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Meeting Gurudev again

Monday, April 07, 2014
By Carol Andrade

The great polymath, equally at home with all forms of literature, able to conduct completely felicitous discussions on any subject, from education to agriculture, wrote at first only in Bengali, and later in English. He had firm opinions on translation.

Inevitably, even for a first time reader sampling a selected offering of a miniscule part of Gurudev’s prodigious output , the questions of translation comes up. Who has done the translation, how well is he known, what other translations has he undertaken, what is the general opinion of his work? How true has he remained to the letter and spirit of the original writing in Bengali?

Arunava Sinha’s reputation seems impeccable, with considerable experience in translating “classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and non-fiction into English”. He has published 20 books of translations, and won the Crossword Translation Award twice, including for Sankar’s Chowringhee. In fact, for the latter he was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2009) for his translation of the book.

Tagore himself had firm opinions on translation. The great polymath,  equally at home with all forms of literature, able to conduct  completely felicitous discussions on any subject, from education to agriculture, wrote at first only in Bengali, and later in English. With the winning of the Nobel Prize in 1913, came a hunger in the West to read the work of a man who was the first non-European writer to win the award. Translations became an imperative.

Writing in his own preface to “The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volumes 1-8”,  Dr Mohit K Ray says that in an interview given to Portland Press in Washington on October 23,  1916, the great man said, “My English translations are not the same. Each country has its symbols of expression. So when I translate my work I find new images and presently new thought and finally it is something almost entirely new.  The fundamental idea is the same but the vision changes. A poem cannot be translated, it can only be relived in a different atmosphere.”

A bit later in an interview given to the Evening Post in New York, he declared, “The English versions of my poems are not literal translations. When poems are changed from one language into another, they acquire a new quality and a new spirit, the ideas get new birth and are reincarnated.”

Tagore was, for a large part of the time, actually translating himself, not always with the greatest success, and he articulated these difficulties when writing to Indian translator Ajit  Kumar Chakrabarti,  early in 1913. ‘What I try to capture in my English translation is the heart and core of my original Bengali. That is bound to make for a fairly wide deviation. If I were not there to help you out, you might probably find it impossible to identify the original in the translation.”

In view of the difficulties of translating such wide swathes of truly felicitous writing, difficulties about which the writer himself had had experience, Arunava Sinha’s work on Tagore  is a reassurance that they may not be insurmountable. And keeping in mind what the translator himself fears, that letter, mood, spirit and impact will be diminished in a language other than the original, we can say that this book is a success, infusing the writing with the taste, the sound and the image of the Bengal countryside in the late 18th century and in the turn of the last one. You get a glimpse of an utterly modern sensibility equally at home with traditional mindsets,  a giant questioning mind able to observe the minutiae of everyday life as it ponders the big questions of existence, a man who loved the very shape and the feel of his native soil while exploring the possibilities of an urban existence ruled by the machine age.

Sinha gives the 21st century reader of Tagore a judicious taste of Tagore in a novel, a novella, six poems, an equal number of short stories and a play.  In “The Home and the World”, about family relationships that can both build and destroy and the inner strength that can re-create, two men and a woman play out their separate destinies against the backdrop of a swiftly-developing sense of patriotism that refuses to wear blinkers.  The wonder is that Tagore seemed able to inhabit the mind of a woman as easily as he did that of a man, the dialogue ringing so true to form that in the first-person account of events, as offered by the three protagonists, it is three distinct personalities that speak.

In hindsight, Bimala speaks of the disappearance of her inhibitions in regard to the new open-ness of her friendship with her husband’s best friend, thus:
“ I wonder where my inhibitions had vanished. I had no time to regard myself – my days and nights simply whirled around me. And shame had no opportunity to penetrate my heart.

“One day my sister-in-law told my husband in my presence, laughing, it’s the women who have done all the weeping in the family, Thakurpo, but it’s the men’s turn now. From now on, we will make you cry. What do you think, Chhotorani? Now that you’re dressed in your battle garb, warrior princess, fire away at the hearts of men.

“She looked me up and down. There was a new colour in the way I was dressed and was behaving , none of which escaped her attention. I am embarrassed to write this today, but I felt no embarrassment that day. For my instincts were at work within me – nothing I did was a considered decision.”
Such delicacy in the delineation of a pure mind warring with itself over strange new attractions, such micro observation of the human condition, and Sinha manages to convey it all!

Above all else, the prose and the poetry both are drenched in the natural beauty of the Bengal countryside, the rains, the clouds, the breezes, the rivers conveying a dynamic that transcends the material descriptions of earth and land and sky and climate.

In the short story, “Just One Night”, the protagonist sets out to become the aide, or the head clerk of a chief judge, or even Garibaldi, as childhood sweetheart Surabala waits for him at home and finally marries Ramlochan, the lawyer. Regret seizes him, makes him miserable and begin to doubt the importance of even the work to which he has given himself. Then there is one night of apocalyptic rain when he and Surabala are brought together.

“When it was one-thirty at night, the flood could be heard. The sea  was thundering in. I left my home and went towards Surabala’s . The lake was on the way but even before I could arrive on its bank, I was submerged up to my knees. By the time I traversed the distance to the lake, a second giant wave had arrived.

“The embankment was some twenty feet high. As I mounted it, so did another individual, albeit from the opposite side. My innermost soul and my entire body, from one extremity to the other, knew at once who it was. And I had no doubt that she, too, was aware of my identity.

“All else was submerged, only two living creatures, she and I, remained standing on the embankment, which jutted  like an island some five or six feet out of the water”.

As it happened, not a word was ever said, and after the storm abated, they separated to live as before.  And the young man saw himself as he really was – not an aide or a head clerk or Garibaldi, just the “second master of a broken down school. Only for one fleeting moment in my life had an eternal night appeared – of all the days and nights in my lifespan, this one night was the only source of complete fulfillment in my entire existence.”

Such tragedy, such unspeakable pathos, such unvarnished truth are some of the elements that have lifted Tagore out of the realm of the mortals to make him a leader even among Renaissance man.

In  his novella, “The Monk-King”,  it is easy to draw parallels between a the story of a devious priest and the man who rules through service to his people and to god. But his characters are never creatures drawn in black and white.  They have flaws as well as virtues, and even the worst among us is capable, through love, of the occasional unselfish act, inexplicable yet acceptable precisely because it seems so out of character. That’s the way we understand home and society and family relationships – to be accepted in their entirety or not at all.

His poems ran the gamut, from the sadness of unrequited love in “Camellia” and “An Ordinary Girl”, leaping to a girl racing towards an illusory love in ‘Deprived’.  And the piquancy of “An Unexpected Meeting” captures the heart in the way questions go unanswered or are deliberately evaded.

“’So, I want an answer to the question
That hasn’t been answered all this time.
You’ll tell the truth, won’t you?’
‘I will’, I said.
Still gazing at the sky outside she asked,
Are those days of ours that are gone
Gone forever –
Is nothing left?’
I was silent for a while;
Then I said,
‘All the stars of the night
Remain under the glare of the sky’
I felt doubtful, had I made it all up?
‘Never mind, go sit over there now’
Everyone got off at the next station.”

The role of women, as they existed at the time in a conservative society, and as they could be, given every opportunity for development, comes up again and again in the short stories, sometimes as a semi-horror story as in “Dead or Alive”, or as a triumphant re-assertion of women’s rights as in “A Letter from a Wife”.

And finally, this little gem.

“Do you mean we’ll forget those old days
When our eyes met, when our hearts did talk
Come back now into my heart, my friend
We’ll talk of joys and sorrow, calm our souls
We picked flowers at dawn, shared a swing
Played our pipes and sang beneath the trees
Thrown apart, we lost each other, but  now
We’ve met again, so join my heart, my friend.”

One hundred and one years after he received the Nobel Prize for literature, Tagore continues to cast his spell upon new reader and veteran devotee of his writings and is regarded  as “the second most popular literature laureate of all time (after John Steinbeck)” according to the Nobel Prize’s official website, ahead of Marquez, Neruda and Hemingway.

Exposed to his writings, even in translation, it is easy to understand why.

Rabindranath Tagore for the 21st century reader. Selected fiction,  poetry and drama. Translated by Arunava Sinha. Published by Aleph Book Company. Pages 462.
Price Rs 595

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