Somdatta Mandalis a former Professor of English and ex-Chairperson, Department of English, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships like the Fulbright Research and Teaching Fellowships, British Council Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy, Salzburg Seminar and Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.
Somdatta Mandal, an eminent academic, has translated so many books and writers that it is difficult to pin her down as a doyen of one great. Her extensive work amazes with its variety intercepted with humour. Reading through her translations, Nirmalakumari’s account of how Tagore was manipulated by Mussolini, is like comprehending and living through history. It adheres and makes an impact to lead to the realisation that history is often repeated, only the cast of characters and locations change. That Tagore could put that behind him and rise above this incident (hyped by the media then) to connect with his vision reflected not just in his writings but also in the institution (Santiniketan) he created and which he reached out for help to keep intact. All this is brought home to us through just one of Mandal’s many translations, Kobi and Rani.
She talks more of her extensive findings while translating and experiencing the world from writings across the ages. She reflects on how Tagore’s vision for Santiniketan remains to be yet realised. Her answers showcase a scholar who shines in any setting not just with reflected light of others she translates but with her own inner convictions laced with a rare sense of humour. She has much to say and share in this extensive interview. We are happy to project her voice to you.
You were teaching in Santiniketan. Tell us a bit about the legendary university. How is it different from others? Has it lived up to what the Kobiguru visualised?
I retired from Visva-Bharati two years ago after teaching in the English Department there for about eighteen years. My area of specialization has been American Literature, Film and Culture Studies and Diaspora Literature. I started teaching in Santiniketan initially thinking of it as a new job at a university, but soon realised that away from the cacophony of life in Kolkata where I was born and bred, working and living all that while, the place would gradually exert its own idyllic charm upon me. Now in my retirement I want to live there in peace and use the place as a writer’s retreat. In spite of being in the news at present for all the wrong reasons, Santiniketan has its own charm, lifestyle and culture that grows within you and cannot be imposed from outside.
I think most people know, but nevertheless let me reiterate a few facts about Santiniketan. Kobiguru had visualized the institution to be different from other standard ones so that away from rote learning methods, students could imbibe the fresh ambience of studying in the lap of nature. As publicity pictures still project it, the classes in the school section are still held open air under the trees, but the university section is similar to other standard institutions.
In fact, ever since Visva-Bharati was established in 1921, it was considered to be a special place of learning inviting teachers and students from all over the world. The poet selected for its motto an ancient Sanskrit verse, Yatra visvam bhavatieka nidam, which means, ‘where the whole world meets in a single nest’.“Visva-Bharati,” he declared, ” represents India where she has her wealth of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges India’s obligation to offer to others the hospitality of her best culture and India’s right to accept from others their best.” The institution has excelled in areas of fine arts, singing, painting, dance, different Indian and foreign languages, and especially in the idea of rural reconstruction.
Tagore laid great emphasis on universal humanism, internationalism and trans-culturalism. He sought a positive outcome from the East-West encounters. This syncretic culture imbues the vast oeuvre of his work: it has propelled his activism and lives in his pragmatic projects today. His vision was to ultimately strengthen the fundamental conditions of world peace through the establishment of free communication of ideas between the two hemispheres.
Since 1951, when Visva-Bharati was considered as an institution of special eminence by an act of Parliament and was turned into a Central University, problems started creeping out gradually from Pandora’s box. On the one hand, it had to abide by the rules laid down by the University Grants Commission (UGC), follow its basic dictates of syllabi formulation etc. and on the other, the old ashramites and others consistently worried about the institution losing its special character to become like any other run-of-the-mill university. This dichotomy has not been resolved till date and sometimes the conflict between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ takes an ugly shape. Apparently, Tagore had made a special rule that in order to generate local employment people residing within the radius of twenty kilometres of the university should be given jobs but according to Central Government dictates, it should have a pan-Indian profile and recruit people from all over the country. This turmoil has resulted in a sort of stalemate for the past few years.
I mention all this to emphasise that the glory of erstwhile Santiniketan and Visva-Bharati has diminished greatly in the process, and it is no longer the experimental school that Tagore had initially wanted it to be. Even during his lifetime, he went from country to country delivering lectures to generate funds for his dream project and had realised how difficult it was becoming to sustain the institution financially. There is the famous saying that he had even requested Mahatma Gandhi to help and run the institution in his absence. In 1940 a year before he died, he put a letter in Gandhi’s hand,
“Visva-Bharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure, and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.”
Anyhow, after joining Visva-Bharati, I realised that apart from some cursory reading, I hardly knew anything about this great man, this polymath, someone who queried some interpretations of his life and work through a holistic perspective. Also, interdisciplinary seminars and interactions with faculty members of other departments made me aware of many new areas that I was oblivious of. It was quite unconsciously that little by little the spirit of Tagore, his work, his culture, seeped into my veins as it did into that of many of my city-bred colleagues.
My impetus to read and translate Tagore also gained momentum when we had to work for the academic excellence of our department by working for the UGC SAP (Special Assistance Programme). The thrust area of this Departmental Research Scheme was “Tagoreana” – we started visiting libraries and academic institutions all over India and began compiling all available material on Tagore in English. It gave us a clear picture that in reality very few critical books had been written on him in English and the plight of translated volumes was even worse. It seemed as if the work done till date was equal to a few pebbles lying on the vast seashore of knowledge. Along with this comprehensive checklist, at the end of each year, we organised a seminar on different perspectives related to Tagore and his work. Also, in order to justify the seriousness of the project, we started bringing out a book publication every year, with each teacher contributing to it. This was when I got interested in reading and translating Tagore’s non-fiction, his selected letters, his humorous pieces of dramatic skits known as Hasyakoutuk, and different essays and travel narratives. It was a vast gold mine in front of me just waiting to be explored. Here was a man of all seasons and gradually by default, being in Visva-Bharati, all of us gradually veered away from our initial area of expertise and got seeped into reading, writing and translating him. I remembered how in a light vein a professor of the Hindi department saw our first publication on ‘Tagoreana’ and told me, “Even you English professors have now got stuck in the old man’s beard!!”
You have translated lot of Tagore. What got you interested in translation — and as tough a writer as the maestro in English?
Before coming to my translation work on Tagore and how it began, I need to mention here that my role as a translator began in a strange way with a commissioned piece of work many years ago. Professor Sukumari Bhattacharya had an interesting Bengali book entitled Ramayan O Mahabarater Anupratik Jonopriyota (The Comparative Popularity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and she wanted it to be translated into English. Her daughter Tanika Sarkar had begun doing the first few chapters but could not complete it. So, she was looking for a competent translator whose style would not clash with the earlier section already translated. I was given a sample chapter to work on and had to literally go and face her in a serious interview before being assigned the job. She went through my translation meticulously, pencilled a few changes, and gave me the green signal to go on. Translating very difficult Sanskritised Bengali was a real challenge in my life which very often had to be combatted armed with a thesaurus and dictionary. Sometimes, I found that after a whole afternoon’s labour I had proceed only two sentences. Anyhow, after I eventually submitted the entire work, the file somehow got lost. In a bed-ridden state Professor Bhattacharya went through the entire manuscript and approved it, often suggesting a few changes in the use of words. A few months later she passed away and nothing was heard of that translation anymore. For almost five years I would brood over the fate of my unborn first child. Fortunately, when her house was being cleaned and vacated, the lost file was recovered, and the book was published by Anustoop under the joint names of Tanika Sarkar and me.
That difficult initiation as a translator gave me tremendous moral boost and confirmed my capability as a serious translator. Tagore was no longer a problem. The only fear that I had was being too close to the original text as taking liberties with such a canonical writer was unthinkable for me. But times changed. I realised that readability of a translated text was a very important criterion than mere literal translation. So gradually I started becoming even more colloquial with Tagore’s texts. It should read as if it was written in English itself and not in the convoluted style of late 19th century or early 20th century. Contributing to The Essential Tagore volume brought out by Harvard University Press and Visva-Bharati in 2011, to commemorate the sesquicentennial anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, was also an eye-opener for me. The extremely meticulous editors Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty made me revise my entries several times in order to make the text read not like a vintage piece but a living vibrant text. Translating some of the skits from Hasyakoutuk was challenging and fun at the same time, as we could come across a different Rabindranath, full of pun, wit and satire, and quite different from the serious philosophical poet he is usually considered to be.
Again, teaching the very poor quality of translation of Tagore’s Home and the World done by Surendranath Tagore during the poet’s lifetime to graduate and undergraduate students at the university made me realise why so many of my non-Bengali professor friends spoke so badly about the text. Gradually I found myself translating many more different areas of Tagore’s writing. The essays of Pother Sonchoy (Gleanings of the Road) that Tagore wrote during his 1912 visit to England were not travel pieces per se and often ventured into philosophical musings. Niyogi Books readily brought out the volume and it was released in Kolkata at the Oxford Book Store with a lot of fanfare by Sankhya Ghosh and many others.
In the meantime, along with many lesser-known letters, early essays on travel by Rabindranath, Visva-Bharati Publications Department brought out the bookWanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Familythat contains entries of travel essays written by nineteen members of the Tagore family beginning from Dwarkanath Tagore to Sumitendranath Tagore. Incidentally, among these nineteen entries, nine were by women of the Tagore family. So you see, translating travel writing and Tagore somehow overlapped without any conscious effort on my part.
Again, translating two travel narratives by Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis (aka Rani) is equally important because they are memoirs based on her travels with Tagore. Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe) and Kobir Shonge Dakshinnatey (With the Poet in the South) narrate the incidents of the poet’s tour to Europe in 1926 and to South India and Sri Lanka in 1928 respectively. Incidentally, though written many years later, the first narrative is the only account of the important seven-month trip that Rabindranath undertook to Europe where he met Mussolini and many important political and social stalwarts of the day. Both these travelogues are included in my present volume of translation entitled ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.
Other than Tagore, you have translated more writers from colonial times to English. Why do you translate mainly travel-related writing from the past? What got you interested in this period and in travel-writing?
My interest in travel writing began many years earlier when it was not even recognised as a canonical enough genre. In a seminar on ‘Travel Writing’ that I had organized in our department, I received a great impetus when Mushirul Hasan, the famous historian and then Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, attended as the chief-guest and delivered the keynote address. He had already worked and edited several volumes of travel narratives especially in Urdu and made it clear that this area of study upheld immense possibilities.
Now let me mention how apart from the writings of Tagore and his family members, my interest in travel literature grew. After work hours, I started spending the late afternoons in our university library and found immense treasure of travel books in Bengali among the unkept dusty stacks, books which had not been issued for as long as fifty years. No one gave me any computerised list of what texts were available and this manual hunting revealed many unheard names of writers. I just picked them up, issued them and dumped them in my car. Some of the books were brittle, some never issued at all. In this way I had picked up Paschimjatriki by a lady called Durgabati Ghose who went for a tour to Europe with her husband in 1932. I liked the text very much and translated it and Orient Blackswan published it as The Westward Traveller with a foreword by Ashis Nandy. Anyhow, in due course of time, I had developed a handsome collection of travel texts and my interest increased with time. In the meantime, to digress a little, I have edited three volumes on Indian Travel Writing, and one special issue of an online journal, the first one in 2010 and the last one in November 2020. The number of abstracts that flooded my mailbox everyday was unusual and in spite of strict deadlines, I had to reject many good papers due to lack of space. I remember the publisher of the first volume returned 90 copies of the book as he said that since travel writing was not included in any university syllabi or course, they were not selling, and he lacked space in his warehouse. Within a span of a decade, the genre has gained a lot of popularity and many scholars are now keenly pursuing their research in this area.
Speaking about translating writers from the past I find it safer as in most cases the copyright period is over and seeking permission is easier. Also, I must confess how I underwent a personal trauma after translating a living writer. Let me be a bit more specific. Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s Koruna Tomar Kone Path Diye is an excellent narrative about her visit to a seminar in Hyderabad and her sudden decision to travel to the Kumbh Mela. This book interested me a lot and I went through a publisher seeking her permission to translate the text. She asked me to submit two sample chapters and then gave the green signal to go ahead. I completed the entire translation within the stipulated time and sent it to her. Now began the difficult part. She did not like certain sections (“I don’t see myself in it as I should”, she explained) and the manuscript went through innumerable revisions and alterations, often with the consultation of family members and other editors. The cheeky, colloquial tone of the original Bangla text was lost – one perennial problem of translation for sure. Anyhow, the publisher introduced two more editors and in the end the book did come out under a different translator’s name with a due acknowledgement in the foreword for all my effort! So, it was a wise decision on my part henceforth to stick to older writers from the past.
Also, though for a long time, travel writing had been relegated as an inferior form of literature, I found in many texts what I call little nuggets of history. For example, in Durgabati Ghose’s text there is a hilarious incident about her going to meet Sigmund Freud in Vienna. As the daughter of the famous psychoanalyst Girindra Sekhar Bose, she went to meet Professor Freud who was her father’s friend, and what emerged in that meeting is something unusual when Durgabati felt that Freud himself should be psychoanalyzed for his excessive love of dogs. When I mentioned that incident, Ashis Nandy regretted that if he knew about this incident earlier, he would have definitely included it in his book, The Savage Freud. Again, in Crossing Many Seas, Chitrita Devi tells us how she went to visit the British Parliament in 1947 and on that very day saw the white paper of independence being granted to India. Many other such interesting historical events and significant people are often found in very ordinary travel narratives.
What are the challenges you face while translating Bengali to English? How do you solve them?
Basically, I still consider mine as literal translations and do not venture out into bringing in radical changes. The basic challenge I face is maintaining a readable sentence structure as the English and Bengali have different methods of composition. I don’t translate directly into the computer, rather I prefer to do it in long hand. Though it entails more work, I find that I end up usually reversing the order of the sentence when I am correcting and keying it in the computer. If possible, I then ask any friend of mine to read the translation and offer any necessary suggestions for change. This system works well for me. Also, now I usually try and translate everything in the past tense and that makes it more readable. Breaking up long, convoluted sentences into shorter readable ones is another method I tend to adopt. With time and experience, I feel more confident in making such alterations.
Why do you think translating is important? What is the role of translations in a world with 6500 languages?
In spite of all its drawbacks, translation is the only way in which we can open out to other people, whether in regional languages in India or in other languages across the world. Let me give you an interesting example. Recently I reviewed a book called Rebati: Speaking in Tongues. ‘Rebati’ is a famous short story written in 1898 by the famous Odia writer Fakir Mohan Senapati. It is a tragic tale in which the dream of self-actualisation of a young girl through education comes crashing down as much due to a rampaging epidemic as due to a mindset deeply hostile to change. In this particular book, the editor, Manu Dash, has managed to bring in 36 different incarnations of the story. Arranged alphabetically, ‘Rebati’ is presented in twenty-four Indian and twelve foreign languages in all. As the editor informs us, most of the writers commissioned to translate it in different languages have taken the English or the Hindi version as their source text. For the lay reader therefore, it is not possible to vouch for the quality of the translated text. But that we are able to understand the significance of this late nineteenth century story across so many countries and cultures across the globe is what is more significant than the actual quality of the translation.
Is it possible to have cultural exchanges among languages without losing out nuances in translation?
Translation and its problems, especially when the translated pieces are twice or thrice removed from the original source text, is nothing unique and hence even labelled by terms like ‘transliteration’ and ‘transcreation’. In one of his earlier semiotic investigations, ‘The Search for the Perfect Language’, Umberto Eco argued that the Book of Genesis charts the decline of humanity into the chaos of Babel. The poly-linguistic world we live in is one more punishment from God for our baseness and general nastiness. In ‘Mouse or Rat?: Translation As Negotiation’, Eco is back on the subject of this post-lapsarian movement between different tongues, the perilous attempt to express concepts from one language into another. He suggests that translation is a ‘negotiation’ not just between words but between cultures – “Translation is always a shift, not between two languages but between two cultures. A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.”
As a translator I am very conscious about this kind of cultural exchange. Maintaining culture-specific words within the translated version, but at the same time making its meaning clear for the reader to understand, is probably one way of retaining this culture specificity. The lesser the use of glossary the better. Jhumpa Lahiri in her latest novel Whereabouts which she self-translated from Italian into English attests to the fact: “Translation shows me how to work with new words, how to experiment with new styles and forms, how to take greater risks, how to structure and layer my sentences in different ways.”
Which is your favourite writer to translate? And why?
None in particular. I just sometimes happen to like a piece of work and feel it should be translated for a greater pan-Indian readership. Sometimes the reverse is also true. In the summer of 2004, I was residing at Bellagio in Italy on a Rockefeller Fellowship when the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine published a new short story by Jhumpa Lahiri called ‘Heaven-Hell’. Upon reading the story about the protagonist called Pranab-Kaku, I was so taken aback by its Bengaliness, I felt that every Bengalis who usually do not read English fiction and yet basked in the glory that a Bengali girl had recently won the Pulitzer prize should immediately read it. Without a second thought or even seeking any permission from anyone, I instantly sat down and translated the story into Bangla. Later when I returned to Kolkata and gave it to a senior professor to read. he was so impressed that without even informing me he sent it to the magazine Kali O Kolom which published it. I am lucky that no one sued me for copyright violation.
Recently I read a short story called ‘Barnabaad’ (Casteism) by Manoranjan Byapari in the Sunday supplement of Pratidin newspaper called Robbar and felt the urge to translate into English immediately. Dalit writing in Bengali is slowly gaining academic attention and I immediately asked someone to seek permission from the writer to allow me to translate it into English. Byapari, busy with his own electioneering campaign at that time, was thrilled and immediately gave me the permission. The translated story has been accepted by the international journal Transnational Literature and will see the light of day soon. So, you see there is no special or favourite writer for me to translate. Way back in the nineties, I remember I had voluntarily translated some essays on cinema that Satyajit Ray published in Bishoy Challachitra, but I was too naïve to know then that you needed his wife’s permission to do so. The translated pages therefore travelled to the wastepaper basket in due course.
Was it different translating Bengali women from translating Tagore? How did the experience differ?
Usually, the tone of Bengali women’s writing that I have translated to date is much more colloquial and homely, but we cannot always make generalisations. Many women wrote their travelogues at the request of family and friends and not for public consumption. But some women like Krishnabhabini Das took her job of imparting knowledge rather seriously. Also, we should not make the mistake of assuming that all Tagore’s works are of high philosophical and moral content. There are many pieces of Tagore’s writing which are also simple, homely, easy to translate and again there are places where he often quotes from the Upanishads and one needs the help of Sanskrit scholars to understand the real meaning of those quotations. So, there is no such hard and fast rule, and it all depends on what particular work and by which writer we are translating.
Were the Bengali women, like Krishnabhabini Das, you translated any different from the women associated with Tagore? How and why?
This question is more or less a repetition of the last question. Each woman’s writing has a different aim and purpose and so they cannot be clubbed together under some general definitions. The reason for the travel and the target readership is different in each individual case. Published in 1885, Krishnabhabini Das’s England-e-Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England) was published in Calcutta originally without her name in the title. Her identity was just that of a Bengali woman who chanced to go to England along with her husband. Her book was not a travelogue in the true sense of the term, but her aim was to seriously convey the social conditions of England at that time and to educate her sisters back home who were still in fetters and did not know much about female emancipation. Her writing is serious in nature, and she took the help of other sources and books to authenticate and explain everything in detail.
For Hariprabha Takeda, a Bengali Brahmo woman, who went to Japan in 1912 for four months along with her husband to meet her Japanese in-laws there, it was a totally personal affair. Thus, even though language was a big bar, Bongomohilar Japanjatra [The Journey of A Bengali Woman to Japan] is more intimate in tone and narration where she tries to define the idea of ‘home’ to her readers. For Chitrita Devi, sister of Maitreyi Devi, Onek Sagor Periye (Crossing many Seas) narrates travels to different places in the world in seven different segments. As a member of the P.E. N. network, her outlook and narration is much more erudite and polished than others.
I can go on citing more examples but the basic point I want to make is that the social class and status of the woman narrator is different in each case. For women associated with Tagore, this becomes even more clearly marked. Rabindranath’s daughter-in-law, Protima Devi, wrote Nirbaan (Nirvana) immediately after the poet’s death. This text is very different from the four other women who narrated the last days of their association with Rabindranath. Though the incidents are the same, each woman’s narration comes in different styles. Thus, Rani Chanda or Maitreyi Devi or Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis’s narration have to be read side by side to understand what I mean as to the relationship of the subject to the narrator. My book The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs does exactly that. Translating each woman’s narration separately was a challenge no doubt but when they are juxtaposed together, the point-of-view of each narrator becomes clearer.
Why do you stick to women and Tagore only? Have you ever thought of exploring translations of other writers like Nazrul or Jibonanondo?
As I have already mentioned, this was not a deliberate choice. I am not a feminist as such but somehow at the end of the day I find that I have translated the works of more women than men. Since none of the translations that I have done till date have been commissioned projects by publishers or authors themselves, I just translate what and when I fancy reading and feel inspired to translate. You know translation has often been called ‘transcreation’ and this creative process is something that interests me very much. Though not a creative writer per se, the translating process also gives me liberty in selecting words, style and that grants me a lot of freedom which is no less important than creative writing. About translating Nazrul or Jibonanando, I must admit that I am not very comfortable with translating poetry. I prefer to stick to prose, whether fiction or non-fiction. The more difficult the prose style, the more challenging the translating process becomes. Also, in hindsight I feel since women were marginalised in the creative process and often not taken seriously at all, as a woman myself, it is my duty to explore and translate the writings of women even more.
Have you ever thought of writing yourself?
I have written a lot of critical essays and articles but when it comes to creative writing, my contribution is negligible. However, for a long period of time I wrote small features for the ‘Now and Again’ column published in the Op-ed section of The Statesman. These pieces made me quite popular as often when introduced to strangers for the first time, I would be asked whether I was the same person who wrote that column. Occasionally, I wrote several short entries about any and everything in life that interested me or I experienced first-hand without any false attributes in them. They were written primarily to divert myself from boring academic schedules and I called them ‘Vignettes of Life’when it was first published. Later it expanded into another edition called ‘More Vignettes of Life’ and the last one being called ‘Vignettes of Life Once More’. They contain any and everything that happened to me and in places around me, I am the narrator and the protagonist, and the result is that I have been able to make people laugh. In this troublesome and problem-ridden world, pure laughter and fun are vanishing so fast that I consider these short entries to be really cathartic. As for serious creative writing like writing short stories or poems, I never attempted to do that. Perhaps I am too prosaic a person you might say with very little imagination.
What is your next project? Tell us a bit about it.
I am at present involved in a voluminous project which I began at least five years ago about different Bengalis from colonial times travelling to Vilayet or England and narrating their experiences in different genres of writing. Though I had to be selective in choosing the travellers over their two-hundred-year time span, sometimes unavailability of the primary texts made things more difficult. I am at present working on approximately forty such travellers, some of whom had written their memoirs in English. For those who wrote in Bengali, I am translating selected portions of their work for the purpose. So it is a quite laborious and time-consuming work but at the same time, very interesting because the multifarious reasons for each person’s travel to the coloniser’s land is mind-boggling. The structure of the book includes a brief bio-note of each traveller along with several sample pages from the actual narrative so that the reader can savour their experiences first-hand. I hope it sees the light of day soon.
(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Title: ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore
Translator/Editor: Somdatta Mandal; Foreword by Dipesh Chakrabarty.
Publisher: Bolpur: Birutjatiya Sammiloni.
Memoirs and correspondences constitute two alternative sources for reconstructing historical narratives. Generally kept outside the pale of mainstream history, memoirs, such as those included in the volume under review, can offer significant insights into the reading of important public figures and their activities. Despite the charges of ‘unreliability’ of memories with the help of which personal narratives are constructed, memoirs contribute to the understanding of a historical period with the help of small, apparently insignificant, details which can offer penetrating insights into reality. Personal correspondences with a public figure, preserved in family archives, too may contain interesting facts, figures and episodes which may help constructing their lives and recreating the social and intellectual environment of the time. Due to their very subjective nature, which mostly flouts the norms of objectivity, these genres may provide unique dimensions to the familiar historical narratives.
Somdatta Mandal’s book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore(2020), selected, translated and edited by her, is an important source, particularly for non-Bengali readers, for comprehending Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning poet from Bengal who continues in global limelight. It unearths hitherto unknown facts, some activities of ‘small’ actors who played a role in history and ‘trivial’ details which help us view Rabindranath Tagore and his contemporaries from fresh perspectives. Written from an informed woman’s point of view, the narratives offer us opportunities for discovering ‘the lighter’ and homelier aspects of Tagore’s life – this is something “which is sorely missed in other serious narratives and biographies” (Mandal xvii).
The publication of this book is timely for yet another reason. Tagore’s tirade against fascism, unfettered authoritarianism, aggressive nationalism and his advocacy for personal freedom, national independence, universal humanism and global understanding have much relevance in our times. Reading Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe, 1969) in particular, one understands how a public figure with an impeccable record of liberal philosophical practices and humanist activities can be duped by the machination of fascist agents and utilised for fascist propaganda to the consternation of liberal intellectuals and common citizens across the world. For this very reason we need Tagore more than ever before. This is a point strongly emphasised by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his ‘Foreword’ to the book.
‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’ anthologises English translation of two memoirs of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis — Kobir Shongey Dakshinatte (With the Poet in the South) and Kobir Shongey Europey (With the Poet in Europe). The European tour took place in 1926 while Tagore travelled to South India and Ceylon in 1928. In her valuable Introduction to the book, Mandal raises the question of difficulty of determining the genre of the narratives. These are, according to her, not just memoirs, they are travelogues as well. Through them, one gets the feeling of following the trajectory of the author’s journey. But a reader also feels how Rani’s journey, along with her husband, revolves round an iconic personality whom they revered and valued. From this point of view, the memoirs often read like hagiographies as well.
In addition to these two memoirs, the anthology includes Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It),a collection of sixty letters Tagore wrote to Nirmalkumari whom he affectionately called Rani. In the Appendices, we find three other articles on Tagore written by Nirmalkumari: “Om Pita Nohosi,” “Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya,” and an essay written for children and originally published in Anandamela, a children’s magazine published by the Anandabazar Patrika. All these make the book voluminous and largely comprehensive. It may be mentioned here that Mandal has recently translated and edited another volume on Tagore entitled The Last Days of Rabindranth Tagore in Memoirs(April 2021). It includes memoirs by Pratima Thakur, Rani Chanda, Maitrayei Devi, Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis, and Amita Thakur.
Interestingly, all these memoirs were written by women who either belonged to the Tagore family or were in close contact with the poet. Dipesh Chakrabarty, in the ‘Foreword’ to Kobi and Rani, raises the issue of his “friendship with women that Tagore sought and sustained throughout his life” (iv), and mentioned in this context the names of Ranu Adhikari, Maitreyi Devi, Hemantabala Devi and Kadambari Devi. He observes that “a feeling of respectful affection and concern for the poet finds a deeply gendered and womanly expression in this book. It oozes out of each page” (iv). The above statement is true of The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs too. Taken together, these two anthologies provide a very intimate and comprehensive account of one of the greatest poets of our time.
Tagore felt the need for recording the accounts of his travels in writing. That would be, in his opinion, a valuable source of literary and historical information in future. He was particularly sensitive about his European tour during which he met several well-known intellectuals. In the ‘Introduction’ to On the Road and Beyond It, he asserts, “the value of the narration of my European tour that has not been published anywhere is enormous” (391). Similarly, Tagore said in the Foreword to With the Poet in the South, “They [the details of his tour] should not be lost” (317). This sense of preservation of history is also present in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the poet in Europe). Here in the ‘Foreword’, Rani notes that Tagore, in a letter published in Prabasi, complained, “Those who had accompanied me during my foreign travel did not take the responsibility of protecting my travelogue, and that is why this chapter remains unknown to people, etc.” (3). As both her ‘Foreword’ and Prasantachandra Mahalanobis’s ‘Preface’ to the same memoir indicate, it was clearly the result of a misunderstanding for which Tagore apologised later.
The history of this misunderstanding goes deeper. The couple suspected the involvement of some insider in the loss of the file containing the manuscript of the despatches sent by Prasantachandra from Europe for publication in Visva-Bharati Bulletin. The file containing Nirmalkumari’s letters were also lost. Although retrieved afterwards, some valuable letters were never found. Rani narrates in detail how the tour to Europe was mired in controversy and conspiracy right from the beginning. Rani’s narrative convincingly proves that Professor Guiseppe Tucci and Professor Carlo Formichi, two visiting professors at Visva-Bharati, functioned as Mussolini’s spies.
They were instrumental in Tagore being invited to Italy by Mussolini. Formichi who oversaw the arrangements of the tour conspired to exclude the Mahalanobis couple from the entourage. He also severely censored the list of Tagore’s visitors in Italy. How Benedetto Croce could meet Tagore with the help of Captain Rapicavoli reads like a detective story. Formichi wilfully misinterpreted Tagore’s messages to the press to create an impression that Tagore supported Mussolini’s fascist regime. The twisted versions were published in newspapers, and these spread across Europe, misrepresenting Tagore’s views.
When Tagore met Romain Rolland in Switzerland, Rolland was initially not well-disposed to Tagore because of the fake news stories in circulation. Nirmalkumari records all the details of Formichi’s machination in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe). For this alone, if not for anything else, this book will provide invaluable materials to historians and common readers alike.
Although the narrative of the poet’s European tour will be of paramount interest particularly to non-Bengali readers who will try to visualize the poet from the East in the maelstrom of radical politics in Europe and to place him in the interface of East-West cultural encounter, his tour of Southern India will be of immense importance to readers intent on knowing the background history of two of his important novels Jogajog (Relationships) and Sesher Kobita(The Last Poem). This is provided in Kobir Shonge Dakshinatte (With the Poet in the South) which also brings to public knowledge intimate details such as how Tagore was affected by the Jalianwalla Bag killings, and how his interaction with Chittaranjan Das went on, C.F. Andrews’ meeting with Mahatma Gandhi as Tagore’s emissary, how intensely engaged Tagore himself had been in writing Lipika and so on. Tagore felt that all these should be preserved as “very important historical documents” (317). The poet’s meeting with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry is also an important part of the memoir.
Trivial but amusing incidents such as the idiosyncrasies of C.F. Andrews, Tagore’s own obsessions and childlike behaviour – all come out with a touch of humour. These correspond to Rani’s power of observation and sense of humour evident in the descriptions in Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe). She describes how a fancy dress ball was arranged aboard the ship Orama which took the Mahalanobis couple to Europe (36), how Rani was initially afraid of a large shark swimming on the water near Port Said (37), how Rani and her female companions, dressed in typical Indian attires and decked with heavy ornaments, became a public spectacle in Naples (39-40), how the unhygienic packaging of chocolates in Turin caused repulsion in Rani (70), and several other incidents.
Mandal has done well by including On the Road and Beyond It, Tagore’s collection of sixty letters, in the volume. Tagore wrote these letters to Rani after his return from Europe. He observes in the ‘Introduction’ to the collection, “I continued to keep our relationship alive through letters” (390-91). It, therefore, is intimately connected in spirit with the memoir With the Poet in Europe. The letters, the best medium for conveying emotional exuberance, testify to Tagore’s great affection for, and dependence on, Rani.
The book includes some black and white photographs of important persons and places. Two images of the first edition of Bangla Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) have found their place in the anthology. Mandal’s criteria for selection of texts are quite appropriate, her translation is smooth and editing praiseworthy. Her erudite Introduction will help the readers contextualising the texts included in the volume. The paratextual components of the book are aesthetically pleasing. On the whole, the production of the book is superb. This volume will be a valuable resource for Tagore Studies.
Himadri Lahiri is former Professor of English, University of Burdwan, West Bengal. Currently, he is Professor of English at the School of Humanities, Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata. Asia Travels: Pan-Asian Cultural Discourses and Diasporic Asian Literature/s in English (Bolpur: Birutjatiyo Sahitya Sammiloni, 2021) and Diaspora Theory and Transnationalism (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2019) are his latest books. He writes book reviews for academic journals and newspapers. He also writes poetry.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Rabindranath’s introduction to his correspondence with Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and a few letters dealing with death, his sense of loss on the death of a favourite and about his encounter with a German anthropologist, translated by Somdatta Mandaland included as a part of Kobi &Rani
Title: ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore
The earth expresses itself by moving in two ways. One is by rotating by itself, and the other through a larger movement by going around the sun. In the earth’s yearly cycle, we see the change of seasons, and different kinds of fruits and crops fill up the granary of man. Its diurnal course results in the play of light and shade on land and water, the change of nature’s moods in the sky, the play of colours every morning and evening on the horizon; different tones of voices between waking up and going to sleep.
These two different movements can be compared with two kinds of literature – first the ordinary one meant for the general public and the other, more intimate, one, that of letters. Usually ordinary literature draws a huge reading public, and moves far away from the limits of personal life to distant countries. By contrast, the literature of letters reveals the close periphery of a world known to the writer that includes shades of daily experience, its sights and sounds, and along with it, its instantaneous moods and feelings. At least, this is more or less true of the letters published in this series called ‘Patradhara.’
Most of the letters published under the title Chinnapatra in this ‘Patradhara’ series have been selected from the letters I wrote to my niece Indira. At that time, I was wandering around the villages of Bengal; every second different village scenes were startling my wayfaring mind with their new appearances, and these were getting reflected in the letters. Those who have the habit of always speaking quickly open their mouths whenever they find anything funny and interesting. Once we try to package and express within the form of literature, the emotions that arise within and change their nature. We are constantly confronting different things from all parts of the world but it is not worth broadcasting them through loudspeakers. The easiest way to retain them is by confronting known people behind the crowd.
The second set of letters in ‘Patradhara’ was written to a young girl. Most of them were written from Santiniketan so the moving pictures of life there constantly flow through them. In these letters we do not have any grave news; the childishness of that girl, who is innocent about domestic affairs, is reflected through a jovial atmosphere; and along with this is the writer’s jocular benevolence. There is no way in which a mature writer can express permanently all that can be said in an ordinary light-hearted way.
The third section of ‘Patradhara’ has been named Pathe O PatherPrante (On the Road and Beyond It). There is a story behind it. When I went to travel in Europe in 1926, I received invitations from various countries. During that period Rathindranath was sick and confined in a hospital in Berlin. So the responsibility for accompanying me fell on Prasanta Mahalanobis and his wife Rani who was also with him. Sometimes without speaking a single word and sometimes speaking too much, she took the entire responsibility upon her shoulders. She had to rectify all the problems that two inexperienced male travellers created while making proper arrangements for travel. Packing all our things, arranging them, keeping a count of the luggage and moving with them safely during our travels, coping with the sometimes careless and sometimes appropriate demands of the foreign authorities in those few months, Rani handled everything exceptionally well. I had been travelling in new railway coaches, ship’s cabins, living in hotel rooms, and at every step during these repeatedly changing situations, had been interacting with new people. By submitting all the unexpected problems to be resolved by her, I had shamelessly spent my days in peace while receiving a lot of care and nursing from her. At the end, when we completed our European tour and boarded a ship from a Greek port to go home, they kept on staying abroad. As I moved towards my homeland, I continued to keep our companionship alive through letters. Some of those letters, and also those written later, have now been collected here as the third series of ‘Patradhara.’ The constant debates going on all around regarding new experiences have also been expressed through these letters. But the value of narrating our European tour, which has not been published anywhere, is enormous.
All the thoughts that go on within the mind and want to be expressed in our writings remain alive till death. But in our mental life the flow of ideas that are expressed in perpetual motion reach a saturation point at a certain period of time. When the mind is full, then apart from the essential words, a lot is left as excess. Those who love to socialize express those excess words in gatherings, those who are introverted express their feelings in their diaries, and people like me who like to write express their thoughts to someone for whom the road to writing is easily open through letters. In the end as one keeps on moving in time, the excess of emotions reaches its nadir and the mind reaches such a state that the urge to write dies. Today I have reached that point of time in my life when I am silent. I have crossed that stage when I wrote letters voluntarily, with some of them strewn about unnecessarily like multi-coloured shells and snails on a sea beach. I see them from a distance just like the inquisitive vision of external readers. The present mind which rarely speaks now is feeling envious of those times when emotions would rush out incessantly; of course some joyous moments also accompanied them. When grains ripen, it becomes time to gather them and put them inside the barn. Today I could like to gather the harvest from that season which was full of words.
I had thought that I would post your letter when the ship halted at Aden. Now I received the news that the ship will not halt anywhere between Suez and Colombo. So I am thinking of writing a little more.
The thought of death is not leaving my mind. In our world we are somehow connected to one another through our different selves, sometimes deeply and sometimes lightly. All of those are included in my life. I am not reluctant regarding anything in this world; this means I live quite intensively. But the more life is extended, the more happiness and sorrow also occur. The arrows of death find greater space to come and hurt you if your heart is extended. The true worship of life is immortality, which means living in a way that is beyond death. On many occasions the indifference that arises upon the death of someone you love means that the soul is hurt: it then wants to desert everything and live within something that does not erode or dissolve. I find this same message in the first chapter of my father’s life story. When death confronts life, it asks this question: “Is there anything left inside after what I have taken away? If nothing is left, then you are completely befooled.” Life wants life; it does not want to be cheated by death in any way. Once it clearly understands that it has been cheated, in an instant it eagerly states, “Something that cannot fetch me immortality is of no use to me.” Man says this so many times and forgets it so often.
7 December 1926.
I cannot forget Santosh. I think of my own life – I have been living for such a long time – how I have experienced sadness and happiness, hopes and desires, trials and pursuits, and how I have passed through so much difficult historical terrain. Compared to this, Santosh’s life was so limited. His life ended just after he had completed his youth. Even then, the picture of his life is clearly expressed. It is without any excitement but not meaningless. There are so many people all around us who are in service, who are running a household, but all of that is meaningless. Their days pass by in a heap – one upon the other. But taken together they don’t form a clear shape. Santosh’s life was not as formless as that. I remember how he came back some time ago after completing his education in America. He came and created his own space at Santiniketan. There are many other teachers working here. They work just as they would do elsewhere and some work maybe a little bit more than that. But with all the respect in his young heart, Santosh established himself with his entire life. Of course there was the necessity of earning his livelihood but his spiritual connection was stronger. The work we do every day for our personal necessities does not have any excess; it gets absorbed within itself and ends there. But Santosh associated his own life with a mission that was beyond his personal needs. I had very clearly seen the results of it because he led a simple, transparent and respectful life without excesses. But if I knew Santosh only from the work he did, then I would be mistaken. I knew him with my entire vision. It is not that the entire vision is sometimes deformed by love: it achieves a wholeness as well. My intelligence does not disregard the proofs, but my strength of vision also respects his direct sense of responsibility. Sometimes there is a conflict between these two and then the mystery becomes very difficult and sad. This dichotomy is present in the idea of death itself – our heart simply does not want to accept it as the extreme. But there is no end to the opposite proofs– the tug of war between the two makes this so extremely painful. My poem “Jete nahi dibo” (“I won’t let you go”) is one of such pain.
Today on behalf of all the middle class passengers of the ship, a white man had come to me with a request. They want to hear something from me this afternoon. I would not have suddenly agreed to this request if they had been first class passengers, but the egos of the second class passengers are much lighter. We can see human beings in them. Now it is almost time to go there.
Today is our fourth day on the ocean. We will reach Colombo on the morning of the 16th. But I will not have the peace of returning home. The long train journey is divided into many sections. Also, what Pupe has now learnt to call “malpatro” (luggage), is great in number. They are large in volume and the containers are in a pitiable condition. There are some boxes which right from the beginning of the journey have permanently lost contact with their keys and there is no way out except to be tied up with strings. There are some boxes which have had their whole bodies damaged by being hit constantly; some other boxes look like patients who have eaten too much and are waiting to vomit and feel relieved. But Rathi is sympathetic towards them – he treats them like patients in a hospital on the battlefield. Whatever it may be, we are still travelling towards our country, and dark and deep greenery seems to be visible on the last leg our journey. Here the sky is full of beneficial sunshine just as it is in our own country. The moon is growing fuller day by day; I can visualize it swinging through the leaves of the sal trees murmuring in the wind. I imagine depositing the entire load of my stay abroad at the entrance of Uttarayan and then quickly resuming the willing sojourns of my mind. But alas, I also know for sure that we do not reside in heaven and that wherever I go, after pushing my way forth after the desires of many other people, I have only a narrow path left for fulfilling my own desires. The only minor advantage is that, in spite of the path being narrow, I have trodden on it for a long time and have become used to it. In spite of the crowd, it is somewhat possible to walk there on your own.
Among our fellow passengers, there is a German anthropologist who is going to India along with his wife. He has heard the name of our professor. He told me, “I have heard that he is a professor of physics. So I understand that he researches the mathematical side of anthropology; we are working on the human side.” What he means by the human side can be understood by his diligence. He is going to collect information about the wild and tribal communities in south and central India. Much of their lifestyle is still unknown and difficult to know; I have not even heard their names. They live discreetly in very difficult terrain. He wants to enter their territory in a latent or concealed manner in case they are afraid and suspect him. He does not want to live in a tent and instead has taken a sack to spend the nights in. There are snakes, wild animals, and the chance of falling sick due to an irregular routine and unhealthy food. In other words, he is taking a risk with his life. They have left their small child under the care of relatives. His wife has accompanied him on this trip in case he falls sick in the jungle. In the meantime, in order to expedite her husband’s work, she is preparing notes throughout the day with the help of maps and books. The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilized. Except for information about the human race there is no precious object to be recovered from them. These people have ventured to open the doors of information of the whole world, and we are rolling ourselves on torn mats by lying down on the mud floor of the earth. It is best to leave this space for them — God has sent many messengers to clear it up.
About the book: Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) included in ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific letter writer and Rani Mahalanobis is the only person to whom he wrote more than five hundred letters, the maximum number written to any individual person. In 1938, in the third volume of the series entitled “Patradhara”, Rabindranath selected sixty letters written at different periods of time to her. This he titled Pathe O Pather Prante and it was published from Visva-Bharati Publications Department in Kolkata.
Incidentally, we find the first ten letters of this series as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shonge Europey ends in 1926. Since it was published much later, Rani has also included some of these letters in her memoir. The rest of the letters selected from those written up to 1938 describe various moods of the Poet for a period of twelve years. They include philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence, and especially his views on his new-found interest in sketching and painting. In other words, unlike those written to Indira Devi and Ranu Adhikari, these letters are interesting because they cover multifarious topics and issues and reveal the Poet’s tone of intimacy with Rani. As per Prashantakumar Pal’s biography,
Rani Mahalanobis used to suffer from a sort of non-infectious tuberculosis, so for her fever was almost a regular affair. Naturally Rabindranath would get worried – he would suggest different medicines – and write innumerable long letters, which according to him would help Rani forget some of her physical ailments. (Rabijibani, vol.IX, p.297. Translation mine)
The sixty letters included in this volume also vary in length. Some are quite short, while others are lengthy. Again some of the letters are dated with the Bengali month and year, whereas others are dated according to the English calendar. A few of the letters do not have any dates at all. Also some of them seem quite sketchy, and do not have the usual beginning, middle or end. The reason for this becomes clear when we get to know that Tagore had drastically edited several sections of these letters, especially places which revealed his innermost self.
About the Author
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.
About the translator
Somdatta Mandal is Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships and awards, her areas of interest are American Literature, contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. She has edited three volumes of travel writing —Indian Travel Narratives (2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), and Indian Travel Narratives: New Perspectives (2021) and has translated from Bengali to English different kinds of Indian travelogues, with special focus on men and women in colonial times. Among them are: The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose (2010), Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family (2014), which records vignettes of travel by nineteen members of the Tagore family spanning more than 150 years, A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das, which is the first woman’s travel narrative from Bengal published in 1885(2015), Crossing Many Seas(2018) by Chitrita Devi, Gleanings of the Road (2018) by Rabindranath Tagore, and The Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan and Other Essays (2019) by Hariprabha Takeda. Two other translated volumes on Rabindranath Tagore have been published recently, ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobisand Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).
 Santosh Chandra Majumdar was the eldest son of Rabindranath Tagore’s friend Shrish Chandra Majumdar. After passing his entrance examination along with Rathindranath, he went to America and upon returning in 1910 joined the Brahmacharyashram in Santiniketan on a monthly salary of two hundred Rupees. He actively took part in teaching, sports arrangements and hospitality of the guests. He served both Tagore and his institution wholeheartedly till his death in October 1926. Rabindranath received the news of Santosh’s untimely death after reaching Aden.
Pupe or Pupu was the pet name of Nandini, the adopted daughter of Rathindranath.
One of the houses in which the poet lived at Santiniketan.
The name of this anthropologist was Christoph Von Furer Heimendorf. He stayed in Hyderabad and South India for a long time to carry out research on remote backward tribes. Later he became famous for it. See Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni Vol.III, p. 293.
The first volume consisted of selected letters written to his niece Indira Devi when he was wandering around the villages of Bengal and was titled “Chinnapatra”. The second set of letters was written from Santiniketan to a young girl named Ranu Adhikari.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL