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Discovering Rabindranath Tagore

July 28, 2011 21 comments

Somapti, followed by Med o roudro by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Read hereafter for French and English titles.

Whereas two actors, the sun and the cloud were playing they game in the whole sky that was their stage, other countless plays were given beneath, in the various places of the world’s theatre.

I’d never heard of Rabindranath Tagore before reading Himadri’s post about him. I thought I should discover this great Indian writer and what a surprise, my favourite collection of books for discovery, Folio 2€, includes a small book of two stories by Tagore. The two stories are Somapti (La petite mariée) and Meg o roudro (Nuage et soleil). As always when I read foreign books in French, I have to look for their English title to write my review. Here, I couldn’t find them, so I asked Himadri to help me. Here is his answer:

Hello Emma, I’m afraid the only edition I have of Tagore’s stories in English is the collection in Penguin translated by William Radice, and Radice doesn’t include either of these stories. However, in Satyajit Ray dramatised the story “Samapti” in the film Teen Kanya. This film was a portmanteau of adaptations of three of Tagore’s short stories, and was filmed in 1961 to celebrate Tagore’s centenary.

“Megh” literally means “cloud” (or “clouds” – in Bengali, the form of the noun does not differentiate between singular and plural), and “roudra” refers to sunlight when it is particularly strong or even oppressive. “Samapti” literally means “ending”, but can also be taken to mean “fulfilment”.

Now you have as much information as me and let’s move to the stories.

Sompati.

Apurbo comes back to his village after passing his exams in Calcutta. When he arrives, he runs into the facetious Mrinmayi, whose face had stayed with him during school time. Mrinmayi is playful like a child, graceful as a fawn. She laughs freely, acts as she pleases despite the reprobation of her community. She’s alive and Apurbo loves her for her liveliness although she is much less educated than him.

Apurbo’s mother suggests it’s time for him to get married and has actually already selected a bride. She’s a silent, submissive and scared young woman. When he talks to her “no anwer comes out of this pile of shyness covered with clothes and jewels.” The bride chosen by his mother seems dead on her feet. Apurbo is inflexible: he will only marry Mrinmayi and his mother surrenders. Mrinmayi’s family doesn’t ask her what she wants and they are promptly married.

Marrying Mrinmayi against her will is like putting a wild flower into a box: she withers. Her mother-in-law wants to turn her into a proper bride. She balks, unwilling to comply to social rules and give up her freedom. I won’t tell more but there is a lot in this 50 pages story.

Mrinmayi symbolizes the condition of the Hindu woman of that time. She’s not the master of her life. A life of obedience is all she can expect: obedience to her family and then obedience to her husband and his relatives. She doesn’t have the right to be herself, to live in her home and choose her husband. But the men aren’t free either: Apurbo needs to sneak out to have some alone time with her. This tale explores the mystery of feeling, how they grow and how we don’t always love a person who seems right for us according to his/her education or social position.  

Meg o roudro

Giribala is a 10 year old girl. As a girl, she doesn’t have access to education and however loves to learn. When she is 8, she persuades Sashibhusan to teach her classes. He has a degree in law and has been sent to this village to manage his father’s real estate. He’s solitary and studying is what he really enjoys. He lacks the social skills to succeed in running the estate. He’s so shy that the villagers think he’s haughty. Giribala is his only friend.

Once he witnesses how Giribala’s father Harakumer gets harassed by a passing sahib. Indeed, Harakumer has refused to provide four kilos of butter for the Englishman’s dogs. Sahibhusan is most upset by this abuse of authority and persuades Harakumer to go into trial. But things aren’t so easy in colonial India.

This short story is more openly political than Sompati. I wonder if Sashi doesn’t look like young Tagore. Multatuli in Java wasn’t far from my mind. It describes the same mechanisms: the power of the white man built on the corruption of the local elites and on fear. No has ever seen or heard anything when it comes to report it to the court.

Shashi has a political conscience and it will cost him a lot. When he’s put into jail, he states “Prison is welcome. Iron bars don’t lie, whereas this freedom we have outside disappoints us and gets us into all kinds of trouble. And if we talk about good company, liars and cowards are comparatively less numerous inside because there’s less room. Outside, their number is a lot higher.”  I was sad for him that his condition was such unbearable to him that prison was a relief.

I’ve read Tagore in French and I can’t tell if the translation is faithful or not. In French, Tagore has a very poetical prose. These two stories have the same setting, small villages in Bengal. He writes very politely, sweetly with a sort of innocence. In that he reminds me of his contemporary Charles-Ferninand Ramuz. Like in Ramuz, I could feel an immense fondness for his country and its common people. His stories exhale a sort of simplicity, a naïve description of young hearts confronted to social rules. Only the landscapes are heavenly. Under the soft words, the lovely description of nature, he nonetheless describes the violence of this rural life. People are as corrupt, mean, weak and narrow-minded as everywhere else. It is first the lifeless destiny of Hindu women and then the constant fear due to the English rule, leading to insupportable behaviours. Tagore was a pacifist, a humanist and supported Gandhi’s fight. It filters through these stories.  

He shows us that poetry doesn’t prevent lucidity and the other way round, that social cristicism can be associated to a wonderful style. I really enjoyed the combination of the two.  You can find Tagore’s short stories in Penguin Classics and on Project Gutenberg.

Thanks Himadri!

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