Grand, archetypal love stories, which become so famous over time that everyone knows them, tend to be tragedies. Romeo and Juliet does not end in happily ever after. Neither do Butterfly lovers get each others in this life, and Guinevere, king Arthur and Lancelot end up losing their lives or joining a monastery and end up causing the kingdom to fall. Weaver Girl and Cowherd at least get to gaze at each other across the Milky Way, and among the famous love pairs (or triangles) their sad fate is comparatively happy. In these stories love seems to be a disruptive force – which it no doubt has been in many traditional societies. Though, had the characters in these stories lived their lives without inconveniently falling in love, there would be no story. Imagine if Juliet felt no passion for Romeo but instead waited patiently for her parents to find a suitable match, got married in due time and was never troubled by anything except household worries and nosy in-laws!

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's Devdas is another iconic tale of love, loss, desperation and destruction, which has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of people for a century now. I came across this story in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's movie of the same name and it has taken me 15 years to get a copy of the original novel in my hands. One of my favorite movies, I admit. The story! The characters! The music! SRK! And the sheer beauty of it! How many tears I have cried over Parvati's wedding scene, over and over again…

The original is a slim book, an afternoon read easily. But it feels to me as if the book is still unfolding in my brain, days after reading. While the basic story of the 2002 film is undoubtedly the same, the glitter and melodrama of the movie are in stark contrast with the outwardly plain and emotionally even harsh book. No easy emotional gratification in the book!

When there is no glamour and no catchy songs, the indecision and self-centeredness of Devdas is harder to accept, but at the same time more convincing. He is such as he is, I could imagine meeting that kind of melancholy and self-destructive young man even in the streets of Helsinki, though his character would present differently in different environment. He is not a mythical hero, nor a stylishly dark anti-hero, he is a faulty but realistic human being.
Fate gives him chances, but he is too weak or too slow or too full of self-pity to take them, he keeps on punishing himself and others around him for his initial mistake. He can't make decisions, and later is unable to accept the outcome of his inaction. We just have to accept Chandramukhi's description of Devdas's  rogue charm – except of a few scenes in his childhood, we see it only in the passion he arouses in Paro and Chandramukhi.

While Devdas spreads his misfortune to anyone within his influence, Paro and Chandramukhi both channel their unconsummated love to charitable work and good deeds. Chandramukhi is almost too good, she supports an entire village, walks across fields until her feet bleed to find information about Devdas, goes back to her prostitute life to save him… the modern reader struggles to accept her complete unselfishness. The only glimpse of a fault in her character comes from her own mouth, when she remembers her first love and a petty fight about a piece of jewelry.

There are many details in the book I don't understand. Why is marrying neighbors shameful? Is black-bordered sari with brocade blouse inelegant? Did the author invent incredibly touching "I would have held the heaven in my left hand" or is it a traditional phrase? But while many details are lost on me, still it is no way an impenetrable story. And one which no doubt will stand many more readings to come.