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Tagore Translations

Tagore Translations: One Small Ancient Tale

Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekti Khudro Puraton Golpo (One Small Ancient Tale, written in September 1893) from his collection Golpo Guchcho ( literally, a bunch of stories, constituted of 95 short stories, published in five volumes between 1908-1909), translated by Nishat Atiya

Golpo Guchcho by Tagore

I am meant to start another story — a brand new one — aren’t I? It can be tiring at times, you see. I mean, truly.

I look back but can hardly remember who offered me the position and why. It was five of you who arrived in perfect synchrony one after another; and still, it is a mystery to me as to why I was the vassal of your keen interest in the first place and what made you choose me to carry this Daedalian of a métier as if it was nothing short of a child’s play? I wonder … and conclude that it must have been destiny itself to command your kindness in my direction and though minute and mortal, the endeavor is pursued with the same fervour now as it was in the beginning. At least I am inclined to imagine it thus.

Nevertheless, with due regard to the learned quintet, I would venture to propose that this grave burden does not quite suit the small and cowering casket that I am. Whether or not the individual in question here possesses the writerly tenacity required to prove true to his split-self, that is a different matter altogether, for I was created merely as a biological being with his infirmities ad infinitum. No amount of iron mantlets could persuade me otherwise. Therefore, to have to endure the overwhelming voices of elation from my readers is a mere torture as it was ordained by God that I will find peace in stillness. My very being breathes and lives that secrecy, the hour of glorious quietude. But I do recall my grandfather pushing me into the limelight of a fully packed theatre show (perhaps by divine irony or just a random set of occurrences), swaying lightly back and forth as he failed to muffle the waves of sneaky laughter that managed to slip through the fingers pressed tightly against his lips. I wanted to be a part of the audience as well and laugh at myself to fulfill the historical obligation of a fool, but could not.

I wondered if hiding was a probable option, of course. But that would be an attempt in vain, for when a paid soldier pledges to attend the frontline and is expected to perform as an active entrant, the fading comfort he might be enjoying in a no man’s land can turn out to be the very weapon ready to come back and interrupt his otherwise innocuous impulse to simply flee and survive. It will be a pleasant change of subject for once to hope that the Supreme Being knows better and since He does, perhaps it makes more sense if we comply and we comply diligently, with proper devotion and finesse.

It is my duty to entertain people from all walks of life who come and visit their storyteller of choice before they say polite goodbyes, exchanging sweet glances or occasional intellectual swordplay. They recognise me with great admiration which, nonetheless, is an episodic pretense play followed by a devious delight of unknown origin and an artful dismissal of what once used to be alluring but now is démodé. It’s only the way of the world and indeed, this is the primary reason behind auxiliaries of an apparatus denouncing the king component of all routine affairs called “commonality” and its questionable amusement principle. The sense that is common, thus, runs the risk of becoming suspicious and eventually, an easy prey for exploitation. And yet, the cascade of men begging or pleading for a story of ‘one’s own’ does not stop, making it tough for me to not believe that ultimately what I write becomes an end product of their imagination, not mine.

That being so, you can stop for a while if you want. Neither the tale will tire, nor shall I look for a desperate sparkle in your eyes. That is a promise.

If I am asked, however, a most ancient and quick airy storyline spread about the cosmos I do remember. It might not suit your fine palate at first but will definitely tempt you just enough to stay till the brief chain of charming events ends.

There was once an enormous woodland along the coast-side of a mighty waterway. A woodpecker and a snipe used to live there in separate abodes, the former inside the forest and the latter across a rivulet nearby.

Once the world was lush and fructuous, the feathered friends would be well-fed and pleased. Sublunary benefactions would gratify their appetite and to their relief, it had seemed as if their heydays were never to end.

Yet came a day when they found no mites, mosquitoes or any other vermin.

The bird by the riverbank addressed the one on the bough, “Brother mine, it all seemed particularly robust and radiant at first, didn’t it? The sparkle of life in its green folioles and soft hibiscus! But now that the times have changed this little realm of ours has never been more sterile and lifeless, revealing its hideous face once and for all.”

The bird on the bough replied to the one by the riverbank, “Brother mine, remember how they would praise to the skies about our once-splendid habitat and all it had to offer us? Even if you do, I say the wasteland is quite unforgiving and has been as such ever since it came into existence.”

Both felt it mandatory to prove that their mutual observation was true. Thereby, they immediately undertook an exploration of their respective territories which they felt were their personal possessions. First, the snipe dived deep into the murky purlieu of the earth and began to excavate long trenches inside its soft bosoms, desperate to verify his conviction about his ‘private property’ or so to speak, its ill-health. Likewise, the woodpecker on the other end of the forest kept drilling into the firm skin of tree trunks so their bare skeletons would unfold even an emptier stomach underneath.

Fully immersed in their common passionate goal, these disruptors of different feathers were unmindful of the greater confrontation awaiting them ahead — being songbirds and not singing. Consequently, as the springtime came and took over a dreary winter of discontent to replace it with florae and faunae of all sorts or nightingales recounting shared moments of ecstasy, the birds of woe continued their mournful quest for an imaginary resolution. The mute passerines thus pursued a shadowy sphere that neither existed nor surely expired.

I can go on, but you did not quite develop a liking for this one, did you? Perhaps, the story is not one of those kinds that you would easily find admirable after all. But the biggest virtue of it, you wonder? Well, a neatly finished exquisite product within five to seven paragraphs ready to be preserved in the pages of human history, which is mind-blowing in and of itself if you ask me!

Wait, you don’t even believe that the story is ancient and always has been so as evidenced in our blood, do you? Well, it is not entirely unlikely for one to have frequent amnesiac attacks as the very humanized notion of historicity has been exchanging the old with the new and the new with the old from times immemorial. Also, a great many days have passed since then. Not to mention, the ungrateful woodpecker has been carrying on his duty, causing significant damage to the earth’s interior by pecking holes into its subastral surface, whereas the ruthless snipe also can be found to enjoy invading the privacy of the aged planet and its mysterious watercourses. Both are trapped, indeed. Both are lost in their own ways.

Now, what’s the concrete tone of happiness or loss one can identify in this sort of authorial technicality, you ask? If you look closely you will find both in each other’s warm embrace, whispering sweet nothings in a magical melody. It does not matter whether or not the gargantuan universe has a tendency to connect humanities across borders, for what is more important is to understand the sheer delight the snipes across the world might acquire on a daily basis by hammering on the ground, happy to change into a parasite and manage meager meals once or twice a day. On the other hand, a small and seemingly ineffective glimmer of hope beacons forth as we dream of a better future, provided that green patches and pastures are somehow still around the cold and distant city dwellers who consider stomping on organisms a certified hobby. To conclude, a moment of silence for those unfortunates that envy and resent with no chance of redemption — and to catastrophize more — not a single living soul knows that they ever really existed!

I dread to assume correctly that you did not understand a single word of this garbled set of whimsies and whispers. I can only predict that someday soon, the impregnable walls of nothingness will crack into pieces, leaving only a trail of a void behind. Give yourself some time and see if you can come back to the story again, will you?

All in all, is it just as meaningless as I feared it would be? Is it a terrible beauty waiting to be reborn this way?

I guess time will tell.

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Nishat Atiya is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka. She is also a sub-editor at the Star Literature and Review pages of The Daily Star.

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