On April 21, 1884, Kadambari Devi, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in-law, committed suicide with an overdose of opium — four months after the poet-laureate married Mrinalini Devi. Kadambari Devi played an extraordinary part in young Tagore’s life, inspiring him to write many poems, but their relationship has been shrouded in secrecy. What is known, however, is that Tagore was distraught after her death. “She, my Queen, has died and my world has shut against the door of its inner apartment of beauty which gives on the real taste of freedom,” he wrote in a letter.
Here, author Kiran Manral writes about the relationship that could have been, had it had different circumstances:
I must confess that I am a complete sucker for love stories. I love the thrust and parry of the initial attraction, the declaration of love, the rush of emotional catharsis that reading them give me. But unrequited love stories, they’re different. They conjure up all the repressed emotions of being rejected, of heartbreak, of losing out to the prettier girl, of the breakups that didn’t make sense when you think about them years down the line, or the persistent beat of the “What if…” that lingers on in a ghostly chamber of the heart. We all love a love story. But we love an unrequited love story even more.
There is a quaint pull to a love story that has no happy ending, where the lovers, drawn together by the diktat of their hearts are forced apart thanks to circumstance and society. The bitter aftertaste of the ‘What might have been’ tinges the story, long after ‘The End’ has been read – a niggling disquiet in one’s mind, a wanting to rearrange circumstance and happenings to make the fates conspire.
When researching the love stories for the True Love Stories series, the little-known story of Kadambari broke my heart. Kadambari Devi, the wife of Rabindranath Tagore’s older brother Jyotirindranath Tagore, is a figure wreathed in shadow and mystery. We don’t know much about her. All we have to go by are the sketchy details put down about her by the poet laureate himself, and the grainy sepia prints that searches on the internet throw up. In these, her face is pensive, looking aside, unwilling to make eye contact with the camera. She’s dressed in a dark saree, draped in the fashionable style of the times, edged with lace, worn with a full sleeved blouse. Drop earrings in her ears, a slight curl along her hairline, evidence of feminine vanity at play. Yet there is a sadness in her expression, or perhaps is it my gaze that attributes a sadness to her?
She was married at the age of ten, to a husband who was almost a decade older than her. Neglected, alone most of the time, with only the young Rabindranath for company, would it come as a surprise that she turned to him for emotional solace. It was a relationship that would never be spoken of or acknowledged, but intense and overwhelming all the same. What would have led her to take that overdose of opium barely a few months after her father-in-law got Rabindranath married? We will never know what ran through her mind in those last minutes, how she steeled her nerve and slid into oblivion. All we know is that she lives on, immortalised through the poet’s words, through his writing, and through his works of art.
You can read the incredible true story of ‘Tagore and Kadambari Devi’ here.