Out of India

The Essential Tagore BY Rabindranath Tagore. edited by Fakrul Alam, Radha Chakravarty, Amit Chaudhuri. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 864 pages. $39.

The cover of The Essential Tagore

For a long time, the word kavi, Sanskrit for “poet,” was synonymous for me with a man named Kuvempu. He was the Rashtra Kavi, the national poet, of people who spoke Kannada, the language of the part of South India where I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. Kuvempu’s verse—lucid, patriotic, nature loving—was taught in primary schools and sung on the radio; when you drove into the countryside, you found his poems painted near waterfalls and framed in the midst of rose gardens. Even as a boy, I knew that where Kannada-speaking territory ended, so did Kuvempu’s fame. Our neighbors spoke Tamil—a very different language—and they had their own national poet, a man named Subramania Bharathi. As far as I could tell, each of India’s many languages had such a Rashtra Kavi, around whose verse a powerful subnational identity had coalesced. Overarching all these Rashtra Kavis, however, was a man called the Vishwa Kavi, the universal poet, who spoke to all Indians.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) began his career as the poet of an Indian province—fertile, densely populated Bengal (divided today between India and Bangladesh); then, through a combination of exceptional talent and good fortune, he grew into something that no other twentieth-century poet could have hoped to be. Modern India’s first international literary celebrity, Tagore, in 1913, became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. For many in the West and in India, his great silver beard and dreamy gaze made him a present-day incarnation of an ancient Hindu mystic; many Indians still call him Gurudev, divine teacher. His song “Jana Gana Mana” is the national anthem, photographs of him hang in public libraries, and he is a key element in the liberal, progressive pan-Indian culture that is even more important than democracy or the army in keeping the country united. Tagore helped make modern India, but he also transcends it. When the part of Bengal awarded to Pakistan broke away to form its own nation, Bangladesh, in 1971, it chose a song by Tagore as its national anthem, thus making him the only man to have composed the defining patriotic verse of two nations.

A scene from Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata, based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore.
A scene from Satyajit Ray’s 1964 film Charulata, based on a story by Rabindranath Tagore.

Yet, as the writer Amit Chaudhuri notes in his fine foreword to The Essential Tagore, the poet has become a “static emblem” in India: worshipped everywhere, but not widely read outside Bengal. Like most Indians, I cannot read Bengali; Tagore’s verse came to my school in South India in an archaic and sometimes Orientalist English that left me with no desire to read more of his work. Young readers in other countries must have felt the same. One of the world’s most famous writers in the 1920s and ’30s, Tagore traveled from Argentina to Java to meet admirers; today, his international reputation has all but vanished. How surprising, then, in my mid-twenties, to watch Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) and Charulata (The Lonely Wife, 1964), two films by the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray that were based on Tagore’s stories; to feel that the man who wrote those stories was not a silver-bearded bore but a restless young writer, someone I could have spoken to about my own worries about politics or love; and to wonder if, beneath the Tagore whom I had had to learn in school, there was another one, waiting to break out and speak to me. That is why this new anthology, edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty, is so welcome, because it starts the process of freeing Tagore for a contemporary audience.

The first thing that strikes you about The Essential Tagore is the diversity of its subject’s talents: In a career that stretched over seventy-three years (he finished his first poem when he was seven, and was composing a story on his deathbed), Tagore wrote novels, plays, literary criticism, political essays on the iniquities of the British Raj, and descriptions of his travels in Persia and Japan. Yet it is to the poems that one turns immediately. The range is dizzying—Tagore composed devotional, patriotic, erotic, and nature verse—and is tackled here by a phalanx of gifted translators, including Chaudhuri. Most of the translations are lucid and lively, although it is only rarely we feel that we are eavesdropping in on the original Bengali:

Chaitra nights, I sit alone, once again, it becomes visible—

among trees and branches, the illusion of your curved hand

in new-sprouted leaves by some error they return your

old letters.

To heighten the standard problems of translation, many of Tagore’s most famous compositions are lyrics; they have as much power in English as Ira Gershwin must have in Bengali. If the core of the poetry might never be retrievable for the non-Bengali reader, a wild, celebratory power keeps breaking through in the English translation, as when Tagore promises us, “Again and Again you’ll regain your right to be in the world.”

Despite its occasional successes, the verse section of this anthology feels like the first draft of a more rugged interpretation in English that the Tagorean oeuvre needs. It is in his prose that this poet speaks most directly to his English readers. The anthology includes some of Tagore’s best-loved short stories, such as “A Broken Nest,” which was turned into Ray’s film Charulata, and “Hungry Stone,” which is translated by the novelist Amitav Ghosh. (It is a tribute to Tagore’s legacy that many of India’s finest writers and intellectuals come from his native Bengal.) The editors have also given us selections from his novels—including Gora, which some literary critics read as a riposte to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim—yet it is the stories that stay in the mind. Their seemingly simple sentences grow more disturbing with each reading (“When the girl was named Shubhashini no one knew she would be dumb”), and the colloquial tone in which they start (“We met him on the train, my cousin and I, on our way back to Calcutta . . .”) can mask a tightly constructed, elliptical narrative that reminds you of Guy de Maupassant’s best work. Tagore stands in the first rank of Indian short-story writers along with Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, and R. K. Narayan.

Prominent Indian intellectuals such as the historian Ramachandra Guha have repeatedly made the case for Tagore’s neglected body of political writing to be taken more seriously. Despite his mystical, otherworldly reputation, he was keenly interested in issues such as land reform, Hindu-Muslim tensions in Bengal, and India’s growing nationalist movement. In the excellent selections of his letters and essays in the anthology, we find the poet growing more radical in his attitude toward the British Raj, returning his knighthood in 1919 as a protest against the massacre of nationalist agitators in Amritsar, and eventually coming to doubt not just England but the entire West. After watching the start of World War II, he spoke of “the gradual loss of my faith in the claims of the European nations to civilization.” At the same time, he was ambivalent about Asian countries, Japan among them, that were challenging the West by developing their own versions of European nationalism, and warned that “the wisdom of the nation is not in its faith in humanity but in its complete distrust.” Even as he condemned the British Empire, he praised the love and loyalty of his English friends: Wary of abstractions, he put human relations first.

“We have to rescue Tagore from the Bengalis,” an Indian author told me recently, only half in jest. The truth is that Tagore must be rescued from the non-Bengalis—those Indians who know virtually nothing of his poetry, and think of the Vishwa Kavi, still the only Indian to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, as a permanent buttressing to national self-confidence. No one would be less comfortable than Tagore with becoming a prop to the new, and increasingly strident, nationalism in India. If the editors of The Essential Tagore had trimmed some of the sections that had no hope of surviving translation—the plays and the comic sketches, for example—this could have been a slimmer, more accessible volume. Nevertheless, it does its work well enough, and reintroduces a great writer to the world.

The most luminous discovery in this anthology is not any particular poem or essay but the cumulative evocation of the poet’s personality. In Tagore’s letters we find descriptions of the countryside that are like field notes taken by a nineteenth-century Romantic poet: “The short stalks of the rice plants tremble in the breeze—the ducks descend upon the water and continuously dip their heads into it and clean the feathers upon their backs with their beaks.” In other writings, he admires the processes that are dismantling traditional societies—praising, for instance, the spread of literacy in the Soviet Union—and sounds like a twentieth-century modernist. When he worries that “the scientific organizations vastly spreading in all directions are strengthening our power, but not our humanity,” he sounds like a nascent postmodernist, wary of the influence of rationalistic institutions on human relations. The experience of living in today’s India—a country that is agrarian, industrializing, and postindustrial, all at once—still forces a multiplicity of viewpoints on the individual, and Tagore must have some claim to being the prototypical modern Indian.

Aravind Adiga is the author of the novels The White Tiger (2008), which won the Man Booker Prize, and Last Man in Tower, which will be published by Knopf in September.