‘Subha‘ is a short story by Rabindranath Tagore.
Nobody understood Indian women better than Tagore in Literature. Tagore portrayed the everyday agonies of the women rather than questioning the wider question of feminism. In ‘Subha‘, Tagore addresses loneliness and lack of opportunity for women with auditory and speech impairment.
The title of the story is given after its central character, ‘Subha’. Her proper name is Subhasini which meant ‘soft-spoken’.
“WHEN the girl was given the name of Subhashini, who could have guessed that she would be dumb?”
Subha is the youngest of the three sisters of Banikantha’s family. The three sisters have rhyming names – Seukeshini, Suhasini and Subhasini.
The story is set in a small village called Chandipur, by the riverside in present-day West Bengal. There is beautiful description of a river flowing through the village, which I suppose would be a treat to read in original Bengali text, I found the flavour missing in the translated English version.
Subha’s parents had got elder two daughters married ‘with usual costs and difficulty.’ This social picture of India where girl’s parents are burdened with the expenditure and stress of marriage remains unaltered till now. The story is woven around this family, grappling with the question of getting their youngest daughter married, who is dumb and hence has a low prospect of finding suitors.
Tagore poignantly points how Subha’s inability to hear and speech lends her an invisibility of existence in society. People talk about her, around her as if she is not present. The parents’ burden of marrying off a deaf and mute girl supersedes their care for her anxieties and needs. Subha’s large eyes and trembling lips are described as the girl’s ability to communicate beyond words. But it seems no one cares to understand her and her mother’s abhorrence is described as,
“To a mother a daughter is a more closely intimate part of herself than a son can be; and a fault in her is a source of personal shame.”
Subha lived on the sidelines, after finishing her chores, she would go to the waterside or be with her two friends – Sarbbashi and Panguli, the two cows. Her loneliness found solace in a friendship with these cows, goats and a kitten. I understand that Tagore wanted to show the antipathy of the society, the family in particular to persons with disability while drawing the parallel between Subha and the domestic animals.
Another relationship that the story explores is between Subha and a young boy named Pratap. The boy is idle and spends time by the river by casting his fishing line. Subha usually sits at a distance to him. There is no communication between them. And, Pratap likes the silence as it does not interfere with his fishing. Though, there is never a direct speech on whether there was any affection between the two.
Once the villagers began to talk about the young unmarried girl at Banikantha’s home, Subha’s father left for a few days. On return, he said, “We must go to Calcutta”. This was unbearable for Subha, she was agonized to leave her home, her friends – the cows. She wept for Mother earth to keep her there but she had to leave with her family.
‘Fishing’ is used as a metaphor to show that Banikantha’s family was well off as they ate fish twice a week and then Pratap comments that Subha’s father has caught the bridegroom for her and then focuses on the fish.
In Calcutta, the prospective groom visits with his friend and finds the teary-eyed Subha suitable for marriage. He says, “Not so bad.” After marriage, he was to leave with the bride in the west for work. However, within ten days of marriage, Subha’s impairment is disclosed to all.
Tagore writes that Subha was not at fault, for she never deceived anyone. But leaves the reader pondering on what future might behold for Subha – the innocent voiceless village girl and now send back from her in-laws house. Gender plays an important role for the opportunities and in future possibilities. As woman, Subha is at a disadvantage which is further pulled down by her impairment.