My favourite book? Over the years, I have had many favourite books, and have been totally captivated by at least one of them at any one period of time. Indeed, once I began to take literature in English seriously, I was completely swept away by one book or the other that I came across at the University of Dhaka B. A. (Hons.) and M. A. English department syllabuses year after year. In my first year as an undergraduate, for instance, I read D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913)compulsively, finding in its protagonist Paul Morel’s growing up into a young man’s storyline parallels with mine—although he was a miner’s son in Nottingham in the early twentieth century and I a boy growing up in Dhaka in the 1950s and 60s and the son of middle-class parents. A couple of years later, it was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice(1813), for the story of the Bingley girls and their marriage encounters sounded familiar to me, for I too had four sisters whose marriages had become central to my parents’ thinking in all kinds of ways. And in my M. A. I read a book which harpooned me fully for many a decade—this was Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)—a whale of a book, I’m sure many of you in the virtual audience will agree. In all three cases, I read not only the novels I mentioned but almost everything by Lawrence, Austen and Melville I came across. Indeed, Melville’s fiction became the subject of my M. A. dissertation at Simon Fraser University.
But in the 1990s, I began to pay attention to Bangla writing seriously —something I had neglected for long, thanks first to an English medium education exclusively geared to the “O” levels that scanted our own literature and then my specialisation in literature in English afterwards. I began to read Bangla poetry intensively for the first time in this decade, although I had read some fiction in the language over the years. And it was sometime in the middle of the 1990s that I came across Jibanananda Das’s verse in an edition of his selected poems by the Bangladeshi poet-critic Abdul Mannan Syed. I would like to stress that this poet was born in 1899 in Borishal, a very green district crisscrossed by innumerable rivers all heading ultimately for the nearby Bay of Bengal; he died in what seemed to be an accidental death in Kolkata in the mid-1950s. Das’s verse possessed me completely, leaving me, who had till then read only some Bangla poetry but had concentrated mostly in fiction and non-fictional prose in English, with the urge to translate his verse into English. For the next three years, I kept going back to Das’s poems for their beauty, for the way they immortalised in verse the beauty of Bengal, and for the way they made me the poet’s intimate, for it is only when one translates intensely, all caught up in the source text, that one comes closest to the mind speech as well as the deep emotional life of the poet.
Having translated Jibanananda Das—surely the greatest modern Bengali poet—I felt I had to try to translate Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry—the greatest poet and literary personality Bengal has produced. Even though in the 1960s and 1970s, I had only paid sustained attention to poetry, fictional and nonfictional prose and plays in English, how could I have escaped Tagore then? He was everywhere in the Dhaka I experienced and very much part of the mindscape of us Bangladeshis as we moved towards becoming citizens of Bangladesh. His work was championed in the media; his songs were sung in events such as the Bangla new year festivities in mid-April; cultural events everywhere spurred by nationalism highlighted him in one way or the other. Besides, my father was addicted to Rabindranath’s songs and listened to him on the radio whenever he could, making us share his delight in the melodies then. My mother, for her part, quoted him all the time to give her children a sense of what we should be emulating and where we were going wrong.
In other words, Rabindranath was very much part of my consciousness, although I had occluded him till now. As I began to read him in the turn of the decade after translating Jibanananda, I felt I had to read as much of his works as I could. Inevitably, I began to translate many of his poems. By the time his sesquicentenary came up in 2011, I was invited to co-edit an anthology of his works and that led to the extensive reading of the myriad-minded writer’ work and increasing familiarity with this wonderful personality as well as writer.
And this is how I came to my favourite book of the last decade or so—Tagore’s Gitabitan. It is a book that is always on my study cum desktop computer table’s shelf over ten years now. It is something I resort to every time I listen to a Rabindranath song on YouTube in my desktop’s audio system. Sung melodiously and passionately by a favourite singer, a song by Tagore so allures me into rendering its spirit in another language that I feel I have to come as close to it as possible by translating it to the best of my ability. This means not only listening to the song again and again but also reading it on the printed page repeatedly, word by word, line by line, and stanza by stanza, time after time, till I feel I have been able to capture every aspect of it nuanced by Tagore by blending the tune and the song lyric as well as I could in the English language. In the end, of course, I fail to do so after a point, but the fascination of what is so appealing when heard, even if in the last analysis the task is an impossible one, induces me to render it into an alien language system after repeated readings and attempts to come up with a version that is close to the original in every way. I hope thereby to come to the heart of the song and am content to spend an hour or so on a few lines so that I can make its meaning clear to myself and then to others.
Truly, there is a magical quality in the songs collected in my favorite book of this time—Tagore’s Gitabitan. It is a book that has also kindled the imagination of quite a few people—singers, musicians and translators— over eighty years now, making them represent the song-lyrics either as songs to be sung or as translations meant for foreign and even Bengal language speakers who might otherwise listen to a song swept away by the tune and opening lines without bothering with the later lines or making no attempt to understand its content. The net result at the end of a few hours spent first reading many of the song closely, then reading my own translation again and again, is the satisfaction that I have been able to capture its essence in English through my translations. After all, and as Tagore himself has said, “the essence of a song is universal, even if its dress is local and national” (77). Why should I as a translator then not attempt to translate his songs for the world at large as well as myself even if their loveliness is uncatchable in the last analysis? He himself had led the way, and had learnt lessons along the process that were worth considering for later translators. I am hoping to bring out my own collection of translations of 350 plus songs by Tagore by the beginning of next year.
Let me point out that the title Tagore gave to the volume indicates that Gitabitan is meant to invite readers and musical devotees of the poet-composers to his “garden of songs.” In all, the volume contains over 2,300 songs, nearly 1800 of whose tunes can be found in the musician-poet’s Swarabitan with their musical notations. In fact, there are sites now that you can google and access where you can find the Bengali words, some English translations, and notations, and even brief histories of the origins of the most commonly heard songs.
Let me point out too that Gitabitan itself is divided into six sections—songs of devotion, love, the six seasons of Bengal, patriotic songs, songs for festive and miscellaneous occasions, songs written for his plays and other publications. In their final form, the Gitabitan was published in 1941—the year the poet died. By now it has been reprinted, with new inclusions from scattered sources, innumerable times.
To conclude, why is Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitan my favourite book? He had himself said to Bengalis in 1939, “You can forget me, but how can you forget my songs?” Tagore’s collection of songs connects me to him endlessly, becoming a way of linking me as well with the universe and the Supreme Being and even my departed parents. They stir my patriotic side and make me one with the seasons of my country and its landscape and whatever is still romantic in me. And as I head towards the Great Unknown, they console me that there are possibilities of communion after we depart from this world as well!
Fakrul Alam is Supernumerary Professor of English at the University of Dhaka
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