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Tagore’s Cartography of the Imagination

Book review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: Gleanings of the Road

Author: Rabindranath Tagore Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Niyogi Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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