In The Middle of the Night: Tagore’s Nisithey

I sit in a darkened room in a 300 year old crumbling mansion known in the neighbourhood as the Fox Kuthir with the Bhagirathi flowing outside my window. Doves coo in the wooden lattice shades of the enormous 20 feet high verandah, a bulbul trails incessantly from the branches of a neem tree and the oars of a lonely boat splash past on the still waters. Five hundred meters away stands the Hazarduari Palace. It is 1998 in Murshidabad and I  am watching television. Though the screen flickers with a patchy disturbed reel,  I watch entranced as Uttam Kumar stands on the rooftop of another crumbling mansion. I see a flock of wild geese reel and soar above him, beating huge black wings against the clouds as a woman’s face superimposed on the sky laughs a full hungry mocking laugh and asks “Who’s she, who’s she, who’s she.” The print is scratched, the visual blurred but the hero’s anguished eyes against the burning peal of laughter is indelible. The black and white screen creates a sinister noir effect as she laughs and speaks and laughs again “O ke go, O ke, O ke go“.

I did not know it then but this was the last time I would see Nishithey. The film was directed by Agragami and released in 1963,  starring the reigning king of Bengali filmdom Uttam Kumar and his famous co-star Supriya Devi. Frantic efforts to locate a print of this now forgotten movie before writing this piece led to naught. Possibly this is the reason why the article entitled ‘From fiction to film: Reading Tagore texts as visual narratives’, in a volume commemorating Tagore ignores this particular adaptation.[1] Resurrecting forgotten memories, it is my aim in this article to re-address Rabindranath Tagore’s use of the supernatural by referring to his short story Nishithey (In the Middle of the Night) and using it to show how Tagore’s artistic genius created a mood piece, almost Gothic in its texture that exploits the tension between the natural and the supernatural to create a masterly tale. Poe-like in intensity, noir-like in effect, Gothic in feel, Nishithey deserves  another look.[2]

Ever since his sensational appearance on the Western literary scene in 1913 as the author of the Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore’s overwhelming presence in world literature continues unabated. His corpus is formidable and the sheer range of his artistry include  poems, songs, plays, short stories and novels,  lectures and essays, letters, diaries and paintings.  He was a writer who had explored almost every genre and literary style.  It is interesting to find that at least a small but rewarding portion of his corpus are stories dealing with the supernatural.   These stories contain a network of romantic imagery dealing with  states such as  dreams, hallucinations, special states of the mind and consciousness and in at least one, the picture of the revenant returning to claim her lost jewel.[3] It is a commonplace to connect Tagore’s yearning for the mysterious and the unattainable to  his evocative childhood experiences as he wandered the rooms of his ancestral mansion at Jorasanko.  Pages from his autobiographical Jiban Smriti  and Chelebela paint a vivid picture of the call of the mystery in imagination. In his Reminiscences Tagore describes how “Looking back on childhood’s days, the thing that recurs most often is the mystery which used to fill both life and world. Something undreamt of was lurking everywhere, and the uppermost question everyday was: When, oh! When would we come across it? “[4]

Elsewhere, in an article on Tagore’s interest in folklore, Sukumar Sen                                                                                                                                                                                                      has described how the dreamlike languor of life in the Jorasanko mansion created in the writer Tagore  a love of the idiom of the simple, childlike motifs of folk myth. ” Rabindranath Tagore, as he tells us in his reminiscences, was a lonely boy from his early childhood days, in spite of the fact that he was born in a large family.  Before he came to the school-going age, he was left to himself during most part of the day. That meant he was confined in a rather narrow room in the servant’s quarter which had a window overlooking a garden and a tank beyond. At night, after dinner, he went to bed in an inner apartment, where a maid would recite nursery rhymes and fairy tales to put him to sleep quietly. These rhymes and tales made a deep impression on the mind and imagination of the boy. And he would often lie awake and ruminate on the images evoked by  the rhymes and tales…

The child had nothing to do during the long midday hours. And taking his seat by the window of the servants room, he would let his fancy work freely on the sights and sounds of the outside world gleaming through the window. Thus the fleeting clouds would conjure up for him a picture of the prince of the fairy-tales riding on a wind horse and out to rescue the princess in distress. The dark undergrowths at the foot of the banyan tree standing in a corner of the tank beyond the garden would appear to him as the den of the dreadful demons that kept the princess confined”.[5]

The child Tagore’s fluid blurring and mirroring of the real world and the imaginary are reproduced in the shadowy figures of his supernatural short stories.  In her masterly exposition  on Tagore’s supernaturalism France Bhattacharya isolates  ten stories that may be labelled as examples of supernatural stories. Drawing on  Todorov’s theory of the  supernatural fantastic[6], Bhattacharya analyses stories as varied as Ghater Katha, Guptadhan and Kankal  before concluding that Tagore’s moral preoccupations prevented him from exploiting to the full the possible outcome of the confrontation between the real and the unreal. “He resisted the temptation to play with the supernatural, to write a straightforward ghost story bhuter galpa perhaps because of his humanitarianism and concern for truth”. [7]

Modern criticism has however extended an understanding of Tagore’s supernatural stories from the realm of the bhuter galpa to the realm of the socially conscious. These stories are now considered in the light of the writer’s increasing engagement with questions about women’s marginalisation and their quest for self esteem within the narrow domestic space afforded them.[8] Nisithey thus transcends its supernaturalism to becoming a tale of a childless, ailing woman and her obsessive love for her husband. Though the wife magnanimously entreats her husband the zamindar Dakshinacharan to remarry after her death, the zamindar swears eternal fidelity. In the course of a few pages Tagore shows how feeble Dakshinacharan’s love is as he is irresistibly drawn to the physician’s daughter Manorama and neglects his wife with  cold brutality. The broken hearted wife dwindles into death, caught between her desire to believe her husband but pragmatic enough to understand these empty protestations of everlasting love as meaningless.

What follows is an inchoate sequence of phantasmagoric images as Dakshinacharan’s urgent attempts at fulfilling his desire for his new wife is thwarted by visions of his dead wife’s face haunting him, her guffaw of mocking laughter and her incessant question “Who’s she? Who’s she, who’s she.” Interestingly, although Monorama, the second wife is given a name, the first wife is nameless and only described as “my wife”. The nameless wife has a deliberate ambiguity of identity to match her faceless existence- childless, ailing, and trapped in a poignant death-in-life situation, harnessed to a barren bed and a sterile existence. Childlessness, sickness, the tyranny of a transgressive husband, unfulfilled desires are motifs repeated in other supernatural stories including Monihara, Khudita Pashan and Kankal.  Because these cultural images of wifehood and infidelity resonate with the magical or physically impossible world of the supernatural, they contribute to both plot and theme as well as the hypnotic effect. Nisithey is rich in readings of the paranormal contained within contexts of gender and identity.

The supernatural elements in the story bring in  a sense of unremitting doom. In terms of Todorov’s theory it contains the fantastic marvelous– in which explanations reinforce the sense of the irrational as well as the fantastic uncanny– that which is extraordinary but possible. Thus the peals of laughter may or may not be the screech of migratory birds, the zamindar may or may not be hallucinating under the influence of wine-“I had been drinking that afternoon, and my mind was in a fluid, maudlin state” and the dead wife’s disturbing return may or may not be the shadows of the mosquito net casting a gloom on guilty minds. “But someone came and stood by my mosquito-net in the dark, and pointing once at Manorama with a long, thin, bony finger whispered ever so softly and indistinctly into my ear, “Who’s she? Who’s she? Who’s she?” Tagore refuses to offer the reassurance of a closed ending or a redemptive conclusion containing expiation, for in the last sentence it is dark once again, with the zamindar pounding upon the doors of the physicians house ” The next night, halfway through, there was a knocking at my door again, and the sound of Doctor! Doctor!”

One of the hallmarks of Gothic fiction, the craze for which dates from Horace Walpole’s classic formulation of the genre in The Castle of Otranto (1764) was the fact that the tale commonly involved mysteries and terrors occasioned by economic or sexual intrigue, based on a curse, accompanied by supernatural manifestations in a castle-type setting. In the classic Gothic tale there would be an usurpation of an inheritance, and the infliction of violence, usually upon hapless female victims. Nishithey contains the trappings of  Gothic fiction – a large crumbling mansion, the wife associated in her sickness and in her dangerously distorted love with images of incarceration together with an extended psychological analysis of the paranormal events. Like these tales also the story contains multiple disruptions or clashes such as the supernatural clashing with the natural, the living wife bent under the shadow of the dead one or of death contending with life. In the Gothic tale nature came to be regarded as an objective co-relative of mental states: the ruined mansions or castles, the wild landscapes, the dark and dank labyrinths and the frequent storms and natural upheavals. Tagore’s story images these Gothic tales in which a darkly imagined counter world symbolizing the dark regions of human mind is set against the rugged landscape.”Suddenly the darkness over the jhau bushes seemed to catch fire: a thin, yellow crescent moon climbed slowly into the sky above the trees, lighting the face of the woman slumped in her white sari on the white stone seat. ” Later, as they sail away to forget the wild laughter the landscape is similarly portentous:” The awesome river had started her long winter sleep, lifeless and inert as a hibernating snake. To the north, barren banks of sand stretched bleakly towards the horizon; and in the villages on the steep southern banks, mango groves quaked and pleaded in the face of the river’s demonic power”.  Suggestions of a ghostly presence seen through nature introduce horror. “But the next moment we realized it was not a human voice, not a supernatural one either- just the call of the water birds scouring the sandbanks. ” Yet at the climactic moment the super-natural is not explained away but exists according to its own laws of cause and effect. This increases the imaginative experience. ” I decided I’d have to turn out the light or never sleep-but as soon as I did so and lay down again, immediately that strangulated voice returned to the darkness next to my mosquito-net, close to my ear: Who’s she? Who’s she? Who’s she? The story has the dark eerie fervor of many Gothic writings prompting at least one critic to note, in a debunking manner though, how it bears resemblance to Edger Alan Poe’s story Leigia[9]. Defending Tagore from charges of frivolity William Radice points out in his introduction how a taste for the macabre and ghostly had long been fostered in Bengal by folk tales . Tagore blended folk myths and supernaturalism, recreated in his short stories in a simple narrative style.

Tagore’s narrative begins with a frame narrative which creates a tension between narrative and frame, a sense of moving between different worlds such as the cozy known world of the doctor and the mysterious world of Dakshinacharan. By casting the story not in the realm of the fantastic but that of the every day, Tagore creates an effective ghost story which erupts within the familiar[10]. There is also a psychological crises not just in the young zamindar torn between loyalty to the first wife and his obvious attraction to the second but also in the character of Haran Doctor, the physician who treats his first wife. The latter could not have failed to notice Dakshinacharan’s increasing attraction towards his daughter, perhaps this is why he unaccountably places two bottles of medicines – one harmless and one fatal at her bedside along with repeated warnings which also suggested an convenient means of death. The world of Nishithey is a world of repressed urges, ambivalent motives and tortured minds which parallel, as it were, the dark winding complex Gothic architecture.

Tagore uses mystery, horror and the super-natural to give substance to his realistic concerns. Nishithey is the mirror of the real world and its characters are created with twisted images, dreams, trance-states and the feeling that the ultimate horror lies within. I am reminded of Tagore’s paintings in which cruel black shapes of menace abound along with dancing figures, portraits of an oval face, a smiling mouth, a slope of forehead, a touch of hair. The dream like quality of his pictures is reproduced in the chill shadowy forms of Nishithey and the noir-like movie poster of the 1963 film adaptation. If Tagore had written nothing at all but a handful of short stories then this one would command an impressive place in the world’s super-natural fiction.

[1] Sanjukta Dasgupta, Sudeshna Chakravarti, Mary Mathew, Radical Rabindranath: Nation, Family and Gender in Tagore’s Fiction and Films, Orient Blackswan, 2013.

[2]William Radice translated“In the Middle of the Night” in Rabindranath Tagore Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics 2000

[3] Monihara and other Stories, Rupa 2004

[4] Uma Das Gupta edited Rabindranath Tagore My Life in my Words, Penguin Books India, 2006.

[5] Sukumar Sen, “Tagore and Folklore”,Indian Literature, Vol 4 1961, Sahitya Akademi.

[6] Richard Howard translated The Fantastic A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov, Cornell University Press, 1975

[7]  France Bhattacharya, “The Supernatural in Tagore’s Short Stories,” in Rabindranath Tagore, Perspectives in Time, edited by Mary Lago and Ronald Warwick, Macmillan Press Limited, 1989

[8] Radical Rabindranath, ibid

[9] Pratap Narayan Biswas, “Rahasya Golpo o onanyo prabandha”, 1984 quoted in Santosh Chakrabarti Studies in Tagore Critical Essays, Atlantic Publishers 2004.

[10] Preface, M.R. James, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Reprint edition Wildside Press 2006