This is an anthology of Rabindranath Tagore’s writings (essays, letters, addresses, poetry, literature) and translations in English. He is remembered essentially for his literary genius. His English writing may seem old-fashioned today given that most of it was written about a century ago. He used to write in a free style and his sentences tended to be long-winded. Rich in ideas, he used a lot of metaphors and symbols to communicate his thoughts. That however enriched his language, making it a bit heavy. His writing is not conducive to fast reading. He admitted repeatedly to being diffident in English, in a language in which he was never formally trained. This possibly prompted him to write to his English biographer, Edward Thompson, about his deficiency in English language, “You know I began to pay court to your language when I was 50. It was pretty late for me even to hope to win her heart. Occasional gifts of favour do not delude me with false hopes. Not being a degree holder of any of our universities, I know my limitations – and I fear to rush into the field reserved for angels to tread.” Even so, with his self-admitted apprehension, he found a way to enjoy translating his verses into English.
The compiler/editor makes Tagore’s own nationalism and his work in education the subject of this anthology since so little of it is accurately known. Through his writings the editor shows how Tagore sought a solution to the problems of his times in new and creative education and in national self-reliance rather than in the political credo of nationalism. Tagore believed first and foremost that the problem of social injustice was more urgent than the country’s political freedom. He was distressed that the nationalist movement diverted attention from the first to the second. His argument was that how we could claim freedom when we ourselves had deprived it to large sections of our own people. He was worried that city and village were becoming divided identities in Indian society.
Seeing the rising English-educated Indian middle-class of lawyers, teachers, physicians and clerks, he pressed for our system of education to first understand its weakness before endeavouring to bridge the gap and to work for village reorganisation to bring about self-reliance and human dignity. To give vent to his disenchantment with the political movement, Tagore wrote three novels based on the problems he saw in nationalism – Gora in 1910, Gharey Baire in 1916 and Char Dhyaya in 1934. At the end of his novel Gora, the protagonist Gora says, “Today I am really an Indian! In me there is no longer any opposition between Hindu, Mussulaman and Christian. Today every caste is my caste; the food of all is my food!” In Gharey Baire, a Bengali swadeshi leader Sandip is a blood-thirsty weakling intertwined with the theme of terrorist politics that feed into anti-colonial nationalism.
Tagore, despite criticising the caste system said that it contributed to “freedom from narrowness and intolerance” which characterised the “Hindu religion” and enabled the country’s “diverse races” with “widely different cultures” and even “antagonistic social and religious usages” to settle down “peaceably” side by side. Equally emphatically, he argued that this “very absence” of struggle and its social stranglehold “crushed individual manhood’ and led us to submit to “every form of domination”, even “to venerate” the power that held us down. His remedy was educating them “out of the trance”. It seems this is what prompted him to write his poem:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free,
where the world has not been broken
up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,
where words come out from the depth of truth…
His autobiographical writing reflects how his thought and action grew out of his family’s non-conventional patriotic influences as also from the ambivalent and politically charged times in which he grew up. When talking about his mother’s death, he says that in death his mother looked so peaceful and calm, but when her body was taken out by the main gateway in a procession to the cremation ground “did a storm of grief pass through me at the thought that Mother would never return by this door and take her accustomed place in the affairs of her household.”
Tagore chose the path of education and of rural reconstruction for lifelong action in the service of his country. He joined the swadeshi movement of 1904-5 but withdrew from it, disillusioned by its sectarian politics. Deciding not to work for a political movement ever again, he set up the Santiniketan School. He said, on founding a new education, “I have come to the conclusion that for the projection of our national life, the coordination of all our cultural resources is necessary.” He said English education was a kind of food with only one particular ingredient, “while our tapovanas, which were our national universities, were not abstracted from life.
The book tries to show Tagore’s love for English literature which he used “for its contribution to the making of a liberal and modern mind”, yet he admitted to his friend Rothenstein that though he had written and published English prose and poetry, this he had done “to express my ideas; not for gaining any reputation for my mastery in the use of a language which can never be mine.”
(Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.)