A daughter named Nirupama is born to a family with five sons. The father of this family, Ramsundar Mitra, searches high and low and only finds one potential husband for his daughter that he likes. He chooses a son from the noble Raybahadur family, and the family demands a 10,000 rupee dowry. Ramsundar accepts the dowry, not thinking twice.
But come the wedding day, Ramsundar has only raised 2,000 or 3,000 rupees of the total dowry. Ramsundar begs Raybahadur not to disgrace him by refusing his daughter on her wedding day, but Raybahadur ruthlessly demands the dowry. Nonetheless, the groom comes and says that he will indeed marry Nirupama, and the wedding goes on, a gloomy and joyless occasion.
Nirupama is treated terribly in her new home, especially by her mother-in-law, who is constantly denigrating the quality of Nirupama’s family and insulting her personally. Ramsundar assumes a massive amount of guilt for not paying his daughter’s dowry, and comes up with all number of schemes for collecting the money to pay to Raybahadur. He almost sells his own family’s home until his three sons—who live there with their wives and children — stop him.
Nirupama wants Ramsundar to take her home for a while, but Ramsundar fears that he has to pay the money owed first. He suffers indignities to collect 3,000 rupees and brings it to Raybahadur, but Raybahadur laughs off the amount of money offered and, on top of that, refuses to let Nirupama leave. Deep in shame, Ramsundar grows even weaker and starts to ignore his daughter’s letters asking for him to visit.
We see other members of Ramsundar’s family asking for small things, such as a grandson asking for a pushcart to play with and a granddaughter asking for a dress for puja. But Ramsundar is obsessed with getting the money to pay back the dowry. When he finally sells the house without his sons’ knowledge and brings the money to Raybahadur, Nirupama refuses to let Ramsundar pay it, saying that it would bring her shame to be equated with nothing more than that longstanding debt.
Eventually, Nirupama falls deathly ill, and the Raybahadur family doesn’t call a doctor until she’s on her death bed. Very soon after she dies, her mother-in-law calls her widower husband and tells him to come home immediately to marry a new bridge she has found. The new dowry will be 20,000 rupees.
This is a heartbreaking tale about how debt relations color interpersonal relationships, as the social contract of debt parlays into a kind of moral indebtedness. As is common in Tagore’s short stories, the characters who demand money to conduct common human relations are portrayed as endlessly callous, and as is also the case in a story such as "Thoughtlessness," it’s mainly the powerful who are portrayed as obsessed with money.
What Tagore does an excellent job showing is how in this moral relationship, the debtor opts into a role as an abject, destitute figure whose entire life revolves around clearing a debt. It’s a relationship that anthropologist David Graeber explores in his fascinating history Debt: The First 5000 Years. In that book, he talks about how as global modernity developed, debt transformed from a simple financial reality into a kind of ethical and moral issue, whereby people in debt came to be seen as lesser humans than the people they were indebted to.
This is clearly a dynamic that Tagore is interested in, especially within the scope of traditional Indian class politics. While Tagore doesn’t mention the caste system in this story, it’s clear that Ramsundar and Raybahadur are of two different classes, and Ramsundar attempts to elevate his family to a higher class by getting his daughter to marry into a higher class family.
Instead, he not only calcifies the current class disparity, but sinks his family into poverty, and therefore a lower class. Throughout, so much of what makes Ramsundar a pathetic, even tragic character is the fact that he has really taken to heart the ethical and social components of debt, even going so far as to ruin his relationship with the very daughter he was trying to buy dignity for.