Women and children in masterly works of fiction tend to be endearing. From Bengal to Russia, the endearment lasts a lifetime; Sorbojaya and Durga, and Surobala of Bengali literature, Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, and Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native, Natasha Rostov of Tolstoy's War and Peace and Zhenya of Chekhov's short story “The House with an Attic” are characters to remember forever.
Obviously, for us this love begins with Bengali. In Bengali literature Pother Pachali by Bibhutibhuson Bandapaddhaya is a moving tale of the pains and struggles of ordinary people. Apu is the pivotal point of the tale, but Sorbojaya the enduring mother and Durga the mirthful village girl melt the heart of the reader.
Sorbojoya can be identified as an iconic mother of rural Bengal; a woman persevering in privation. In such trying circumstances the woman of the house can become contemptuous and resentful. On no occasion is she found to be dismissive of the clerical aristocracy of Harihor whenever he speaks of an opportunity of a breakthrough. But Harihor, too, at one point surrenders to fate, admitting his hopeless situation when he tries to project a picture of better days to come. Pain writ in her eyes, Sorbojoya remains quiet, burrowing into such misery for days on!
Sorbojoya retains her dignity in her efforts to raise her children even in the direst of situations. Durga, on the other hand, is a chirpy village girl singing the song of life. When they are unwelcome in a village festive occasion, she does not allow Apu's spirits to wilt. She takes him to a place where nature offers its delicacies for poor children like them. Her sense of zestful discovery is how she keeps her mind unbound amidst the indignities of poverty. She takes Apu on an adventure involving getting a glimpse of a locomotive chugging on billowing black smoke. In the process, the poor little girl finds a place in the heart of readers of all times.
Tagore is regarded as one of the three great short story writers of world literature. The other two are Maupassant and Anton Chekhov. Tagore's short stories are like returning home! His “Ek Ratri”is a tale of love lost to the blunders of fanciful thinking of youth, of love that was there for asking, of fancy succumbing to the realities of ordinary life and of a neglected love aiming to return to its home but overreaching its destination.
Surobala is a childhood playmate of the unnamed narrator, both their families look on them as a possible pair. She is famed for her beauty-- a charming face, a pair of lovely dark eyes and dark eye lashes. He looks upon her as his own, just as a boorish youth would tend to think! To that extent he lords over her, sometimes subjecting her to unkind treatment. His model is Nilroton, who has left for the city and become a clerk in the court. So, he too goes to the city! He becomes absorbed with fanciful thinking over his career.
News comes from home that the two families are thinking of his marriage with Surobala. He informs family members that he does not have the time for marriage. Garibaldi and Mazzini occupy his thinking! But he only becomes a sidekick political worker; setting chairs and tables for public meeting, pasting posters and even getting into scuffles. Surobala is married off to the pleader Ramlochon.
On learning that his father has suddenly died, our hero returns home. His dreams end there! He becomes a second school master in distant Noakhali. There he learns that Ramlochon the pleader lives nearby. What designs destiny has for him there! When he visits Ramlochon's house on one occasion, he can hear the soft clinking of bangles, the rustle of the creases of her sari and even the sound of her footsteps. Surobala is behind the curtain! One who could have been his for asking but is now beyond his reach for ever.
The appointed meeting comes! The town is struck by a tidal wave. Ramlochon is away on business. Tidal waves start rising. He takes shelter on the embankment of a pond. In the darkness of the night he sees a woman taking shelter on the other side of the embankment. She turns out to be Surobala! There is no talk. Water rushes in, the cyclone becomes weaker and the night ends. The woman in the dark comes down and goes home! Destiny's ironical tryst is over.
The same scenes can be seen in other literature too! The infatuation of the artist with Zhenya, the petit young girl in Chekhov's “The House with an Attic” ends so abruptly as well! The story is set in a country retreat where the artist has gone on a sojourn and the two sisters from Moscow have come on a vacation.
The elder Lydia is abrasive and dogmatic, a scathing critic of the injustices of society. She is a school teacher, given to rhetoric. The younger Zhenya has just come of age. She is reticent and withdrawn and has little interest in Lydia's rhetoric. The artist plays tennis with Zhenya. She has the comeliness of a freshly blossomed flower. Love draws them closer.
The final scene of the tryst takes place on an evening of the full moon when Zhenya walks together to see off the artist. Love blossoms. The whole situation resembles that of Tagore's “Ek Ratri.” Lydia, in the shape of fate, has different thoughts. She sends Zhenya to Moscow. The next day the artist returns to his place completely crestfallen.
Some characters of fiction, particularly women are not readily forgotten. They cast a spell that lasts a lifetime. Destiny may not have always been kind to them. But the pathos they are endowed with moves the readers, even if the end appears so unjust. They are unforgettable; as real as life!