The tenor of this novel, the last written by the Bengali writer Saratchandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) is set early on when a group of people meet at the Taj Mahal. Ashu Babu among them cannot stop extolling its beauty, the very greatness of the love which led to its building. Everyone is in broad agreement except Kamal, the low-caste wife of Shibnath, an unscrupulous businessman with a divine voice. Kamal surprises everyone by quietly denouncing the Taj Mahal as a monument to an emperor’s ego, and that it wasn’t really a monument to a supreme, unflinching love. The emperor Shah Jahan, Kamal says, had other begums.
It is a statement met by disbelief and even disapproval. It was a time when young women kept their opinions to themselves and a woman who chose to air such unconventional, rebellious opinions could only draw condemnation and criticism.
Kamal, who is the central character in Chattopadhyay’s novel, Shesh Prashna (শেষ প্রশ্ন) translated as The Final Question, does this repeatedly. And does not make matters easy for herself by making public her family background, the fact that she is not properly married to Shibnath, and her daring and very progressive opinions that shock everyone.
Like several of his other novels, The Final Question, which is a fine work of cooperative intellectual endeavour by the English department of Jadavpur University, also looks at women’s concerns. In his long career as a novelist, short story writer and essayist, Chattopadhyay was concerned about what he saw was the subjugated status of women. This novel appears as a culmination of all his efforts to understand the woman question. He was also aware of the complexities and contradictions of the society he lived in, and while being critical, he was concomitantly understanding of society’s need to hold on to its old traditions and why it is suspicious of change.
This was the time that saw the emergence of several reform movements that spoke for women’s remarriage, women’s education and women’s freedom; movements spearheaded by the urban elite of Calcutta, yet Chattopadhyay knew well that in villages, things were in utter contrast. Lives spent within the joint family were constrained by obscurantism that was medieval, and he wrote about this time in transition, about societies mired in a lost time and struggling to break free: Madhabi in Bardidi (বড়দিদি) (1913) is the long- suffering child widow; Rama, the young widow in Pallisamaj (পল্লীসমাজ), 1916 whose love is thwarted in a community divided against itself; and Parbati in Debdas (দেবদাস) (1914) forced to marry an elderly previously married man. These early novels despairingly narrate the defeat of the individual spirit at the hands of a cruel society.
His later works are addressed more towards the new encounters between society and individual, they were also reflective of the political changes in the country. They are modern in the sense that Chattopadhyay presents the individual’s protest against a tyrannical society. Most of his later works of this period including The Final Question written in 1931, not only voice the social protest of the Hindu wife or widow but question anew the very relationship between woman and man.
However, though he was radical in his writing and thoughts, Chattopadhyay was constrained by his times, and the circumstances in which women found themselves. His novels while speaking to the present are also timeless in that in some ways such concerns remain the same. How should women find emancipation?
Especially if most of them must find fulfilment in the domestic sphere? It is through the persona of Kamal in this novel that he tries to raise and answer several questions about the nature of love, marriage, the relationship a man can have with a woman, and also the degree of freedom and emancipation.
Chattopadhyay’s own answer stated later towards the end chapters of the book is that liberty comes of its own accord, through one’s fulfilment, by the enlargement of one’s own soul.
It is through Kamal, the low caste wife of an unscrupulous businessman blessed with a divine voice, Shibnath that the novelist raises his concerns and makes his points. But because in most of her thoughts, deeds and words, Kamal makes everyone uncomfortable who find it hard to accept the very contradictory nature of her arguments, Chattopadhyay uses as foil, Ashu Babu, an elderly wealthy widower with a liberal bent of mind who has chosen to live in Agra with his daughter. It is Ashu Babu’s reasoned and patient acceptance of Kamal’s ways that in a way is the novelist’s own way of doubly explaining to the reader what Kamal stands for.
Kamal not only does not seem to care when her ‘husband’ abandons her, she freely declares that they were not married in the proper way; she works in close contact with the tannery workers when an epidemic of influenza breaks out in Agra; she is drawn to help a young revolutionary called Rajen when most of his associates shun him for fear of drawing the police’ wrath; she dares Harendra to spend the night at her home for he is after all a brahmacharya, and then she chooses to make a new life with Ajit Babu but refuses to marry him.
There are other characters through whom the author mentions the concerns of the age. This was an age of fervent nationalism as well, when patriotism was rife and the debate between blind adoption of what the West denoted, and a rebellious independence and insistence on the legacy of an ancient civilization was raging. Besides Ashu Babu, there is Akshay who vehemently denounces all that Kamal stands for and regards her as the very epitome of corrupt womanhood. Abinash thinks he is enlightened, his household is run by Nilima, his widowed sister in law yet he marries suddenly and leaves Nilima in a vulnerable position. Harendra, the idealist runs an ‘ashram’ for orphan boys but his beliefs are showed up as empty convictions by Kamal and then there is Rajen, the dedicated, true revolutionary and Ajit the seeker after truth.
There is some untidiness in the novel, especially in the introduction of the character Bela as a foil to Kamal’s independence, Manorama’s betrayal of the idea of marriage, Nilima’s desperate seeking of a husband for security but she comes too late in the novel. There is also some debate on the word ‘emancipation’. The novelist on one hand has painstakingly drawn the travails that Kamal undergoes and her emergence from these tribulations still unscathed and joyous, while Kamal on her part insists that emancipation happens when the strong decide to help the weak, i.e., women can be free when men decide to emancipate them. Of course she makes this argument in the hope that Ashu Babu will forgive his errant daughter, Manorama but the contradictions inherent in the argument remain unanswered.
It is interesting too in the manner Chattopadhyay has drawn the persona of Kamal. She is born of a European planter father, and a widowed Bengali mother, and so Chattopadhyay is able to put forward these radical views in her mouth effectively because she is so different. It is similar to the contrivance, if it can be called that, which Tagore employs in his novel Gora, where the eponymous hero has an Irish parentage, and it is through his personhood that the novelist explores ideas of nationalism, nationhood, patriotism and the quality that makes a true rebel.
But then it was Chattopadhyay’s desire to address the concerns of his age through this novel; to depict problems as he saw them. He never sought to put forward easy clear answers. Still Chattopadhyay does offer the subtle hint or two – and this is eloquently done, as for instance in this soliloquy two women have when they are alone with their own thoughts. Nilima and Bela have just heard about Kamal, her acceptance of her husband’s desertion, her insistence on finding work for herself. Later, alone in their respective rooms, they look at themselves longingly in the mirror and murmur wistfully, ‘Once when I was a woman!’
It is a statement that says several things, but in essence what the novelist could be conveying is the thought that a woman could lose herself in the many demands society and custom make on her, and the struggle to find herself is one every woman must engage in.
Published November, 2011