grand adventures in letter, and in spirit. He is a classic case study of a romantic – self-obsessed and irrevocably taken with the grand idea of himself as a lover and of love. He also revels in projecting himself as a contrarian, a rabble rouser, and an ardent critic of Tagore, while secretly obsessing over his poetry. He likes to cast himself as a misfit in the aristocratic, westernised society of colonial Calcutta and escapes his social network to “seek solitude in Shillong”. But once he’s there, he also realises that “solitude needs a crowd to exist”. It’s obvious that Amit needs an audience all the time.
She is a woman who makes her own choices and lives by them, loves unconditionally, and expects her lover to do the same.
Labanya on the other hand, is that women you meet at a poetry reading session, who leaves you spellbound with her quiet erudition, her brilliant mind and her independent streak – a woman who will fire up your imagination, and yet remain distant. It’s this quality that elevates Labanya from the pit of predictability to a feisty woman who commands her own narrative. Amit, shackled by his narcissism, fails to see Labanya for what she is. He is enchanted by her erudition and her love for poetry (the two converse in verses by their favourite poets) – his social circle in Calcutta has never thrown up such a discovery. During one of their meetings, he marvels at how books on her table “reveal themselves” unlike books in a “public library that just remain there, unnoticed.” In Labanya, he finds the woman who can match him in wit, verse, and spirit. But Labanya approaches this affair with trepidation. She realises that Amit wants his Pygmalion in her. She understands that they have differences that will inevitably kill the beauty and purity of their love. The reason she decides to reject an ordinary life with her extraordinary lover is that she does not want to exist as a figment of his imagination.
So even when Amit celebrates their impending engagement, she remains worried, confessing that she is scared whether this is a time for her to be “captured”. She also tells him that he is not the kind of person who would be happy in a marriage because in her assessment, she senses an “immaturity that cannot survive the mundaneness of marriage”. Here is a romantic heroine who prefers to speak the truth to her lover’s grand delusions. When Amit shares his dreams of a married life where both of them would inhabit their separate physical space throughout the day, only to come together for their union in the night, she remains cold to his fantasies. She reminds him, bluntly, that there is enough of a distance between them already. The refusal to commit to a relationship has always been a male prerogative. Yet it is also something that Tagore subverts with Labanya.
With Labanya and Shesher Kobita then, Tagore rips through the facade of marriage, questions it as an institution, and celebrates love that transcends definition. What makes this story such a bittersweet and open-ended one is that both Labanya and Amit move on to marry partners they had left behind in their past. But there is no melodramatic snapping of ties with each other either: While Amit hints at polyamory, suggesting that it is possible to love more than one person at the same time, Labanya remains the enigma that she was at the beginning of their fateful affair. She sees fulfilment in her separation with Amit, believing that being soul mates and cherishing a special bond is better than tarnishing it with the stigma of marriage.
Many years ago, Oscar Wilde had written: “Men always want to be a woman’s first love. That is their clumsy vanity. We women have a more subtle instinct about these things. What (women) like is to be a man’s last romance.” In Labanya, we find the last romance, that is never meant to be realised – only desired.
This morning, I was listening to an audio production of Shesher Kobita when suddenly my 75-year-old mother-in-law, walked into the room and began to recite Amit’s lines for Labanya. “I know them by heart,” she said with a mysterious smile that lit up her weary eyes. There is a Labanya in every woman, I realised. A woman who longs to be desired, not to be conquered. A woman, who knows the privilege of the last romance.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).