Bengali literature owes the popularity of its very fabric to Rabindranath Tagore. I would therefore humbly refrain from reviewing any of his stories. But what I undertake in its stead is discussion on the unusual timbre of one of his masterpieces in the short fiction genre. Aptly named Monihara, which roughly translated means – Lost Jewels, this short story was filmed and captured brilliantly as a part of the famous Teen Kanya (directed by Satyajit Ray).
Macabre has always been a favorite stream of experimentation for doyens of the short story. From Maupassant and Poe in foreign lands to Banaphool and Tagore in the Bengali hinterland, the dance of the undead through apparitions, strange sounds and voices, inexplicable occurrences and cursed dwellings has remained the lure of the most memorable writers and their craft. The reader would do well to read up on Maupassant’s The Horla, Poe’s innumerable gems and in the same vein, Tagore’s Monihara. One could then perhaps absorb the eerie tone of the narrative and enjoy its visualization on screen.
Monihara is a story of greed. Pure and unfathomable greed, which knows no confines of the living or the dead. The tale begins on a dark evening, storms imminent and threatening, when an ageing school teacher, wandering through the ruins of an old palatial bungalow on the banks of a river, settles down near a boat on the river ghat. In the dimming light he spots a man, sitting quietly near the boat and as if on cue, sparks up a conversation with him. The storm, the clouds, the wind and the eerie howling – he cannot but narrate the story of the couple who used to live in the palatial bungalow, that flickers in the flashes of lightning, behind them, and thus begins the story of Phanibhushan Saha and his wife, Monimalika (Queen of the Jewels).
Phanibhushan is representative of the cultured Bengali of the 1800s. He is suitably educated, fluent in English, rich through profits from his own business ventures, friendly with the British establishment through friends in business and in politics and has refined tastes in music, food and alcohol. Phanibhushan is also the inheritor of the palatial bungalow on the banks of the river, where he moves in with his wife Monimalika. His pleasures in life, however, are only limited to the aforementioned. His wife, finding the surroundings too vague and solitary to her liking, confines herself to her jewels and her world of self-aggrandizement. Apparent up to this point in the narrative is greed, which consumes the lady, utterly.
An accidental fire in one of his factories in Calcutta coupled with losses in business push Phanibhushan to the wall. With no easy way out in sight and money from lenders in the village as well as the city hard to come by, Phanibhushan decides to pawn his wife’s jewels. This spells doom for Monimalika and fearing the loss, she, at first snaps back at Phanibhushan, ferocious in her anger and rebuke and then, with the help of a cousin of hers, plots her escape. When Phanibhushan leaves for Calcutta, heartbroken at his wife’s refusal to part with the jewels and resolute in finding an alternative source of funding to keep his business afloat, Monimalika eyes the opportunity she had awaited, with bated breath. Greed, the core of her existence and the underlying sentiment of her actions, curbs her from trusting her cousin with the jewels. The solution she comes up with is wearing all the jewels on her person.
A weary Phanibhushan returns from Calcutta, his business still afloat but his emotions submerged in a pool of sorrow. He fails to understand the extent to which his wife is attached to the resplendent pieces of metal and stones and thus, misconstrues his inability to love his wife as the reason for their estrangement. The disappearance of his wife further compounds his belief. He finds her room empty, the jewels gone and the bungalow, eerily silent. The descriptions by Tagore, of the shadows that engulf the rooms, Phanibhushan’s mental darkness and the emptiness in the surroundings are intense. The portrayal of it on screen, fitting and apt.
It is from this point onwards that Tagore begins weaving his magic on the senses of the reader. The void that Phanibhushan exists in craves happiness and this yearning is equaled by a strange feeling he has that his wife is somewhere there in the palatial bungalow, hiding from him, aloof but watching his every move. He looks into yawning empty rooms, strains his ears trying to catch that footstep or door-close and gets up drenched in perspiration after dreaming that Moni is back. His imagination plays tricks on him, conjuring up sounds, voices and hallucinations which form the crux of the horror that unfolds gradually in the narrative.
The narrative reaches its crescendo during one stormy night, when the servants of the house are out absent; Phanibhushan lies dormant in his bed, engulfed in sleep and is woken by the sound of footsteps approaching the bedroom. The sound seems to come from the front door of the bungalow and slowly grows in magnitude. The approaching footsteps seemed adorned with the metallic clinks of the ghungroo or the anklet. The resolute steps come and halt in front of the open bedroom door, inside which Phanibhushan lies on the bed, his eyes dilated with anticipation, a strange terror and excitement. What steps inside, Phanibhushan feels, is his wife, returned and rejuvenated. But the apparition is far from that and anything human. As the specter draws close, its feminine steps cool and calculated, it reaches out for that one final jewel that it had forgotten to take. A skeletal limb strikes out to grab at a necklace lying near the recuperating husband. A scream emanates from the parched throat of the husband, only to be drowned by a creepy laughter.
The story ends with another twist but that is best left for the reader to discover. However, the portrayal of the very embodiment of greed in the form of an apparition, the atmosphere of yearning around the husband and the wife and the descriptions of desolation make Monihara one of the finest horror short stories. If the sketches of the characters don’t interest you, the haunting world of insatiable greed will surely do.
Highly recommended reading.