Book Review by Himadri Lahiri
Title: ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore
Translator/Editor: Somdatta Mandal; Foreword by Dipesh Chakrabarty.
Publisher: Bolpur: Birutjatiya Sammiloni.
Memoirs and correspondences constitute two alternative sources for reconstructing historical narratives. Generally kept outside the pale of mainstream history, memoirs, such as those included in the volume under review, can offer significant insights into the reading of important public figures and their activities. Despite the charges of ‘unreliability’ of memories with the help of which personal narratives are constructed, memoirs contribute to the understanding of a historical period with the help of small, apparently insignificant, details which can offer penetrating insights into reality. Personal correspondences with a public figure, preserved in family archives, too may contain interesting facts, figures and episodes which may help constructing their lives and recreating the social and intellectual environment of the time. Due to their very subjective nature, which mostly flouts the norms of objectivity, these genres may provide unique dimensions to the familiar historical narratives.
Somdatta Mandal’s book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (2020), selected, translated and edited by her, is an important source, particularly for non-Bengali readers, for comprehending Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning poet from Bengal who continues in global limelight. It unearths hitherto unknown facts, some activities of ‘small’ actors who played a role in history and ‘trivial’ details which help us view Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries from fresh perspectives. Written from an informed woman’s point of view, the narratives offer us opportunities for discovering ‘the lighter’ and homelier aspects of Tagore’s life – this is something “which is sorely missed in other serious narratives and biographies” (Mandal xvii).
The publication of this book is timely for yet another reason. Tagore’s tirade against fascism, unfettered authoritarianism, aggressive nationalism and his advocacy for personal freedom, national independence, universal humanism and global understanding have much relevance in our times. Reading Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe, 1969) in particular, one understands how a public figure with an impeccable record of liberal philosophical practices and humanist activities can be duped by the machination of fascist agents and utilised for fascist propaganda to the consternation of liberal intellectuals and common citizens across the world. For this very reason we need Tagore more than ever before. This is a point strongly emphasised by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his ‘Foreword’ to the book.
‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’ anthologises English translation of two memoirs of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis — Kobir Shongey Dakshinatte (With the Poet in the South) and Kobir Shongey Europey (With the Poet in Europe). The European tour took place in 1926 while Tagore travelled to South India and Ceylon in 1928. In her valuable Introduction to the book, Mandal raises the question of difficulty of determining the genre of the narratives. These are, according to her, not just memoirs, they are travelogues as well. Through them, one gets the feeling of following the trajectory of the author’s journey. But a reader also feels how Rani’s journey, along with her husband, revolves round an iconic personality whom they revered and valued. From this point of view, the memoirs often read like hagiographies as well.
In addition to these two memoirs, the anthology includes Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It),a collection of sixty letters Tagore wrote to Nirmalkumari whom he affectionately called Rani. In the Appendices, we find three other articles on Tagore written by Nirmalkumari: “Om Pita Nohosi,” “Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya,” and an essay written for children and originally published in Anandamela, a children’s magazine published by the Anandabazar Patrika. All these make the book voluminous and largely comprehensive. It may be mentioned here that Mandal has recently translated and edited another volume on Tagore entitled The Last Days of Rabindranth Tagore in Memoirs (April 2021). It includes memoirs by Pratima Thakur, Rani Chanda, Maitrayei Devi, Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis, and Amita Thakur.
Interestingly, all these memoirs were written by women who either belonged to the Tagore family or were in close contact with the poet. Dipesh Chakrabarty, in the ‘Foreword’ to Kobi and Rani, raises the issue of his “friendship with women that Tagore sought and sustained throughout his life” (iv), and mentioned in this context the names of Ranu Adhikari, Maitreyi Devi, Hemantabala Devi and Kadambari Devi. He observes that “a feeling of respectful affection and concern for the poet finds a deeply gendered and womanly expression in this book. It oozes out of each page” (iv). The above statement is true of The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs too. Taken together, these two anthologies provide a very intimate and comprehensive account of one of the greatest poets of our time.
Tagore felt the need for recording the accounts of his travels in writing. That would be, in his opinion, a valuable source of literary and historical information in future. He was particularly sensitive about his European tour during which he met several well-known intellectuals. In the ‘Introduction’ to On the Road and Beyond It, he asserts, “the value of the narration of my European tour that has not been published anywhere is enormous” (391). Similarly, Tagore said in the Foreword to With the Poet in the South, “They [the details of his tour] should not be lost” (317). This sense of preservation of history is also present in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the poet in Europe). Here in the ‘Foreword’, Rani notes that Tagore, in a letter published in Prabasi, complained, “Those who had accompanied me during my foreign travel did not take the responsibility of protecting my travelogue, and that is why this chapter remains unknown to people, etc.” (3). As both her ‘Foreword’ and Prasantachandra Mahalanobis’s ‘Preface’ to the same memoir indicate, it was clearly the result of a misunderstanding for which Tagore apologised later.
The history of this misunderstanding goes deeper. The couple suspected the involvement of some insider in the loss of the file containing the manuscript of the despatches sent by Prasantachandra from Europe for publication in Visva-Bharati Bulletin. The file containing Nirmalkumari’s letters were also lost. Although retrieved afterwards, some valuable letters were never found. Rani narrates in detail how the tour to Europe was mired in controversy and conspiracy right from the beginning. Rani’s narrative convincingly proves that Professor Guiseppe Tucci and Professor Carlo Formichi, two visiting professors at Visva-Bharati, functioned as Mussolini’s spies.
They were instrumental in Tagore being invited to Italy by Mussolini. Formichi who oversaw the arrangements of the tour conspired to exclude the Mahalanobis couple from the entourage. He also severely censored the list of Tagore’s visitors in Italy. How Benedetto Croce could meet Tagore with the help of Captain Rapicavoli reads like a detective story. Formichi wilfully misinterpreted Tagore’s messages to the press to create an impression that Tagore supported Mussolini’s fascist regime. The twisted versions were published in newspapers, and these spread across Europe, misrepresenting Tagore’s views.
When Tagore met Romain Rolland in Switzerland, Rolland was initially not well-disposed to Tagore because of the fake news stories in circulation. Nirmalkumari records all the details of Formichi’s machination in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe). For this alone, if not for anything else, this book will provide invaluable materials to historians and common readers alike.
Although the narrative of the poet’s European tour will be of paramount interest particularly to non-Bengali readers who will try to visualize the poet from the East in the maelstrom of radical politics in Europe and to place him in the interface of East-West cultural encounter, his tour of Southern India will be of immense importance to readers intent on knowing the background history of two of his important novels Jogajog (Relationships) and Sesher Kobita (The Last Poem). This is provided in Kobir Shonge Dakshinatte (With the Poet in the South) which also brings to public knowledge intimate details such as how Tagore was affected by the Jalianwalla Bag killings, and how his interaction with Chittaranjan Das went on, C.F. Andrews’ meeting with Mahatma Gandhi as Tagore’s emissary, how intensely engaged Tagore himself had been in writing Lipika and so on. Tagore felt that all these should be preserved as “very important historical documents” (317). The poet’s meeting with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry is also an important part of the memoir.
Trivial but amusing incidents such as the idiosyncrasies of C.F. Andrews, Tagore’s own obsessions and childlike behaviour – all come out with a touch of humour. These correspond to Rani’s power of observation and sense of humour evident in the descriptions in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe). She describes how a fancy dress ball was arranged aboard the ship Orama which took the Mahalanobis couple to Europe (36), how Rani was initially afraid of a large shark swimming on the water near Port Said (37), how Rani and her female companions, dressed in typical Indian attires and decked with heavy ornaments, became a public spectacle in Naples (39-40), how the unhygienic packaging of chocolates in Turin caused repulsion in Rani (70), and several other incidents.
Mandal has done well by including On the Road and Beyond It, Tagore’s collection of sixty letters, in the volume. Tagore wrote these letters to Rani after his return from Europe. He observes in the ‘Introduction’ to the collection, “I continued to keep our relationship alive through letters” (390-91). It, therefore, is intimately connected in spirit with the memoir With the Poet in Europe. The letters, the best medium for conveying emotional exuberance, testify to Tagore’s great affection for, and dependence on, Rani.
The book includes some black and white photographs of important persons and places. Two images of the first edition of Bangla Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) have found their place in the anthology. Mandal’s criteria for selection of texts are quite appropriate, her translation is smooth and editing praiseworthy. Her erudite Introduction will help the readers contextualising the texts included in the volume. The paratextual components of the book are aesthetically pleasing. On the whole, the production of the book is superb. This volume will be a valuable resource for Tagore Studies.
Himadri Lahiri is former Professor of English, University of Burdwan, West Bengal. Currently, he is Professor of English at the School of Humanities, Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata. Asia Travels: Pan-Asian Cultural Discourses and Diasporic Asian Literature/s in English (Bolpur: Birutjatiyo Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021) and Diaspora Theory and Transnationalism (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2019) are his latest books. He writes book reviews for academic journals and newspapers. He also writes poetry.
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