Brothers Dukhiram Rui and Chidam Rui not only work in the fields together, but live together on the same land. Every day, while they are out, their wives Radha and Chandara quarrel loudly with each other, and the whole village hears their screaming. Since they are all of a lower caste, life is hard for them—often Dukhiram and Chidam are cheated out of their rightful wages for their work.
One day, Dukhiram returns home from work famished. When he demands food, his wife Radha chastises him, asking how she can cook him food when he hasn’t supplied her with anything to cook him. Worn out by the day and angered by this exchange, Dukhiram impulsively stabs Radha in the head, and she dies shortly after. Their 18-month-old son wails in terror.
When the brothers’ landlord Ramlochan Chakrabarti comes by to inquire about the rent payment that’s due, he finds the bloody scene and a despondent Dukhiram. Chidam, in an effort to protect his brother, tells Ramlochan that his wife Chandara killed Radha during one of their spats. Ramlochan believes Chidam and gives him legal advice about how to protect his wife. And with that, Chidam is trapped in his lie.
Chidam ultimately coerces Chandara into confessing the murder to the police, claiming that he has a plan for getting her out of the mess. When the police come, Chandara indeed admits to the murder, but doesn’t follow Chandara’s plan. She decides that if her husband is going to betray her to make her take the blame for something Dukhiram did, then she’d rather be hanged than continue to live with Chidam.
When her trial rolls around, both Chidam and Dukhiram confess the truth to the judge. But when Ramlochan tells the judge that Chidam’s story closely resembles one that Chidam proposed telling to protect his wife, the brothers’ confessions are discounted as false. On the other hand, Chandara sticks to her confession that she murdered Radha, and this is taken as the truth. At the gallows, when a doctor asks if Chandara wants to see her husband one last time, she says “To hell with him!”
“Punishment” is an incisive morality tale about the way that a lie can quickly develop a life of its own. Tagore ingeniously crafts a story that at first seems like it’s going to focus on one version of violence, but instead is enveloped by another. While the story hinges on an impulsive and fatal act of domestic violence, the violence that becomes the story’s focal point is the way Chidam’s lie disgraces his wife and destroys his marriage.
Domestic roles are a key theme here. Chidam’s and Chandara’s marriage is portrayed as one that follows the typical husband-wife marital script because of a curious inversion of fidelity — they’re each suspicious of the other’s flirtatious tendencies so decide to keep one another on a short leash.
When Chidam upends their relationship to protect Dukhiram from the fallout of a domestic transgression he committed, Chidam’s marriage is turned upside down. What Chidam underestimates in his attempt to engineer Chandara’s acquittal is the very fierce independence that made him want to keep Chandara close in the first place. Chandara ultimately chooses death over marriage, forsaking the domestic bond in the most dramatic and definitive way imaginable.