Many of the stories in this edition were written between 1891 and 1901 when Tagore was living in solitude looking after the family estates in Shelidah, in what is now Bangladesh. During this period he was exposed to rural life for the first time, which he observed from his boathouse on the Padma River.
Common elements reoccur in these stories: the big issues in India such as sati, the caste system and child marriage as well as universal themes, which include father/daughter relationships, greed, the depiction of women and rural poverty. In all Tagore adopts a progressive approach creating poignant stories well ahead of his time. The collection can be divided into two parts, the first written in Shelidah ending in 1901 and those written later.
Running through the earlier stories are descriptive passages relating to the surrounding countryside, nature and their interplay with the characters. This abstract element is largely absent from the later stories in this collection. This helped to confirm the group’s opinion of the quality of the translation by Quayum. Some of the earlier stories were stilted, while the later stories, which lacked abstract descriptions, resulted in a more straightforward and satisfactory translation by Quayum.
The members of the group who had read several of the stories by different translators, attested to their literary quality and beauty; truer versions of Tagore’s work in translation.
It is said that the central character in the title story, Charulata, is based on Tagore’s relationship with his sister-in-law, Kadambari. They were close in age, had a playful friendship and a mutual love of literature. This lively association was depicted in Satyajit Ray’s exquisite film of this story renamed ‘The Lonely Wife’. You can watch the opening sequences here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPPgyzVBeak
Charulata is one of the most developed characters in the book. From child bride, we see her emerge as a woman living a lonely life of luxury ignored and taken for granted by her husband. Her love of literature helped her forge a close bond with her husband’s cousin Amal. Their relationship developed mainly from her side, plunging her into despair when Amal leaves to live in England. Yet she carries on, burying her emotions while creating a ‘secret temple of sorrow’, to emerge publicly as an obedient wife devoted to her husband.
Some discussion was given to the short story form. It is said that Tagore founded the short story form in Bengali literature. It is likely that he was influenced by, de Maupassant (1850-1893) and Chekov (1860-1904). Indeed, his brother Jyoti had translated short stories of de Maupassant from French to Bengali.
The big question of course is why has Tagore (1861-1941) endured and what is his legacy? Given the influence and scope of his life's work, this is not a question which many people could easily answer, nor would there be one definitive view.
Rabindranath Tagore, The myriad minded man by Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson