Reviews / March 2012 (Issue 16)

More Tagore: Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories

 by Mani Rao

Rabindranath Tagore, trans. Mohammad A. Quayum, Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories, Macmillan, 2011. 160 pgs.

Rabindranath Tagore is an icon of Indian literature. He is the only Indian—and the first Asian—to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913). What caught the world's attention and gave him the image of a mystic poet was his book of Bengali poems, Gitanjali, which expresses the spiritual yearnings, hopes and aspirations for a world without oppression. But Tagore's literary output was prolific—novels, novellas, several collections of short stories, plays, travelogues, children's writing, autobiography, essays, songs (popularly sung in soirees to this day, called Rabindra Sangeet).

In the case of Rabindranath Tagore, retranslation does not occur because previous translations are dated, but because the corpus of Tagore's work, as well as the market for it, is so vast that there is ample scope for new permutations and combinations. Quayum's publisher Macmillan has a long production history with Tagore's stories—Hungry Stones and Other Stories (1916), Stories from Tagore (1918), Broken Ties and Other Stories (1926), More Stories from Tagore (1951), A Tagore Reader (1961) and Collected Stories (1974). When so much contemporary literature generated in Indian languages goes untranslated, the Tagore phenomenon seems disproportionate.

One cannot hold that against a translator, however. Quayum has a lifelong passion for Tagore's writing, and his immersion and scholarship is evident in his book. His translation shows a feel for Tagore's voice, vision and cultural milieu, and he is skilful with the suggestive undercurrents of Tagore's stories. A single example may help illustrate this point.

Here's a paragraph from William Radice's translation of "Postmaster":

The postmaster's salary was meagre. He had to cook for himself, and an orphaned village-girl did housework for him in return for a little food. Her name was Ratan, and she was about twelve or thirteen. It seemed unlikely that she would get married. In the evenings, when smoke curled up from the village cowsheds, crickets grated in the bushes, a band of intoxicated Baul singers in a far village sang raucously to drums and cymbals…[1]

And this is Quayum's translation:

The postmaster worked on a meagre salary, so he had to cook his own meals. He was assisted in his housework by a destitute orphan girl, in return for a little food. The girl's name was Ratan. The prospects of her getting married soon looked faint.

In the evening when curls of smoke from fumigation spiraled from the cowsheds, crickets chirped merrily in the thickets, tipsy bauls in distant villages started playing on tom-toms and cymbals and singing at a high pitch…[2]

Skipping a full textual analysis, I direct the reader's attention to the last line in Quayum's first paragraph, and that paragraph break. In Radice's translation, Ratan's marriage prospects are just more mundane detail in her bio. In Quayum's translation, Ratan's marriage prospects carry a sense of foreboding: "The prospects of her getting married soon looked faint." The paragraph ends on this cliffhanger, and the reader anticipates the relationship between the postmaster and Ratan.

Tagore's stories are remarkable for the deft management of emotion and collectedness, and combination of stark realism and lavish poeticism. The plots march at a good pace, events are narrated as they occur, and we get both close-up and perspective. Here is the scene from "Punishment" where Chhidam kills his wife:

Her sari soaked with blood, Chandara yelled, 'What have you done!' Chhidam held her mouth tight. Dukhiram dropped the chopper, covered his face with his hands and fell to the ground, thunderstruck. The boy woke up and started wailing in fear.

It was perfectly peaceful outside. The herdsmen were returning home with their cows. Those who had gone to harvest the newly ripened paddy on the shoal across the river had returned home in small boats of five to seven in each, and, with a few sheaves of paddy on their heads as reward for the day's work, most of them had returned home.[3]

For the contemporary reader, centuries after the egotistic sublime of the Romantics, Tagore's style may also be too much to bear. Take a look at this excerpt from the story "Subha":

For one who has no other language from birth except the expressions of her face, the language of her eyes is infinitely generous and profoundly deep – it's somewhat like the clear sky, from dawn to dusk a soundless playground of light and shade. In this speechless human being, there is a secluded nobility like that of lofty Nature. That is why ordinary boys and girls were a bit afraid of her and avoided playing with her. She was like the hushed midday, wordless and companionless.[4]

This writing style has been dubbed as Tagore's poeticism, including in Quayuum's introduction. But the lavish language is also a mark of Tagore's quintessential Indian-ness, it is in the lineage of classical Indian aesthetics (alaṃkāra śāstra) replete with embellished descriptions and comparisons with the natural environment. The reader can expect to see bird songs regularly wafting in to create a character's moods. Also from "Subha":

From the grassland filled with the sound of crickets to the soundless stellar region – everywhere only gesture, beckoning, music, lament and sighs."[5]

The selection of Tagore stories in the book highlight Tagore's moral and ethical concerns, and his critique of social injustice. "Assets and Debts" exposes the dowry-system, "Purification" is a critique of casteism and the fad of patriotism, "Kabuliwala" is a humanizing portrayal of a wandering merchant jailed unjustly, and in "Punishment," an innocent woman is at the mercy of her husband's false statement. "A Woman's Conversion to Islam (A Draft)" is an undeveloped story, a draft, weak on several levels, perhaps included for thematic reasons and to show that Tagore was against religious separatism. Tagore protested against a divisive, apathetic society and appealed for social reform through his writing. Although firmly committed to self-rule, he cautioned against the dangers of blind patriotism. When lighting bonfires of imported goods and cloth became the rage in pre-Independence India, Tagore cautioned that this would hurt Indian merchants whose livelihood depended on selling foreign goods. As a result, in his own lifetime, he was criticised by fellow Indians as an aristocrat who did not feel deeply enough for the nationalist cause, a sympathiser of the British. In less than a century since independence (1947), it has now become evident how smoothly and insidiously nationalism plays into the hands of religious fundamentalists, and Tagore's stance is regarded with new respect. Quayum's selection of stories echoes this new appraisal.


[1] Tagore, Rabindranath, trans. William Radice, Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories. New Delhi: Penguin, 1991, p.42.
[2] Tagore, Rabindranath, trans. Mohammad Quayum., Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories. New Delhi: Macmillan, 2011, pp. 1–2.
[3] Ibid, 68.
[4] Ibid, 44.
[5] Ibid, 45.

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