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Love And Death In Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War And Peace’

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Excerpts from Rosemary Edmonds’ translation of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War And Peace’ for Penguin Classics.

The tragic tale of Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostov that is the centerpiece of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpieceWar and Peace’ is a brilliant depiction of the fallibility of life, the sublimity of love and serenity in death. Andrei was a middle-aged widower and Natasha was still in her teens when their love blossomed. While Natasha’s parents welcomed their romance, Andrei’s father was scornful about the match, with that ‘chit of a girl’ from a family of no fortune, or rank of consequence. However, he gives in, subject to the condition that Andrei should put it off for a year and stay abroad during that period. “And then if your love or passion or obduracy – whatever you choose – is still as great, marry!” says the old man.

After their secret engagement with the consent of the Rostovs, Natasha’s parents, Andrei tells his betrothed,  “Hard as this year will be for me, it will give you time to be sure of your own heart. I ask you to make me happy at the end of a year, but you are free: and should you discover that you do not love me, or if you should come to love…”

Why do you say that?” Natasha interrupted him. “You know that from the very day you first came to Otradnoe I have loved you,” she cried, quite convinced that she was speaking the truth.

Thereafter, as Andrei went abroad, “flushed and agitated she (Natasha) wandered about the home that whole day. Though she did not weep; but for several days sat in her room, not crying but taking no interest in anything and only saying from time to time: “Oh, why did he go?But a fortnight after his departure, to the surprise of those around her, she just as suddenly recovered from her mental sickness and became her old self again, only with a change in her normal physiognomy, as a child’s face changes after a long illness”.

At last, as Andrei’s enforced exile was about to end, Natasha, as fate had willed it, gets swayed by the seductive charms of Anatole Kuragin, a wayward youth she happens to come across. “Oh why may I not love them both at once?” she kept asking herself, having reached the depths of bewilderment. “Only so could I be perfectly happy, but now I have to choose, and I can’t be happy if I let either of them go. One thing is certain,” she thought, “to tell Prince Andrei what has happened, or to hide it from him, is equally impossible. But with the other nothing is spoilt. But must I really part for ever from the happiness of Prince Andrei’s love, which I have been living in for so long.”

Thus, on an impulse, she tries to elope with Anatole, though unsuccessfully. However, the shock of it all had a chastening effect on her. In time, when Andrei returns to claim her hand, he is greeted by the scandalous news. Bitter and broken, he desists from meeting her and instead joins the Russian army to fight the Napoleonic aggression. However, he ends up critically wounded and is brought to Moscow just as the gentry are fleeing the city towards the hinterland. Destiny, however, gives him a berth in one of the carts of the entourage of Count Rostov, Natasha’s father.

At length, when Natasha comes to know about his presence in their camp, she tentatively steps into the tent where the wounded Andrei lay thinking, “Yes – love (he reflected again, quite lucidly). But not that love which loves for something, to gain something or because of something, but the love I know for the first time when, dying, I saw my enemy and yet loved him. I experienced the love which is the very essence of the soul, the love which requires no object. And I feel that blessed feeling now too. To love one’s neighbours, to love one’s enemies, to love everything – to love God in all His manifestations. Human love serves to love those dear to us but to love one’s enemies we need divine love. And that is why I knew such joy when I felt I loved that man. What became of him? Is he alive? … Human love may turn to hatred but divine love cannot change. Nothing, not even death can destroy it. It is the very nature of the soul. Yet how many people I hated in my life? And of them all none did I love and hate as much as her.”

He vividly pictured Natasha to himself, not as he had pictured her in the past with her charms only, which gave him such delight, but for the first time imagining her soul. And he understood her feelings, her suffering, her shame, and remorse. Now, for the first time, he realised all the cruelty of his rejection of her, the cruelty of breaking with her. “If only I might see her once more. Just to look into those eyes and say…” In time, finding her near him “he fetched a sigh of relief, smiled and held out his hand”. And she sought his forgiveness for what she “did to him in a scarcely audible, broken whisper”. In response, he said, “raising her face with his hand so as to look into her eyes, “I love you more, more than before.”

While Natasha tended to Andrei with love and care till his inevitable death, Pierre Bezuhov upon learning about his friend’s demise mused, “Can he have died in the bitter mood he was in then? Is it possible that the meaning of life was not revealed to him before he died?” At length, Pierre, who had a heart of gold, finds the answers when he hears about his mate’s last days from Natasha.

Yes, Yes and so….?” Pierre kept saying as he lent towards her with his whole body, listening earnestly. “Yes; so he found peace? He grew gentler? With his whole soul he was always striving for one thing only – to be completely good – so he could not have been afraid of death. The faults he had – if he had any – were not of his making. So he did soften? … What a happy thing that he saw you again,” he added, suddenly turning to Natasha and looking at her with eyes full of tears.

Yes, that was a great happiness,” she said in her quiet voice with its deep chest notes. “For me, it was happiness, indeed.”

And he … he … he said he was wishing for just that at the very moment I entered the room…” she said.

This article was first published here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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