Categories
Essay

Uehara by Kamaleswar Barua

A story based on the end of a world war II soldier by Kamaleswar Barua in Assamese, translated by Bikash K. Bhattacharya

Ei Ran Ei Jivan, a collection of wartime narratives penned and published in 1968 by the Assamese writer, Kamaleswar Barua who served as a military engineer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War. Photo: Bikash K. Bhattacharya

Introduction

This is a translation of the narrative “Uehara” from Kamaleswar Barua’s Ei Ran Ei Jivan [1], a collection of narratives published in Assamese in 1968 based on “true events and characters” the author had encountered while serving as a military engineer in the British Indian Army in the Second World War.

Kamaleswar Barua is a relatively lesser-known figure in Assamese literature. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Calcutta in 1932, Barua joined the British Indian Army as an engineer serving in the Naga hills, Manipur and Burma. Attached to engineering field companies, he saw combat in some of the fiercest battles fought in the region in the course of the Second World War. He rose to the rank of major. After the war, Barua earned a master’s degree in City Planning from the University of California, Berkley, in 1951.

Barua was an active member of Assamese literary clubs and reading groups like the Mukul Sangha, a club formed in January 1945 in Shillong, the then capital of Assam. It was in the weekly meetings of Mukul Sangha that Barua shared his personal accounts of the war before turning them into written narratives. Uehara’s story was also first told to a small audience of Assamese litterateurs who encouraged Barua to publish it [2]. However, the project took a backseat for a long time and Barua finally published an anthology of nine narratives, “based on characters he’d encountered during the war”, in 1968. Titled Ei Ran Ei Jivan—which translates as “This War, This Life” or as “Now War, Now Life”—the anthology’s fourth narrative is “Uehara”.

What makes the anthology interesting is the novelty of the genre. The author terms it “a collection of kahini (narratives) about a few wartime characters.” The standard word for short story in Assamese is galpa, while the word kahini doesn’t refer to a specific literary genre. A kahini could be fictional, but it could also be a true historical account. The generic instability notwithstanding, Barua declares in the preface to the anthology, “The names of the characters have been fictionalised unless they’re historically well-known people. I’ve strived to remain true to the characters as best as I could as I’d known and witnessed them.” The preface makes it amply clear that the kahinis Barua tells us are a specific type of wartime memoir narratives rather than autobiographical short stories.

While Barua’s “Uehara” remains a little-known, obscure work, the most prominent literary artefact in Assamese depicting the Japanese in the Second World War in northeast India is Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s short story ‘Agyaat Japani Xainik’ (An Unknown Japanese Soldier) [3]. However, “Uehara” is probably the only work in Assamese that depicts an actual historical encounter between an Assamese native serving the Raj and an Imperial Japanese Army soldier. Barua’s narrative not only portrays an empathetic picture of the mortally wounded Japanese soldier, which is rare in the region’s Second World War literature, but also evokes Pan-Asianism [4].

The original text, by Barua, didn’t contain any notes in it. The endnotes, referenced to academic works for driving home the broader historical context, or for the purposes of clarification, have been added by the translator.

Translation

Uehara

July, 1944. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Imphal, the capital of the Kingdom of Manipur, was completely encircled by the Imperial Japanese Army. The only way out of Imphal was via air [5]. The city had been maintaining contact with the outside world through Koirengei airport. The plains of Imphal were surrounded on all sides by circular formations of Japanese troops. The city of Imphal and the Allied troops and war equipment it hosted, had been under siege for three months. During this period, there had been several fights between Allied soldiers and Japanese troops just outside the city centre of Imphal. The Japanese suffered huge losses. Many Japanese soldiers were captured and kept as prisoners of war (POW) by the Allied forces. Those who died were buried in temporary graves. The wounded Japanese soldiers were treated in Allied military hospitals and despatched to POW camps in Imphal. Starvation and sleeplessness had taken a toll on their war-weary, scarred bodies. The medical treatment they received was far from satisfactory. Shortage of doctors, nurses as well as medical supplies made it difficult to meet the requirements of the wounded Allied soldiers [6].In such a dire situation, it was only natural that the Allied forces fell short when it came to providing medical care to the wounded enemy soldiers, the Japanese POWs. As a result, the tally of dead soldiers increased by the day.

I had been undergoing treatment at a hospital in the besieged city of Imphal. I was gradually recovering from an intermediate risk surgery. Wounded soldiers from the frontline were arriving at the hospital all the time. By then, I’d been well acquainted with the horrors of war. The scenes were indescribable. It appeared as if lives and limbs of men had little value. I’d become accustomed to the sight of countless wounded soldiers, without limbs or a portion of the face, being brought to the hospital on stretchers. This war was necessary in order to establish peace and freedom, especially individual freedom, they said!

The ward next to the one I was staying at was reserved for the wounded enemy soldiers. Armed sentries guarded the ward all the time. This was where I met Uehara, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who’d sustained severe combat wounds in his chest. The angel of death appeared to be calling him. Uehara expressed his desire to share his last words with a fellow Asian.

Following the order of the commanding officer of the hospital, a British interpreter with knowledge of the Japanese language accompanied me to Uehara’s bed. I sat on a chair close to his bed and the interpreter sat beside me. As Uehara started to speak in Japanese, the interpreter translated his words into English for me.

Uehara was from a small village located on the outskirts of the city of Nagasaki. He was born to a family of farmers. He studied Japanese language, mathematics, geography and Japanese history in the village school. He started assisting his father in farm work since he was sixteen. They had a small plot of land. They cultivated paddy twice a year, and on a separate plot of land, they planted soy bean and vegetables. They had a cow, a few pigs and a flock of roosters and hens. And they had a small but neat wooden house where the four members of the family—Uehara, his parents and his sister—lived. They also had a small garden consisting of a few cherry trees and chrysanthemums. The blossoming of the cherry flowers in the month of May would bring a joy-filled atmosphere to the family. Although their garden was small, they had different colours of chrysanthemums that decorated the courtyard. Uehara’s sister would take care of the garden. The Ueharas would not earn much but they had a stable and happy life sustained by whatever income they would gain from their farm.

But destiny would not tolerate the peaceful life of the Ueharas. Things would take a sharp turn, and dark clouds of misfortune hung in the heavens.

December, 1941. Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, and the President of the United States of America declared war on the Empire of Japan. The young men of Japan either volunteered for, or drafted to, the Imperial Japanese forces. Uehara was one of them. Having undergone training in Tokyo, he was recruited to the Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army where he rose to the rank of officer. While serving in Tokyo, he met Yuzuki, a military nurse.

Yuzuki had a round face, a bright pair of eyes and beautiful black hair tied to the back of her head. Uehara was enamoured of her spritely and empathetic behaviour. They fell in love and got married. As the newlywed couple was nurturing dreams about their future, Uehara’s regiment was ordered to Burma [7]. With teary eyes, Uehara and Yuzuki took leave from each other at the Tokyo airport.

Uehara was hopeful. He had unwavering faith in the Mikado [8] and that Japan would emerge victorious in the war. And once the war was over, Uehara would settle down with Yuzuki somewhere in a quiet corner of Nagasaki or Tokyo in a small house with a courtyard and a garden of cherry trees that would offer a nice view of daybreak on the seashore. There they would raise a small family. This youthful determination kept Uehara and Yuzuki going even in separation.

In the jungles of Burma, Uehara’s regiment kept advancing—capturing town after town, Hakha, Falam, Tedim—on their way to Imphal in Manipur. Along with other Japanese troops, his regiment also took part in the siege of Imphal. One day, during the Battle of Imphal, artillery shells hit his chest, severely wounding him. Once he regained consciousness, Uehara found himself in the Allied military hospital. The days that followed were very painful for him. The doctors, despite their efforts, could not stop the bleeding from the wound. Although war essentially entails killing enemy troops, the rules of war also dictate that one is responsible for providing medical care to enemy soldiers wounded in combat. That said, many wounded soldiers are left in the battlefield to die.

When Uehara was narrating his story through the interpreter, I could not understand his language. But I could feel a sense of calm in his voice. I felt that he had a gentle heart that bore no hatred towards anyone. I tried to figure out what could have been the source of his power: Was it in his Japanese culture? Or, was it in his love for Yuzuki?

Uehara politely asked me to take custody of a few articles he’d with him: a blood-stained silk handkerchief in which both Uehara and Yuzuki’s names were inscribed in Japanese characters, a gift from Yuzuki, he said; an incomplete letter to Yuzuki; a flag of Japan with a blazing morning sun on it [9]; and a sword. He requested me as a fellow Asian to keep these items so that I could return them to his wife, Yuzuki if someday I got such an opportunity. He then handed me a note containing Yuzuki’s address in Japan. I took the items from Uehara and came back to my ward with a heavy heart tormented by sombre thoughts. Alas, this is human life! This is how all the dreams and desires come to an end. The next day, I was told, Uehara passed away.

After the end of the war, my peripatetic life once took me to Tokyo. Needless to mention that I took along with me the items Uehara had entrusted in my custody. With the help of the Indian embassy in Tokyo, I informed Yuzuki about my visit and one afternoon I knocked at her door. Yuzuki and her mother greeted me into their small wooden house. The house consisted of only one large room. There were two floor looms on one side of the room while the other side had a raised wooden sitting arrangement. On the wall was a scroll inscribed with Japanese characters. A framed photo of Uehara in military uniform was placed in the middle of the scroll.

The two women slept on the wooden floor. They cooked in the small kitchen in an extended corner of the room. Yuzuki and her mother received me very warmly. Following the Japanese custom, I’d taken off my shoes before entering the house. It was no exaggeration to say that at that time Japan was under the occupation of the United States of America. Items manufactured in Japan at that time were labelled with the phrase ‘made in Occupied Japan’. The Japanese people had learned to speak English. Yuzuki too could speak English. So I didn’t face any difficulty in communicating with her. The two women were happy to receive me. I gave Yuzuki the items Uehara had left with me. She held each of the items close to her bosom and then placed carefully on a cloth spread on a wooden table. Her face radiated with satisfaction. I saw on her face a sense of determination and self-conviction rather than signs of past trauma. The two women then brought tea and bowls of rice and boiled fish. We had dinner together. I felt like an emissary bringing greetings and news from Uehara. I spent several hours in their company. I took leave from them at about nine in the evening. On the way, I noticed the bright and tender moon in the sky. The cherry flowers were shining under the pale moonlight and I could see ripples on the waters of a nearby lake. The ripening apples on the apple trees that I passed by looked astonishingly fresh. The earth is so beautiful! The people are so good!

Translator’s Notes

[1] Kamaleswar Barua, Ei Ran Ei Jivan (Guwahati: Kamaleswar Barua, 1968), p. 23.

[2] Preface to Ei Ran Ei Jivan.

[3] The short story first appeared in the seventh volume of the Assamese literary magazine Jayanti in 1943-44.

[4] Pan-Asianism is an idea, movement, and ideology based on an assumed cultural and ethnic commonality of Asians. It assumes the existence of common political and economic interests and of a shared destiny which necessitate a union of Asian peoples or countries to realize common aims. For more on Pan-Asianism see Sven Saaler and Christopher W. A. Szpilman (Eds.), Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History, 1850-1920, Volume 1 (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011).

[5] Although the author here states that Imphal remained cut off by the Imperial Japanese Army till July, 1944, the British Indian forces succeeded in opening the Imphal-Kohima road on 22 June, 1944, thus ending the three-month long siege of Imphal. See Raghu Karnad, The Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War (New Delhi: Fourth Estate, HarperCollins, 2015), p.209.

[6] General Sir George J. Giffard’s despatch submitted to the British Secretary of State for War on operations in Burma and Northeast India, 16 November 1943 to 22 June, 1944, mentioned the “decided shortage of medical officers, and a serious shortage of nurses and nursing personnel, though there has been no general shortage of hospital accommodation.” See John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle for Burma 1943-1954: From Kohima & Imphal through to Victory, (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2015), p.115.

[7] Imperial Guards Division of the Japanese Army didn’t take part in the siege of Imphal and they primarily fought in Malaya, Singapore and China. However, it was not impossible that certain officers from Imperial Guards Division were deployed to the Japanese Fifteenth Army that laid siege in Imphal. In fact, during the invasion of Burma, the Fifteenth Army was commanded by General Shojiro Iida, who had previously commanded the Imperial Guards Division in the China Theatre of the war. See Peter S. Crosthwaite A Bowl of Rice Too Far: The Burma Campaign of the Japanese Fifteenth Army (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College monograph, 2016), p. 27.

[8] Mikado (御門) is a term commonly used in English and other foreign language writings to refer to the Emperor of Japan. However, the term originally meant not only the Sovereign, but also his palace, the court and even the State, and therefore is misleading when applied only for the Emperor. The native Japanese instead use the term Tennō (天皇) for their emperor. See Kanʼichi Asakawa, The Early Institutional Life of Japan: A Study in the Reform of 645 A.D. (Tokyo: Shueisha, 1903).

[9] Perhaps it was a yosegaki hinomaru, a “good luck” flag gifted to Japanese servicemen deployed into battle. For more on yosegaki hinomaru see Michael A. Bortner, Imperial Japanese Good Luck Flags and One-Thousand Stitch Belts (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2008).

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Bikash K. Bhattacharya is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin from fall 2023. He is a bilingual author writing in English and Assamese. His works have appeared in Journal of Global Indigeneity, The Indian Express and Border Criminologies among others.

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Categories
Notes from Japan

The Boy and the Cats: A Love Story

By Suzanne Kamata

My son wanted a dog, as boys often do.

But one day, my husband said, “How about a cat?” His high school friend, who was a veterinarian, had an American long-haired kitten to give away. His children had found it abandoned by the side of the road, scared and shivering, and brought it home. It was black – an unpopular colour due to its bad luck connotations. The colour of a witch’s familiar.

“Yes!” my son, now fifteen, said. By this time, he would have been happy with a hedgehog or a salamander – any pet at all.

Although I love cats, I was more reluctant. After all, I’d just bought a brand-new sofa and love seat with some book money I’d gotten. I could just imagine what a cat’s claws would due to those leather cushions.

Nevertheless, my husband and son set out for the vet’s office. They came home later with the kitten cuddled against my son’s chest and all the accoutrements – food dish, cat toys, scratching post, and a multi-tiered tower that my husband immediately assembled.

From the beginning, like a duckling that imprints on the first thing that it sees, the kitten, which we named Sumi (the Japanese word for the black ink used in traditional calligraphy) liked my son the best. My early rising husband may have been the one to fill his food dish every morning, and my daughter sometimes coaxed him into her room for sleeping, but my son was his favourite. Sumi would leap from my lap to greet him at the door when he returned from school, and mew plaintively and persistently at his bedroom door until he was admitted. Sumi was skittish and inclined to hiss at strangers. He’d run away and hide under a bed when my sister-in-law dropped by for a visit. But he crooned a greeting when my son walked into the room. They bumped their heads together with mutual affection.

Of course, I grew to love Sumi as well even though, predictably, he clawed the new sofa, scratched the wallpaper, and regurgitated his food on our freshly installed tatami mats.

My husband tried to discipline Sumi, sometimes by holding him immobile and roaring at him, but instead of becoming docile and obedient, Sumi began avoiding him or hissing in his presence. My husband began to grumble that a dog would have been better.

One afternoon, a couple of years later, my son came home with another kitten. She was a tiny, mewling thing with blue eyes and white fur, with a smudge of black on her face – a Siamese, by the looks of her.

Jio (Suzanne’s son) & Mii. Photo courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

“She followed me,” my son said. He’d been down by the riverbank, pitching a baseball against a brick wall, when the tiny creature had found him. “I couldn’t just leave her there.”

Apparently, she’d been recently abandoned, her trust and innocence still intact. She wasn’t skittish and shy like Sumi. She was adorable, but we all knew that Sumi wouldn’t welcome her, and one cat was really enough. How much more violence could our sofa and wallpaper endure? Besides, my son, a sophomore in high school, was taking off the very next day for a four-day school trip to Tokyo. Who would deal with the kitten?

However, she quickly grew on us humans (though Sumi, now quite large, was terrified of the little ball of fur). We ended up keeping her, and she quickly adapted, co-opting the litter box, happily eating kibble – and tomatoes! And broccoli! — from the same dish as Sumi and hopping up onto the nearest warm lap. My daughter named her “Mii.” But she, too, had a special relationship with my son, her saviour. He taught her to fetch – like a dog! And she came when he called her, like a dog.

We tried to keep her safely indoors. But one day, she managed to escape. Hours later, she turned up, limping. We took her to the vet, who said that she had gotten into a fight. He gave her some antibiotics. For a couple days, she lost interest in going outdoors.

But a week later, she got out again! This time she was gone overnight, I searched all over the neighbourhood, calling her name, but she didn’t come.

That evening, rain started to fall. Suddenly, we heard her distinctive mewling. My son grabbed a flashlight and we went in the direction of her voice. We found her stranded on the tile roof of a nearby house and pounded desperately on the door. Finally, it creaked open to reveal an elderly woman in her nightclothes. I wonder what she thought, seeing two foreign-looking strangers on that rainy dark night.

“Our cat’s on your roof,” my son explained. “Can we go into your yard?”

The woman kindly provided us with a ladder, and we got the kitten down.

As my son began his last year of high school and began thinking about applying to universities in distant cities, we couldn’t help but think about the cats. They’d be so lonely without our boy.

“You should take Sumi with you,” my husband joked, as if any student apartment would allow such a pet. As if a cat would be happy confined to a tiny college dorm.

When he was accepted into a university in the far north of Honshu, in a city without a direct flight to our own, my husband ordered our son to get rid of all the stuff he didn’t need.

“You’ll be gone for good,” he said, “and we don’t want to have to deal with all of your junk.”

I knew that my husband’s gruffness was a front meant to conceal his sadness at our son’s departure. Our daughter would be leaving, too. Our nest would be empty. He was gearing himself up for grief.

“We’ll take Sumi off somewhere and dump him,” my husband said darkly. Sumi glared at him from underneath the table as if he’d understood, but I knew that the threat was empty. The cats would stay. They would keep us company after our children had left.

Already I was imagining the anxious queries from the north about Sumi and Mii, the photos that I would send by smartphone, the joyous meows at the beginning of university breaks.

“We have to keep the cats,” I told my husband, “so that our son will come back.”

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

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Categories
Notes from Japan

Owls in the Ginza

Suzanne Kamata visits an ‘owl café’ in Tokyo

The last time I had found myself in Tokyo with some free time and the freedom to move about, I had tried to drop in at an owl café. However, after making my way to such an establishment on the heels of a couple of Chinese tourists, I discovered that a reservation was necessary. The place was booked weeks in advance.

A few weeks ago, I again had some business in Tokyo, so I contacted an old friend and suggested we do a bit of sightseeing together.

“What do you want to do?” she asked me.

I replied that I wanted to visit an owl café. She messaged back that she didn’t like birds.

We had lunch in a sushi restaurant that normally had a queue as early as seven a.m. Due to the coronavirus, we waltzed right in and had a leisurely lunch. After that, we went to a museum that normally required reservations, or at least a long wait. And since there had been so little time wasted standing in line, my friend agreed to take me to an owl café. She found one by using her phone and called the place up. Sure, we could visit, the owner said. No reservations were needed.

The Mofu Mofu Owl Café Ginza was down a side street in Tokyo’s tony shopping district, steps away from the likes of Louis Vuitton and Chanel. As we climbed the three flights of narrow stairs, I wondered what it would be like inside. It would be dark, I imagined, because owls are nocturnal. But no, when we pushed open the door, we were met with light.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the place, and others like it, a café. Coffee is not served, nor is there cake or any other kind of food. There were no tables, no young women with aprons or maid costumes, just a guy wearing a T-shirt in a roomful of owls tethered to perches.

The owner seemed happy to see us. We were the only customers. He instructed us to disinfect our hands, and then showed us how to touch the owls – a gentle rub on the top of their heads, much in the way that my cat liked to be caressed. The owls were big and fluffy, like cats, and I wanted to hug them, but I figured they would probably try to bite me if I did.

My friend, the bird-hater, hung back while I went around looking at each owl. They were of various species from around the world. I wondered if they were bored, sitting on their perches all day, with nothing to do. Maybe our being there was their entertainment.

“They wouldn’t survive in the wild,” the owner said. “They have been raised from eggs by humans.”

He told us that they might live for thirty years in captivity, but only half that in nature. What was worse, I wondered? Thirty years of boredom, or fifteen years of being stressed out about their next meal, and where they would build a nest? Was keeping owls in this room any worse that keeping a parakeet in a cage? Or not allowing my restless cats to go outside, even when they meowed pleadingly at the door? (Actually, I sometimes did allow them to go out, knowing full well that they might be dodging cars, picking up fleas, and murdering songbirds and mice.)

The owner explained that before the pandemic, he’d operated two cafes – this one, and another in Roppongi — but due to the travel restrictions which prevented tourists from overseas from visiting, he’d had to close that one. All the owls were now gathered here. They’d been given names of nearby shops. Gucci was a Japanese Northern White-faced Owl, while the Little Owl from Belgium was named Bottega Veneta. There was also a Tawny Owl, born in 2016, named Tiffany.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of foreigners came here,” the owner said. Some famous people, too. He showed us a photo of the singer Akiko Yano, ex-wife of internationally renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, with one of the owls. Yano lives in New York City and had heard about the café while abroad. I looked around at the empty space. Apparently, Tokyoites didn’t have an urge to commune with owls. I worried about what would happen to them if the tourists weren’t welcomed back to Japan soon.

The owner let me pick out an owl and settled it on my hand. My friend finally got up the courage to stroke one of the owls between its eyes. The phone rang, and the owner went to answer it. I heard him booking another customer, and I felt a bit relieved. Apparently, this one would come at mealtime and watch the owls consume dead mice. That was probably an exciting part of the owls’ day.

Part of me thought that the birds might be happier in an atrium somewhere. But while they were here, I hoped they would be well looked after. I wanted to contribute as best as I could, so I loaded up on souvenirs – a pen encasing an owl feather, made by the owner’s wife; a handful of chopsticks with owl motifs; and a bottle of Hitachino Nest beer, which had an owl on the label. And I promised to post some photos on Instagram so that more tourists would come.

An owl in chains

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

Thanks to the columnist Suzanne Kamata for the photographs. 

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Excerpt Tagore Translations

Kobi & Rani: Letters from Japan, Europe and America

Rabindranath Tagore’s selected letters to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis had been published in 1938 under the title Pathe-O-Pather Prante. The sixty letters included in this volume had been personally selected by him from among the five hundred plus letters he had written to her. This volume was translated by Somdatta Mandal and included in the book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (Bolpur: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammilani, 2020). Selections from some of these letters had been included in borderless journal in its September 2021 issue. A few more letters have been selected here for the benefit of the readers.

Letter 33

Yesterday I reached the Japanese port named Moji. Tomorrow I will reach Kobe. A bird builds its nest with straw and twigs; it does not take long for it to leave that nest and go away. We build our nests mainly with things of the mind, with work, studies and thoughts and an invisible shelter starts growing around us. Just as the seat of the plane moulds itself according to the pressure and shape of the body, the mind while moving along also creates differently shaped holes, and when it sits in that hole it gets stuck there. Later when it has to leave it does not like that at all. Something like that happened to me on this ship. In this cabin there is a writing desk on one side, and a bed on the other. Apart from this, there is a chest of drawers with a mirror, a cupboard to hang clothes and an attached bathroom. After crossing these, there is another cabin where my boxes, trunks etc. are kept. Within this my mind has arranged its own furniture. Because there is little space, my shelter is very intense and every necessary item is within my reach. After getting down from here, I was in Hsu’s house[1] in Shanghai for two days; I did not like it, it made me very tired. The main reason was that the mind did not get the measurements of the body in a new place; it was being hit on all sides and to add to that there was hospitality, welcome and chaos day in and out.

There is newness of thought and imagination everyday but the external newness tries to prevent them. We have imbibed new substances of life in their entirety and have understood that the newness exists within them. I have known for a long time that we do not have to leave them to look for something new. Like other valuable things one has to mediate to seek the new.  This means you have to make it old and then attain it. If you think that you have suddenly found something, then that is not true because within a few days its actual emaciated state is revealed. Nowadays man is engrossed in securing this cheap newness and that is why he wants change at every moment. Science is helping him in this obsession for change, so he does not get the time to sink deep and search for the forever new. This is why a base knowledge from text-books has spread everywhere in the education system. No one has the time to seek the ultimate truth in its real form. This is why obscenities that affect the mind in a strong way are being found in literature. Those who lack the time and have less power find this to be a cheap means of getting quick entertainment. The mind that has grown inert and has had its life strength reduced requires strong stimulation – its roots are starving.

                                                                                    Yours,

                                                                                    9 Chaitra, 1335( B.S.)

You will be surprised to know that when I was writing this letter I was feeling very sleepy. I was warding it off and progressing with my writing. Even now I have not overcome that drowsiness. But it is morning now, it is eleven o’clock – let me go and take my bath.

Letter 34

I have come to Tokyo last night and have put up in a famous hotel. It is not that less famous hotels are cheap or unsuitable for relaxation, but since it is my misfortune that I am also famous, I have to tolerate an equal amount of oppression. It is easy to hide in a small place, but the places to hide in this world are closed for me. Once upon a time I could not even imagine that it would be essential for me to hide from the public for self-defence. Those were the days when I was alone in the boat on the shoals of the Padma. So I haven’t developed the habit of warding off people and anyone can come and keep on pulling me. This morning when I was tired and was sitting down someone came and convinced me with a lot of words. He made me sit in a car and took me to their house inside the lane. In the end I realized that all this excitement was because they wanted to be photographed with me.

In our house we were first born amidst a simple lifestyle and were encircled by love and care from our own people. Then I was a totally private person and there was a very personal thing called a barrier. Gradually with age the relationship with the outside world started to increase. But however much it increased it had a simple measure and there was a balance between the private and the public self. Ultimately through the hands of fate my fame as an exceptional person began to grow and I became more public than I was private. The barrier which I was entitled to became insufficient now. Like an extremely ripe fruit the hard upper shell of my body has split up into seven pieces, and now any kind of bird with any sort of motive can come and peck at me and there is no one to prevent them. There is no harm if they really benefit from it. If they want to satiate their own greed through me, let them do it; but if you think about it, this creates a serious harm not only for me but also for their own selves. My heart is upset by the little demands, and I waste my strength available for doing sufficient work. Moreover, when I realize that I have become the vehicle of other people’s interests, and that those interests are trivial, then I feel reproached. I keep on wishing to return to my traditional and non-famous small house and take shelter among people who are willing to pay a price just for my existence. But at the same time I often meet people who are unknown to me, but who have accepted me within their heart even from a distance. They do not ask anything from me, do not judge me according to my fame, but accept me out of their own happiness. There is nothing more fortunate than this. This time when I was being tortured by my fellow countrymen with a cheap reception in the city of Kobe, then the wife of the English consul here came to meet me. After speaking to her a lot of my sorrow disappeared. I realized that for some people my work has been deeply successful and they do not want anything more than whatever they have received from me without my knowledge.

Today I have three invitations in Tokyo and it will extend from one o’clock in the afternoon till dinner at night. I will then travel to Yokohama by car. After that tomorrow I will have lunch with the Indians who invited me and then leave for Canada at three o’clock. After that I don’t know.

                                                                                                              Yours,

27 March, 1929.

Letter 43

Throughout my life I had to inwardly keep hold of a pursuit. That pursuit is to remove the veil, to keep myself far away from everything. It is the pursuit of releasing me from myself as a person. Stationing myself at one place, I often try to realize that each day this person is troubled with both sad and happy thoughts of work, which is equivalent to letting myself drift within an uncountable flow into another sphere without any fixed destination. This can be seen clearly when it is identified as an independent object, but if we try to associate and become one with it then that knowledge becomes false. I desperately need this realization and that is why I desire it so much. My mind is situated at the crossroads and all its doors are open, so all kinds of winds reach it and all kinds of guests enter the inner chambers. There is a place within man’s life which is that of pain, and all the feelings are located there. That is why only intimacy can enter it. Part of our domestic existence is to spend life with them both in pleasure and pain. Everything has to be tolerated within its limits. But my God, my jeevandebata, decided to make me a poet and that is why has kept my inner chambers unguarded. I don’t have a back door and there are main entrances on all sides. That is why both invited and uninvited people keep coming and going within my inner chambers. Therefore, the chords of the instrument of pain are always tuned to the highest pitch. If the music stops, then my own work would be left undone. I have to know the world through painful experiences; otherwise, what should I express? Unlike scientists and philosophers I do not have vast knowledge and my expression is that of my heart. Though these feelings are the tools of expression for a writer, it is necessary to leave them behind and move away. This is because if we don’t move to a distance, we are unable to perceive the whole at once and reveal it. Being too much engrossed in the world gives rise to blindness and guards the object that is to be seen. Besides this, the small object becomes large and the large one is lost. The great advantage of the domestic world is that it carries its own weight, but the small objects do become a burden. They are the most meaningless things but they create the greatest pressure. The main reason is that their weight rests upon falsehood. When the mind seems to be overwhelmed by bad dreams, it is also an illusion. If we encircle the world with that little ‘me’, then in that small world the small wears the mask of the great and creates anxiety in the mind. If whatever is really great, meaning that its boundaries cross that little ‘me’, is brought in front of the small, then the smaller one’s false intensity is dismissed and shrinks into littleness. Then one feels like laughing at what causes one to cry. That is why removing the big ‘me’ from my life becomes the greatest thing to pursue; and if that is done, the greatest insult to our existence is lost. The humiliation of existence is to live in a small cage that befits birds and animals. In this cage called ‘myself’ we are tied and beaten up, and that becomes a useless burden. That is why it is essential for Rabindranath to seat Rabindranath Tagore at least at a distance: otherwise, he gets to be humiliated by himself at every step. The sorrow of death brings in stoicism, and I have felt the freedom of stoicism several times, but the real stoicism is brought about by accepting the great truth. There is greatness within me and he is the observer; what is small within me is the consumer.  If both of them are combined, then the pleasure of vision is destroyed and the happiness of consummation is spoilt. If you keep pushing your work externally like a pushcart then it moves smoothly, but if you carry that pushcart on your shoulders then you get exhausted. I have taken up a work called Visva-Bharati, and it becomes simpler if I don’t bear the burden and dissociate it from myself. A work is either a success or a failure depending upon the circumstances but if it does not touch ‘myself’ then that work brings in freedom for itself and also for me. Our greatest prayer to the one who is the greatest is asato ma sadgamayo (take me away from whatever is false and lead me towards eternal truth). How will this prayer be successful? If His arrival within me is complete, if I see Him truly within me, then the torture of that ‘me’ can also be pacified.

I don’t know when you will receive this letter. I will be happy if you receive it on your birthday. If you don’t get it there will not be much harm in stretching your birthday by another day. It is not possible always to express all the innermost thoughts but they have to be spoken for the sake of myself.  That is why I wrote this letter on the occasion of your birthday; because freedom is the main mantra of every birth, and it is freedom from darkness to light.

                                                                                                                Yours,

                                           6 Kartick, 1336 (B.S.) 

Letter 48

I am writing this letter to you from Copenhagen, after having fallen into a whirlwind that does not let me pause even for a while. I am moving along garnering knowledge about strangers, but there is no time to store that knowledge. Moreover, I have a forgetful mind, and there is no lock and key in the storehouse of my memory. As soon as something accumulates, instantly something else comes and replaces it. Some just sink in, some get distorted and become hazy. I do not of course consider this to be a complete loss – if you cannot discard then you cannot earn; if you have to store it then you will have to sit firmly without any movement. For a long time, I have constantly ridden the chariot of my mind from one road to another and did not have the time to lock it up in the garage. Instead of fame, I would have found a lot of things if I had gone and sat firmly at the entrance of the museum. Just think of this simple fact: If I had the intelligence to remember everything then at least I would have passed all my examinations and could have left with pride by saluting the world and by gathering accolades. If I want to speak about something, I cannot quote references and so in intellectual gatherings I try to overcome the deficiencies of my education by covering them up naively with my own talk. Since I cannot think of paraphrases and parallel passages in seminars where poetry is being discussed, I try to retain my prestige by composing poems myself. I can clearly visualize that you are reading this and laughing out loudly both physically and also in your mind. You are saying that it is just empty politeness, a bundle of pride. There is no way out. Due to societal norms one can truly praise others but not oneself. So one has to praise oneself in the mind and instead of reduction it leads to more sin. The fact is that once you come abroad from your homeland your self-glorification becomes enhanced a great deal. Someone who doesn’t even have the fortune of having cold water is suddenly given champagne. Then I feel like calling your professors and telling them, ‘O, you masters! Don’t make the sudden mistake of considering me as your student. Don’t mark the papers that I have written in the same way as you mark your examination scripts, because they are demanded by the professors here.’ You know that by nature I am very polite but my tutors at home have beaten me to make me feel proud. This is why I often feel ashamed in my mind. But let me tell you the truth. I have received a lot of fame and respect, but even then my mind always looks across the Indian Ocean. Khuku[2] has written from Santiniketan, “Yesterday there were heavy showers and this morning the sunshine is like liquid gold.” These words were like the sudden touch of a golden wand. My mind became agitated; it said, all right, this is acceptable. I will go to those teachers again. If they make me stand up on the bench, then at least that ray of sunlight like liquid gold will come in through the open window and fall upon my brow and that will be my prize. In the meantime the letters of Bhanusingha[3] have been published once again and I have received them. The letters are full of the monsoon clouds and autumn sunshine of Santiniketan. Reading the letters in such a far off country makes them even clearer. For a brief while I forgot where I was. What a vast difference! The difference between what is good here and what is good there is like the difference between the music here and there. European music is big and strong and varied. It emanates from the victory of men; its sound resonates from all sides and creates a great impact on the heart. We have to congratulate it. But the raga that comes out from the flute of the shepherd in our country, it calls my lone mind to accompany him on the path which is full of shadows from bamboo groves, where the village belle walks with a pitcher full of water at her waist, the doves call from the branches of the mango trees and from a distance the special song of the boatman can be heard. All these excite the mind and blur the vision with a few unnecessary teardrops. They are extremely ordinary and that is why they can easily find a place in our minds. The letter which I wrote on that day seems to be written for today. But there is no way for me to revoke my reply. That day’s post office is closed. So let me end this letter with a deep sigh. I have several engagements and many other things before me.

                                                                                                            Yours,

8 August, 1930.

Letter 49

There is a word prevalent in Bengali called ‘Samoyik Patra’ that means periodicals. But there is no way by which we can hold back time and send them through letters. I do not know when the news of my painting exhibition in Germany reached you and now I got to know from your letter that all of you did not get the news at all. So probably the time for receiving the news is also over. On the other hand, my trip to Germany will be over today and I will go to Geneva tomorrow. Even before you receive this letter you must have already heard the news that my paintings have been received quite well in Germany. The National Gallery in Berlin has taken five of my paintings. I hope you understand the impact of this news. If Lord Indra suddenly sent his horse Ucchaishraba to take me to heaven, then I could compete with my own pictures. But I don’t know why I am not excited about discussing these things. Maybe there is some hidden hostility in my mind, and so there is almost no relation between my country and my paintings. When I write poems then an emotional link is automatically created with the message of Bengal. But when I paint the lines or the colours, they do not come with the identity of any particular state. So they belong to those who like them. Just because I am a Bengali does not automatically turn it into a Bengali thing. This is why I have eagerly donated these pictures to the West. The people of my country probably have come to know that I am not a special category of a human being and so in their mind they have been antagonized towards me. They do not feel any qualms of conscience about saying bad things about me. Let my paintings prove that I am not a hundred percent Bengali but belong equally to Europe as well.

I visited many places which I had known earlier and also delivered lectures there. But unlike my last trip, this time I have entered the inner spirit of Germany. I have come closer to them. Not that they have sufficient love for nationalism in the world, but by being rejected by other races of Europe, they have become strong nationalists in their hearts. Of course I cannot understand why they have a special liking for me. Whatever it might be, they have extraordinary strength, great intelligence and also the capacity to make all things equal. I feel that no other European race has so much strength in all aspects. I understand why France cannot get over the terror of Germany. These people are extremely irascible. After the nudge of poverty their strength has increased many-fold.

The enthusiasm for world nationalism has been brought forward in Geneva. The right tune has not been played in the League of Nations – it may not be played at all – but on its own that city has become the epicentre of the whole world. Those who believe in the unity of the world will automatically come and get united here. In that case I believe that a great power for the welfare of the world has been inaugurated here.

                                                                                                          Yours,

                                                                                           18August, 1930.

Letter 50

After planning to leave for quite some time, the day of my departure has ultimately come near. It has been almost one year. I liked it as long as I was in Europe. After reaching America my mind got suppressed and my health was also affected. The external world in America is too bold, aggressive and restless and so after being continuously shaken up, a sort of stoicism creeps in. I am in that condition now, and for quite some time have become eager to get some shelter within my inner self. After many incidents my mind had become outward-oriented, and the truth of the self was growing rusty without use. It was during this period that I came to America and saw how man has tried to develop his society with unnecessary failures. They have decorated rubbish with the glamour of wealth and spend their days and night behind them, thus creating an indecent burden upon the world. Within all this crass materialism, when the mind becomes restless the eternal longings within man express themselves. Just as cows are herded together to be taken back to their shelter in the evening, in a similar way I am calling my scattered self to return to the deep recesses of the mind. Maybe a shadow of the evening has descended on the late afternoon of my life and the strength of my mind, which had disseminated my endeavours in different kinds of work to the outside world, is also coming to an end. The guard at the entrance of the mansion has already rung the bell signalling that the main door will be closed, and so we cannot do without lighting a lamp in the andarmahal – the inner chambers.

         I haven’t written anything for a long time and I don’t feel the urge to do so. This means that the power of expression has also reached the end; it doesn’t have any extra portion in its coffers and therefore easily stop all dues from the outside world. I am not feeling bad about it. If the fruit starts growing inside, then there is no loss if the petals of the flower fall down.

         I shall begin my journey on the 9th of January in the ship called Narkanda (P&O) and will reach home at the end of the month.

                                                                                                           Yours,

                                                                                 29 December, 1930.


[1] Hsu-Tse Mu, Professor of Literature at the National University, Peking. In 1924 he had accompanied the poet during his China tour as an interpreter. [Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni, Vol.III, p. 166].

[2] Khuku was the nickname of Amita Sen, a noted Rabindrasangeet singer; Rabindranath adored her. She joined Sangeet Bhavan as a teacher but died very young.

[3] Rabindranath wrote a series of letters to a young girl called Ranu Adhikari. He signed the letters as ‘Robi Dada’ or sometimes as ‘Bhanu Dada’ which was the penname of the poet as Bhanusingha.

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”[5], 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 Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).