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Rabindranath Tagore wrote poems, plays and stories, but he was above all a poet. He wrote in Bengali and, like all poets, he defies translation. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, by which time he had an international reputation, as much for his humanitarian and political beliefs as for his poetry. In 1915, he became Sir Rabindranath Tagore, a title he renounced six years later in protest at the Amritsar massacre.
His prose is less closed to us than his poetry, though some of that must also be lost in translation. But there is something else besides the language that is lost on a foreigner. It is what the writer can rely on the reader knowing without needing to be told. Writers and readers need a common language and a shared experience. Take the beginning of one of Tagore’s stories.
I have heard that these days many Bengali girls have to find their husbands through their own efforts. I have also had to find mine, but God has helped me. Maybe this is because of my many vows and pujas to Shiva, from an early age. I was not yet eight years old when I was married. But my sins in an earlier life stopped me from acquiring my husband fully. Three-eyed Mother Durga took away my two eyes. For the rest of my life she denied me the pleasure of seeing my husband.
The English reader is shocked by some things, baffled by others. The Bengali reader is on familiar ground. It is the same with Russian literature. But the Indian mind is even harder for us to fathom than the Russian, though that is hard enough. You have to work at it.
Tagore said of his own writing, ‘I had to create the prose of my stories as I went along. You often speak of Maupassant and other foreign writers: their language was already made for them. If they had had to create their language as they wrote, I wonder how they would have fared.’
What he meant was that European writers already had a literary language, while all he had was a spoken language. ‘You say that even in my prose I am a poet,’ he said. ‘But if my language sometimes goes beyond what is appropriate in a story, you can’t blame me for that, for I had to create my Bengali prose myself.’
Nearly all the Indian authors whose books we read today write in English. They belong to the European tradition by which Tagore felt himself to be unfairly judged. Their books owe more to Kipling (his almost exact contemporary) than they do to Tagore. Writers write in the language they think in, which is why Conrad’s prose reads like a translation – a very good translation, but a translation all the same. He had the Pole’s natural facility for language, acquired through living in a country that had been gang-raped by the rest of Europe for centuries, the worst, when Conrad died, being yet to come.
Tagore made his Bengali prose out of speech and poetry, twin children of the goddess Language. Poetry defies translation because it follows the rhythm and cadence of speech. It is a kind of regional dialect. It has to be spoken or even sung. It has to be heard, not read. The same is true of Tagore’s short stories.
His models were not Maupassant or Kipling, but the story tellers of Bengal. In all his stories, especially the early ones that he himself thought were his best (‘My later stories haven’t got that freshness, that tenderness of the earlier stories’), we hear the voice of the story teller. There is no literary pretension in the way he writes. He just follows his story from where it starts to where it ends.
For his first job, the postmaster came to the village of Ulapur. It was a very humble village. There was an indigo factory nearby and the British manager had with much effort established a new post office.
The people in his stories are described in terms of their defining characteristics, like Homer’s ‘crafty Odysseus’ or ‘swift-footed Achilles’.
The postmaster was a Calcutta boy – he was a fish out of water in a village like this.
An orphaned village girl did housework for him in return for a little food. Her name was Ratan and she was about twelve or thirteen. It seemed unlikely that she would get married.
Like a story teller, he lets his characters speak. He knows how to get a laugh by imitating a voice that his readers will recognise.
Ratan would be waiting at the door, but she did not come at the first call – she would call back, ‘What is it, Dadababu, what do you want?’
Because he is a poet, he uses words to paint pictures for us.
It was a fine afternoon in the rainy season. The breeze was softly humid; there was a smell of sunshine on wet grass and leaves. Earth’s breath, hot with fatigue, seemed to brush against the skin.
The story from which these lines come, The Postmaster, was made into a film by another Bengali, Satyajit Ray. Some of the disadvantages of not being Bengali disappear when you watch the film. Watching a film is more like listening to a story than reading one, more like listening to a story than watching a play. Drama is all dialogue, film is all story. Ray’s films are among the best ever made.
The Postmaster (Tagore used the English word in his story because Bengalis don’t have a word for it) is one half of a film called Two Daughters. Watch the film before you read the story, then read some more. Better still, get someone to read them to you.