Living or Dead by Rabindranath Tagore

I have always felt that writing an effective short story is much more challenging than writing a novel. While the novel is a full canvas which can be painted in as many vivid colors and themes, as the painter desires, a short story is restricted to the narrow borders of the canvas. It definitely requires more skill to paint a beautiful intricate border, crying for attention as compared to the entire painting.

Moreover, in case of a novel, a reader is ready to suffer a few obscure pages, as build up to a great story, or, in anticipation of a good twist. But, in the limited horizon of a short story, the writer has to entice his reader in the beginning itself, lest he may leave the story in the middle.

However, in the deft hands of a master creator of Rabindranath Tagore’s stature, a short story becomes much more fulfilling and emotionally binding than a novel can ever be. Though, I like most of his work, be it novels, poems or short stories; “Living Or Dead” is one of my favorites.

It is a sensitive story about love, betrayal and superstitions. Divided into four parts, the story traces the journey of a widow Kadambini from a loving, caring aunt to a dead, dreaded ghost.

The story opens with a small introduction about the Ranihat zamindar family, where lives Kadambini, a widow, with no husband, son or father. But, that does not stop her from loving her nephew as her own son. She is essential in the household, as long as she performs her duties of an aya well. But, one day her heart stops and everyone in the house abandons her as a dead corpse, left to be cremated by servants.

However, death also proves illusory for Kadambini, who never got anything easily in life. She becomes a living dead, with no house and no companions. She desperately tries to evade herself from human touch, as she considers herself a ghost.

But, in a sudden twist, she is encountered by her nephew again. She comes back to her senses, and realizes that she is not dead, but living. However, she is not able to make others understand it and has to die again to prove that she is living.

The story is written in the simplest of words, and yet left a profound impact on me. The pathos of Kadambini vacillating in the netherworld of living, while masquerading as a dead person was heart wrenching. The story exposes the selfishness of our society. The moment a woman’s husband dies, she is also declared half-dead. She becomes a burden, useful only as a servant and is treated as a lifeless item, which can be thrown out, when family gets tired of seeing it.

I think “Living or Dead” is one of the best examples of how to emphasize on social issues without preaching hoarsely. I just loved the story for its terseness and clarity. It is a satire on society and impressed me with its ability to hint upon the insensitivity of us as fellow human beings and our callousness in ignoring a living woman, but showing reverence to the dead ones, especially when they are supposed to have become ghosts. It is a thought provoking jerk essential for people living in the fast tracks of mind numbing human race, where a person is valued only for his or her money and the basic humanitarian sympathies have taken a nose dive.

Despite the restricted canvas, Tagore has embellished his painting with every possible hue. His ability to portray the functioning of human mind is fabulous and he has proved his mettle as a story writer again in this precious gem. A must read if you are a Tagore fan, and if you are not his fan, then read it to become one!


  1. Pingback: Contemporary Indian Short Stories: Theme; Single women | Review

Leave a Reply