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Discovering Rabindranath Tagore

Somapti, followed by Med o roudro by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Read hereafter for French and English titles.

Whereas two actors, the sun and the cloud were playing they game in the whole sky that was their stage, other countless plays were given beneath, in the various places of the world’s theatre.

I’d never heard of Rabindranath Tagore before reading Himadri’s post about him. I thought I should discover this great Indian writer and what a surprise, my favourite collection of books for discovery, Folio 2€, includes a small book of two stories by Tagore. The two stories are Somapti (La petite mariée) and Meg o roudro (Nuage et soleil). As always when I read foreign books in French, I have to look for their English title to write my review. Here, I couldn’t find them, so I asked Himadri to help me. Here is his answer:

Hello Emma, I’m afraid the only edition I have of Tagore’s stories in English is the collection in Penguin translated by William Radice, and Radice doesn’t include either of these stories. However, in Satyajit Ray dramatised the story “Samapti” in the film Teen Kanya. This film was a portmanteau of adaptations of three of Tagore’s short stories, and was filmed in 1961 to celebrate Tagore’s centenary.

“Megh” literally means “cloud” (or “clouds” – in Bengali, the form of the noun does not differentiate between singular and plural), and “roudra” refers to sunlight when it is particularly strong or even oppressive. “Samapti” literally means “ending”, but can also be taken to mean “fulfilment”.

Now you have as much information as me and let’s move to the stories.

Sompati.

Apurbo comes back to his village after passing his exams in Calcutta. When he arrives, he runs into the facetious Mrinmayi, whose face had stayed with him during school time. Mrinmayi is playful like a child, graceful as a fawn. She laughs freely, acts as she pleases despite the reprobation of her community. She’s alive and Apurbo loves her for her liveliness although she is much less educated than him.

Apurbo’s mother suggests it’s time for him to get married and has actually already selected a bride. She’s a silent, submissive and scared young woman. When he talks to her “no anwer comes out of this pile of shyness covered with clothes and jewels.” The bride chosen by his mother seems dead on her feet. Apurbo is inflexible: he will only marry Mrinmayi and his mother surrenders. Mrinmayi’s family doesn’t ask her what she wants and they are promptly married.

Marrying Mrinmayi against her will is like putting a wild flower into a box: she withers. Her mother-in-law wants to turn her into a proper bride. She balks, unwilling to comply to social rules and give up her freedom. I won’t tell more but there is a lot in this 50 pages story.

Mrinmayi symbolizes the condition of the Hindu woman of that time. She’s not the master of her life. A life of obedience is all she can expect: obedience to her family and then obedience to her husband and his relatives. She doesn’t have the right to be herself, to live in her home and choose her husband. But the men aren’t free either: Apurbo needs to sneak out to have some alone time with her. This tale explores the mystery of feeling, how they grow and how we don’t always love a person who seems right for us according to his/her education or social position.  

Meg o roudro

Giribala is a 10 year old girl. As a girl, she doesn’t have access to education and however loves to learn. When she is 8, she persuades Sashibhusan to teach her classes. He has a degree in law and has been sent to this village to manage his father’s real estate. He’s solitary and studying is what he really enjoys. He lacks the social skills to succeed in running the estate. He’s so shy that the villagers think he’s haughty. Giribala is his only friend.

Once he witnesses how Giribala’s father Harakumer gets harassed by a passing sahib. Indeed, Harakumer has refused to provide four kilos of butter for the Englishman’s dogs. Sahibhusan is most upset by this abuse of authority and persuades Harakumer to go into trial. But things aren’t so easy in colonial India.

This short story is more openly political than Sompati. I wonder if Sashi doesn’t look like young Tagore. Multatuli in Java wasn’t far from my mind. It describes the same mechanisms: the power of the white man built on the corruption of the local elites and on fear. No has ever seen or heard anything when it comes to report it to the court.

Shashi has a political conscience and it will cost him a lot. When he’s put into jail, he states “Prison is welcome. Iron bars don’t lie, whereas this freedom we have outside disappoints us and gets us into all kinds of trouble. And if we talk about good company, liars and cowards are comparatively less numerous inside because there’s less room. Outside, their number is a lot higher.”  I was sad for him that his condition was such unbearable to him that prison was a relief.

I’ve read Tagore in French and I can’t tell if the translation is faithful or not. In French, Tagore has a very poetical prose. These two stories have the same setting, small villages in Bengal. He writes very politely, sweetly with a sort of innocence. In that he reminds me of his contemporary Charles-Ferninand Ramuz. Like in Ramuz, I could feel an immense fondness for his country and its common people. His stories exhale a sort of simplicity, a naïve description of young hearts confronted to social rules. Only the landscapes are heavenly. Under the soft words, the lovely description of nature, he nonetheless describes the violence of this rural life. People are as corrupt, mean, weak and narrow-minded as everywhere else. It is first the lifeless destiny of Hindu women and then the constant fear due to the English rule, leading to insupportable behaviours. Tagore was a pacifist, a humanist and supported Gandhi’s fight. It filters through these stories.  

He shows us that poetry doesn’t prevent lucidity and the other way round, that social cristicism can be associated to a wonderful style. I really enjoyed the combination of the two.  You can find Tagore’s short stories in Penguin Classics and on Project Gutenberg.

Thanks Himadri!

  1. July 29, 2011 at 2:07 am

    I wonder if they’re on the kindle…

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  2. July 29, 2011 at 2:13 am

    Ok FREE:The King of the dark Chamber
    The Fugitive
    Fruit-Gathering
    Sadhana
    The Post Office
    Glimpses of Bengal
    Stories from Tagore
    My Reminiscences
    The Home and the World
    The Spirit of Japan
    Songs of Kabir
    Stray Birds
    The Gardener
    Chitra (play)
    Creative Unity

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    • July 29, 2011 at 8:13 am

      I knew they were there, I checked on Project Gutenberg but I couldn’t find the two I’ve read.
      I wonder how is his version of The Post Office.

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  3. July 29, 2011 at 2:14 am

    The Cycle of Spring
    Gitanjali
    Mashi and Other stories
    The Hungry Stones and Other stories

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  4. July 29, 2011 at 5:25 am

    I like his writing. My grandmother left me a few of his books but I haven’t read them all. Seems as if he was extremely fashionable in the 50s. I agree, he combines a few elements which makes a rounded whole that can not be read like this elsewhere.

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    • July 29, 2011 at 8:21 am

      Are your books in French?
      Do you think he was fashionable in the 50s because of the wave of Independance in the colonies?

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      • July 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm

        No, they are from my maternal grandmother, she read German and Italian, they are in German. I have no idea where they are at the moment… I’ll try to find them on the weekend. The translation didn’t strike me as pseudo-Biblical. I would have noticed because I’m allergic to that.

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  5. July 29, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Glad you enjoyed these stories. Unlike his poems, which are extraordinary, Tagore’s stories are, I think, quite variable in quality, but at their best they are very good indeed. The film director Satyajit Ray revered Tagore, and turned to his works for the films “Teen Kanya” (a compilation of three short stories: http://video.fnac.com/a3312344/Trois-Filles-Anil-Chatterjee-DVD-Zone-2); “Charulata”, which Ray himself thought his best film (http://video.fnac.com/a1679855/Charulata-Madhabi-Mukherjee-DVD-Zone-2), and “Ghare-Baire”, an adaptation of Tagore’s most overtly political novel (http://video.fnac.com/a1679855/Charulata-Madhabi-Mukherjee-DVD-Zone-2).

    Tagore and Gandhi were the most prominent and well-known Indians of their generation, and while there was a mutual admiration, they didn’t always see eye to eye, and relations between the two were frequently strained. Tagore’s natural instincts were certainly towards pacifism, but towards the end of his life, he did accept the necessity of fighting against Fascism, and in one famous poem, commended those engaged in that fight. There is a fascinating essay by Isaiah Berlin on Tagore’s politics in the volume “A Sense of Reality” ( http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sense-Reality-Studies-Ideas-History/dp/0712673679/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1311932569&sr=1-1#sf ).

    There’s also a very interesting article here on Tagore (http://www.countercurrents.org/culture-sen281003.htm) by Amartya Sen, the Nobel-Prize winning economist.

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    • July 29, 2011 at 11:04 am

      I’m afraid that translation doesn’t do any good to poetry. That’s why I chose short stories.

      Thank you so much for all the links and especially for the article. I printed it and I’ll read it later; it sounds fascinating. I’ll see if I can find the films at the library, I know they have Indian movies.

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  6. July 29, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Tagore became quite popular in Europe in the 1910s and 1920s, his fame resting on his own translation “Gitanjali” (although the poems he translated here were not the poems in the Bengali collection of that name). I have never liked those translations: they were written in a sort of pseudo-Biblical prose that didn’t, to my mind, reflect the power of the originals. But Yeats loved them, and wrote the introduction to the translation. Wilfred Owen had copied out translations of Tagore’s poems in his private notebooks. And the composer Zemlinsky set German translations of Tagore’s poems in his “Lyric Symphony”. Even as late as the 1960s, Anna Akhmatova translated some of his poems into Russian (from the English).

    Tagore’s own translations have not lasted too well. There are modern translations, but it’s hard for anyone in thrall to the originals to comment on them objectively.

    I’d certainly recommend William Radice’s translation of the short stories published by Penguins.

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    • July 29, 2011 at 11:09 am

      I’ve read that Gide translated him into French, probably from the English. You know the French expression “le téléphone arabe”? That’s what translations of translations make me think of.

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  7. A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah
    August 3, 2011 at 11:06 am

    NOBEL PRIZE FOR RABINDRANATH TAGORE IN 1913- SOME UNTOLD STORIES

    Rabindranath Tagore was the greatest of all great Bengali writers. But it is sad to note that the learned Bengali readers and writers kept many facts about Tagore’s winning of Nobel Prize in 1913 are kept secret. Some such facts are given below:

    A. Rabindranath Tagore was more than many Nobel Laureates. But his winning of the Nobel Prize was a political consolation for the Hindu terrorist movements launched in Bengal in the early days of the 20th century.

    B. Rabindranth Tagore was not the recommendation of the Nobel Committee. The Nobel Committee named somebody else. The name of Rabindranath Tagore was not even in the short list of the Nobel Committee.

    C. Rabindranth Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize neither as a Bengalee nor as an Indian. He was awarded the prize as an “Anglo-Indian”.

    D. Rabindranth Tagore never made any so-called prize receiving speech.

    E. Rabindranth Tagore only sent a two line prize acceptance message.

    F. The prize was accepted by the British Ambassador and it was delivered to the poet in Calcutta.

    G. It appears from the information, now available, that Rabindranath Tagore was awarded Nobel Prize in consideration of his successful attempt to intermingle the Western Christian-Hindu philosophy.

    I shall very much welcome exact and objective reply from the esteemed readers of this Group.

    I have been planning to publish a very small book on the subject: Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore in 1913: some untold stories. All the points raised in my message are based on facts. But I would like to get more information on the subject. Help from others will greatly help in the publication of the book with more information.

    However, for the information of all concerned, I would like to point out that Rabindranath was a Brahmo ( a reformed group of Brahmins of the so-called Hindu community of India).

    The word ‘Hindu’ never existed to identify any religion before the emergence of the British Raj in India. It was invented by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in collaboration with the British colonial rulers. This the Britishers did with a view to getting the united massive force together against the defeated Muslim rulers of the then India.

    As such, until the early last century, we find that 99% civil servants, lawyers, judges, engineers, doctors, professors etc. under the British Raj in India were from the Hindu community only. The fourth class employees like peons, messengers, bearers or guards are not included.

    Brahmos allowed the conversion of even the low caste Sudras. But in fact, all Brahmos were Hindus. This was well understood by the British Rulers of India.

    Rabindranath Tagore was not very vast in literary productions in the first decade of the last century. In fact, excepting the limited 250-copy English edition of Gitanjali, hardly there was any English version of Rabindranath Tagore’s other books. Not to speak of any Asian, until 1913 even any American was not awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    Rabindranath Tagore was in the spiritual lineage of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and others. In the lyrical lineage he was obviously reflecting D.L. Roy, Lalon Fakir, Atul Prasad Sen and others.

    Rabindranath Tagore was a pro-British wealthy successor to the vast property left by his grand father Dwarakanath Tagore. In the first decade of the 20th Century he was the leading-most Bengalee intellectual friend of the British Rulers in India.

    During the last decades of the 19th century and in the early 20th century there were popular uprisings, known as the ‘Terroist Movement’ in Bengal. Khudiram Bose was young recruit by such leaders of ‘Terroist Movement’ in Bengal. The British Rulers were very much disturbed by the widespread activities of the volunteers of ‘Terroist Movement’. They needed to pacify the Bengalees. Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore was an attempt in that direction.

    Rabindranath Tagore was not known to the West in the first decade of the 20thth century; hardly any body could have had access to his English edition of Gitanjali; this is obvious from the fact that Rabindranath Tagore was named in the short list of the Nobel Committee for the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. It was said that Rabindranath Tagore was knwn to the Swidish Academy as an ‘Anglo-Indian poet’ and not either as an Indian or as a Bengalee.

    In addition, Rabindranath Tagore did not visit Sweden or Norway before or after being awarded the Nobel Prize. The British Ambassador received the prize for and on behalf of Rabindranath Tagore and it was confidentially delivered to Rabindranath Tagore at his Jorasanko residence in Calcutta.
    Had there been no Khudiram Bose or ‘Terrorist Movement’, perhaps there would have been no Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore. Even hundreds of Gitanjali could never open the passage of Nobel Prize for Rabindranath Tagore for Literature in 1913.

    Of course, the high diplomatic circles and political decision makers in London did not like to take any risk and responsibilities and they decided, more or less during the same period, to shift the capital of the British Raj from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911.

    A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah
    (Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh &
    formerly Assistant Professor of English in
    Jagannath College, Dhaka)
    P.O. 351, Dhaka-1000
    BANGLADESH

    Email: shamsuddoulah@yahoo.com

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    • August 3, 2011 at 1:59 pm

      Hello, thank you very much for dropping by and leaving this fascinating and enlightening comment. I’m shallow enough to ask you how you found my blog, I wasn’t aware I had readers in this part of the world.

      As you may have understood from my post (and it’s clear on my “About” page anyway), I’m French, not British. The colonial history of India is mostly part of my history as a citizen of this world. It’s not part of the history of my country – well, except for Pondichéry – , I have already enough trouble understanding what the French did in Africa, Indochina and in islands like La Martinique. So I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance and I want to say that the information you brought are much welcome.

      However, this blog is a literary blog and as a reader, I tend to approach writers through their work. Unlike other readers, I’m not much interested in writers’ biographies, I think that sometimes they interfere with my vision of their books. I wanted to discover Tagore because I’m always curious about other cultures.

      From your comment, I also understand I should have tagged Tagore in Bengladeshi literature. I don’t know what to do with that because Bengladesh didn’t exist when Tagore was alive. I have the same problem with European writers from Central Europa. Is Kafka Czech or German literature?

      About the Nobel Prize. I’m a very practical person. According to you and Himadri, Tagore is an immense writer. He’s still read and studied in his country nowadays. Seen from my window, his work deserved the Nobel Prize much more than Anatole France who won it in 1921 and that nobody would remember anymore if there weren’t so many streets that bear his name everywhere in France. If he won his prize for political reasons at the time, it’s a pity. What matters for me now is that he actually deserved it and that it helps him being translated into various languages. It helps this writer reach immortality. As a literature lover, that’s what matters to me.

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      • August 3, 2011 at 10:15 pm

        Tagore was born in Calcutta (Kolkata) which, since independence in 1947, has been in India. So it is reasonable, I think, to refer to Tagore was an Indian poet.

        Of course, during Tagore’s own lifetime, the entire Indian subcontinent was under British Rule, so, strictly speaking, there was no India and no Bangladesh – not as political entities, at any rate – although the sub-continent was generally known as “India”.

        In 1947, with independence, the state of Bengal was partitioned: the Western part of Bengal (in which Tagore was born) remained in India, while the Eastern part became East Pakistan. And thus it remained till 1971 when, after a civil war, East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh. Bangladesh as a political entity certainly did not exist in Tagore’s time, and the term “Bangladesh” (it literally means “Bengali land” or “country of Bengal”) would have referred to the whole of Bengal – i.e. to both the country of Bangladesh as it is now, and also to the part of Bengal that is in India.

        But I really don’t know that any of this – or, for that matter, the politics surrounding the awarding of the Nobel Prize – is in any way relevant to Tagore’s literary achievement. True, many great writers have been awared the Nobel Prize (Yeats, Eliot, Mann, Pasternak,etc.); but equally, many great writers have breen overlooked. (The list of writers who may have won the Nobel Prize but didn’t includes the likes of Tolstoy, Ibsen, Henry James, Conrad, Joyce, Proust, Akhmatova, Rilke, Wallace Stevens …) I don’t know that receiving the Nobel Prize is in itself any great indicator of literary greatness. What matters with any writer s the quality of their literary achievement, irrespective of whether or not they have won the Prize.

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  8. August 3, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    I should have made it clear in my comment above that in my final paragraph, I was agreeing with Emma about the Nobel Prize: whatever politics surrounded the award is irrelevant as far as appreciation of literary quality is concerned.

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  9. A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah
    October 23, 2011 at 8:23 am

    I appreciate the comments and observations of your learned readers with reference to my short observations entitled: NOBEL PRIZE FOR RABINDRANATH TAGORE IN 1913- SOME UNTOLD STORIES.

    Though negative in conclusion, the comments and observations are well presented.

    We the Bengalees, often look at the Bengali literature only as Bengalees. Remember, comparatively Bengali literature is small and mostly developed in imitation of the Western literature which reached Calcutta in English. Rabindranath Tagore was surely a great writer of the World Literature and was more than many Nobel Laureates.

    But the fact is that the politics played awarding Nobel Prize to him by manipulations and nearly 70+% popularity of Rabindranath is based on his obtaining Nobel Prize alone. Today, even in India, excepting West Bengal, Rabindranath is hardly read. With the passage of time it is quite natural with any author, unless he is of classic universal appeal.

    Thanks once again for your comments.

    A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah
    (Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh &
    formerly Assistant Professor of English in
    Jagannath College, Dhaka)
    P.O. 351, Dhaka-1000
    BANGLADESH

    Email: shamsuddoulah@yahoo.com

    Like

    • October 23, 2011 at 5:51 pm

      Thanks for your answer.

      Perhaps fighting for including Tagore in school programs would be a solution. This is partly why Balzac, Mérimée, Flaubert and Stendhal are still known in France. Students have to read them or at least excerpts.

      Like

  10. February 23, 2012 at 6:49 am

    OF THE BENGALEES : ONE STEP FORWARD BUT TWO STEPS BACKWARD

    The Bengalees are widely spread around the world having a total population of more than 300 million. But the majority of the Bengali speaking populations are spread in a concentrated way in Bangladesh and West Bengal of India.

    The scattered Bengalee populations are also present in the eastern parts of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar and in the western parts of Assam and Tripura provinces of India. Even in Pakistan today there are several million Bengalees, mostly concentrated in Karachi.

    Almost all Bengalees identify their religious beliefs. Majority of all Bengalees around the world, including Bangladesh and West Bengal of India, are Muslims and the rest of them are Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. Only a small number of the Bengalees are followers of other minor religions.

    Of the Hindu Bengalees, those of greater Calcutta are, economically and educationally, more advanced due to the special patronage received from the British colonial rulers from 1680 to 1947. Many of them identify themselves as Brahmins. They are also known as Babu (Hindu) Bengalees.

    Of the Muslim Bengalees, those of greater Dhaka are more advanced due to the special patronage of the richer and educated classes of their community and due to the emergence of Bangladesh.

    The rest of the Bengalees remain backward and less educated. Most of the Bengalees working abroad are less educated and just engaged in various services as unskilled workers and labourers. Of course, by working abroad many of them have earned substantial money for better settlement back to their country homes. Truly speaking the large number of the Bengalee emigrants have created many socio-economic gaps in their country homes. Brain-drain from any country naturally creates many problems and issues. Even after realizing the situation many Bengalees like to emigrate for earning more money.

    The facts presented above are based on my first-hand studies and information during the last 40 years since 1971.

    As far as Bangladesh is concerned (and also perhaps West Bengal of India), all administrations since 1971 failed to establish good economic and law enforcement systems. Believe it or not nearly 70% of the Bengalees of these areas do not have sufficient basic education and completion of the school education. Of course, many such uneducated persons are leading their peoples as their Parliamentarians and legislators.

    Time has come that there should be good objective studies about the Bengalees, in the interest of their welfare and socio-economic progress. As such, constructive feedbacks are most welcome.

    Yours truly,

    A.B.M. Shamsud Doulah
    Advocate, Supreme Court
    G.P.O. Box 351, Dhaka-1000, Bangladesh
    Email: shamsuddoulah@yahoo.com

    Like

    • February 23, 2012 at 8:37 pm

      Thanks for these interesting precisions.

      Like

  11. Islam
    May 27, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Did Rabindranath ever met Lalon Shah? Pl let me know at mail # 1961tarabd@gmail.com

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    • May 27, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Sorry, but I have no idea.

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