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Essay

Tagore and Guru Nanak’s Vision

By Parneet Jaggi

Debendranath Tagore frequently visited Amritsar to pay obeisance at Shri Harimandir Sahib and also while on his way to Dalhousie hills for a summer retreat. He even spent a couple of months to learn Gurmukhi from the qualified teachers (Granthis) so that he could read and recite Gurbani (or the hymns of Guru) in original. Sikhism, being a monotheistic faith induced eagerness in him to gain the insights gifted by the ten Gurus.

Rabindranath Tagore accompanied his father, Debendranath, to Amritsar in 1872. This impacted his later writings. In his Jibansmriti, he mentions having a deep impact that the recitation of verses of Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh religious scripture) had on his mind. These recitations are said to have impacted the practice of recitation of Brahmo religious texts and the singing of Brahmo Sangeet at Shantiniketan.  As he witnessed the internal contradictions within the Indian society in his mature years, he turned more towards concepts of universal love, equality and unity preached by the poet saints, who had been allotted a revered place in Guru Granth Sahib. Many of his lectures like Seattle lectures (1916), Hibbert Lectures (1930), Kamla lectures (1933) mentioned Guru Nanak and Kabir for their words of unifying the nation by eradicating the ills of the caste-driven society.

Tagore believed that Guru Nanak’s vision envisioned a casteless, discrimination free society, which was a perfect model for carving out a new nation in India. His father encouraged him to read, understand and gain wisdom from gurbani. Rabindranath translated a few hymns from Gurmukhi to Bengali. As a teenager, he rendered into Bengali, several hymns (pauris) from the Japji, part of Guru Granth Sahib, some of which would then be sung at the Sunday prayer of Brahmo Samaj. One of the more famous translations is that of the Arti, a hymn that is part of the Sohila baani or Sikh bedtime prayers. It can be found in the fourth volume of the birth-centenary edition of Rabindrarachanavali.

 “Gagan mein thaal rav chand dipak bane, tarika mandal janak moti,

 The sky is puja thaal (platter used for the artis), in which sun and moon are the diyas (lamps), the stars in the constellations are the   jewels

dhoop malyanlo pavan chavro kare sagal banraye phulant joti,

The wind, laden with sandal-wood fragrance, is the celestial   fan/

 kaisi arti  hoye bhav khandna teri arti.”    (Guru Granth Sahib)

All the flowering fields, forests are radiance! What wonderful worship this is, oh! Destroyer of fear, this is your arti (prayer)!

Many other writings of Tagore substantiate his urge for a moral regeneration by following the wisdom of these saints. He read Janamsakhis that contained stories about the lives of the Sikh Gurus and the historical accounts of their lifetimes, and he wrote these stories in Bengali in the youth magazine Balak. The first of these was published in 1885 as ‘Kajer Lok ke’ (Bengali , meaning ‘For the Man who Works’) on the life of Guru Nanak. It unravelled the faqir in the temperament of Guru Nanak in contrast to the businessman-like character of his father who gave him some money to do a sacha sauda (a fair trade). Guru Nanak spent the whole amount on feeding hungry sadhus or mendicants and discussing the mysteries of the universe with them. He further narrates Nanak’s experiences at Sultanpur Lodhi and his travels and extensive tours to distant places like Haridwar, Mecca, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and some more which he could access by walking to spread his message. Guru Nanak settled at Kartarpur in the later years of his life, living the life of a farmer. Tagore’s views coincided with this role model of Nanak who pursued his mystical goals while leading the life of a householder as he himself found his image of mangal (well- being of all) and kalyan (universal good) in universal love and doing good to all.  

His next engagement was with the lives of Sikh martyrs and significantly with Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru. But he initiated his contribution to Bengali literature for children and youth in Balak  with a marked influence of Guru Nanak, his life and writings. Tagore realized that Guru Nanak’s disapproval of idolatory and his monotheism had stirred the elders of the Brahmo Samaj but that idealism would not touch children’s hearts. They would respond to a more lucid account in informal language. 

In the last paragraph of ‘Kajer Lok ke’, he tells his young readers: “The Sikhs whom you see around you today, men of sturdy built, handsome countenance, tough strength and unflinching courage, are the sishyas (disciples) of Baba Nanak.   There were no   Sikhs before Nanak. It was   his noble personality   and sublime spirituality    that brought   this race into existence. It   is through   his teachings that their   temper is fearless, they keep their heads erect, and their character and countenance are brightened with magnanimity” (Rabindra Rachanabali, vol.XV, trans. Amalendu Bose).

Today in times of uncertainty, proliferation of data-knowledge that lacks practical and spiritual wisdom, and the deadly pandemic, the world needs this vision of oneness of Guru Nanak and the inclusiveness of Tagore, who embraced everything that would work for the well-being of the individual and the nation, irrespective of any disparities and anomalies. The readiness to accept, imbibe and disseminate the best has been the quintessential attribute of Tagore.

Parneet Jaggi is Associate Professor of English, poet, critic, author of the historical fiction (co-authored) The Call of the Citadel.  She was declared ‘Poet of the Year 2019’ and ‘Critic of the Year 2019’ by Destinypoets, UK. 

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Essay

Rabindranath and the Etchings of His Mind

Anasuya Bhar explores the various lives given to a publication through the different edited versions, translations and films, using Tagore as a case study and the work done to provide these online .

Rabindranath’s first efforts at writing poetry, what he refers to as padya or rhymes, were made when he was merely a boy of seven or eight years. This is what he has to say about his maiden experience, the magic and the awe with which it surprised him –

“I had, until then, only witnessed rhymes in printed books. Without any scratches, mistakes, nor any signs of thought even – there seemed to be no sign of any of the earthy weaknesses either. I dared not imagine that these rhymes could be produced by one’s own efforts. … But when the skilful mixing of a few words gave rise to the rhythm of the ‘payar’, the magic of making rhymes remained no longer an illusion. “(My translation from Jibansmriti ‘The Poetry Beginnings’, VB, 27)

The above excerpt from Jibansmriti is significant in many ways. The memoir was written when Rabindranath was in his fiftieth year, in 1911. A careful study reveals that there are three manuscript versions to the text of Jibansmriti and the one available on print (and published by Visva Bharati), is the third and the latest version. Jibansmriti (My Reminiscences) is a piece of Rabindranath’s own life writing, along with two other pieces in book form: Chelebela (My Boyhood Days, 1940) and Atmaparichay (The Self Revealed, 1943).  

Rabindranath was a reluctant biographer of himself. Perhaps his first conscious efforts at autobiography is to be found in an essay called Atmaparichay that was first published in 1904, wherein he had consistently defended his wishes to not fuss over his life. In fact, he had wanted to keep separate his jiban and brittanto, that is the biological nitty-gritty of his life and the descriptive and analytical of his creative life. He believed that a poet’s life inheres in his poetry; that there is no need to separately concern oneself about his life details. This was re-iterated in more than one places. Nevertheless, although Rabindranath was reluctant of a conscious autobiography, he has revealed much of himself in his letters, and other non-fiction and travel essays. He was a self-conscious writer with a great emphasis put towards self-expression as well as expression of the self.  To know about him one needs to scour through these writings.

My intention in this essay, however, lies not in the history of Rabindranath’s life writing. I would, instead, like to dwell on those scratchings, mistakes and etchings of the poet’s mind that made Rabindranath ponder about the final version of any of his manuscripts. He was a relentless revisionist of his own writings. My interest lies in that branch of study, quite recent in academic scholarship, which tries to examine the various changes that each text suffers before being available for the final print. The changes might take place in the manuscript or during the correction of proofs. The successive texts, the manuscripts, the proofs, and finally the printed text all seem to have their own dynamics and seem to possess an autonomy and character of their own. This seems true of all texts of all writers and those of Rabindranath are no exception. Between the ideas and their writing, between the manuscript and the print, between the printed text and its translation into other language(s), a particular text seems to have many distinct lives. Until a short time ago, these fell within the purview of textual criticism and editorial scholarship of a text. Now, they may be considered under the rubric of ‘alternative readings of a single text’. Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940), the German Jewish philosopher, talks about the ‘afterlife’ of a text in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ when it is translated, that is to say, a text assumes a different and separate life, with its own dynamics and dimensions when it is translated, from the original. The lives of a text then, multiply when multiple translations take place.

If one studies the three manuscripts of Jibansmriti, one notices three separate beginnings: the first two distinctly pointing to his life proper and his unwillingness to share details of it, while the third and the printed version has a more abstract vision of a painter-like selection of memorable incidents from his life.  The text as it exists in Bangla now, begins in medias res, as it were, with the recollections of his early childhood, as becomes permissibly natural for the memory of a fifty-year-old person. What is interesting are the insights that time and aesthetic distance have provided. Editorial and textual scholarship of Jibansmriti as revealed in Rabindra Rachanabali (Volume 17, Visva Bharati), ‘Grantha parichay’ (introducing the text) cites the minute changes and differences in the three versions of the text. I enclose photographs of all the three versions of the text:

The first manuscript of Jibansmriti. Source: Bichitra

The second manuscript of Jibansmriti. Source: Bichitra

The third and final manuscript of Jibansmriti. Source: Bichitra

The different variations and all the manuscripts of not only ‘Jibansmriti’, but the entire Rabindranath Thakur corpus, including his plays, fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry in English as well as in Bangla, are now available in the Online Tagore Variorum, Bichitra, which was inaugurated by the then President of India, (Late) Shri Pranab Mukhopadhyay, as a part of the Sesquicentenary (150 years) celebrations of Rabindranath Thakur’s birth, in the year 2011. The programme of the digital archives for Rabindranath was co-ordinated by Sukanta Chaudhuri, Professor Emeritus of English, Jadavpur University, and prepared by the School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University. The digital archives bring together all the available versions of all his works and makes provision for their collation, thus allowing the researcher or anyone interested in the world-poet to look through the vast stretch and range of his works. Hence the aptness of its name ‘Bichitra’, meaning ‘various’. It is a unique venture of literary scholarship as well as of software engineering and has been put together by young members all below the age of 35, and academic degree holders mostly from Jadavpur University. It is a rare and pioneering achievement in the field of Digital Humanities in this part of the world.

Any given text may have three or four kinds of an ‘afterlife’. They may be interpretative or of the hermeneutic kind, for instance, those spelt by Rabindranath’s manuscript versions. Another may be achieved through translation, as mentioned earlier. The next may be when a text is being performed. The performance text, the play text, or even the screen play of any text, are effectively different texts in the new scheme of textual afterlives. Each of Rabindranath’s texts then, automatically have different autonomous afterlives as practically all of them have been translated and have several versions as well. Along with these familiar afterlives, the hypertext now, also adds a yet newer dimension. The study of afterlives of a text gains in an all-new dimension when a new text is created based on an older text, by retaining its title or its literary essence. For instance, Aparna Sen’s film Ghare Baire Aaj (2019), is not only an afterlife of Rabindranath’s text of the novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), but also one on Satyajit Ray’s 1984 film Ghare Baire. The study of the afterlives of a text is a never ending and rich treasure trove and affords endless intellectual curiosity and study. The English Gitanjali (1912), too, is a unique example of a text with many afterlives, even after a hundred years of its literary history. I have written about its complicated trajectory, elsewhere.*  

Sukanta Chaudhuri’s book The Metaphysics of Text (Cambridge University Press, 2010) provides significant and perhaps, pioneering insights on this newest aspect of textual scholarship.  Among other aspects of a text, Chaudhuri dedicates one whole chapter on Rabindranath’s ‘katakuti’ (pen scratches and crossings) which invariably were shaped into diagrammatical forms, which Chaudhuri identifies by the name of ‘doodles’. The printed texts do not showcase these pictorial designs or doodles.

A description of Rabindranath’s doodles in one of his manuscripts. Source: Bichitra

The visual aspect of these manuscript pages afford yet another dimension to the working of the poet’s mind while he was working on a poem or a song. They are creative outputs of a different kind, which remain hidden from the printed version of the text, thus disallowing the reader the privilege to dwell with the thoughts of the poet, his seemly and unseemly corrections, as it were. The digital archive Bichitra make all these easily available to us. Understanding, teaching and enjoying Rabindranath’s works become a more gratuitous experience for all of us. If translation is one way of making Rabindranath easily available to most corners of the world, this is yet another move to make his works and all his manuscripts available in every home of all corners of the world. A hundred and sixty years have passed and the magic of Rabindranath or his works remain undiminished and ever contemporary.

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*Bhar, Anasuya. ‘The Many Lives of Gitanjali’ in Evolving Horizons, Volume 5, November 2016, pp. 20-27, ISSN 2319-6521

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Dr. Anasuya Bhar is Associate Professor of English and Dean of Postgraduate Studies, at St. Paul’s Cathedral Mission College Kolkata, India. She has many publications, both academic and creative, to her credit.

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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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Essay

A Tale of Devotion and Sacrifice as Opposed to Jealousy and Tyranny

Sohana Manzoor explores the social relevance of a dance drama by Tagore, Natir puja

Quite a few of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance dramas and poems develop around the idea of Buddhist philosophy that induces people to lead a simple life, to gain an understanding of the injustice and inequality prevailing in society, and to acquire knowledge and develop a deeper insight into the universe. Such a major problem reflected in Tagore’s work is the class and caste system of the Indian society.

It would be relevant to recall that one reason that Gautama or Buddha left home is because he recognised that the traditional religions practiced during his time were unable to absolve the dissatisfaction and frustration that abound in life. The class and caste system that divided and segregated people troubled him deeply. Little wonder that all the principal religions of the world rose for emancipation of people from such bondages.

Unfortunately, the corrupt human heart does not allow such practices to go unhindered. Even though at the root of any religious faith there is a high ideal to free people from evil practices and oppression, they also are used as ideological weapons to control mankind. In every age, therefore, figures like Christ and Buddha rise to remind humanity that there is a law beyond the one practiced through selfishness and pettiness of everyday life. Hence, peace and faith are required to be restored at the price of a sacrifice that shows the significance of selfless love, the futility of social class and caste. Actually, the truth is ever present, but sometimes it just takes one act to see that there is a truth higher than all the material wealth one can ever accumulate.

Tagore explored various perspectives of Buddhism in many of his works. Malini, Chandalika and Natir Puja are three dance dramas that deal with this theme. Natir Puja (Devotion of the Court-Dancer) has at its centre the pure soul of a mere dance-girl who is jeered at as a fallen woman, and who considers herself unworthy of even attending to the words of Buddha. But her humility reflects one of the core ideals of Buddhism and she is called upon by the devout followers of Buddha to perform the rituals of a priestess before the altar of Buddha. In the process, her devotion is preferred over the offerings of the royal princesses some of whom feel insulted.

One of them, the princess Ratnavali, takes measures to punish the court-dancer by throwing a choice before her — either to dance in front of the altar as an affront to Buddha, or to face death. The dance-girl Srimati accepts the royal order of dancing before the altar, but she succeeds in revealing herself as a devout follower of Buddha and embraces death. The storyline also focuses on the nature of the faith of Buddhism through the figure of Lokeswari, the wife of the former King, Bimbisar. Lokeswari’s only son Chitro had left home to follow the path of Buddha, and his mother, who used to be a follower of Buddha, emerges as a frenzied woman. She cannot accept that her only son had left home, and her husband renounced the throne when another son Ajatsatru wanted to be the King. For the first time in her life, she questions the validity of a belief that might want human beings to renounce all their precious possessions.

Through an intricate series of events Natir Puja unfolds and delves into several significant aspects of human dilemma. First, through the figure of Srimati and Lokeswari, the nature of devotion is explored. Second, the problem of caste system is brought out through characters such as Ratnavali who cannot accept that a lower caste man or woman could be considered more pious than the royal followers in the eyes of God. Third, that the gravest sinner could seek forgiveness and repentance is always a possibility.

Natir Puja is a tale elaborated from another longer poem by Tagore titled, “Pujarini” (The Worshipper). At the centre of both tales stands Srimoti, who claims to be “Buddher dashi,” or a handmaiden of Buddha. The term “dashi” should not be considered derogatory here but one that focuses on the nature of humility in Buddhism. The meaning of “Buddha” is teacher and in the traditional Vedic ideology, a teacher claims the highest status in society. Therefore, the chance of serving the teacher is indeed a privilege. And as Srimoti says, “My days of false modesty are over. I would not sing falsely, but you did not grasp what your eyes witnessed.” She points out how the faithful see and hear with their heart. The eyes might see, but they would not always recognise what they perceive.

Lokeswari, on the other hand, reminisces how once she was an ardent follower of Buddha, but it becomes clear from her words that she had thought more of distinction than salvation. And yet, Buddha preached freedom from avidya (darkness of ignorance and limiting of consciousness). A man living the life of avidya, spends his life in a spiritual slumber. Therefore, devotion to Buddha requires spiritual awakening, which Lokeswari fails to comprehend. Her very name, Lokeswari, actually suggests her dilemma — the Queen of the World — and naturally, she could not give up the ownership of the materialistic world. In the end, however, Lokeswari realises her error of judgment, and honours Srimoti’s sacrifice. After all, Srimoti is able to show that for faith and truth one should be ready to offer the highest price, one’s own life if necessary.

As a court-dancer, Srimoti might have received a lot of attention, but her position is still that of a high-class courtesan. There are quite a few references where the royal family members make fun of her. Even the elderly Queen Lokeswari scoffs at the idea that Srimoti might turn out to be a priestess of Buddha and the princesses will be her attendants: “Disciple of this dancing girl! That’s what will happen indeed! Now it’s up to the fallen woman to arise with words of salvation.”

From the onset, the Princess Ratnavali, too, makes fun of the calm and quiet nature of Srimoti who is frequently affronted by the princesses but rarely replies. It is almost as if Ratnavali senses her superior nature and takes her to task by insulting her in whatever way possible. The situation escalates when Srimoti is honoured by the Buddhist monks. At that point, Ratnavali makes snide remarks about the Bhikkhu Upali born of a barber family, or Sunado, the son of a milkman, or Sunit, an untouchable. She forgets that Buddhism is a faith that nullifies class and caste system. Her words also reveal that human psychology is deeply steeped in pettiness, jealousy and arrogance, and it takes sufferings and remorse to do away with them.

So, we come to the last point—the theme of repentance and forgiveness. The figure of Lokeswari is an everyman or woman. She is not an evil person, but nor is she convinced by the words of the bhikkhuni who attempts to make her see that there is a difference between the value of gold and that of the light. In today’s world this is where most of us stand. The materialistic ideology has taken over the ethical and philosophical aspects of life. As a result, we keep on asking for more and there is no end to our craving. In the process of worshipping Mammon, we overlook humanity and humility. We not only forget to look at the sufferings of other, but we choose to ignore them. Lokeswari’s humanity returns to her when Srimoti prepares to dance in front of Buddha’s altar. She offers her poison so that she dies before committing a sin. And when, Srimoti unfolds through her dancing that she never meant to insult Buddha but to honour him, once again Lokeswari joins her in reciting,

Buddham saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Buddha for refuge)

Dhammam saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Dhamma for refuge)

Sangham saranam gacchami
(I submit to the Sangha for refuge.)

Even the Princess Ratnavali, who had insulted Srimoti earlier and is responsible for bringing out the royal order, finally kneels down before the dead body of the dance-girl to pay respect. The play ends with Ratnavali chanting the words of Buddha. 

Tagore’s dance drama has played out beautifully to bring out a historical aspect of the Indian culture. The story of Bimbisar and his son Ajatsatru may not have been represented the way history records it, but the tale certainly brings out the tension and the hostility that poison the world at every age. The corrupt and selfish human heart tends to assume that property and wealth hold the key to success and happiness, but ends up in welcoming segregation, arrogance and jealousy. So, should we consider love, affection and sacrifice as mere human follies, or should we abandon the idealistic notions and consider wealth and control as our ultimate gain? Perhaps, the answer lies in the wasteland of our postmodern civilization, which has already sacrificed or butchered its saviours and is still waiting to be atoned.

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the literary Editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. This essay was first published in The Daily Star.

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Categories
Essay

When West meets East and Greatness blooms

Debraj Mookerjee explores how syncretism permeates between the West and the East — how the two lores do meet

Cultural influences travel at the speed of human imagination. In the modern world it is easy to plot the journey of cultural influences across the planet, thanks to the seamlessness created by communication technologies. The Internet links us all. But we also know cultural influences travelled through the globe since the earliest migration of humans.  We know the Chinese invented paper some 2000 years back. We know potato came to India from the new world through the Portuguese and became widely popular only around the 19th century. We know Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy. These are things we know. We also know because these are things. But along with things, ideas also travelled, as did poetry and song. Philosophy travelled, and ways of knowing and experiencing the world travelled. How many of us know for example that Ibn Rushid, an Andalusian of Arabic descent born in Islamic Cordoba, Spain, in 1126, translated Aristotelian philosophy into Arabic? Or the fact that these translations were further retranslated to Latin by Thomas Aquinas, a mediaeval scholar who was influenced by, though he differed strongly with, Ibn Rushid? Such is the power of ideas. Ideas are borderless. That is their power.

Within the context of the so-called East-West encounter, there are so many cross-cultural influences we are unaware of. Influences that travelled to and fro the West and India seeped into the cultural experiences of either worlds. History and society can be viewed in many different ways. Politics often invents a vocabulary that insists on differences. Art on the other hand weaves patterns that merge into each other, producing beautiful new forms. Art and the philosophy surrounding it bring different cultures into play with each other. We will walk around some examples of such cross-fertilisation. And in the process perhaps expand the borders of our own minds and how we look at the world. I shall dwell on two such instances of cross-cultural influences. First, I shall look at Gandhi and the influences he shared with the West and the sharing of political ideas and philosophies they produced. I will explore the diverse trajectories his core ideas of nonviolence and civil disobedience took in shaping up to what they eventually became, and even the influences they have had after him. I shall thereafter present Tagore and begin by looking at the shaping of his world view as a thinker and as an artist, reading closely into his specific interactions with particular milieus in England. Finally, I shall look at Tagore iconic music (Rabindra Sangeet) and trace the influence Western (especially Welsh) music had on his works.

 “You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”
“Let us forgive each other – only then will we live in peace.”

Who would you imagine might have spoken these words?

Gandhi? Almost, but not quite. These are Tolstoy’s words. Tolstoy was a writer, a philosopher and a religious thinker. Gandhi was particularly influenced by Tolstoy’s ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ and his essay on ‘Christianity and Patriotism’. Tolstoy’s ideal of “simplicity of life and purity of purpose” had a deep and abiding impact on Gandhi’s core thinking. In ‘Christianity and Patriotism’, Totlstoy writes: “Patriotism may have been a virtue in the ancient world when it compelled men to serve the highest idea of those days — the fatherland. But how can patriotism be a virtue in these days when it requires of men an ideal exactly opposite to that of our religion and morality — an admission not of the equality and fraternity of all men but of the dominance of one country or nations over all others? But not only is this sentiment no virtue in our times, but it is indubitably a vice; for this sentiment of patriotism cannot now exist, because there is neither material nor moral foundation for its conception.”

Gandhi had carried Tolstoy in his heart for the longest time. But shortly before Tolstoy passed  away in 1910, as Gandhi began the active phase of his fight for human rights for Indians in South Africa, and thereafter his struggle for India’s independence, he wrote to Tolstoy, prompted by the writer’s ‘Letter to a Hindoo’, in which he paves a path for freedom sans violence. The letter from Tolstoy was addressed to Tarak Nath Das, editor of Free Hindustan, who advocated the violent approach. Gandhi apprised Tolstoy about the Indians’ ‘passive resistance’ against racial oppression in Transvaal. He wrote that nearly half of the total Indian population of 13,000 in Transvaal had left Transvaal rather than submit to the degrading law, and ‘nearly 2,500 have for conscience’s sake allowed themselves to be imprisoned, some as many as five times. Tolstoy’s letter explained why non-violent resistance and a resolve by Indians to become free were the only solution. Gandhi sought Tolstoy’s confirmation of the referred to above being written by him, and his approval to his friend printing 20,000 copies of the same for distribution and having it translated. He had ‘taken the liberty’ to write the letter ‘in the interests of truth, and in order to have your advice on problems the solution of which you have made your life-work.’ Gandhi quoted Tolstoy thus, as he introduced his letter, when indeed it was widely distributed: “Do not resist evil, but also do not yourselves participate in evil: in the collection of taxes, and in the violent deeds of the law courts and (what is more important) the soldiers. Then, no one in the world will enslave you.”

But there is a bigger symmetry at work here than just the transfer of wisdom from Totstoy to Gandhi. Thiruvalluvar was the legendary Tamil poet who lived some time between the fourth and first century BCE. His work Thirukkural is an unparalleled treatise on ethics, communicated in verse. The first translation of the Thirukkural in a European language was done in Latin by Constanzo Beschi, a Jesuit Missionary, in 1730. Beschi himself was a Tamil scholar and poet, known as Viramamunivar. Tolstoy is said to have read a German translation of the work. And his ‘Letter to a Hindoo’ was apparently inspired by what he’d read in the Tamil saint-poet’s work. Around the time, Gandhi wrote an article, ‘Tolstoy’s Satyagraha’, showing how thousands, acting on his views ‘advising people not to obey the laws of the Russian Government, not to serve in the army, and so on’, were going to jail. Tolstoy’s writings, though proscribed, were being published, leading to the imprisonment of his agent. Tolstoy thought that ‘my views are true, and that it is my duty to propagate them.’ Gandhi concluded: ‘True freedom is to be found—only in such a life. That is the kind of freedom we want to achieve in the Transvaal. If India were to achieve such freedom, that indeed would be swarajya.’

Gandhi had told Rev. J.J. Doke, his first biographer (1909): “It was the New Testament which really awakened me to the rightness and value of Passive Resistance. When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as ‘Resist not him that is evil’, I was simply overjoyed, and found my own opinion confirmed when I least expected it. The Bhagavad Gita deepened the impression and Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You gave it a permanent form.”

When we imagine Gandhi, along with perhaps Asoka and the Prophet Mohammad, as among those historical figures who imagined society and politics through the prism of morality, we ought to know the influence of Tolstoy’s thoughts. Tolstoy thought of morality as a category that steps beyond politics. Gandhi could not afford that luxury. India needed freedom. So he introduced morality into politics. 

Gandhi harvested patriotism through the principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha — Non-violence and truth force. The latter was the goal and the former the means. In these he drew influences from ancient Indian philosophy, and from thinkers like Tolstoy and the transcendentalists of America — more on the latter in a bit. So, we find a saint-like figure, a Russian aristocrat and also among the more celebrated writers of his time, conversing across time and space with one whom Churchill infamously labelled the ‘Naked Fakir’, but who went on to become the Father of a Nation.

Here is the interesting thing, and we need to frame this in the context of the Cold War that was to commence soon after the assassination Gandhi – that the other major influence on Gandhi came from, of all places, the United States of America. The Transcendentalists were radical thinkers of the early 19th century who rejected organised traditional religious belief systems. They believed in the ‘oneself’ of the self and the universe. Ralph Waldo Emerson, thinker, poet, writer philosopher, and the most famous of the transcendentalists, once wrote: “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

Emerson took interest in Hindu texts thanks to his aunt Mary Moody. His idea of the over-soul, the universal oneness can be read as a derivative of the idea of Brahman – the singular force signified by the chant ‘Aum’. In this poem by Emerson entitled ‘Bhrama’, the oneness mentioned above is emphasised, as an idea subsumed in the concept of ‘Brahman’, which goes beyond this or that or even the specific injunctions of scripture:

 If the red slayer think he slays,
 Or if the slain think he is slain,
 They know not well the subtle ways
 I keep, and pass, and turn again.
  
 Far or forgot to me is near;
 Shadow and sunlight are the same;
 The vanished gods to me appear;
 And one to me are shame and fame.
  
 They reckon ill who leave me out;
 When me they fly, I am the wings;
 I am the doubter and the doubt,
 I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
  
 The strong gods pine for my abode,
 And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
 But thou, meek lover of the good!
 Find me, and turn thy back on heaven. 

A contemporary of Emerson and one deeply influenced by him was Henry David Thoreau, who advocated both self-reliance and civil disobedience, elaborately discussed in his book, Walden Pond, which is an account of his experiments with asceticism. His practices were motivated by his encounter with yoga. Thoreau seldom was ecstatic. And yet he wrote: “What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum, free from particulars, simple, universal.” 

He was fond of quoting from the Bhagwat Gita, as was Gandhi. Gandhi was significantly influenced by Thoreau experiments and ideas. Gandhi, in his 1942 appeal ‘To American Friends,’ wrote, “You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the ‘Duty of Civil Disobedience’ scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa.”

At the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, the American reporter Webb Miller, a long-time admirer of Thoreau, asked Gandhi, “Did you ever read an American named Henry D. Thoreau?” Gandhi replied: “Why, of course I read Thoreau. I read Walden first in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1906 and his ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay, ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about eighty years ago.” 

Miller noticed that Gandhi, a “Hindu mystic,” adopted from Thoreau the philosophy which was to affect millions of Indians and inspire them to defy the powerful British Empire. “It would seem,” Miller concluded, “that Gandhi received back from America what was fundamentally the philosophy of India after it had been distilled and crystallized in the mind of Thoreau.”  

The back and forth does not end here. We all know how Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by Gandhi. He once wrote, “While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.”

So ancient Indian philosophy influenced the transcendentalists. The transcendentalists influenced Gandhi. And Gandhi went onto influence King Jr. Kipling might have written that “East is east, and the West is West. And ne’er the twain shall meet”. At the cost of sounding frivolous, perhaps he had not read Mark Twain’s famous poem, ‘A passage to India’.

Gandhi and Tagore were in conversation in the deepest sense of the term, both captured by the tight frame of history, yet never ever contained by it. It is apposite, therefore, to try and capture within the rubric of the larger argument, the influences and intellectual trajectories of both Gandhi and Tagore. Tagore, India’s iconic poet, the first non-European to receive a Nobel Prize, who travelled to England in 1912 clutching a collection of 103 self-translated English poems, became a world phenomenon in a little more than a year. Though Tagore is revered among Bengalis and indeed all Indians as ‘Kavi-Guru’ (Poet Guru, as it were), his development as an artist was syncretic. 

As a young boy, he spent a month in Amritsar with his father and was greatly impressed by the devotional songs sung inside the Golden Temple, with his father often joining in. While a landlord in East Bengal during the 1890s he became familiar with the great Baul tradition of Lalon Shah. He absorbed Western influences, especially in his poetry, but also influences as diverse as the paintings of specific communities in islands as far-flung as New Ireland in Papua New Guinea! Tagore took to painting later in age and was never quite sure of his own work, but they have a magical haunting quality that is all too difficult to pin onto a singular culture.  

One of the first persons whom Tagore wanted to know was Stopford. Tagore, being a prominent member of the Brahmo Samaj, which was closely allied to Unitarianism, had heard so much of him, and had perceived an alignment of convictions. Sir William Rothenstein,in his account of Tagore’s days in London, says “Stopford Brooke asked me to bring Tagore to Manchester Square; ‘but tell him’, he said, ‘that I am not a spiritual man’.” Soon Tagore would become quite the toast of young poets, who would seek him out, Ezra Pound being prominent among them. Among others whom Tagore met were Shaw, Wells, Galsworthy, Andrew Bradley, Sturge Moore, and Robert Bridges. In a 1915 letter to Robert Bridges, Tagore wrote, “I know what this war is to you… Please let Mrs. Bridges accept my heartfelt sympathy and reverence [for one] whose son is fighting for the cause of liberty in one of the greatest wars in the history of mankind.” Bridges included Tagore’s poems in his Anthology The Spirit of Man in 1915. On his part, Tagore was struck by the breadth of view and the rapidity of thought that he found among his new friends. Addressing his English audience, he said: “Those who know the English only in India, do not know Englishmen … All you people live, think and talk while a strong, critical light is constantly focussed on you. This creates a high social civilisation. We in India, on the contrary, live secluded among a crowd of relations. Things are done and said within the family circle which would not be tolerated outside; and this keeps our social standards low.’ 

Tagore famous novel, Ghare Baire (The Way of the World, 1916; tran. 1919) presents his disquiet with insular nationalist sentiments, to the exclusion (of what he believed) larger humanist imperatives. His protagonist, Nikhil articulates liberal universal values and is willing to sacrifice his life to ensure peace in his domain (he is a landlord). His fiery friend, the nation (as mother) worshipping ultra-nationalist radical Sandeep, stokes the violence that ultimately consumes Nikhil, but from which he himself stealthily slinks away.

Tagore absorbed more than just ideas from the West. His music, especially the scores of many of his songs, was influenced by his interactions with the West. On his 2012 visit he’d heard the music hall songs and folk tunes that he later incorporated into his distinctive musical genre, Rabindra Sangeet. As a child, he’d heard his siblings play myriad instruments. His older brother Jyotirindranath, significantly, played the piano and violin. From him, Tagore developed an early ear for western musical lilts. Lively English, Irish, and Scottish folk tunes impressed Tagore, whose own tradition of Bhramo hymnody was subdued. Tagore confesses: “At seventeen, when I first came to Europe, I came to know it intimately, but even before that time I had heard European music in our own household. I had heard the music of Chopin and others at an early age.”

Of particular note is Robert Burns, whose poetry and music were quite widely known in metropolitan Bengal. His work was particularly popular with Bengali students in the early days of Hindu College (now Presidency University), Calcutta. The Scottish missionary to India, Alexander Duff, remembers students in Henry Derozio’s (poet and assistant headmaster of Kolkata’s Hindu Collge) discussion group reciting Burns’s poetry and singing his democratic anthem ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’. Two of Burns’s sons served for many years in the Company army, and one of them, James Glencairn Burns, was later appointed judge and collector of Cachar (in Assam), and became an expert in Hindi, instructing company cadets in the language on his return to England in 1839. Burns’s songs pervaded 19th century British India and were well known to many Indians: Rabindranath Tagore adapted at least three of them and set musical scores to the Bengali versions of the original melodies.

Tagore created one of his most popular songs, ‘Purano shei deener katha’, on the model of the old Scottish folk song collected by Robert Burns: ‘Auld lang syne’ (1788). Whereas the Scottish is in dialect, its Bengali counterpart in the standard tongue. There can be no literal translation in songs transcreated, as it were in a different language, since the nature of the two languages is different. And yet, there are great similarities between the songs. The original communicates the eternal sentiment of nostalgia for old friends, memories of good times and longing to revive the same. Tagore communicates the same basic sentiment. One should remember that even though Tagore adapts the tune of the western songs, he very often varies the tempo and the rhythm to suit his own creative needs. The mention of ‘dola’ (swing), ‘banshi’ (flute) and ‘bokuler tolay’ (beneath the bokul tree) introduces interesting indigenous cultural symbols. These words introduce the concept of the god Krishna and his worldly amour divesting them of both divine and erotic connotation. The Bengali song stands as an eternal paean to reunion of friends of all categories.

Tagore’s ‘Phule phule dhole dhole’ is a transcreation of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon’ (1792), the tune of which is based on ‘The Caledonian Hunt’s delight.’ The first four lines of Tagore’s song evokes faint sweet breezes, rippling gurgling stream, cuckoo song and an undefined longing. It is close to the mood of the ‘Ye banks and braes,’ though more mystic and abstract. In Burns’ original version, the nostalgia and longing are rooted in unfulfilled love. In the Bengali, there is no hint of narrative, though the narrative is obviated when sung in its proper context. Sung independently, it appears as a universal romantic desire for an unattainable ‘something,’ intensified by the beauty of nature. 

But Burns was not the only one to influence Tagore’s music.  In 1885, much before his heydays, Tagore composed ‘Kotobar bhebechhilnu’, using the tune of Ben Jonson’s ‘Drink to me only with thine eyes’. The tune of the original English song is adapted to his original Bengali lyric. Tagore’s song raises interesting cultural issues. The words are radically different, though the mood of love is dominant in both, the English song is much more sensuous, redolent of physical and Petrarchan appeal. Tagore’s Indianisation is romantic, idealistic and self-effacing, but with a witty twist in the last two lines: “Now that you yourself have come to ask me/ How can I explain how much I love you?” Another Irish folk song that inspired Tagore was ‘Go where glory waits thee’ (1807), which was collected by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and was based on ‘Maid of the Valley.’ Tagore’s songs ‘Ohe Dayamoy’ and ‘Aha aji e basante’ (O Kind One and It is Spring Today) are based on these two originals. 

There is a general consensus that Western and Indian songs are essentially different in that in the former the rhythm may change many times within the same song, while it remains the same in most Indian songs. Tagore nevertheless finds the change of rhythms ideally suited to express different facets of feeling (see Tagore’s essay ‘Sangeet o Bhab’). One cannot be entirely sure as to the exact source of his musical preference, whether it comes from Western music, or even from his ear for ‘kirtan’ (popular Bengal devotional music associated with the Vaishnavite tradition). But what is certain is that his music comes from a syncretic imagination, which was able to discern beauty and form beyond the restrictions of nation and culture.  

Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.

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Stories

Kumar Bhimsingha

Kumar Bhimsingha by Swarnakumari Devi, the sister of Rabindranath Tagore, was published in Bharati & Balok, a magazine run by the Tagore family, in Boisakh 1293 of the Bengali calendar, April 1887 according to the Gregorian one. It has been translated by Chaitali Sengupta.

Swarnakumari Devi. Courtesy: Wiki

The king of Mewar, Rana Raj Singha, was resting alone in his sleeping chamber. Dusk had set in. As per the orders of the king, the servants had kept only one fire-lit lamp. The rest had all been extinguished. The soft light had created an ambience that gave a pleasant hue to the king’s thoughts. The day of the coronation was almost upon them, the day when prince Jayasingha would be anointed his heir, the next king of Mewar.

Rana Raj Singha’s mind was full only with the thoughts of how elated his royal queen would be on that special day and the happiness of the crown prince. He was not bothered about his subjects’ reactions at all. The gates of his royal chamber opened slowly, and his second queen Kamal Kumari entered inside. Startled, the king sat up on his bed, surprised to find her there. He indicated she sit on a seat near him. Once she was seated, the king asked, “You, at this late hour?”

The queen replied, “There’s no option left for me. You never show up, when I ask for you.”

A bit embarrassed, the king remembered that throughout the day, a couple of messages did come from the queen, requesting him to visit her in the inner chambers of the palace. Slowly, he said, “My dear queen, I forgot.”

Her mind hissed, yes indeed, such is my fate, that you’ve regularly forgotten me, there’s nothing new in it. Keeping her face expressionless, she only asked, “I just came to confirm; are the rumours that are brewing true, my King?”

Something forced the king not to come out with a direct reply. He simply asked, “Which rumours do you mean?”

The Queen responded: “Rumours, that says that your throne is going to be taken over by Jayasingha, during your kingship. Looks like our land is following the Muslim rulers in this regard.”

This sneering remark, aimed at Jayasingha was not lost upon the king. He said, “Rumours are gossip. Not the truth. My throne is not being usurped by Jayasingha; on the contrary, I’m bestowing it upon him.”

The queen laughed harshly. “Ah, so you’re passing the throne to him. Why such a haste to abdicate and retire, may I ask?”

Holding his surging anger in check, the king replied, “My dear queen, there’s no reason to laugh like that. A king must think a hundred times and act with deep consideration. Just think, the well-being and suffering of his subjects are so much dependent on his decisions. If I, the reigning monarch, do not take a decision now, then there is a chance is that in my absence, the question of succession would lead to a fight among the brothers, and ruin the kingdom.”

The Queen said: “But my observation is, that in trying to find a solution, you’re in fact, instigating one brother to fight the other. In the name of protecting your kingdom, you’re leading it towards destruction. If you wish to decide on your successor, in your presence, then, pray, why do you not declare your eldest son as the next king? Why are you usurping his rightful eligibility to the throne unlawfully and relinquishing it to the younger one?”

The words rang true, but they did not please the king. Sometimes, it was difficult to bear the truth. With supreme irritation, the king said, “Bhimsingha and Jayasingha were both born almost at the same time. The difference is their time of birth is so minute, that on the basis of that, Bhimsingha cannot claim to be the successor to the throne, just by virtue of being elder by a few seconds. They’re born on the same day, at the same time. Under the circumstance, the one who is more capable has a right to inherit the throne. I believe Jayasingha to be more capable of the two.”

Laughing, the queen said, “It seems like you want to turn the wheel of time; or, else, why would you accept the younger one, to be equal to the eldest one? I’m happy that just your mere words did not change the dictates of time. Even if a person is marginally older by birth, he deserves to be considered as the eldest. Lav and Kush were twins; but then why, did Lav succeed his father to the throne? Besides, let me ask you, on what grounds do you think Jayasingha is more deserving than Bhimsingha? Is Bhimsingha any less than Jayasingha in terms of bravery, honesty, intelligence, prowess? Who is admired by the army? Whose honesty enchants the nobles in your court? Whom do the subjects want as their future king? You’ll get your answer, if only you ask others. However, if you believe Jayasingha to be more deserving since he’s born of your favourite consort, and is, hence, your dear prince, of course, that is a different story.”

Her words, like sharp quills, invaded his heart. Angered, he said, “So be it.”

The queen, too, could hardly restrain her anger. “Then say that clearly. Why be pretentious and hide behind false words? Being a king, are you afraid to voice the truth?”

The king answered, “Nobody ever wanted to know the truth from me. None can claim that I’ve been untruthful.”

The queen replied, “Do you remember the day they’re born?”

She paused, her words were caught in the web of time, as she travelled back almost twenty years, remembering that day. The difference between the simple, trusting, young bride of yesteryears and today’s middle-aged woman, neglected, exploited, devoid of husband’s attention, was too great. The young Kamal Kumari of those days, who after giving birth to her first born, had waited with love and patience, for her husband to come, and to take her son in his arms, exulting in happiness. In the expectancy of his arrival, she completely forgot the pains of childbirth and in her heart, there flowed a stream of bliss. But when the moments changed to minutes, and then to hours, and still the King did not come, she felt neglected and hurt. Dejected and sad, she heard one of the maidservants saying, “Queen Chanchal Kumari, too, has given birth to a prince around the same time. The king is with her and he has tied the amulet of immortality, on the feet of the newborn. Later, he will come here.”

It had been a tradition of the Royal house of Mewar that at the birth of the firstborn, the king tied the amulet of immortality on the tiny feet. It was a symbol, whereby the king declared his firstborn, to be his successor. On hearing, that the king had unfairly put the precious amulet on the feet of his younger prince, instead of his elder one, a raging fire swelled fiercely in her heart. The tears from a mother’s eyes anointed the newborn on that day.

The queen clearly understood that her husband didn’t love her anymore. In the past too, such thoughts had assailed her, like frail doubts, but they never lasted long. She had reprimanded herself for doubting her husband. But, that day, the doubts that had only temporarily intruded, took root as the truth in her mind. Shell-shocked, the queen felt like dying.

When her husband came finally, to visit the newborn, she did not utter a word. Within a few days, she heard rumours within the palace walls, that claimed that because of the mistake on the part of the servants, who miscalculated the time of birth of Chanchal Kumari’s firstborn, the king had tied the amulet on her boy, thinking him to be the eldest.

Kamal Kumari did not have the heart to judge the veracity of this rumour. She had no trust on the king’s love for her, and his proximity only became another cause of pain and agony for her. How on earth would one engage in such talks with him? Many a times, she’d attempted to broach this subject, to question him, and each time, her misery had been so immense, that she came back before she could get her answers.

But after so many years, when she had almost no reason to disbelieve his very reason for tying the amulet on Jayasingha’s feet, she stomped with wifely hurt. She only remembered that she was Bhimsingha’s mother. She felt that it was only because he was born of her ill-fated womb, his luck forsook him, meting out grievous injustice by depriving him of his natural right. Deadly anger replaced the feeling of hurt then, and she stood against the king, to fight for justice, to fight for her son’s rights.

When the incidents around his birth flashed before her eyes, once again, it made her weaker; the fire of anger that lighted her eyes, at once turned tearfully misty, with the remembered hurt. But, not for long. Soon enough, the queen spoke angry words: “If you aren’t afraid to speak the truth, then why could you not come up with the real reason for tying the amulet on the feet of your younger son, when all the while, it was your eldest son, who deserved it?”

Angered, the king replied, “It’s not my duty to explain my decisions or the reasons behind them to the subjects. And if people misinterpret my actions, I can hardly be blamed. Right? If I’d hidden the truth on that day, fearing the public backlash, then I’d have hesitated to give him the throne, even today. If people had any wrong assumptions, let it be dismissed by this action of mine. This is my kingdom, and I reserve the right of bestowing it to whomsoever I please. I’m neither afraid of the public and nor should they have any right to comment on this.”

Unable to tolerate further, the queen stood up from her seat, and in an agitated voice, said, “No, don’t you dare think like that, O King. It might be your kingdom, but you’ve no right to bestow it upon anyone you deem fit. You may be the judge, but that doesn’t give you the right to be unjust. Your kingship doesn’t give you the right to break laws. And if a king does that, then he’s not a king – he is a despot, an unrighteous ruler. Such a king’s bounty will surely not be accepted by my son. The day he claims this kingdom as his rightful domain, it’ll be his. Even if you wish to bestow the kingdom upon him now, he will not accept it from you. Remember when your unfair decision results in bloodshed. It will take the lives of millions of innocent people, bringing huge destruction to this land. When bloodshed between brothers will bring the legacy of Mewar to ignominy, don’t blame them or others. Do remember then, O king, that this is the consequence of your sin. You’re a descendant of the famous Raghu clan, whose patriarch King Dashrath didn’t hesitate to banish his favorite son Rama to forest just to uphold justice. Despite being born into such an illustrious family, today, you defamed your family name. But, as long as this world exists, and the planets revolve, you will not be able to suppress justice with injustice. Truth shall triumph, O king, you would not be able to stop its march.”

Her words were clearly laced with deep hatred. Having spoken them out, the proud woman went out of the king’s bedchamber, in slow, graceful steps. She didn’t meet Bhimsingha that night and decided to have a talk with him the next morning.

2.

The queen departed. She left behind a cacophony of censure and her words continued reverberating in the Rana’s head, pounding like thunderbolts. His mind echoed back the words of his queen: “You are the descendant of the famous Raghu clan, whose patriarch King Dashrath didn’t hesitate to banish his favorite son Rama to forest…”  He felt dizzy. His majesty, the great Rana Raj Singha became as restless as a small child. “Oh, what have I done? I’ve compromised truth at the feet of fraternal love, despite being born in a family that upheld truth at all costs. Oh God, was this the purpose of my unlucky birth, only to tarnish the unsullied name of my family?”

It was, as if his closed eyes, were suddenly opened. Never before, had he thought about the matter in this manner. In his mind, since Bhimsingha and Jayasingha, both were born on the same day, neither of them had precedence on the throne. It was his kingdom, and he thought to bestow it upon whom he deemed fit. Blinded by one-sided love, he had, so far, failed to ponder upon the other aspect of the issue. But, today, he was cured off such an illusion, such an oversight, in a harsh way.

The night passed sleeplessly in a restless state. At the crack of dawn, he asked the guard, “Ask Prince Bhimsingha to come here at once.”

“Prince Bhimsingha?” The guard expressed surprise, for they all knew Jayasingha to be the crown prince. Checking his surprise, he went out to inform Bhimsingha.

The fact that he has been called to meet his father surprised Bhimsingha no less. It was a novel occasion, for he could hardly remember ever to be called by the king, his father. He thought, “Is this some new trick? Is he calling me to attend upon Jayasingha, to be his servant? But does he not understand that, as long as Bhimsingha has faith in his own prowess and bravery, the throne can never belong to Jayasingha.”

Remembering his father’s partiality angered him afresh. He was in a dilemma. He pondered on how he could turn down the invitation to meet him. However, he decided not to disobey the royal command. “On the other hand, today, in his presence, I’m going to speak out my heart,” he thought.

His heart seething with anger, Bhimsingha went to his father. But his anger melted as he glanced at the king looking for an escape route. Depression was written large on the king’s face and his eyes, although troubled, were deep with love as he looked at Bhimsingha. Anger and revengeful feelings vanished in a moment. In its place, there was a strange emotion of unexpressed pain.

The king, too, was surprised to see Bhimsingha’s calm, forbearing, respectful demeanor, just the very opposite of the image he’d conceived in his mind, in which Bhimsingha seethed with deep seated anger, frowning to demand fairness from him. Bhimsingha behaved like a loving son. Seeing his son’s respectful demeanour towards his father, embarrassed the king. His son’s respect, forbearance and calmness filled the king’s heart with deep contrition, a feeling which no amount of anger on Bhimsingha’s part would have aroused in the Rana’s troubled heart. In deep shame and repentance, the king could hardly glance at him.

Slowly, he said, “Son Bhimsingha!”

His affectionate tone surprised Bhimsingha. Never before, had the king expressed such tenderness towards him. Slight and neglect had been his lot from his father. The memory of a day when both the brothers were playing in the garden invaded his consciousness. The Rana had caressed Jayasingha fondly, but for him he had not spared a word of endearment. Hurt with his behavior, the boy had left the place, found his mother’s lap to shed his tears, without telling her the reason of his sorrow. Growing up, at every step, he’d observed the unfairness of his father. And by bestowing his throne to Jayasingha, he’d, finally, shown the height of unfairness. It had led him to believe that the king did not love him.

And so, after long years, when the king called him with such tenderness in his voice, it roused strong emotions in his heart, overwhelming him. In a trembling voice, he replied, “Father.”

All these years, Bhimsingha had addressed him as Maharaja, the king. Looking at him, the king confessed, “Son, I’ve wronged you grossly, please forgive me.”

Tears coursed down Bhimsingha’s eyes, tears of hurt and pride. The fact, that his father realised and acknowledged his unfair behaviour towards him, washed away his hurt. In his heart, he said, “I’ve lost your affection, for I stayed away, aloof from you, doubting your affection for me. For this reason, I seek your forgiveness, forgive me, father.”

He stood speechless in front of the king; the Rana, observing his silence, continued, “I know it is difficult for you to forgive me, but I’ll atone for the crime I committed, and thereby ask forgiveness from my conscience, from my God. You’re my firstborn; to you, shall I bestow my throne, on your head, the crown shall glitter. But even if I do so, Jayasingha would always stand as a barrier on your path, an impediment. It is because of my fault that he’s dreaming of possessing that which is not his. The greed of the kingdom would turn him to cause anarchy in the land. And there is, but only one solution to this problem.”

Saying so, he unsheathed the sword that glittered brightly against the rays of the sun. Holding it in front of Bhimsingha, he said, “Take this, and pierce this sword through his heart. Let one death ward-off thousands of deaths, let justice prevail at the downfall of injustice. Don’t panic, on the face of cold responsibility. No relationship is important enough.” His voice shook, as he uttered the words, realising their onus, in essence, within his heart.

Like a statue, carved in stone, Bhimsingha stood. In a flash, he understood what the king was going through. To uphold his duty, he was sacrificing his most valuable, loved treasure. Bhimsingha witnessed the intense loftiness of his father’s ideals. His greatness impressed his to the core. His love for his father increased a thousand-fold. Bhimsingha clearly understood, that in piercing the heart of his brother, he would in fact, be stabbing his father. He could hardly say anything. His mind only whispered, “You’re a god, a divine being.”

Watching him standing quietly, the king again reiterated, “Son, don’t shiver at this thought. You’d be committing this act to uphold justice, for the well-being of the land, there’s no sin in this act of yours. And even if you commit a sin, it would be not yours, it would be mine. Follow my command and fulfil it.”

Bhimsingha took the sword from his hand and kept it at the king’s feet. He said, “Father, take back your sword. I’ve no need for it. You’d indeed wronged me, but you’ve repented profusely for it. You’ve fulfilled your duty to the letter. Now let me fulfil mine. I’ll make sure, that there will not be a drop of bloodshed because of me; that Jayasingha would not commit anything untoward because of me. The right that you’ve bestowed upon me today, I grant that right to Jayasingha. From today onward, this kingdom shall rightfully be his. I’ll leave Mewar, to prevent myself from getting tempted, in future, by the greed of attaining the throne. Carrying the affection and the lofty ideals that you imparted to me today in my heart, I’ll leave my motherland Mewar tonight. If I fail to do this, let me not be known as your son.”

Not giving him a moment to respond or desist, Bhimsingha touched his father’s feet and was gone. Astounded, the king stood there.

That very day, Bhimsingha himself crowned Jayasingha. Then, along with his loved soldiers and nobles, he left Mewar. He never came back.  Many years later, when his companions returned to Mewar, they carried with them, the news of his death.

Swarnakumari Devi (1855-1932) was five years older to her sibling, Rabindranath Tagore. She was one of the first women writers of Bengal. She was also a social activist who fought for women’s liberation. Among Bengali women writers, she was one of the first to gain prominence. She helped orphans and widows. She opened an organisation to help women and opposed the evil of sati. In the 5 July 1932 issue of the Bengali newspaper, Amrita Bazar Patrika, just days after her death, she is  remembered as “one of the most outstanding Bengali women of the age” who “did her best for the amelioration of the condition of the womanhood of Bengal.”

Chaitali Sengupta is a writer, translator and journalist from the Netherlands. Her published works include two translations “Quiet whispers of our heart” and “A thousands words of  heart”. Recently her first prose poem collection Cross- Stitched words was published. Her poems have also been anthologized in many international collections and she writes for many print and online journals. 

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Categories
Essay

In Praise Of Translations

Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent journalist and daughter of Bengali writer Nabendu Ghosh, has been a force behind translating Bengali literature and bringing it to the doorstep of those who do not know the language. In this exclusive, she discusses how translations impact the world of literature.

I have often been asked, “Nabendu Ghosh was a literary figure and a screenwriter. How much importance did he place on translation?” Truthfully, because he was a literary person, my father placed a lot of importance on translations which, as he once pointed out, has given us access to almost all the first books in a bevy of Indian languages.

Let me elaborate. Adi Kavi Valmiki, the harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature, composed the original – ‘mool’ – Ramayan long before the first century BC. But Krittibas Ojha’s 15th century rendition in Bengali ‘Panchali’ style is not merely a rewording of the original epic, it gives a description of Bengal’s society and culture in the Middle Ages. It also explores the concept of Bhakti which later contributed to the emergence of Vaishnavism in the Gangetic belt.

This is said to have had a profound impact on the literature of the surrounding region. In Bihar of 16th century Goswami Tulsidas heightened the Bhakti quotient as he retold Ramayan in Hindi, as Ramcharit Manas. The same happened in Orissa. Earlier it had been adapted, with plot twists and thematic adaptations, in the 12th century Tamil Ramavataram; 14th century Telugu Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam; several Kannada versions, starting in 12th century; Ramacharitam in Malayalam; into Marathi also around this time.

My father had inculcated in us this love for multiple languages when I was about ten. As we all sat around after dinner, he would read from these texts – Valmiki’s Ramayan, Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas, The Old Testament from the Bible, Buddhist Jataka Tales, and Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita wherein Mahendra Nath Gupta recounts, word for Bengali word, the conversations and activities of the 19th century Indian mystic. Published in five volumes between 1902 and 1910, this work summing up the life philosophy of Ramkrishna Paramahans through simple anecdotes and parables, has been translated into English and Hindi.

Before that, at the young age of nine, I was also initiated into the crème de la crème of world literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare too – through translations into Bengali. Abridged versions of Crime and Punishment, Mother, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Blue Bird, and Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were published by Deb Sahitya Kutir — among other Bengali publishers — for young readers. Later in life, as a student of English Literature, I realized that our understanding of the ways and woes of our world would be so much poorer if Iliad and Odyssey had remained confined to Greek readers; if Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had not crossed the frontiers of Norway; if Don Quixote were to be read only in the Spanish that Miguel Cervantes wrote in; if The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant only for those raised in French, or if Faust were to be played only to German viewers.

And, talking of viewers: how would the world have known about the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the French Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Polish Andrzej Wajda, the Czech Jiri Menzel, the Argentinian Fernando Solanas, the Turkish Yilmaz Guney, the Chinese Zhang Yimou, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, or our very own Satyajit Ray? Unthinkable, the world of cinema without subtitles in this day and age when Hollywood films come with subtitles in not just English and Hindi – the two official languages of India – but also in its umpteen regional languages to reach viewers in pockets that speak only Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali…

The importance of translation is best exemplified by the Song Offerings. If Rabindranath Tagore had not translated the poems of Gitanjali, Asia would have had to wait longer for its first Nobel Prize. Incidentally the central theme of this work too is devotion – and it is part of UNESCO’s collection of Representative Works. And it is my belief that no other Nobel for literature has come to India because we have not come up with any worthy translation – say, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? At least, not until recent years, nor in a big way.

Also, it is my own experience that only after Me and I — translated from the Bengali original, Aami O Aami by Devottam Sengupta — was published by Hachette India that a major international publishing house got interested in translating Nabendu Ghosh into French.

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That brings me to the frequently asked question: “Why are you translating Nabendu Ghosh rather than publishing his Bengali originals?” The answer takes me back to 1940s when Baba’s Phears Lane was translated into Urdu and published in Lahore. Clearly Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ in Bengali literature then. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee, the thespian who we lost so recently and was a Master in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call) was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans.”

But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Thus, when Bimal Roy – a celluloid star after his meteoric debut with Udayer Pathey ( In the Path of Sunrise, 1943) — left for Bombay in 1950 to make a film for Bombay talkies, Nabendu Ghosh joined his unit. However, in Bombay he found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So, he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.

This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, “There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.” But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screen writing, and even in Bengal people thought of him only as the screen writer of successful films. Small wonder, since he wrote more than eighty scripts, for directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Shakti Samanta, Sushil Mazumdar, among others. Most of them are considered classics of the Indian screen: Sujata, Bandini, Devdas, Parineeta, Aar Paar, Majhli Didi, Teesri Kasam, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khan Dost, Baadbaan, Insaan Jaag Utha, Lal Patthar …

But Baba was saddened that even his colleagues in the filmdom did not know his literary pouring as only a handful were translated into Hindi and none into English. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017), and That Bird Called Happiness (2017). Mistress of Melodies (2020) you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after That Bird Called Happiness. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi/ Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.

But above all, the reason for putting my energy in this art is to take a part of my heritage to the world. Because, as the celebrated Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee said about Nabendu Ghosh, he is a writer who deserves to be read. Allow me to finish with a quote from him as he talked about his senior’s continuing relevance, to readers of Bengali literature and outside.

“Nabendu Da’s use of language was remarkable. He starts one of his stories with the word ‘Bhabchhi / (I’m) Thinking.’ It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of the Buddha — uses a vocabulary that is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam.

“He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! So fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… Exceptional is the only word to describe it.

“And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. His ‘throw’ was such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell.

The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition.

“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengal but worldwide.”

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

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Categories
Tagore Translations

Bolai

A story about Man and Nature written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore in 1928, translated by Chaitali Sengupta.

Simul tree, also known as Rokto Simul in Bengali. Photo Credit: Wiki

It is often said that human life is a culmination of various other life forms in this world. In our daily lives, most often, we come across diverse characteristics of other animals in a human being. Honestly said, in the character of a human, we see a blend of attributes usually found in animals. The domesticity of a cow and the ferocity of a tiger reside in the same human; it is, as if, the snake and the mongoose are both put together. It is somewhat like the melody that is created when the entire range of notes come together. Only then, a raga is formed. However, in a raga, one note can be more prominent than the other.

In the character of my nephew Bolai, I believe the affinity for flora and fauna, perhaps, reigned supreme. He was an observant child rather than an active one. Even at an early age, he’d quietly observe Nature around him. The dark, billowing clouds in layers, on the eastern sky would collect and pour. They would moisten his heart and bring forth the untamed breeze of the forests. It was, as if, his entire being could hear the pitter-patter of the rain.

He seemed to want to fill his being with rays of the departing sun, perhaps, in an attempt to collect something precious from it. In the end of Magh (the month of January), when the trees would be laden with the tiny fruits, an intrinsic, deep happiness, a joy defying description awakened in him. His inner nature would blossom forth, expand and take on a deeper shade of colour, much like those flowering Sal trees, with the advent of Falgun (the month of February). In those moments, he had a deep urge to sit in solitude, in conversation with himself, piecing together the various tales he’d heard. Like the story of that very old pair of birds, who had made their nest in the deep crevice of the ancient banyan tree.  He never talked much, this wide-eyed, staring boy. In the silence of his being, his thoughts ran deep.

Once, I took him along on a trip to the mountains. His joy was immense, when he saw the lush carpet of the green grass, sprawling across the valley from our house at the top.  In his mind, the grass carpet on the slope was not an inanimate, lifeless thing; he felt it to be a living one, that rolled playfully down. Often, he would roll down the slope, become a part of the grass, enjoy it tickling his back. He giggled aloud.

After a rain-washed night, when the first rays of sun gently broke free, and its golden light kissed the tops of the clustering deodar trees, he would tip-toe out of our home, alone. He would walk to those tall trees, and stand in awe, watching the motionless mighty trunks. In them, he’d envision a living spirit, a human presence, as it were. The spirits who wouldn’t talk but would know all our secrets like our ancestral grandfathers, from times immemorial.

His deep-thinking eyes weren’t always heavenwards. Many a times, I’d seen him roaming in my garden, his eyes on the ground, as if in quest something new or unusual. His curiosity knew no bounds, when he discovered new seedlings piercing out of the soil. Each day, bending down, he would talk to them, as if asking, “What’s next? Now what?” Those were, like his eternally incomplete stories — like those new, tender leaves, with whom he shared a strange affinity, verging on companionship.

And they, too, would be eager to ask him questions. Perhaps, they asked him his name. Or, about his mother, where was she? In his mind, Bolai perhaps would reply, “But I don’t have a mother.”

When someone plucked a flower from the tree, it hurt him. He realised soon enough that his concern or hurt was not at all important to others. He tried to hide his pain. When the young boys of his age threw stones at the trees, trying to bring down amlokis (gooseberries) from fully laden branches, he ran away from the scene. To tease him further, his companions would walk through the garden, thrashing the row of shrubs on both sides with their sticks; they would tear the branch of the bakul tree (Minnesap species) — he felt like crying but couldn’t. Then, others might have thought of him as mad. The worst days in his life were when the grasscutter came to mow the grass in the garden.

For he would have noticed the small tendrils of creepers, rousing their heads within the patch of grass, and those purple-yellow tiny nameless flowers, embedded with them. Here and there, the kantakari (wild eggplant) shrubs, with small bluish flowers sporting a speck of gold in their hearts. Those creepers of kalmegh (bitter medicinal plant) near the fence borders, and the anantamul (a medicinal plant) displaying their leaves; the sprouting neem that blossomed forth out of the seeds dropped by birds, how beautiful they looked! And all these were brutally mowed down by the cruel grass mowing machine. Nobody listened to their pleas or protests, for these were not the most sought-after plants in the garden.

Somedays, Bolai would come to his aunt, sit on her lap and wrapping his small arms around her neck. He would only say, “Why don’t you ask those grasscutters not to kill my plants?”

His aunt replied, “Bolai, don’t be a fool. These are overgrown weeds, almost a jungle, these must be cleaned.”

Bolai had by then understood that there were some pains, some sorrows, that were exclusively his own. Those never resonated with others.

Bolai probably was truly born in that age and time, when the universe first swam out of the womb of the ocean, taking its first breath, eons of years ago. At a time, when on the newly formed layers of mud, the nascent forests rose and cried out for the first time. Then, there were no birds, no noise, no life — only layers of rocks, slime and water. Those tall trees, heralding other life forms on the path of time, calling out to the glowing sun, with their raised hands, saying, “I’ll live, I’ll exist, I’ll survive, like the eternal traveler, through the cycles of death, through days and nights, rain and shine, I’ll progress on the path of my growth, my evolution.”

Those murmurings of trees can be heard still, through the forests and the hills; on the tendrils of their leaves the life force of Earth murmurs, “I’ll live, I’ll exist.” These mute trees, like foster mothers of the Earth, have milked the heavens for endless time, to gather life’s nectar, it’s radiance, for this planet. And endlessly, they raise their eager heads to the air, expressing their soul’s call, saying, “I’ll live.” In some strange, miraculous way, Bolai could hear that calling in the blood that coursed through him. The very thought had made us laugh.

One fine morning, as I was reading the newspaper, Bolai came up and took me to the garden. Pointing out to a small shrub, he asked me, “Uncle, what’s that plant?”

It was a small shoot of a simul (silk cotton) tree, growing through the crack of our gravel road. Bolai had made a mistake by bringing me there.

The sapling was a tiny one, just like the first babbling of a child; it was then that Bolai noticed it. Thereafter, Bolai had himself tended to the plant, watering it, checking it earnestly to monitor its growth, each morning and evening. Though the silk cotton plant grows fast, it could not keep pace with Bolai’s eager wait. When it grew to a certain height, Bolai observing the beauty of its rich leaves, was certain it was a tree of a special kind. His observation was quite similar to that of a mother who after observing the first hint of intellect in a child, marks him as a wonder. Bolai, too, had thought that he’d astonish me with his tree.  

I said, “I’ve to tell the gardener to uproot the tree.”

Bolai was aghast. Those words were terrible for him.  He said, “No Uncle, I beg of you, please don’t get it uprooted.”

“I truly don’t understand you,” I told him. “It stands right on the middle of the path. It’ll spread cotton all over, once it grows bigger. It’ll be a nuisance.”

Bolai realised it was no use arguing with me. The motherless boy then went to his aunt. Sitting on her lap, with his arms around her neck, he sobbingly said, “Aunt, please tell uncle not to uproot the tree.”

His plan worked. His aunt called me and said, “Oh listen, please let his plant be.”

I let it be. Had he not shown me the sapling, I would have surely not noticed it. But now, I notice it every day. Within a year, the tree grew taller shamelessly. As for Bolai, he reserved his best adoration for this tree.

The tree continued to grow in a ridiculous manner, without paying any respect at all to anyone around. It grew to its full height, standing on that inappropriate spot. Whoever saw it, wondered why it was placed there. A couple of times more I proposed to uproot it. I tempted Bolai with my offer of nice, high quality rose saplings. I also proposed, “If you still opt for the silk-cotton tree, then let me get you a fresh sapling. We can plant it next to the fence. It’ll look pretty there.”

But any talk of uprooting it, alarmed Bolai. And his aunt said, “Oh, it doesn’t look that bad there.”

When Bolai was an infant, my sister in-law had passed away. The grief, perhaps, made my elder brother careless; he went abroad to study engineering. Motherless, this child grew up in my childless home, in the lap of his aunt, my wife. Ten years later, my brother returned and took Bolai to Shimla to school him so that he could accompany his father abroad. He was given western education in Shimla.

Bolai cried inconsolably as he left our home, turning it into an empty house.

Two years passed. During this time, Bolai’s aunt, saddened by his absence, dried her tears in solitude, and spent her time in Bolai’s room, arranging and rearranging a single torn shoe that he wore, a damaged rubber ball he played with and that picture book of animals. She wondered if Bolai had outgrown all these by now.

In between, the wretched silk cotton tree continued to grow shamelessly; so tall it had grown, that it was now absolutely mandatory to cut it down. I chopped it down one day.  

Very soon after this, Bolai’s letter reached us from Shimla. “Aunt, do send me a photograph of my silk-cotton tree.”

Before going overseas, Bolai was supposed to come and meet us once. But since that had now been cancelled, Bolai wished to take his friend’s photograph along.

His aunt called me, saying, “Listen, please bring a photographer.”

I asked, “Why?”

She showed me the letter in Bolai’s childish handwriting.

I said, “That tree has already been chopped off.”

Bolai’s aunt didn’t touch food for the next couple of days and stopped communicating with me for even longer. When Bolai’s father had taken him away from her, it was the severing of her umbilical cord; but when Bolai’s uncle uprooted his favorite tree forever, it shattered her world and deeply wounded her heart.

For, that tree was, to her, a reflection of Bolai, his substitute image.

Amloki tree

Author’s Bio:

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

Translator’s Bio:

Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, translator, journalist from the Netherlands. Her works have been regularly published in both Dutch and Indian literary platforms, her poems also been anthologized in many acclaimed collections.

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

Categories
Tagore Translations

The Library

A part of Bichitro Probondho (Strange Essays) by Rabindranath Tagore, this essay was written in 1885. It has been translated from Bengali by Chaitali Sengupta from Netherlands

Rabindranath Tagore

The stillness inside the library can be compared to the thousand-year-old roar of the mighty ocean that has now been tamed to sleep. A deep, peaceful slumber of a baby. A place where language is on hold, its rhythmic tide is locked and the brightest light in our souls is imprisoned behind the black and white words. I wonder, what would happen, if one day, the words revolt, breaking free of the bondage? Just as the Himalayas contain in its frozen ice a thousand floods, in the same way this library too preserves the best of human emotion in its breast.

Humans have been able to fence in electricity with iron wires, but who knew that man would lock words behind silence? Who knew that he could trap music, boundless hopes, the happiness of an awakened soul and the prophecy of the oracles in the pages full of words? That he would imprison the past in the present? And create a bridge upon the infinite ocean of time just with the help of a mere book?

We stand at the crossroads of a hundred roads in the library. Some paths lead to the boundless sea, some to the topmost peak, and yet another meanders to the inner crevices of the human heart. There’s no barrier, no matter where you wish to go. Man has created his salvation within the small perimeter of a book.

In this library, one can very well listen to the rise and fall of human emotions, like the echoing of the sea resonating through the conch shells. The living and the dead co-exist in close proximity here and opposition is a close relative of compliance. Trust and doubt, research and discovery are mates here. The popular and less popular live together amidst great peace and harmony. None ignore the other with contempt.

Crossing several rivers, oceans, mountains the voice of humans have reached here, galloping through several ages of time. Come, come here, for here we’re singing the birth song of light.

The Great One, who after discovering heavens, had given out a clarion call to all humans — ‘You all are the sons of heaven, this earth is your heavenly abode’ — it is his voice and millions of other similar voices, that reverberate within these walls through the years.

Have we then, from the foot of Bengal, got nothing to say, no message to give out to the human civilization? In the unified music of the world would Bengal’s contribution be only silence?

Doesn’t the sea at our footsteps speak out to us anymore? Doesn’t the Ganga bring forth the song of Kailas for us? And the vast blue canopy- isn’t it anymore there above us? And the galaxy of stars there, are they not for us?

Each day brings messages to us from far away countries from past and present. In response, are we only going to produce a few flimsy English newspapers? The countries around the globe are writing their names with the ink of immortality. Would we, Bengalis, be happy to put our names only on the application papers? Humanity is putting up a stiff fight against the preordained destiny; with the bugle calls, soldiers are being called upon. At a time like this, are we only going to be immersed in petty affairs?

Bengal’s heart is full after a long silence. Let her once speak out, in her own tongue. Her voice would indeed add melody to the music of the world.

Author’s bio

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.

Translator’s bio

Chaitali Sengupta is a published writer, translator, journalist from the Netherlands. She is involved in various literary & journalistic writing, translation projects for Dutch newspapers (Eindhoven News, HOWDO) and online platforms, both in the Netherlands and in India. Her works have been extensively published in many literary platforms like Muse India, Indian periodical, Borderless Journal, Setu Bilingual, The Asian Age. Her recently translated work “Quiet Whispers of our Heart” (Orange Publishers, 2020) received good reviews and was launched in the International Book Fair, Kolkata, India.

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

Categories
Review

Vignettes of Bengal

Book Review by Gopal Lahiri

Title : One Dozen of Stories

Author: Naina Dey

George Steiner says, ‘Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence’. In her fascinating book titled One Dozen Stories, Naina Dey captures the shades and tones of Bengali short stories written by well-known storytellers into the folds of English language and gives it her own distinctive stamp. One can not only see Bengal in her words, but also can smell it, feel its very texture.

Sanjukta Dasgupta, the eminent writer and academician, has rightly said, in her Foreword, “The translator of the twelve short stories in this collection has exhibited both sense and sensibility in her selection of the short stories originally written in by some of the best storytellers of Bengali fiction. Naina Dey’s training as a literary critic and translator become obvious as the authors, whose short stories that have been selected for translation cover a wide trajectory.”

Short stories, can also be a welcome diversion from the barrage of images we’re often submitted to in long narratives. The writers feel sometimes it’s worth showing less and hiding more and that is the essence of the short story. Through the power of observation, Naina Dey takes hold of the essence of the stories “each equally griping in intensity” and gives it to the reader with a power that is, paradoxically both strange and familiar. She portrays the influence of images and their seductiveness and their complexities as depicted in the original with expressionist clarity and feelings.

One Dozen Stories includes translation of selected stories by Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Ashapurna Devi, Narendranath Mitra, Suchitra Bhattacharya, Nabakumar Basu, Anita Agnihotri and Esha Dey.

The twelve stories offer astounding depictions of desire, dream, love, belief and the power of the natural world and the translator tracks the inner monologue of an impoverished world with skill and purpose. There is no dream fog about these stories. There is no slapdash, no satire, no postmodern signs and flashes either.

Naina Dey has mentioned in her ‘Introduction’, “Edgar Allan Poe, considered the father of the short story and its first critical theorist had defined what he called the prose tale as a narrative which can be read at one sitting from half an hour to two hours, and is limited to ‘a certain unique or single effect’ to which every detail is subordinate.”

The stories in this collection are appealing in their richness and variety, in the sharpness of their perceptions and the clarity of even their complicated psychological unpicking and above all in their stylistic forms.

Tagore is a master storyteller and his stories are associated with events of our life that touched. Dey has selected two poignant and powerful short stories of Tagore. In ‘Shesh Puroshkar’ (The Last Reward), Tagore excavates the flaws and examines the truth to heal wounds and reward thereafter. The settings feel fresh because the author refuses to draw on worn-out descripted tropes with a thing of shreds and patches.

 ‘Streer Patra’ (The Wife’s Letter) is a landmark short story in Bengali literature.In the life of poor Bindu, Tagore has infused portrait of several generations of tortured and exploited women in Bengal. The deprivation and the denial are all encompassing. The protagonist, Mrinal, unearths the suppression that women undergo and renounces the injustice meted out to the young girl Bindu. Mrinal leaves her house, as a mark of protest at the atrocities against the women and becomes a free woman at the end.

You had cloaked me in the darkness of your customs. Bindu had come for an instant and caught sight of me through the hole in that veil. With her own death, she had ripped at the end my veil from top to bottom. Today I emerged and saw that there was hardly any place where I could keep my pride. Those eyes that had beheld and loved my neglected beauty, now look at me from the entire sky. Mejobou is dead now.’”(Steer Patra)

For readers looking for a more interesting story with twist at the end, ‘Chor’ (Thief) written by Narendranath Mitra, an accomplished short-story writer, shows the relationship between two enigmatic characters who embark on unusual life path; the husband, a kleptomaniac, compels his innocent wife to steal. The story shows pleasure cannot sustain either itself or any meaning.

Today Renu was truly her husband’s worthy consort. This was what Amulya had been wishing for all these days. Today was his day to rejoice. But Amulya was frozen stiff in his wife’s tender embrace. It was as if every beauty, every charm had disappeared from this earth. And those familiar arms which encircled his neck were not the bangle-laden slender arms of a beautiful young woman- they had become loathsome, defiled.”(Chor)

Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Puimacha’ (The Spinach Vine) is a captivating investigation of the life. The author depicts human fallibility and the tragic ending with the untimely death of Khenti, the eldest daughter of Sahayhari. Families dissolve through vagrant desire and inner disconnection. Relations between mother and son becomes insensitive and fail to cohere at times.

The depiction of a family’s routines, rituals, and idiosyncrasies in the midst of rule is reflected in Ashapurna Devi’s deft and gripping story ‘Chinnamasta’(The Severed Head). The power of apprehension and its scaring presence is a theme of the story. The broken down, disheartened, surging negative energies emanating from the Hindu widows, echo through the story.

“In the women’s circle, the newly widowed wife’s fare held the same interest as the manners of a newly-wed bride… Frequently therefore, one found Kanaklata, the eldest of the Lahiri wives, Monty’s mother, appearing at opportune moments at Jayabati’s house.” (Chinnamasta)

Nabakumar Basu’s ‘Faydaa‘ (Gain) grapples with harsh effect of generation gap where everyone is under suspicion and the artificiality of the modern life especially while staying abroad. Lives are shaped by ordinary neglect: of spouses, of children and of selves.

Esha Dey’s three stories ‘Anya Jagat Anya Nari’ (Another World, Another Woman), ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and ‘Satilakhi‘(A Devoted Wife) centre on the beliefs and variances in life laced with humour and warmth. Her stories are delicate, unfixed and evanescent. These qualities render it an exclusive place among the narratives and reflect on a way to attain a life without boundaries.

Suchitra Bhattacharya’s two stories are all about the power of life sketches, their lightness and complexities as well. In ‘Atmaja’(The Son), the mother and son relationship being at once compulsive and embryonic, and the mental and physical disentanglement is suggested in unsettling details. It is poignant and the ending is tragic. ‘Ashabarna‘ (Discrimination) portrays the hollowness of the middle-class life with dark undertones of class difference.

In ‘Ranabhoomi’ (Battlefield), Anita Agnihotri conjures a natural chemistry from the start with the historical context of the battle of Plassey and the emblematic mango tree and keeps the dramatic tension till the end. The writer is especially good at capturing its longings while the historical, the political, and the personal overlap within society are clearly evident in the story.

“No one remembers, no one remembers anything. Place, history, time…they themselves get entangled in the web of antiquity and remain silent covered with dust.

Abraham will remember. His mother’s anger, his sister’s ill-humour, his wife’s tears and keep them hidden in his breast like the mango tree struck by the cannon-ball!’(Ranabhoomi).

Translation from one language to other always poses a challenge to convey the nuggets of nuances of the original language. The key to the translation is the choice of words and the need of transporting the soul of the culture into another language. Dey finds her vein of expression by attending to the miniscule details and offers new areas that goes beyond the prevailing.

One Dozen Stories is striking, impressive and of significance even now. The readers will feel the desolation and misery and the sweat and tears that run through the stories. The cover page is impressive. This immensely readable book offers us the chance to escape into a world that is worth a revisit.

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Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata- based bilingual poet, critic, editor, writer and translator with 21 books published mostly (13) in English and a few (8) in Bengali, including three joint books. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals of India and abroad. He has been invited in various poetry festivals including World Congress of Poets recently held in India. He is published in 12 countries and his poems are translated in 10 languages.

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