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“The Desire for Motion”: Tagore’s Three Voices

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The Essential Tagore

Edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravorty
Harvard University Press, 2011

“I am modern… I was born into a family which rebelled, which had faith in its loyalty to an inner ideal. If you want to reject me, you are free to do so. But I have my right as a revolutionary to carry the flag of freedom of spirit into the shrine of your idols,—material power and accumulation”

– Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore, one of the great writers from the modern Indian tradition, was born in 1861. Unlike many of his peers in Indian literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his life and career are extensively well-documented, with ample material for serious biographical study. Alongside good biographies, chief among them Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson’s The Myriad-Minded Man, there have also been a number of anthologies of Tagore’s works translated into English over the years, including Dutta and Robinson’s own Tagore: An Anthology, which in many ways serves as a companion-piece to the duo’s biography. As of this year, a new anthology of Tagore’s works in English edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravorty dwarfs all previous efforts.

Despite this proliferation of material, Tagore remains difficult to pin down. The fact that he lived such a long life and had a very fertile output in virtually every literary genre makes him hard to classify in any straightforward way—he had an outsized impact on Bengali poetry (most of all), prose, drama, as well as intellectual and political life— and the influences he had in each of these respective spheres was rather different from the influence he had in other spheres. Tagore wrote poems that would become the national anthems of India and Bangladesh (“Jana Gana Mana” and “Amar Shonar Bangla,” respectively), and he won the Nobel Prize for literature, arguably prematurely, in 1912. Tagore had a famous series of debates with Gandhi over politics and ideology; his objections in them to Gandhian methods would later be revealed as prescient, even as they remained unheeded (these debates are well-described in a widely-cited NYRB essay by Amartya Sen on the subject, “Tagore and His India”). And while Tagore’s writing and intellectual milieu are firmly rooted in the cities and countryside of Bengal, he was also thoroughly cosmopolitan, one of the most well-traveled and best-connected Indian writers of his era. In short, a bundle of contradictions— or more charitably in the language of Whitman, multitudes.

Tagore is fundamentally a hybrid figure—a product of a deep literary and philosophical tradition in Indian languages, but no less of British colonialism and its accompanying cultural icons, the English canon chief among them. This hybridity was not new to Tagore; it can instead be seen as a legacy of his father and grandfather, both of whom had extensive contact with the West. Tagore was born in 1861, in Calcutta, in a highly influential Bengali Brahmin family. His father Debendranath was one of the founding members of a reform movement called the Brahmo Samaj, akin to a kind of Hindu Unitarianism— monotheistic, and opposed to traditional Hindu rituals and caste observance. Though the Brahmo Samaj was intellectually radical in its day (and their participation in it allowed Tagore to accurately describe his as a “family which rebelled”), it remained a genteel and elite society, with little interest in expanding beyond its elite constituency. As Dutta and Robinson describe it, despite its impressive reformist potential, “Brahmoism could easily turn sectarian, puritanical and somewhat ridiculous: a mixture of Sunday school earnestness, Victorian prudishness and old-fashioned vicarage tea-party.” Many of Tagore’s philosophical and aesthetic precepts, especially those involving his commitment to modernity and universalism, as well as his dislike of unnecessary ornament, were shaped by this Brahmo Samaj background.

Rabindranath Tagore had three distinct literary voices. He was, first of all, a poet of great originality and power, and he rightly remains highly influential in Bengali (his reputation as a writer in English, by contrast, has suffered). Tagore was also an introspective novelist and short story writer who wrote several influential novels about relations between husbands and wives in aristocratic Bengali families that resembled his own. Finally, he was a clever satirist, often creating characters and scenarios in his comic plays and stories that mocked the pretensions of serious lyric poets and writers (such as himself, in his other avatar).

To understand Tagore specifically through these three voices allows us to see him more fully than he has in recent years been known. In English for many years it was really only through that first voice—that of the lyric poet with a decidedly mystic bent—that Tagore was known and read (or more often, not read). Yeats, famously, was a rapturous early advocate of Tagore’s Gitanjali, but he soon grew frustrated, and in later years expressed his criticisms publicly (“Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English”), as did writers like Graham Greene (“I cannot believe that anyone…can still take his poems very seriously”). But for the most part these writers only knew those of Tagore’s works that had been then translated, often by Tagore himself or close relatives, making the scope of their assessments very limited.

Tagore also wrote a considerable number of essays in English, and he delivered versions of those essays as lectures in numerous countries on four different tours. Tagore’s lectures in the U.S. in particular (collected as Nationalism in 1919) were critical of western materialism and industrialization at a time when the U.S. was rapidly moving in exactly that direction.

Because knowledge of Tagore has been so limited for so long, it’s especially welcome to see The Essential Tagore. The anthology contains many fresh translations of Tagore’s works, including some excellent contributions by Fakrul Alam himself, and I hope its availability will help to broaden perceptions about Tagore’s writing mainly by making voice #2 (his self-reflexive prose fiction) and voice #3 (the satirist) more widely known.

Some of the writing by Tagore I find most intriguing are the pieces that bridge the three voices. One such case is “The Poet” (Kabi), here translated by Sukanta Chaudhuri:

I am quite happy – or at least
For sorrow’s leanness none the worse;
And yet it seems a little strange
To own to this when I write verse.
That’s why I delve within my heart
Some deep distemper to express,
And come up with some deep defect
Of knowledge or forgetfulness.
You mustn’t judge a poet by
The themes he writes his verse on.
He doesn’t shroud his face with blight
Or break his heart all day and night,
But bears his pangs, et cetera
Like a wholly cheerful person.

The poem is revealing the poet’s divided self—the lyrical and perhaps melancholy self that finds its way into serious verses, counter-balanced by a brighter and more amicable persona that eats and says sensible, mundane things. The final stanza cements this anti-lyrical gesture in memorable form:

A poet mustn’t ever be
Like what he writes his verse on:
Let him not be entirely dense,
But eat and wash with honest sense,
And talk in simple prose, just like
A simple normal person.

Here Tagore refreshingly belies the cult of poetic authenticity dominant in the west at least since the Romantic period. If in post-Romantic lyric poetry in English the poet must be seen as “true” to his verses, here Tagore implies that the poet’s literary persona is and must be a mask. A writer of dense and mournful lyrics nevertheless ought to ‘eat and wash with honest sense.’ Is it a great stretch to see Tagore also expressing here some ambivalence about the literary persona he himself had created for the world to see? Does a poem like this render the performance of lyricism somewhat suspect? It may be that the satirist in Tagore is here dismantling his lyricism.

A similar tension between Tagore’s three voices is on display in what might one of the best stories translated in The Essential Tagore, “A Broken Nest” (Nashta Neer, trans. Aruna Chakravarti), which is the basis of Satyajit Ray’s famous film adaptation, Charulata.

The essential outline of this story is familiar to anyone who has read one of Tagore’s novels: a mature, highly educated man of the landlord class (Bhupathi) marries a younger woman from the same class (Charu), who has been raised, as was the custom, without much education. Bhupathi’s younger brother Amal is brought in to serve as Charu’s tutor while her husband manages the newspaper he has founded. An intimacy develops between Charu and Amal over their shared interest in fiction-writing, which eventually leads to a catastrophic dénouement.

The plot is typical for Tagore and probably has something to do with his own personal experiences; as many commentators have noted, Tagore’s relationship with his own sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, bears some striking similarities with the bond between Amal and Charu in the story. (In real life Kadambari Devi committed suicide four months after Rabindranath was married.)

What is unique about “A Broken Nest,” however, are the self-reflexive comments on style. Early in the story Amal catches Charu reading an over-wrought novel by a young Bengali writer:

Standing behind her Amal peered into the pages. ‘I’m grass. A mere blade of grass.’ He read in a loud, mocking voice. ‘And you Asoka tree are clad in royal garments of crimson. I bear no flowers. I give no shade. My head, unlike yours is not raised to heaven. The cuckoo does not call from my branches in spring . . . I’m a wretched blade of grass lying at your feet. Yet do not despise me.’

Reading this much from the book Amal added some lines of his own, his face twisted with mockery – I’m bananas! A bunch of raw bananas. Brother pumpkin! You who hang high from the thatch of the house do not look down on me. I’m only a wretched bunch of bananas.

Here a hint of Tagore’s satirist voice interposes itself into a story that at other times reads like a cerebral melodrama. Amal, as a young writer, is a proxy for Tagore himself, one way in which Tagore distances himself from the archaisms and fluffy lyricism of some of his peers and predecessors. However, Tagore makes it clear that Amal is as much predisposed to highly stylized prose as the writers he mocks—he is protesting too much.

The self-reflexive commentary on writing styles and aesthetics gets even more interesting when Charu herself begins to write. At first she simply imitates Amal’s writing style, though she quickly realizes the problem and opts for a more naturalistic mode:

Unable to get out of Amal’s orbit Charu decided to change the whole direction of her writing. Out went all the moons, clouds, shiuli flowers and song birds. She fell back, instead, on her recollections of a small Kali temple that stood by the pond in her ancestral village – a shadowy silhouette buried in trees. ‘Kali tala’ she named her composition and into it she poured all she remembered of her rural past. The legends and fables associated with the deity that she had heard in her childhood; the awe and reverence she had felt on seeing the collective faith of the villagers; her fear of the goddess and her fascination. The opening lines were reminiscent of Amal’s ornate labored style but after a while it had acquired a flow, a simplicity and spontaneity of language and thought that was entirely her own.

The transition being described here can be seen as marking the birth of a new literary period— the moment when a new kind of realism is born (which we could also call the “modern”), and affected lyricism is disowned as archaic. Amal is taken with Charu’s writing, and unbeknownst to her he gets her story published, the first of several. Relatively soon, her own writing is praised as fresh and original, while his writing is increasingly panned as of a piece with the ‘The cuckoo does not call’ type of writing he himself had mocked when he’d seen Charu reading it earlier.

Increasingly, however, Charu realizes that her real desired readership isn’t the general public but Amal himself; her budding career as a writer is really a way of staying close to someone with whom she has fallen in love, but who is clearly off-limits to her. Yet their intense feelings for one another are unsustainable. Ultimately feelings are hurt, and Amal absents himself from his brother’s house, leaving Charu desolate. When her husband’s newspaper falls apart and he finally has time to spend with his wife, he’s not able to connect with her. He finds out about her feelings for Amal, and the story ends with Charu, her husband, and Amal caught in a perfect triangle of misery and isolation.

It’s not hard to see how and why Tagore might make Amal a little less than fully sympathetic, and it’s also understandable that he chooses to make Charu the central protagonist, rather than the figure who better resembled himself. (One could speculate that he may have been working out some of his feelings of guilt and loss through writing the story.) What is less easy to understand is why he opts to make Amal’s writing seem ornate and stilted, while Charu’s writing is described as honest and authentic; it suggests an author engaged in a much sharper form of self-criticism than one would expect.

The strength of ‘A Broken Nest’, and its importance in thinking about Tagore’s body of work in general, comes from the fact that it is one of relatively few instances in Tagore’s corpus that actually brings together all three of Tagore’s literary personae— the lyrical poet, the satirist, and of course the realist novelist. Of the three, the realist novelist seems to have the most solidity and transformative potential, though it’s clear that the conditions for his (or, as in the story, her) emergence into public view (in the frame of the story) do not really exist in the Bengali society in which Tagore lived.

Along the lines of “A Broken Nest,” it’s worth mentioning two other well-known stories of Tagore’s that cover some of the same ground, albeit with a more limited range of methods. These are the novels Gora and The Home and the World (the first of these is excerpted at length in the present volume; the other is so familiar it would probably have seemed redundant to include it). Gora features a protagonist strongly influenced by strict caste-based Hindu orthodoxy, who encounters young women from a household that follows Brahmo Samaj reformism. After much angst, the mysteriously light-skinned protagonist is forced to modify his position when he learns that his true birth is not what he thought—though he has been raised as a natural son by his Brahminical parents, he is in fact adopted, and his true parents were an Irish family killed in the 1857 Mutiny. Because of his alien birth, Gora is completely excluded from the strict version of caste identity he himself advocates through much of the novel. A related anxiety is also at the center of The Home and the World, with a middle-aged protagonist who wants to see his traditional and very young Brahmin wife educated— but balks when it appears that the process of her becoming educated may lead her to fall in love with a nationalist political activist rather than appreciate his own, patriarchal benevolence.

If translations of these novels and short stories in the realist idiom have at times been difficult, Tagore’s pure satires are even more so, though The Essential Tagore includes some very interesting choices along these lines (again, largely material other Tagore anthologies have overlooked, perhaps because of the difficulty in translating Tagore’s puns). One surprise for this reader was Tagore’s satirical play, “The Kingdom of Cards” (1933), in which a prince and his attendant are shipwrecked on a strange island inhabited by anthropomorphic playing cards. The play has strong echoes of Alice in Wonderland with shades of Gulliver’s Travels, though its real object appears to be the Hindu caste system, here represented metonymically by the different numbers and suites of card-people the Prince and his attendant encounter:

Chhakka: We are the world-renowned dynasty of Cards. I am Chhakka [six] Sharman.
Panja: And I am Panja [Five] Barman.
Prince: And those others, standing apart so meekly?
Chhakka: The one in black is Tiri [Three] Ghosh.
Panja: And the other, in red, is Duri [Two] Das.
Prince: And where are you all from?
Chhakka: Brahama grew tired after the hard work he put into creation. Then, at sundown, he yawned. And from that first sacred yawn we were created.
Panja: Therefore in certain alien tongues we are referred to not as the card-dynasty, but the hai [yawn/high] dynasty. [The Bengali word for “yawn” is “hai”; this is a cross-linguistic pun on the English “high.”]
Merchant: That’s amazing!
Chhakka: At the auspicious hour of dusk, Brahma’s four heads yawned simultaneously.
Merchant: My goodness! And what was the outcome?
Chhakka: Out came Iskaban, Ruhitan, Haratan, Chiretan [these are the four suites of cards]. All of them worth worshipping. He bows down to them.

The kingdom of the cards is a perfect analogue for a caste-ridden society, and Tagore makes much out of the coincidence of the number four in both caste and cards: the four “Varnas,” or primary caste identities, and the four suites. (It should also be noted that the Sanskrit word “Varna,” which is one of the words typically used for caste in Bengali as well as other North Indian languages, literally means “color”; Tagore was surely aware of this.) Here Tagore demonstrates irreverence both for the rigidity of the caste system and for the mythology used to justify it: “Brahma’s four heads yawned simultaneously.” The visitors in the Kingdom of the Cards go on to encourage the ritualistic card society to embrace forward progress and motion, and disregard the scriptures and “Mandatory Laws” that have hitherto structured their society. Alongside the endless punning and play with the names and ranks of various playing cards, Tagore injects several musical interludes. While some songs are obviously absurd, others are more serious and ‘typically’ Tagorean:

The clouds thunder overhead
Speaking the language of lightning,
Inspiring in the branches of trees
The desire for motion.

The “desire for motion” mirrors the rhetoric of the Prince and the Merchant who are encouraging the Cards to rebel against their strict social order. Performed the right way, lyrics like this one could be played as moments that break the satirical mood and in favor of earnestness and sincerity.

Despite his self-identification as a modern and his repeated rejections of caste orthodoxy, Tagore has, in his reception in the English-speaking world, generally been perceived as something other than modern. The focus on the spirit and the lyricism of Gitanjali seemed out of step in a twentieth-century literary landscape dominated by worldly and materially-grounded writers like Joyce and Rushdie. But attention to Tagore’s other voices—the realist novelist and the satirist—gives a fuller and more satisfying picture. Tagore, in short, can be seen not so much a vaguely archaic Guru of Song, but as a modern whose voices—in the plural—remain very much relevant today.

Amardeep Singh teaches British modernism and Postcolonial literature at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.