The Post Office by Tagore was written, translated and performed in multiple languages throughout Europe, eventually made into a Bengali film by Satyajit Ray (Postmaster, 1961). Rakhi Dalalrevisits the original translation done by Devabrata Mukherjee in 1912,
Title: The Post Office
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translator: Devabrata Mukherjee
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Dakghar was written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. Devabrata Mukherjee, an Oxford University student at the time, translated the play into English in 1912. It was first published in London by Cuala Press in 1914 with an introduction by W.B.Yeats. He, along with Lady Gregory, had also directed its first staging in English in 1913 by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The production then transferred to the Court Theatre, London, later the same year before the Bengali original was staged at Tagore’s Jorasanko theatre in Calcutta in 1917.
This play was translated into French by André Gide and was read on the radio the night before Paris fell to the Nazis. During World War II, there were 105 performances of The Post Office in concentration camps in Germany. Perhaps one of the most noteworthy was its staging by Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator who ran a Jewish orphanage in a ghetto in Warsaw. It was there that the play was organised for children just a few weeks before they, as well as Korczak, were deported to the concentration camps of Treblinka.
The story revolves around a young child Amal, an orphan adopted by his Uncle Madhav, who suffers from an ailment. On the instruction of the physician treating him, he is restricted within the house and is not allowed to go outside. In his quest to explore the world beyond the confines of his home, he sits near a window facing a road and talks to people passing-by. He becomes fascinated by the newly constructed post office near his window and imagines receiving letters from the king. The play presents a vivid picture of Amal, his longings, his ideas of life and the limitations that he faces.
Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee, in the introduction to this edition, quotes the bard from the letter he wrote to Andrews in 1921 where he says, “Amal represents the man who has received the call of the open road – he seeks freedom from the comfortable enclosure of habits sanctioned by the prudent and from the walls of rigid opinion built for him by the respectable.”
The narrative traverses through the realms of a mind born free, eager to understand and appreciate the beauty of the natural world and, yet with time, constrained by the ideas fostered as acceptable by societal norms. Amal would rather venture outside and hop like a squirrel than sit at home, toiling at books which his Uncle thinks makes a man learn. He would rather cross mountains and go farther to seek work than be disheartened by their imposing structure. To his Uncle, the hills are barriers whereas to Amal, they are the hands of earth raised into the sky, beckoning people from far off.
The play also explores the nature of human dealings with outsiders, the usual conventions of a society while dealing with persons we may only come across as strangers and seem to emphasise upon the virtue of the sense of fraternity which the otherwise busier life tends to disregard. Amal meets a dairyman, a watchman, a flower gathering girl, a gaffer and a headman while sitting at his window and leaves an impression on each of them. He endears as a persona in harmony with nature as well as in his interactions with other people through his life so that the journey becomes more joyous for everyone.
This play is written in two acts. In the first act, Amal wishes to discover the world outside his restrictions while sitting at his window. In the second act his condition worsens, and he is confined to his bed where he spends his time waiting for the postman to deliver a letter from King. And finally, he sinks into his last sleep.
In its October issue of 1914, The Times Literary Supplement wrote: “This is the first impression that the play gives, as a play should: an impression of actuality, complete within the limits of human life as seen and heard in a real world.” The second act may be seen as a wait for the messenger of God/death which delivers the final fate for Amal. W.B. Yeats says that the “play conveys to the right audience an emotion of gentleness and peace” which is epitomised by Amal’s character.
This play translated by Mukherjee more than a hundred years ago continues to touch hearts to this date. Given our present context, impaired by the excessive capitalistic tendencies of the age, marred by wars, blurred by frenzies of hatred seeping into the fabric of societies, this comes as a gentle reminder of the necessity to live in peace, to approach nature and humans, even strangers, with compassion and to show more consideration in our dealings with them. It helps us understand that a mind that can live in harmony with nature and with humankind, can eventually embrace the final call in tranquillity.
The Post Office is a splendid play written with a poetic cadence which has elements of tragedy and yet manages to leave the reader with a sense of serenity that seems to be the writer’s message for a life to live in harmony with nature, with humankind and with oneself.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
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In Conversation with Shazi Zaman, author of Akbar: A Novel of History, published by Speaking Tiger Books
“I profess the religion of love, and whatever direction
Its steed may take, Love is my religion and my faith.”
— Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), Akbar: A Novel of History by Shazi Zaman
These lines were written by a mystic from Spain who influenced Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), a ruler who impacted the world with his broad outlook. Based on such ideology as preached by Ibn-i-Arabi more than three hundred years before him, with an urge to transcend differences and unite a world torn by strife, the great Mughal founded his own system of beliefs. He had few followers. But Akbar chose to be secular and not to impose his beliefs on courtiers, many of whom continued to follow the pre-existing religions. He tried to find tolerance in the hearts of practitioners of different faiths so that they would respect each other’s beliefs and live in harmony, allowing him to rule impartially.
Akbar is reported to have said: “We perceive that there are varying customs and beliefs of varying religious paths. For the teachings of the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis, the Jews and the Christians are all different. But the followers of each religion regard the institutions of their own religion as better than those of any other. Not only so, but they strive to convert the rest to their own way of belief. If these refuse to be converted, they not only despise them, but also regard them for this very reason as their enemies. And this causes me to feel many serious doubts. Wherefore I desire that on appointed days the books of all the religious laws be brought forward, and that the doctors meet together and hold discussions, so that I may hear them, and that each one may determine which is the truest and the mightiest religion.” Of such discussions and ideals was born Akbar’s new faith, Din-i-ilahi.
Was it exactly like this? Were these Akbar’s exact words?
They have been put in perspective by an author and a journalist who has written a novel based on his research on the grand Mughal, Shazi Zaman. He tells us in the interview why he opted to create a man out of Akbar rather than a historical emperor based only on facts. He has even mentioned that Akbar might have been dyslexic in the introduction. But Zaman’s admiration for the character he has recreated for us overflows and floods the reader with enthusiasm for this legendary Mughal. Akbar is depicted as a man who was far ahead of his times. He talked of syncretism and secularism in a world where even factions within the same religion were killing each other.
The novel was first written and published in Hindi in 2017 by the bilingual Zaman, who started his three-decade-long career in broadcast journalism at Doordarshan and has since, worked with several media organisations. Zaman trans created his Hindi novel on Akbar to English to reach out to a broader audience. The whole experience has been a heady one for Zaman as the interview shows but for the reader what is it like? To start with one felt like the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court, except one was flitting around in the Indian subcontinent of the sixteenth century, with a few incursions to the Middle-East, but mostly within India. Transported to a different age, it takes a while to get one’s bearings. Once that is established, the novel is a compelling read.
The first part deals with Akbar’s developmental years and the second part with his spiritual outlook which helped him create an empire with many colours of people and religions. This is a novel that has been written differently from other historical novels, like Aruna Chakravarti’sJorasanko (2013), for the simple reason that it belongs to a different time and ethos which was farther from our own or Tagore’s times. Akbar has a larger tapestry of people across a broader canvas than Jorasanko and it takes time to grasp the complexities of relationships and interactions. The other recent non-fiction which springs to the mind while reading Akbar is Avik Chanda’sDara Shukoh: The Man Who would be King (2019) about the great grandson of the emperor who lived from 1615-1659. Again, this was a narrative closer to our times and was not a novel, but a creative non-fiction based strongly on history. While Dara’s character painted by Chanda showed weaknesses like an inability to respect the nobility or plan wars, Akbar painted by Zaman is kind but a man of action who ruled and intended to rule well. A leader — one has to remember — is not always the most popular man. Nor was Akbar with his eccentricities and erudition despite his inability to read — the book does tell us why he did not learn to read and how he educated himself. Most of the novel is a work of passion based on extensive research over two decades. As Henry Kissinger had said at a much later date, “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.” And the Akbar recreated by Zaman does just that.
Zaman who had been with the ABP (Anand Bazar Patrika) News Network as their Group Editor, was on the governing bodies of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi. He has worked with Aaj Tak, Zee News, Star News and also with the BBC World Service, London. He has served as the Director, Video Services of the Press Trust of India. Akbar is his third novel. He has authored two novels in Hindi earlier. In Akbar: A Novel of History (2021), Zaman with his journalistic background and his love for literature inherited from his novelist father, Khwaja Badiuzzaman, has done the mammoth task of astutely bringing to life a character who might have been a perfect solution to the leadership crisis that many are facing in the current day.
If you are still wondering how close this novel comes to the Bollywood movie called Jodha Akbar (2008), the major things in common were the grand Mughal’s sense of justice and his ability to tame wild elephants! For a deeper understanding of both the emperor and the book, in this exclusive, Zaman tells us what went into the making of this novel and his journey.
Why did you choose to write of Akbar?
One has to have a bit of Akbar inside oneself to write on him—and to read about him as well. Writing on Akbar was not a conscious decision. By the time I realised that I was going to write a novel of history on Akbar, my sub-conscious was miles ahead. Of course his personality had attributes that appealed to me consciously and sub-consciously, especially his belief in primacy of ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind imitation of tradition) and his ability to question all orthodoxies.
Do you think Akbar is relevant in the current context?
I believe that his message is so ennobling that it transcends the boundaries of space and time. Across ages and across geographies, and within a geography by various groups and communities, his memory has been kept alive.
There was a book a few years ago called Dara Shukoh: The Man who would be King. Would you say he would be more relevant for our times than Akbar or is Akbar a better choice?
It is difficult to give them a comparative score. Dara could have been a very worthy successor to Akbar. And his initiatives and writings are really inspiring. Robustness of ideas and your resolve to push them are tested when faced with exigencies of statecraft. Sadly, Dara did not get that chance and Akbar did. I find that Akbar could navigate but sometimes be audacious to the extent that his courtier poet-musician Tansen had to caution, ‘dheere dheere dheere man, dheere hi sab kachhu hoye (Slowly, slowly, slowly, all happens at a slow pace)’.How would Dara have navigated while on throne is an unanswered question in Indian history. Having said this, his defeat in the battle of succession should not undermine the originality of his initiatives.
Why did you choose to write this in a novel form? Dara Shukoh was a non-fiction. Have you introduced fiction into this?
History largely tells us what happened. Most often it does not tell us of the state of mind that brought people to the point where we find them take momentous decisions. I think momentous events or actions are rooted in mental journeys. And these journeys are seldom documented. When Akbar faced a mental crisis—‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ (a strange state) as a contemporary called it— in the summer of 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum, one wants to map what was happening in his mind and what had brought him to that point.
What lay behind the agitation of this man who was one of the mightiest emperors of the world, who had never lost a battle and was at the peak of his power ? Were there some forces testing his patience ? Or as he stood at a place linked to the history of his forefathers, did he wonder about the trauma they had faced ? Or when he dealt a physical blow to a top cleric of yester years, there must have been a mental journey preceding this act. One can try and go into a person’s mind by closely studying his actions and utterances as also that of people and texts that influence him. We all know that people often mean much more than what they choose to say and sometimes, they say one thing and mean the other.
A close examination of this maze can give a glimpse of what was happening inside the great mind. As you try to create a period piece around his state of mind you mine information from all available sources—textual, aural, visual, architectural. For me fidelity to known facts is essential even in historical fiction. But there does come a point when the trail goes cold. Even the best documentary evidence might be insufficient in finding all the pieces of the period piece. For example, we do not know what Akbar was wearing the night he experienced the ‘haalat-i-ajeeb‘ but we have a Mughal miniature in all likelihood of the next morning when Akbar takes an unexpected decision about the great game. Now, it has come down to us that he appeared wearing last night’s clothes. So we know what he was probably wearing at the time he was in ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’ of the previous day. Or we do not know the details of the carpet of the room where he lay dying. Nobody recorded that. Thankfully, some details have come down to us of carpets of those times. I have chosen to use them. After exhausting all means of finding the right pieces of this period piece, I have exercised my imagination. So this is fiction very much rooted in history. If I have been able to do what I had intended, you would feel you have read his mind as also feel that you are actually standing backstage in the Akbarian arena.
In the debate I often encounter about the element of history in historical fiction, perhaps we miss a basic point. Most fiction has history in it. Some have history that is known. Some have history that is personal or unique to the author. It is only when known history figures in your work that the issue of reality versus fiction surfaces. Otherwise, this mingling is not questioned.
What was the kind of research you did? How long did it take you to research and write this book? Tell us about its evolution.
The idea had been simmering under the surface since early years. As I have mentioned in my preface, a childhood incident imprinted Akbar on my mind. During my school days, a member of the education department of the government made a surprise inspection and gave a short introduction to Akbar’s life and his relevance to our times. It left a mark. I was especially blessed to have teachers who stoked my interest. I shall be eternally grateful to my teacher Muhammad Amin–Amin Saheb as he was called at St.Stephen’s College (Delhi University) — to have brought history to life in classroom and sessions outside classroom. Amin Saheb taught us Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ , which he said stands not for tolerance or co-existence because even these terms denote some separation. He said, Akbar’s ‘sulh-i-kul’ meant harmony. Amin Saheb taught us about Akbar’s desire to build bridges and his respect for diversity. Many like me graduated from the university but never left his class. I feel privileged that for quarter of a century after leaving College I continued to sit at his feet and learn about Akbar. A good teacher teaches and also shows the path to further learning.
My interest in Mughal miniatures took me to various museums within the country and abroad and of course to places like Fatehpur Sikri–a city that Akbar created with a purpose– very often. Over decades I have gathered in my personal collection most of what has been written about Akbar and almost all books published on his art and architecture. I can say that all published Mughal miniatures reside in my study now. So Akbar was a character I had been breathing much before it became the idea of a novel. However, for a period spread over two decades I did consciously try to piece together a story.
How did you create the character of Akbar ?
Akbar was not merely a historical figure. He was also acutely conscious that he was making history. And as a person conscious of this, he left ample footprints.
When you try to get into a person’s mind you piece together all he saw and read (or in case of Akbar, was read to) and experienced; all he interacted with; all he surrounded himself with; all he spoke and wanted to be spoken, read and spread; and all that he created. Foremost, of course, is Akbarnama which was a monumental image building exercise entrusted to a close and trusted courtier, Abul Fazl. Abul Fazl knew what went on in Akbar’s mind. This work is rich in details and is a comprehensive history of Akbar and his forefathers. Akbar also commissioned others who knew his forefathers to write histories that would help Abul Fazl in his work. Akbarnama is an official account. It was vetted by Akbar and tells us how Akbar wanted to be seen by his contemporaries and by future generations. It is extremely useful in giving us the image the emperor aimed to project.
Then there were many others who wrote their histories during his reign. But it is the history called Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh by a disgruntled cleric, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, which was written secretly that gives us an unofficial perspective. I am grateful to the anonymous author of the historic Rajasthani work, Dalpat Vilas, for giving an informal and unique access into the emperor’s mind. Anybody studying Akbar feels especially grateful for the elaborate atelier —tasveer khana — as it was called — that the emperor established. Paintings made under his direction and patronage give us a vivid picture of what he thought was worth projecting. If you look closely, Mughal miniatures of his time often have a story and even a back story that gives you an indication of the emperor’s mind.
Akbar built at a huge scale and many of his buildings still stand tall and the stones speak even now of why he gave them the shape that he did. Then of course are works related to his ancestors like Baburnama which Akbar was fond of and later, of his son’s Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Akbar’s public contact and communication was prolific. We might well have seen him if we were living in that age. He travelled and interacted widely.
Almost every morning of his half a century long reign he appeared at the balcony so that the subjects could see him. Even those who did not see him felt his presence. Banarsidas, a trader of his time, who also wrote a chronicle, notes the widespread alarm amongst common people when the emperor fell ill. Letters Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar wrote to Uzbek and Persian kings, the emperor of Spain and Portugal, to nobles and others have been handed down to us. His interactions with religious persons find mention in Vaishnavite, Jain and Mahdawi literature. The letters that Jesuits at his court were writing to their superiors are useful for their perspective as also for the ‘unofficial’ details. Then there were personalities Akbar drew to his court who were poets, warriors, administrators and diplomats who were themselves eminent enough to be written about, or were writers themselves. I closely studied them.
Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan was like a son to Akbar and wrote poetry that is timeless in its appeal. Tansen, an eminent poet and musician at his court wrote ‘takhat baitho Mahabali ishvar hoye avtar (the mighty Emperor sits on the throne as incarnation of God)’, which is how Akbar would have wanted to be described. Works written on Raja Mansingh like Mancharit and Mancharitra Raso helped me understand a mighty noble, who again was like a son—‘farzand’—to Akbar. Akbar himself is believed to have been a poet and pieces of poetry deemed to be his have come down to us. His memory resonates even now in folk songs.
In terms of material evidence of personal effects, we have an armour of Akbar which was helpful in ascertaining his approximate height. Of course, this was achieved with the help of experts. Not all that one gathered necessarily went into this work but I tried to gather as much as I could so as to know how Akbar lived, ate, slept, worked, played, deliberated, relaxed, fought and thought and what was the world he inhabited, and also what was the kind of world he wanted to inhabit.
I must say that I tried to access original sources in Persian, Sanskrit and other languages with the help of experts, in addition to what I could read myself in English, Hindi and Urdu.
In your introduction you have said Akbar might have been dyslexic or bipolar. Why? What made you think he might have been dyslexic or bipolar? Could it not be that as a child he was not just into books and therefore did not learn to read?
There has been some academic work on some of the issues Akbar faced. I think his behaviour on the full moon night of the year 1578 on the banks of the river Jhelum and on occasions before that definitely call for more investigations in that direction, though one is conscious that the emperor himself is not available for close examination. As for dyslexia specifically, one can say that the man loved books. He commissioned and collected them at a huge scale but he did not read them. They were read out to him. Historical sources indicate that he could not read or write. Though I have seen copies of his handwriting, they seem laboured. It would be a fair assumption that he was dyslexic. I think he was a great visual learner. That is why no Mughal emperor before or after had as big a tasveer khana as him.
You have repeated this phrase thrice in the book. ‘Hindus should eat beef, Muslims should eat pork, and if not this, fry a sheep in the pan. If it turns into pork, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it turns into beef, Hindus and Muslims should have it together. If it becomes pork, Muslims should have it. If it becomes beef, Hindus should have it. A divine miracle would thus happen.’ Why?
More than one account reveal puzzling behaviour and utterances of the emperor. This forced one person to say that this was ‘haalat-i-ajeeb’. Nobody at that time could fully understand his state or his words. I feel that it was reflective of his anguish over religious disputes and religious orthodoxy. An emperor who had never lost a contest was getting impatient. In moments of mental crisis it is possible for a person to say things which have layers of meaning. One has to peep underneath the words to fathom the anguish of a sensitive mind. This was one such utterance.
What is the most endearing quality you found in Akbar? And why?
It is difficult to pinpoint one in a person who embodied numerous qualities. His belief in giving precedence to ‘aql’ (reason) over ‘naql’ (blind adherence to tradition). His spirit of enquiry and his desire to provide space for differing thoughts. He believed—“It is my duty to have good understanding with all men. If they walk in the way of God’s will, interference with them would be in itself reprehensible; and if otherwise, they are under the malady of ignorance and deserve my compassion.”
There is an incident mentioned in the book. The Jesuits who came with the intention of converting Akbar finally despaired because he would give them ample space and ample attention but stop short of conversion. So one evening, they came and sought leave since their embassy had failed in its purpose. Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar replied, “…how can you say that the time you have spent with us has been profitless, seeing that formerly the Muslims had so much credit in my land that if any had dared to say that Jesus Christ was the true God, he would straightway have been put to death; whereas you are now able to say this, and to preach the same in all security ?”
You wrote the novel first in Hindi and then trans created it to English. Why? What is the difference between the Hindi and the English versions?
The novel Akbar naturally came to my mind in Hindi, a language the emperor would have been comfortable with had he been alive. Having said this, I am grateful to my publishers, Rajkamal and Speaking Tiger, for initiating the idea of an English version. And I did immediately see the need to take Akbar to a wider audience because the novel has an idiom and language rooted in Hindustan but Akbarian thought and vision have an appeal that is wider than the regions he ruled. So the challenge was to take the text, sub-text and the idiom to an English audience. The challenge was also to make Akbar’s 16th century intelligible to 21st century English-speaking world. I have tried my best with help of editors at Speaking Tiger to make it a work English speakers would be at home with. I am sure they would be able to savour the milieu, the plot and the sensibility of 16th century Hindustan in their preferred language. A good translation should in fact be a trans creation and should read like it has been written in the same language.
You have two novels in Hindi. Do you plan to translate those too to English? Why? Why not write directly in English?
I believe that no thought is completely translatable into words and no words are completely translatable into another set of words. Thus the word transcreation. The first two novels Premgali Ati Sankri (The Narrow Alley of Love) and Jism Jism Ke Log (Various Bodies) have intense conversation between characters which is rooted in their shared understanding of an idiom. Translation is desirable and relatable because stories strike a chord across space but works have texts, sub-text and idiom. The problem and the challenge lies in taking the sub-text and the idiom into another language. That is why trans creation requires a deep understanding of the text, the sub-text and the idiom of the original work as also of the sensibilities of the audience for whom you are trans creating. Having said this, I would be happy to translate the first two novels for an English readership. The theme would strike a chord, the idiom would need some fine work.
Will you shuttle between English and Hindi in the future? Are you planning more books?
Shuttling between Hindi and English is an interesting thought. I am already seized by an idea that came to my mind as an English text. It is germinating. As for more books, I have already sent a Hindi novelet for publication which could be thematically seen as third in series after Premgali Ati Sankri and Jism Jism Ke Log. While telling stories to my children, and making them up as I went along, I created a short novel for children which awaits publication. I am also in the process of writing another novel in the genre of historical fiction.
Thank you for your time.
This is an online interview conducted on behalf of Borderless Journal by Mitali Chakravarty.
Title: Golden Bangladesh at 50, Contemporary Poems & Stories
Editor: Shazia Omar
Publisher: The University Press Ltd, 2021
The title of the collection of poems and short stories under review is apt for two reasons. First, that it derives from Rabindranath Tagore’s lyric Amaar Shonar Bangla … the national anthem of the country. Second, that the book has been published in 2021, the Golden Jubilee year of the formation of Bangladesh.
The political partition of Pakistan in 1971 caused one of the greatest convulsions in the history of the subcontinent. The Bengalis of Pakistan suffered barbaric violence and bloodshed because they valued their distinctive identity above everything else and refused to submit to a harsh regime’s determination to quell and subdue it. Civil wars have been fought before but never, in the history of mankind, over a language and culture.
Interestingly, Rabindranath’s poem, too, was written as part of movement led by him against Lord Curzon’s infamous Partition of Bengal bill in 1905. The intention of the government was clear. Bengalis were waking up to a sense of nationhood and coming together through the growth and spread of the Bengali language and literature. A blow had to be struck to curb it. And what could be more effective than division based on ethnicity and religion?
The editor Shazia Omar deserves our congratulations for bringing together a vast range of voices. Some are new and unknown, some old and established and some culled from across a wide diaspora. From New York, Chicago and San Francisco. From London, Rome, Toronto and Hongkong. This anthology, to use her own words is, “a wayofhonouring all that we have learned, yearned for, found and let go. To give our readers a sense of who we are now.” Accordingly, itencapsulates the joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations, losses and anxieties of two generations of Bangladeshis both from home and abroad.
That partition trauma continues to shape the literature of Bangladesh is apparent from this volume. But the new enquiry has moved away from a nationalistic obsession with the horror of the event to a closer probe into people’s history through recollections of lived experience. Social, familial and personal attempts at restoration of identity seems to be the primary concern in these stories.
The contributions are all in English. The last few decades have been marked by a great deal of discourse about the decolonization of the language. In the past, much colonial creativity has felt throttled by the dominance of English as written and spoken by the ruling class. Today the fragmented pieces of the old empire are striking back with a vengeance. Each erstwhile colony has come up with its own brand of English. This book is a triumphant vindication of Binglish… tried and tested in the literature of West Bengal and Bangladesh. The volume is replete with cultural nuances. Phrases like eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi and names of seasons and festivals phagun, boishakh, agrahayan, eid, nabanno are used freely without footnotes or glossary. The writers have felt no compulsion to translate kinship terms, exclamations and natural phenomena. English has triumphantly broken its original grammatical and syntactical mode and become a hybrid — both a native and a foreign language.
The issues examined in this collection are varied. Class struggle, patriarchy, dogma, superstition, displacement, loss and reclamation of identity. The characters are culled from a wide spectrum of society. From the very rich to the very poor; from the shamelessly privileged to the shockingly deprived. Such yawning gaps, some of the writers seem to imply, are a reality in Bangladesh even in its 50th year of Independence.
Some stories depict a polarisation of power along the lines of gender. Women are victims of exclusion and varied forms of subjugation. Some are seen as trapped in the iron fist of a feudal order. A few others, westernized and seemingly empowered, share the same fate though the mode of suppression is refined and sophisticated.
Yet, that is not always true. Many of the stories are set in the bustling metropolis of Dhaka where women from all religions, classes and persuasions roam freely. The city is seen as a place of pluralism and diversity. One senses freedom of thought and action as well as a strong sense of belonging to larger whole.
The book is a rich multi-site ethnography that spans continents and traces personal histories and movements of Bangladeshis. It is a notable addition to the literature of the diaspora in that the stories present sensitively nuanced accounts of the East West encounter. In ‘Neighbours’, Nadeem Zaman explores the dilemma of a Bangladeshi woman trying to make a life in Canada during the Liberation war. Struggling against a harsh climate and what she considers an unloving culture, she is forced to pause and reflect when she becomes friendly with her next-door neighbour. She finds his identity troubling, since he seems to combine a sensitive, warm and compassionate outlook with a violent relationship with his wife and indifference to his daughters. The Other seems embodied in paradox.
Neeman Sobhan’s ‘Bengali Lessons’ is a poignant diaspora story stretching across space and time. Employing a seamless mix of three languages, English, Bengali and Italian, she moves her story between two worlds and timeframes. Two eras run parallel. War ridden Bangladesh of 1971 and Covid afflicted Rome of 2020. The central character, a professor teaching Bengali to a group of Italian girls on Zoom, remembers her traumatic childhood, trapped in her grandfather’s house in 1971, and finds it astonishingly similar to her present-day situation in another country and another time. It is a severed world she remembers but one in which a Muslim child saves a Hindu soldier from an excruciatingly painful death.
Another excellent examination of child psychology is contained in Fatma Ahmad’s ‘Phultokka’ . Childhood is often considered to be the happiest phase of a person’s life. That the notion is far from the truth is seen in the mental struggles, failed aspirations, jealousies and misunderstandings suffered by the intelligent and sensitive teller of the story. She is called Taalgaach (palm tree)a derogatory reference to her height and complexion, by the school bullies. Why do bullies bully? Why can’t some children, especially exceptional ones, cope with the real world and retreat into an inner one, while others have no difficulty in merging and being part of a larger whole? These are some of the questions raised in the story.
‘Charaiveti’ and ‘Kalpanta Sthayina’ by Lubna Mariam, derive from the ancient Hindu texts Rigveda and Hitopadesha. The first describes an undefined urge to go on a journey without a destination. Man’s existential freedom drives him towards an imagined Utopia. “Keep going,” the sages say, “because life itself is the journey; an inner journey from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge”.
Kalpanta Sthaniyah is a Sanskrit phrase meaning enduring till the end of the Universe. A grandfather’s replies to his grandchild’s innocent question about where the river comes from and where it goes, encompass deep philosophical concepts. He speaks of beginnings and ends, past and present, old and new…flowing in an unbroken stream. A glorious merging in the free flow of time. An unending celebration of life.
I conclude with a few words on the poetry section. From the whimsical effusions of ‘Ode to a sari’ to evocations of sights, sounds, smells, taste and feel of their beloved country in ‘Daydream’ ‘Midnight blues’ and ‘For you’, the writers offer a carpet rich with colour and design, light and life. Capricious and fanciful at times, a glimpse of truth is invariably offered at the end of each poem.
Zeesham Khan’s ‘Banglar desh’, one of the best of the collection, portrays the generosity and compassion of nature as against the callous brutality of the human race. Here is a personification of nature that is amazingly poignant, graceful and symmetrical. The world pulsates with life. Trees have flesh and blood. All organisms speak; feel pain and pleasure. An achingly immediate, hauntingly sensuous, world! The all too real river under a canopy of moon and stars. Paddy fields, bamboo shoots, wild flowers, butterflies and moths. Should not all meld together with humans to make a complete whole? Butdoes such a whole exist in the universe? The writer thinks not. He deplores…
I have seen blissful harmony pause
To give way to aggressive survival
And humans being homo sapiens
Unencumbered by unnecessary compassion.
eta ki, amaar kukoor, or naam, madhur hanshi – what is this, my dog, or name, sweet smile
Phultokka — A game played by children. Phool means flower and tokka, touch. One child is blindfolded while others touch the youngster lightly. The blindfolded child has to guess who the person is.
Aruna Chakravarti has been the principal of a prestigious women’s college of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well-known academic, creative writer and translator with fourteen published books on record. Her novels Jorasanko, Daughters of Jorasanko, The Inheritors have sold widely and received rave reviews. Suralakshmi Villa is her fifteenth book. She has also received awards such as the Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar for her translations.
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Odisha and West Bengal, two geographically contiguous states of India, are as much a proximate in culture and language. Both states have a close link – from people movements to culinary familiarity. More to that. Puri attracts lakhs of people from Bengal. In truth, it is the Bengalis around whom the holy city of Puri revolves. They contribute greatly to the city’s economy. The Tagore family of Jorasonko too had a close connection with Odisha and it stretches back to generations. Rabindranath Tagore’s great grandfather Nilamani Thakur had come to Cuttack as a ‘Sirastadar‘ (revenue collector) duly appointed by the British.
In 1840, Rabindranath’s grandfather Prince Dwarakanath Tagore had bought a small estate near Pandua in the present Jagatsinghpur district. Tagores even had a house built in Cuttack’s Tulasipur area. Later, Rabindranath’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore visited Odisha sometime around 1851 to supervise the estate at Pandua from where he visited Puri.
Records of those times bring out how the Tagore family was fascinated by Puri’s pristine beach, the camaraderie, and the cool breeze.
In 1891, Rabindranath Tagore visited Odisha for the first time to oversee the land his ancestors had bought. Tagore’s maiden visit to Odisha was memorable and soul-stirring. The bard’s fascination for Puri finds mentioned in ‘Chinnapatra’ — his letters to Indira Devi, Tagore’s niece. In one such letter, Tagore wrote:
“The road from Cuttack to Puri is good. It is high with low-lying fields on both sides. There are big shady trees, mostly mango. At this time, all the mango trees are in blossom, filling the way with fragrance. Some villages are seen surrounded by mango, pipal, banyan, coconut and palm trees.”
Tagore informs further:
“In places covered carts are standing on the banks of shallow rivers. There are confectioners under palm-leaf thatches. Inside the huts in rows, under the trees on both sides of the road, the pilgrims are taking their meals. The beggars are shouting in strange languages, whenever they see fresh batches of pilgrims or carriages or palanquins.”
He wrote fabulously about what he saw on his way to the glorious city of Puri:
“As one approaches Puri, the pilgrims are seen in greater numbers. Covered carts are seen moving in lines. People are found lying down, looking or gossiping together on the banks of tanks. On the right side of the road, a big spire of the Jagannath temple rises. Suddenly at one place, crossing the line of trees and bushes, the wide stretch of sandy sea-beach and the azure line of the sea become visible.”
Tagore visited Odisha once more in 1893.This time it was Cuttack with his nephew Balendranath. Tagore was a guest at the then District magistrate BL Gupta, ICS ( Malati Chaudhury’s grandfather). Having spent a few days there, Tagore set out to Puri on a palanquin and he was spellbound over the unspoiled sceneries on both sides of the Jagannath Sadak as it was called then. Tagore’s last visit to Odisha was in 1939.
He came on the request of Biswanath Das, the then Chief Minister (called Prime Minister) of Odisha to visit the province. When Das was in Kolkata to attend a meeting of the All India Congress Committee, he personally met the poet to pay respects and extend the invitation.
Tagore reached Puri on 19th April in 1939. He was warmly received by the ministers and government officials. The poet stayed in the Circuit House as the state government’s guest. But all his engagements were canceled as the poet developed a slight fever and the doctors advised him complete rest.
On 8th May 1939, the poet was given an ovation on behalf of the women of Odisha. The next day — his birthday – was celebrated with gusto. The birthday bash was held on a well decorated pandal with an opening song. The poet was welcomed with the chanting of Vedic hymns by the pundits of Puri’s Sanskrit College. Flower, sandal paste, vermilion and coconuts were offered to the poet as a mark of veneration.
So enthralled was Tagore at this spirit of love and affection that he wrote in a letter to his former Secretary Dr. Amiya Chakravarti:
“I have come to Puri. I am the invited guest of those who are now at the helm of the affairs of Orissa. There is something novel in this fact. In older days, they who were kings or heads of the state, used to honour the meritorious, thereby honouring their own countries and governments. By this liberality, they used to keep contact with human culture and admit the universal heritage in the development of faculties.”
He further wrote:
“We have learnt the modern system of political administration from the English. The talented have no place in it. The statesmen of Europe wield the outward aspect of that power which is based upon economic and administrative laws. They cannot have the right to govern the spirit that lies underneath but it is needless to argue that having acknowledged and paid due regard to it, a noble environment can be created for the government. In oriental system of administration, the scope for acknowledgment of the individual talent has, however, not been neglected.”
In the same letter, he was a bit apologetic:
“Let me now tell you about myself. I have no work here, nor am I of any use to anybody. Those who are taking care of me here, expect no material advice from me. That salutary and refreshing effect with which the sea breeze is touching my body and mind is the very symbol of the hospitality of the newly responsible Orissa Government. Administrative procedure has created no obstacle to it, nor has it been affected by the budgetary economy.”
On human relations Rabindranath wrote when he was convalescing:
“Sitting on the first floor of the Circuit House, I have unhesitatingly given myself up to pure idleness. The ministers here, having noticed the tired condition of my health, come every day to encourage me to spend my days without any purpose. The mentality of admitting human relationships even in the midst of heavy pressure of work is still inherent in our country; and this has been felt by me especially after I have come over here.”
During his stay at Puri, the Raja of Puri – an institution by himself – and the Superintendent of Sri Jagannath temple, bestowed upon Rabindranath, the title Parama Guru (the great teacher). As the poet was indisposed, the ceremony was not held publicly. The Dewan (manager) of the king came down to the circuit house in a procession to confer the title. The panegyric was read out in the hallowed Sanskrit language. Then a camphor garland, head dress and a pair of silk clothes were offered as a mark of respect by the chief priest.
Historian Prof. Pravat Mukherji later wrote about Tagore’s acceptance of the recognition thus: “He had been warmly received in many countries of the world, but the reception which was given that day by the people of Odisha touched his heart, as it was according to the traditional Hindu style.”
Tagore’s stay in Puri had a few other blissful moments. Many poets and freedom fighters met him. Among them were Lexicographer and compiler of ‘Purnachandra Bhashakosh’ (Odia Encyclopedia), Gopal Chandra Praharaj, Pandit Raghunath Mishra, freedom fighter Sarala Devi, poet and novelist Kalindi Charan Panigrahi and yet another gentleman from Jajpur, Chandrasekhar Das, about whom Tagore penned a few lines:
“O’ my unknown admirer,
Today you have become known.
With my blessings I repay
My admirer your loan.”
Two contemporary Odia poets — Bhaktakabi Madhu Sudan Rao and Kantakabi Laksmikanta Mohapatra (creator of the state song ‘Bande Utkal Janani’) – were inspired by Tagore and wrote two books – Kusumanjali (Posy of Flowers) and Jiban Sangeeta (Life Song) respectively, which are rare beginnings in modern Odia literature.
It was also during the Puri layover that Tagore wrote the dance drama ‘Chitrangada’ – the theme he seemed to have overheard from the local epic-sayers. Tagore also wrote some of his famous poems: Pravasi (Expatriate), Janmadin (Birthday) and Epare Opare (This side and that side) in Puri. In Pravasi, Tagore describes himself as a “man of the world and he does not consider anybody to be alien”.
Tagore loved the people of Odisha so much that he concluded:
“From a distance I have formed an idea about the love of the people and the efficiency of those who are at the helm of the administration of Orissa at present, and now I am appreciating it from close quarters.”
Sambad by Prof Basanta Kumar Panda ( Odiya translation of Chinnapatra). The excerpts from the Chinnapatra have been translated by Bhaskar Parichha from Odiya.
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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To Commemorate Tagore’s 80th Death anniversary, we present a review of Somdatta Mandal’s translation of memoirs around Tagore’s last days with a forward by Professor Fakrul Alam
Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra
Title: The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs
Translator/ Editor: Somdatta Mandal
Publisher: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021
The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, selected, edited, translated, and put together from the original Bangla by Somdatta Mandal, hovers along a fine line between biography, autobiography and perhaps a bit of hagiography around the account of a life lived in the shadow of imminent death. Mandal draws on all these genres to create a rich chiaroscuro of effects, with a chorus of the memoirs of a few caregivers, mostly women, who were in close proximity to Tagore and served and took care of him in the last year of his life.
Criss-crossing between bouts of illness and creativity, the caregivers also doubled as scribes and notetakers, transcribing the precious words of the great poet. Together, they create an incredibly rich web of narratives, which have been very ably selected and translated by Professor Somdatta Mandal. The memoirs also convey a sense and flavour of the place, whether it is Santiniketan, Jorasanko, Kalimpong or Mongpu — the various places and haunts of Rabindranath in the twilight of his life. The interesting thing is that many of these ancillary memoirs were written by young people who later became famous as writers and artists, their talents often nurtured, encouraged and incubated by the greatly revered poet himself.
The titles of their respective memoirs attest to their unique writerly talents: ‘Nirbaan’ by Pratima Devi, representing a release and freedom from a painful state. Rani Chanda, the second section talks about the ‘alapchari’(Musical) Rabindranath and Gurudev, highlighting his sensitivity to and concern for others. Mongpu-te Rabindranath and Swarger Kachakachi (Rabindranath at Mongpu and Close to Heaven) by Maitreyi Devi are deeply evocative pieces. Nirmalkumari’s “22nd Shravan” is perhaps given the most space by the editor/translator and shows his anxieties about the fate of the university built by him, a unique educational experiment very dear to his heart. Living in the shadow of the great man, it is as if each memoir and person measures up their life which gains in meaning and significance, as a result of the unique legacy bequeathed to them, with love and affection, by the poet.
In reflecting and refracting, through the prism of their care and service, the closing year of Rabindranath’s life, the memoirs lay bare several facts. The bard was often a difficult patient, experiencing several crests and troughs as far as his moods — creative and otherwise — were concerned. Too intelligent and perceptive to avoid facts, he could see his imminent death, but did not want his caregivers to be morose and mournful. On them, fell the job of entertaining him, creating laughter and fun, in which he would participate when his health permitted him. He was less scared of death, he said, than of surgery advocated by his very eminent doctors like Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy (later he Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1948-1962) and Dr Nilratan Sarkar.
That this book is a labour of love is evident from Professor Mandal’s careful selection and editing, as well as her meticulous and competent translation. She has presented the momentous and moving final months of Rabindranath Tagore’s eventful life up to the day of his death which witnessed an outpouring of grief from many quarters. It is the final months of his life which is transcribed and inscribed by his memorialists, among whom are Pratima Devi, his daughter-in-law and son Rathindranath’s wife; Rani Chanda, his secretary Anil Chanda’s wife and a writer herself; Maitreyi Devi, the well-known writer and a protégé and favourite of Tagore’s; Nirmalkumari Mahalanabis, whose exchanges with the kobi-guru (great poet) have been detailed in Kobi and Rani (translated by Professor Mandal in 2020) and Amita Thakur, his granddaughter.
The first selection Pratima Devi’s ‘Nirbaan’ (1942) demonstrates his faith in and affection for his conscientious daughter-in-law, who, along with Rani Chanda and others, become an embodiment of care and nurture. He is aware of being a difficult patient and this awareness, which shines through in many of his comments and pet peeves, not only redeems him, but makes him more human. Musing “fondly on the poet’s twilight moments” while punning on the Robi (Bangla for sun) in the poet’s name, Maitreyi Devi, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning novelist writes: “The almost setting sun…was no less pleasant than the glory and radiance of the afternoon sun” and even within the sickroom, the poet continued “playing” his tunes, along with the march of time.
In his sensitive and nuanced foreword, Professor Fakrul Alam points out the memorialists’ refusal to minimize or sentimentalize Gurudev’s illness. In fact, Rani (Nirmalakumari Mahalanobis) expresses her impatience and criticism of the happenings and the people around the poet in the last stages. Amita Thakur, Rabindranath’s granddaughter was a notable exponent of his songs in her time, and he would depend on her to note down the songs as they came to him. Her work is chosen, says Alam, “as a coda for her assemblage of extracts from the memoirs of the five devoted caregivers who were women who had served him selflessly for sustained periods.”
The literary and archival value of such a work is undeniable and its benefits for exploring literary culture is immense. Between its glimpses of a towering giant in the world of letters with a truly international perspective to its comments about Tagore’s closeness to women and his seeking women as caregivers, the collection is also a testament to Tagore’s faith in the selfless capacity of women.
The book and Rabindranath’s close relationship with his many caregivers and later, memoirists, sometimes created a family dynamic of some tension between his natal family and adopted one. At one point, Maitreyi Devi (called “Mongpobi” or “Mitra” by the poet) talks of the negative comments made about her by Indira Debi (Bibi), one of Tagore’s favourite nieces, daughter of Satyendranath Tagore and Jnadanandini Debi. Later however, Maitreyi Devi also mentions the kindness shown to her by Indira Debi when they are together in Santiniketan.
Like in Kobi and Rani, the memoirs of Rani Mahalanobis (called Prathama or first to differentiate her from Rani Chanda who was referred to as Dwitiya or second) show the many facets of the great man himself — his many moods from his mellow moods even when he was in extreme pain to his irascible mood to his playful and humorous moments. It is to the credit of the editor/translator that she has organised and arranged the material very skillfully to bring out his mercurial nature, his flashes of temper and his expectation that his caregivers would wear their responsibilities lightly.
Overtly committed to personal memory, life narratives and biographies occasionally come close to hagiography. They also lay bare a performativity inscribed in the very form, implicit in the relationship between the great man/ luminary and those who are satellites in his orbit. The many layers of feeling get reflected in a plurality of forms that are both sedimented and fluid in structure — comprising letters, diaries, poems, fragments. These innovative narrative structures are evolved to convey through an overlapping of various genres: non-fiction, poetry, memoir, autobiography, letters, etc. Extending well beyond any coherent theoretical coordinates to streamline its disparate forms, life narratives are as much constructed by an individual artist — subject as they are the product of her/his intersecting textures of historical, social, political, economic, and cultural contexts.
The socio-cultural context is specifically that of the progressive environment of Santiniketan and Vishwa Bharati. We see how the ambience of cultural efflorescence and Brahmo liberal ideas helped shape these young women. Perhaps, because of the reformist cast of Brahmo womanhood or the holistic educational schemes fostered by Tagore, in his caregivers, we see the emergence of relatively independent or mobile women, cast in agentic roles of decision making. We see an extraordinary sense of a tightly-knit community of caregivers whether in Pratima Devi and Maitreyi Devi during the harrowing journey back from Kalimpong to Calcutta when Tagore’s illness worsens, the encounters of Maitreyi Devi with British doctors in Kalimpong or the journey undertaken by Maitreyi from Mongpu along with her young daughter immediately after a landslide, when her husband, Manmohan Sen, undertakes to get the landslide cleared.
With a vibrant assembly of many pictures and voices, the story emerges from a collage. Piecemeal in bits and pieces, like the oranges sent to Rabindranath by Maitreyi Devi from Mongpu. Each experience, like the fruit, is savoured slowly and with relish. The remaining fruit, both actually and figuratively/symbolically, is given to the students.
A life, even one as extraordinary as Rabindranath Tagore’s, unfolds in time, simultaneously, it also participates in eternity. Thus, even as his nearness and the promise of proximate greatness draws his mentees into his magical orbit, we see him worrying about his imminent death and the fate of Santiniketan. We have to also see the life of the women, details of which get inscribed in their memoirs. The demands placed upon them are often relegated to the margins as they form part of the enchanted circle around the ailing poet, who at times seems to assert his claim on their time, albeit often in jest, sometimes in a semi-serious way, competing for their attention with their other affections and preoccupations. Their lives, they realise, are given significance and irradiated by his presence, endowed with value through the care they could extend to the great soul.
Ultimately the collection testifies to the power of great literature and poetry. As the poet himself says:
“Of course, literature is based upon lies — from beginning to end. Whatever I have said, whatever I am saying, how much of that is true? I have done a lot of farming for 80 years. I cannot vouch that all the grains will be stored in the barn. Some will be eaten by rats, but even then, something would be left behind. I cannot say that with certainty, eras change, times change and along with that everything also changes. But I can say with certainty that my songs will last the longest. Especially Bengalis will have no other way except to sing my songs in grief, sorrow, joy and happiness. They will have to go on singing them for ages.”
Kumar Sri Jayantanath is aptly quoted in Appendix B of the memoirs: “There is nothing new to say about Rabindranath because whatever we had to say has already been said by him.” Therefore, we pay a tribute to the poet in the poet’s own words:
“You had brought along with you
In your death you have
You have donated that
In your death.”
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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Aruna Chakravarti has been Principal of a prestigious Women’s College of Delhi University for ten years. She is also a well- known academic, creative writer and translator with fifteen published books on record. They comprise four novels, one book of short stories, two academic works and eight translations. Her first novel The Inheritors (published by Penguin)was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and her third, Jorasanko (by Harper Collins)received critical acclaim and also became a best seller. Her translated works include an anthology of songs from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitabitaan, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Srikanta and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those days,First Light and Primal Woman: Stories.Daughters of Jorasanko, a sequel to Jorasanko, has sold widely and received rave reviews. Her latest work, a novel titled Suralakshmi Villa, has been published by Pan Macmillan Ltd under the Picador imprint, last year in 2020.
Among the various awards she has received are Vaitalik Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Sarat Puraskar.
The witch is Aruna Chakravarti’s translation of a short story by renowned writer, Tarasankar Bandopadhyay . The original story titled, Daini, was first published in 1940 in Probashi magazine in Bengali. Click here to read.