“Rajmohan’s Wife” by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay is the author’s only English novel as well as he went on to write Bengali novels and poetry including India’s national song Vande Mataram. Here is the brief from the book jacket –
The beautiful and passionate Matangini, married to a villainous man and in love with her sister’s husband, represents the vitality of women who remain strong in the face of brutality and the confining expectations of middle-class society. Bankimchandra’s vivid descriptions of the routine of Bengali households provide a revealing portrait of life in the 19th century. Rajmohan’s Wife continues to be relevant for its universal themes of love and romance and resonates even today for its portrayal of strong women.
The story is quite simple. Matangini, to whom the book’s title refers to, overhears a plot by her husband Rajmohan to steal an important document from Madhav who is her brother-in-law. She loves her sister dearly and Madhav in more ways than one. So she immediately sets out in the middle of the night through the forest to her sister’s house to warn them. Though the plot is foiled, it is not without consequences.
The book is an easy read from the beginning with ample twists and turns to keep it going. Matangini drives the plot initially with her actions but after a point she disappears and the focus is on Mathur and Madhav. I have a sneaky feeling that Madhav, the English-educated, civil and soft spoken person in a village of landlords and scheming people, is modeled after Bankimchandra himself.
Since I enjoy reading historical descriptions and the way of life of countries, particularly India, in olden times, this was quite a great find. Bankimchandra does a neat job of bringing a village in 19th century Bengal alive through his descriptions of people and landscape.
But it stops there. I found the dialogue between people very contrived at times and tedious. The writing style is more like an essay I would say, which makes it dry. The descriptions that I liked, came like a breath of fresh air, in an otherwise suffocating wordage. The sudden employment of archaic language just to convey romance makes it stilted.
“Woman, deceive me not. Canst thou? Thou little knowest how I have watched thee; how from the earliest day that thy beauty became thy curse, I have followed every footstep of thine…”
The book does show the importance of women as Matangini is the one who foils the plot. She is shown as a beautiful woman who is not scared to break rules and also throw challenges to Mathur –
“Look; I am a full-grown woman and at least your equal in brute force. Will you call in allies?”
The opposite of Matangini is her sister Hemangini who is every bit the shy, society-moulded woman who hesitates to even talk to her sister in front of her husband.
All in all, this is not a boring read and being a short book, it gets over fast. The introduction and afterword by Meenakshi Mukherjee is very interesting as well. But at the end of it I would say, it’s good that Bankim stuck to his native language after this.