More than anything else, Rabindranath Tagore’s short story about the execution of a woman wrongfully convicted of murder because of the ill-considered impulsive response of her husband to his brother’s murder of his wife tells us that the realities of life in India remain tainted by ancient customs and practices that place women in an inferior social position relative to that of men. As with much Indian literature, “The Punishment” is an indictment of Indian culture with regard to the treatment of women, many of whom are subjected to arranged marriages and are routinely perceived as inferior beings. As the tragic chain of events that drives Tagore’s story forward proceeds, Chidam, who has allowed his loving wife Chandara to stand accused of murder, and whose pending execution is deemed by her preferable to continuing to live with the husband who betrayed her, explains his impulsive action to Ramlochan: “If I lose my wife, I can get another, but if my brother is hanged, how I can I replace him?” This, sadly, is the reality in which Tagore lived (he died in 1941, but the cultural influences on his work is very similar to other “modernist” Indian writers). Earlier in “The Punishment,” Tagore provides insights into the relationship between the genders and the common manner in which domestic confrontations and abuse were treated with complete disregard. Referring to the failure of neighbors to respond to the sounds of domestic turmoil in their midst, Tagore describes the community reaction to this latest conflict as entirely routine:
“. . .when they heard the shrill of the screams of the women, they would say ‘They’re at it again’… no one asks why… [and] no one was at all curious to investigate the cause.”
Certainly, India was, and is, not alone in maintaining a culture that is emotionally and physically abusive towards women; such treatment is common throughout much of the world. Tagore’s story, however, depicts his native culture with brutal honesty. As Chandara is being prepared for her execution, and asked if she will consent to a visit from Chidam, to whom she was once completely devoted, she responds, “to hell with him.” That she accepts an unjust execution as preferable to returning a her husband is as telling an indication of moral rot in a society as one can imagine.