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Review

Tagore’s Cartography of the Imagination

Book review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Gleanings of the Road

Author: Rabindranath Tagore Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Travels formed an integral part of the personae and creative artist that was Rabindranath Tagore. During his travels to England and the America (1912-13 and 1920) Tagore wrote essays for publication in various Bengali journals. Rabindranath Tagore was an inveterate traveller who travelled to the furthest corners of the globe. Detailing his travels in the  colloquial everyday language (also referred to as ‘chalit’ bhasha or language)  during his tour of England and USA in 1912-13, he used to publish regularly in journals like Prabasi, Bharati and Tattwabodhini Patrika. As the translator-editor Somdatta Mandal  informs us, Vishwa Bharati Publication Department in 1946 decided to discard Rabindranath’s own selection. They went back to the earlier formal register and included writings of the 1912 tour, irrespective of whether they were related to his travel.  

 The book blurb says: “In 1939, Tagore selected fourteen of these essays and an appendix containing seven letters he had written to some of the teachers in the Santiniketan ashram while he was on these trips, for publication as a volume. It was at this point that he rewrote the original essays then using the colloquial instead of the formal language; he also revised the texts substantially. Later editions altered the number of essays, sometimes digressing from Tagore’s own selection, sometimes going back to Tagore’s original formal language.”

The travelogue, if it can be called that, provides an insight into Tagore’s perception of the different facets of western life and the diverse philosophical issues that cross his mind as he journeys from one continent to another. Thus perhaps it is more appropriate that the collection is named “gleanings’’ rather than a travel account or narrative. They are philosophical ruminations where Tagore holds forth on various aspects of civilizations and cultures.

In the very first segment, Tagore’s critical observations about Indian society comes to the fore. Thus he comments on what he sees as  cultural differences and civilizational clashes, in “Prelude to the Journey”: “We always comfort ourselves by saying that we are a religious and spiritual race”. He sees this as a compensatory move by Indians to cover up our own sense of inadequacy, about our “weakness”  in the external world.(Tagore was acutely conscious of India’s status as a colonised country). “Many of us boast that poverty is our asset”, dwelling perhaps in a haze of pseudo-spiritualism which balks at admitting that this attitude is merely a kind of bravado.

Tagore’s essay here unpacks the notion of the binary that the West is materialistic while the East is spiritual by lauding certain aspects of Western and European culture. Thus he writes that “if we go to Europe with the aim of a pilgrimage, our journey will not be in vain”. He further explains that  this is not only because of the material developments achieved by Western culture, but their spirit and attitude.

Power, according to Tagore, is more than an external manifestation; rather, it has to do with a sense of real inner strength. He goes on to cite the instance of the Titanic and people’s altruism and self-sacrifice that was in evidence at that time, to interrogate the view, held by many Indians, that the average European is self-centred and self-serving. On the other hand, Tagore also gives plenty of instances where the spiritual poverty of Indians was in evidence. Thus he writes, “I know there has been a clash between our welfare and that of Europe and because of that we are suffering deep anguish and pain. We do not trust their religion and we criticise their culture as being too materialistic.” However, he continues that there are aspects of European culture which are worthy of emulation, which we would do well to follow, without feeling that it threatens our culture. He strongly commends that the path to seek the truth is a pilgrimage on which we should proceed without being blinded by ego, prejudice and false pride.

Coupled with this contrast of cultures, are observations about people and places. Thus he talks about the women of Bombay who are visible on the beaches of Bombay and contrasts it with the city of Calcutta, which according to him, is bereft of women in public places. Tagore also muses on the vast and limitless ocean which to him offers a cornucopia of literal and symbolic meanings. The sea and the ocean signify  vastness, depth, boundlessness and infinitude, as well as the lure of the unknown. In contrast, he bemoans  the loss of man’s ties with nature signified to him by the colonial appropriation of the river. He reflects that the river “Ganges was once one of Calcutta’s ties with nature…It was the one window of the city from where you could look out and realize that the world was not confined to this settlement.” He bemoans the fact that the once natural strength of the Ganga had been dissipated, “it has been dressed up in such tight clothes on both its banks and its waist band has been tightened so that the Ganges seems to be the image of a liveried footman of the city”. In contrast, the “special glory of the sea is that it serves man but does so without wearing the yoke of slavery on its neck.” His evocative description brings to life the various aspects of the landscape in full measure.

Tagore’s ‘travel’ writing is not just a mapping of people and places, but shows him as the supreme cartographer of the imagination. Witness his contrast of the earth and the ocean. The earth is compared to an excessively doting mother who binds her children to her and does not allow them to venture far away; the ocean by contrast “constantly allures him to venture towards the unattainable”. He adds, “Those who responded to that call and moved out are the ones who conquered the world.” Moreover, “that race of people on this earth who have specially welcomed this ocean have also found the unceasing effort of the ocean in their character.” Travelling on the Arabian sea, glimpsing distant shores, he stresses that the union of the two — the land and the ocean — signifying stability and movement are vital to an understanding of the truth.

The urge to travel, to move forward continuously, is forever present in man. In a philosophical vein , the poet muses that the soul “always wants to travel” and that it dies if it does not do so.In a series of similes and metaphors drawn from nature, he reflects: “Let us keep moving on, like the waterfall, the waves of the ocean, the birds at dawn, the light at sunrise.” He even transcends to the next plane when he says that “even the call of death is nothing but just a call to change the dwelling place”. In almost the same breath, he compares himself to a fairy princess who is fast asleep and who cannot be woken from her slumber, except with a golden wand.

Part anthropological study– at one point, the poet reflects that the vastness of the surrounding sea would have elicited devotion among many Indians, unlike the European traveller who is intent on enjoying the comforts and varieties of entertainment on the ship-part philosophic meditation, “Gleanings” represents the quintessential Tagore. His interrogation of Indian claims to spirituality is made in the tone of a concerned father warning his children not to fall prey to false pride and vanity. Deeply patriotic as well as an internationalist, he straddled two contrasting worlds of materiality and spirituality, without succumbing to limiting binaries and stereotypes.

Ably introduced and translated by Somdatta Mandal, a renowned Tagore scholar, the translation captures the iridescent and luminous quality of Tagore’s prose and its chiaroscuro effects.  

CLICK HERE TO READ THE BOOK EXCERPT

  Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Categories
Slices from Life

Pizzas En Route to Paradise

There is the import and export of desires in one of the oldest cities in the world, beside one of the most revered rivers, as Keith Lyons discovers in Varanasi.

A sadhu watching over the early morning activity on the banks of the Ganges at Assi ghat. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

Most who come to Varanasi, deep down, are seeking peace. The ancient city formerly known as Kashi and Benares is the holy site for three religions: Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. For Hindus who flock to India’s spiritual capital from all over the country, bathing in the sacred Ganges is said to wash away all sins.

For me, as a non-religious outsider, I was also seeking inner peace, and perhaps a deeper understanding of the questions of life and death. But amid the surrealness of the labyrinthine old city, with its wandering bulls, revered shrines, marauding monkeys, and burning bodies, one thing I found was a place to satisfy my earthly material needs. 

“It’s to die for,” exclaimed an American bohemian I’d met a few weeks earlier in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha gained enlightenment. I ran into him strolling along the ghats — steps down to the Ganges that line the western bank of the curve in the wide river. Despite the 1256-page heavy Lonely Planet India, TripAdvisor and social media, there is nothing like word-of-mouth recommendations from fellow travellers. “So you are already at that party,” said Brad, impressed that I too had made it that far along the waterfront almost 2km from where I was staying. “Well, you can’t miss it, can you,” I replied. “It’s probably the only place of its kind right at the water’s edge, and if you don’t see it, you probably smell it.”

For many travellers who don’t want to be seen as sightseeing tourists but are in search of the authentic and the local, Varanasi seems to offer quite an array of experiences, some beyond the comfort level of leisure tourists who keep to the beaten path. Of the 88 ghats of Varanasi which are used for bathing, washing and ceremonial worship, there are two which are synonymous with the spiritual centre. Those two are exclusively used for cremations. 

The same reason for bathing in the sacred waters to obtain forgiveness for transgressions applies, but for the recently deceased, it is believed that if their ashes are scattered into the purifying Ganga, their reincarnation cycle will end — and they will reach nirvana.

As the one of the ‘seven sacred cities’, the place supreme deity Shiva (known as ‘The Destroyer’) brought into being by meditation, Varanasi and its cremation ghats represent the ultimate ‘geographical cure’. There are rest homes and ashrams where the elderly and terminally ill wait to die, believing that if they die in the old city, they will be redeemed of all their sins by Lord Shiva on the cremation pyre. 

Varanasi straddles the known world and the hidden, with the Ganges a crossing point between earth and heaven. For tens of thousands of foreigners who have Varanasi on their itinerary routes, it is fair to say many are seeking peace, but definitely not of the kind that involves the death of their current material existence. Instead, there is a curiosity about the openness of death and its rituals, and the chance to bear witness to the process which can be at the same time sad and soul-destroying yet also joyous and life-affirming. 

For those that don’t share the faith that propels people to this city, perhaps any visit to Varanasi could be described as macabre or dark tourism, fueled by the antagonism between testimony and voyeurism. The epitome of this is the quest by foreigners to get as close as possible to take photos of burning bodies. As if normal travel isn’t stressful enough, the macabre tourist seeks out encounters that have the potential to be emotional and even traumatic. 

I must admit, I did have a certain curiosity about witnessing wooden pyres where corpses were placed to be burned. And I did have a fear that I might identify a limb or hand being consumed by the fire, or even that somehow a writhing contorted face might emerge from the flames and snarl at me menacingly. 

That didn’t happen. What did happen is that I passed the cremation grounds numerous times during my walks up and down the riverbanks, occasionally pausing to observe from a distance, but the sight didn’t stir me as much as the reflection that this was how a culture and a religion farewell their dead. Having been an altar boy in the Catholic Church, I’d seen my fair share of embalmed bodies in coffins at teary sad funerals, but there was quite a different feeling at Varanasi. Anyway, I didn’t want to intrude as a gawking foreigner. 

I was just as interested in the negotiations for firewood between relatives and the lower-caste Doms. The price for 400 kg of wood can be around Rs 4,000 (around US$52), a visiting insurance broker from Mumbai tells me, as we stand on the steps beside towers of split logs from the Himalayas. “The better wood is more expensive, but the government is trying to encourage using things like coconut shells and cow dung cakes instead of cutting down more trees,” he says, before the discussion turns to cricket, and a New Zealand cricketer I’d never heard of who played for his beloved Mumbai Indians. Later that evening, to make up for my lack of patriotic sporting knowledge, I impress some local boys playing cricket on the uneven surface of a terrace by catching a whizzing ball with one hand. 

Wood merchant stack wood for cremations. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

I noticed that after the initial shock of seeing dead bodies, and after a few days, the constant exposure to these late rites meant that I could be sitting in the open-fronted government-approved 70-year-old Blue Lassi Shop and I wouldn’t even look up when a procession march along bearing a body destined for the Manikarnika ghat. Everyday hundreds of bodies are burned on the riverbank, with the no-frills natural gas crematorium operated 24/7. 

I had already taken on board — and possibly ignored through denial – the message of Varanasi: Death is unavoidable. One day, I will die. My body will be destroyed. Life on earth is finite. Make the most of it. 

I reflected on this as I stood sipping my tea at Dada ki Chai, or as I sought out the best kachori sabzi[1], or the sweet and sour channa1, dahi vada [2]on the crooked and crowded streets. 

So what else did I discover among the maze of alleyways, the crumbling palaces and the riverbank steps down to the river? Don’t dismiss me as a lousy traveller who can’t be without the comforts of home, but I have to admit one of the finds of my waterside wanderings was a red tent erected on the wide path, where a family had recently set up a low-key pizza eatery. 

Pizza? Yes, hand-made, wood-fired pizza. When I first visited, Sunil has only just started the venture. He was going to get some pizza boxes and a label for Euro Pizza and arrange a takeaway and delivery service. The only seating was a few plastic seats. 

Diners waited patiently in the cool evening, not so intent on breaking the cycle of death and rebirths but wanting respite from the hot spicy food served up in train stations and roadside dhabas.[3] 

In the distance, only a few minutes’ walk away, flames could be seen from the Maharaja Harishchandra ghat, Varanasi’s second, and smaller burning ground. Further along, sounds from the evening ceremony could be heard. But none of that mattered really. There was always a friendly grin from Sunil or a nod of recognition from his family members who cranked out the vegetarian pizzas. It was Rs.150 (US$2) for a ‘small’ pizza, but it was large enough to share. Which people did, with fellow travellers they’d just met, the whole of life made up of many triangle segments, their Varanasi stories to be told later about the burning corpses, the ashes scattered into the river, and the weirdest yet most wonderful thing: a pizzeria perched by a crematorium and a crossing to paradise.

Euro pizza’s humble red tent on the banks of the Ganges. Photo Courtesy: Keith Lyons

[1] Savoury snacks

[2] A yoghurt-based snack

[3] Roadside eateries

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL