The Forbidden Friendship
The Forbidden Friendship
"That's an amazing composition, dear."
"Thank you 'bouthaan'."
('bouthaan' implies sister-in-law in Bengali)
The poet was none other than Rajkishore Das and his sister-in-law Mrinalini. The timeframe, around the 1850s in Calcutta, India, still a British capital.
Rajkishore was around 11 years old when his much elder brother Gourkishore got married to Mrinalini. Gourkishore was around 10 years older than him, while Mrinalini was around the same age as Rajkishore.
They had a joint family, many brothers, their wives, sisters and it was a conservative household. The women mostly stayed indoors and kept themselves busy with household chores. In such an environment Mrinalini came like a breath of fresh air. While she was really a child herself, being the elder brother's wife, she was provided with the responsibility of taking care of Rajkishore. At 11 years of age, that would consist mostly of playing together, though she would also cook some delicacies for her brother-in-law as time passed. The Das household was progressive in terms of allowing their daughters and daughters in law to get good education and soon Mrinalini also got this opportunity. She was good at it and often she and Rajkishore would study together.
Time passed and the young bride and her brother-in-law formed a friendship like no other. During this time Rajkishore started composing poems and prose and Mrinalini would be the first one to read them always. She was his biggest literary fan and the harshest critic, all rolled into one.
With time, Rajkishore turned out to be a prolific writer, an extremely gifted one at that. He would compose poems, write stories. He was so good that he even started composing music for some of his poems. Yes he was himself a trained classical singer. Mrinalini was very impressed by her talented brother-in-law. They would often read out poems to each other and she would provide feedback to his compositions.
Slowly this developed into a beautiful friendship with a strong backbone of literature, arts and music, truly a productive company of each other. But in those days, in a Bengal household, such friendship was unheard of.
It did not take time before the servants in the house started gossiping about it. Not that Mrinalini and Rajkishore cared much. They knew their friendship had a strong backbone and was not based on petty thoughts.
Rajkishore sometimes would openly declare, "Bouthaan, you are my inspiration. Here is a poem I wrote thinking of you."
Mrinalini would smile and patiently listen to the poem. Sometimes she would even provide feedback so that the composition could improve.
And then at times, she would read her favorite poem from a book and Rajkishore would suddenly be lost in thoughts and in his beautiful creative world.
"Bouthaan, repeat that part for me please... I think I am having a poem in my head again. Let me write it down."
And thus, each would complement the other. Beautifully.
If only society was as beautiful.
If only all human minds were as beautiful as that of Rajkishore and Mrinalini.
The gossips that initially hovered among the servants of the household were soon escalated to the women of the household.
"Mrinalini, don't you have any household work? Why do you always tend to spend time with Raj?", Rajkishore's mother asked her one day.
Mrinalini stayed silent for a while and then slowly said,
"Actually we discuss literature, poems and prose..."
"Oh... it's not bad, but please also spend some time on household work. I understand that Gour keeps staying away from Kolkata for business reasons. Write to him sometimes. His letters take time to reach here, but he will definitely respond."
"Yes, mother. I have already written a couple of letters to him. I think his response is on the way."
While Mrinalini's mother-in-law did not say anything objectionable to the friendship between her and Rajkishore, it was clear to Mrinalini that she did not appreciate it. In fact in those days, such friendship was considered forbidden.
A man and a woman could not be friends, many would say.
Mrinalini tended to keep herself aloof slowly and did not tell Rajkishore anything at all about this.
"Bouthaan! Bouthaan! Where are you? Ah! Here you are! I have been looking for you everywhere! You know, no one reads or appreciates my compositions the way you do. It's been a week almost that we did not discuss and I have piled up quite a lot already, just waiting to be read by you. In fact, you know, I wrote "Swarnalata" based on your life! Come, have a look."
Mrinalini looked up and did not respond at first.
"Yes give me some time. I am coming."
And they found a place in their house library to discuss everything that Rajkishore had composed. Mrinalini was so lost in his creations that she lost count of time. Probably they discussed for hours and when finally, she could leave, it was already evening.
That day Gourkishore had arrived a while back. He had looked for Mrinalini but he could not find her. Someone had told him that his wife was discussing literature with his brother in the library.
"Ah! Good. I like that she spends time with literature."
He was not much perturbed by it, the way some of his servants had been making a fuss. He knew both Rajkishore and Mrinalini too well to let any unnecessary doubts creep in.
Meanwhile Rajkishore got an opportunity to study in England and he left. Even while in England he would write letters to his 'bouthaan' every week, sometimes the letters would be filled with emotions of love and passion.
Mrinalini would read, smile and provide feedback through written letters. She had been unable to bear a child and these days she had to hear about it a lot. But she found solace in Rajkishore's writings. It was as if he took her to a different world altogether where there was no sadness, no bitterness, no dull colours. It was as if everything was beautiful, as beautiful as it could be.
But all was not well. The letters were found out and the meanings misconstrued by the conservative household. The feelings of pure love were misunderstood to be that of illicit relationship. Two souls who had been friends since they were eleven years old needed to be separated, just because both of them belonged to opposite gender.
And so a plan was hatched, to get Rajkishore married off as soon as he returned from England. It was kept secret from Mrinalini.
As soon as he returned, he was instructed to get married to a girl chosen by the household. Meanwhile Mrinalini's situation had turned grim. Her liberal husband who always stood by her side had started doubting her character. It did not help that she was still childless.
Rajkishore did not understand Mrinalini's situation as well. He was engrossed in his creativity, writing profusely those days. Many of the creations were dedicated to his 'bouthaan'.
But Mrinalini was dying inside. On one hand the stigma she had been subjected to, a pure friendship misconstrued as illicit by the patriarchal conservative household. On the other hand her inability to bear a child after so many years was viewed with disdain. She could have found solace in Rajkishore's company and found peace in his literary creations, but it seemed that was a distant possibility now with his marriage getting fixed.
There was hardly anyone she could talk to any more. Life had started getting unbearable.
One fine morning, Mrinalini was found dead. Doctors were summoned who opined that the cause of death was an overdose of sleeping pills.
Rajkishore completely broke down with this sudden shock. His inspiration, his muse, his best friend, his biggest fan, his harshest critic was no more. He grieved inconsolably within the tight four walls of the Das household.
Many years later he would still find his eyes soaked everytime he thought of his 'bouthaan'. He learnt the art of planchette - an occult way to summon the soul of the deceased and attempted to call Mrinalini. It did not work out for her, though it worked for many of his other relatives.
Over time Rajkishore became famous, as one of the greatest poets ever but his sorrow remained his own. When he died, among the many faces he remembered for the last time, his 'bouthaan''s face was the most prominent.
"Forgive me bouthaan, I could not save you... but I do plan to compose more poems for you once I meet you there..."
...And he let out his last breath...
(He had no idea that in future he would be held responsible for the death of his favourite 'bouthaan' and that a beautiful friendship would be termed as an illicit scandal.)