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Rabindranath Tagore Boyhood Days

Rabindranath Tagore Boyhood Days
Item Code: IHL369
Author: Amartya Sen
Publisher: Puffin
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 9780143330219
Pages: 120
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 7.0 inch X 5.0 inch


Boyhood Days

Boyhood Days

RABINDRANATH TAGORE Translated by Radha Chakravarty

Introduction by Amartya Sen


This translation is dedicated to Rohit, Rush and Kim

Introduction by Amartya Sen IX
Boyhood Days  1
Translator's Note 91
Classic Plus  99


This is an odd book. Boyhood Days is Rabindranath's own account of his early childhood, written by him at a ripe old age, shortly before his death. His recollections are invariably sharp, and yet, as Radha Chakravarty points out in her 'Translator's Note', not in all cases in line with those factual matters on which other evidence exists. And yet who better man Rabindranath himself to give us a glimpse of his life as a child? In fact, much the most interesting parts of this autobiography relate to his young mind: what the child Rabindranath thought, what ideas aroused the young boy, what he made of the world around him (his family, his city, his country, his globe), and what the school-age Rabindranath found sad in that world and in need of change—many of those diagnoses would stay with him through his entire life. On these matters there are no competing sources of real knowledge, and indeed the picture that we get from Tagore's recollections is both gripping in itself and deeply insightful in giving us an understanding of the adult man that would emerge from those boyhood days.

I am delighted, therefore, that a new translation and a fuller edition of this great book is now coming out as a Puffin Classic. Much has already been written about this book, based both on the Bengali original and the earlier translation by Marjorie Sykes (first serialized in Visva Bharati Quarterly and then published as a book in the same year, 1940). Obviously, Tagore's own account of his childhood days has intrinsic interest of its own, but it also tells us something about the development of the priorities that deeply influenced his later life. Of the many different connections that are of interest, let me select three for brief comments.

First, Rabindranath passionately disliked the schools he encountered, and as a dropout, he was educated at home, with the help of tutors. Already in his childhood he formed some views on what precisely was wrong with the schools he knew in the Calcutta of his day, some, as it happens, with fairly distinguished academic records. When Tagore established his own school in Shantiniketan (more commonly spelt as 'Santiniketan', but I shall follow here the translator's preferred spelling) in 1901, he was determined to make it critically different from the schools he knew. It is not always easy to spot what made his school, Shantiniketan, so different (this is in fact even more difficult to identify if you have been mainly schooled there, as I have been), but Boyhood Days tells a great deal about what Tagore was looking for in his vision of a school appropriate for children.

Sometimes a complete outsider can see things more clearly—and can explain more pithily—what is so special about an innovative institution than those engulfed in it can. The special qualities of the Shantiniketan school were caught with much clarity by Joe Marshall, a perceptive American trained at Harvard, who visited Shantiniketan in August 1914. He put it thus:

The principle of his method of teaching is that the individual must be absolutely free and happy in an environment where all is at peace and where the forces of nature are all in evidence; then there must be art, music, poetry, and learning in all its branches in the persons of the teachers; lessons are regular but not compulsory, the classes are held under the trees with the boys sitting at the feet of the teacher, and each student with his different talents and temperament is naturally drawn to the subjects for which he has aptitude and ability.1

All the points that caught Marshall's attention figure, in one way or other, in Boyhood Days—in the descriptions of what Tagore missed most in the schools he knew in his Calcutta.

Some of the things he missed and longed for, he actually did get at his own home, like the presence of music and poetry in everyday life. But he knew he was privileged and exceptionally fortunate, and he wanted to have schools where these facilities should come as standard part of the system, along with arrangements for academic training. I don't want to turn this Introduction into a 'Q & A' programme, but I will suggest to the reader, especially the young reader, that it

1. I am grateful to Megan Marshall, the distinguished author of the wonderful biography of the famous Peabody sisters, who 'ignited American romanticism' (The Peabody Sisters, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), for letting me see and draw on her grandfather Joe Marshall's unpublished 'Santiniketan journal'.

could be useful as well as fun to look for the connections that are plentifully there in Tagore's own account of his creative dissatisfaction about early education (not all the connections refer explicitly to schools at all—this is called, I believe, a 'hint' in 'help books').

One particularly important idea to look for is Tagore's focus on freedom, even for schoolchildren, on which Marshall did comment. This, in fact, identifies an aspect of Rabindranath that the standard commentaries on him— from W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound onwards—missed. Yet his yearning for substantive freedom in human life comes through very clearly in Boyhood Days, and it stays throughout his life as a constant thought.2

Let me now turn to a second connection that deserves some attention. At his home Rabindranath was surrounded by people who loved music, varying in taste from austerely classical to more relaxed art forms of song-making and singing. Rabindranath had a fine introduction to classical Indian music, but he resisted the usual long years of formal training of the aspiring specialist. The range of Tagore's exposure and the choices he made profoundly influenced the development of his own musical genre, the astonishingly influential 'Rabindra-sangeet', still so very popular in Bangladesh and India.

2. I discussed this in my essay 'Tagore and His India', New York Review of Books,Vol.44 (26 June 1997), republished in The Argumentative Indian (London and New Delhi: Penguin, 2005).

Kalpana Bardhan has commented on this connection between Rabindra-sangeet and Tagore's boyhood years in presenting her own translation of songs and commentaries on Tagore's work:

...Though he took some lessons, he resisted the systematic formal training his teachers insisted on. He imbibed freely from listening and impressed the grown ups by rendering what he heard. Surrounded by voice lessons and practice in classical singing, as he stopped going to school and stayed home, he went on constantly listening, humming to himself, nourishing his memory cells and vocal chords. In a way, as he liked to tell in his mature years, his boyhood resistance of a formal training in classical music, while gathering and absorbing it in his own way, freed him from the strictures of the Hindusthani classical music, and later on enabled him to intuitively blend raga melodies into mixed raginis for his songs, and further on to mix folk song tunes with classical melodies. The innovative mixings achieved the uniqueness of melody and lyric carrying each other in his songs, the balance of meaning through music and poetry.3

As we read through Tagore's account of his childhood years,

3. Kalpana Bardhan, unpublished manuscript. Earlier published as Rabindranath Tagore's Songs of Love, Nature, and Devotion (mimeographed, Berkeley, California, 2006).

we can find many scattered remarks on what would prove to be critically important preparation for the emergence of the wealthy tradition of Rabindra-sangeet.4 Boyhood Days contains many glimpses—this is another 'hint'—of Rabindranath's exposure to the music around him which would ultimately help the birth of a new genre of Bengali music.

The third connection I want to comment on concerns Tagore's intellectual world, in particular the emergence of Tagore's rather special priorities in analytical and empirical inquiries and his expectations from them. This is a complex subject and has been much misunderstood. However, since the beginnings of Tagore's priorities and expectations are clearly noticeable in Boyhood Days, the subject deserves a little exploration here, for a better understanding even of the later Rabindranath.

Tagore's commitment to reasoning was strong— sometimes fierce—throughout his life. This is well reflected in his arguments, for example, with Mahatma Gandhi (whom he chastised for obscurantism), with religious parochialists (whose reasonless sectarianism upset him greatly), with the British establishment (for their crude treatment of India, in contrast with what he admired greatly in British intellectual life and creativity), with his Japanese admirers (who received, despite Tagore's general admiration of Japan, his sharply

4. A masterly account of the philosophical underpinnings of the tradition of Rabindra-sangeet can be found in Anisur Rahman's Bengali book, Ashimer Spando.

angry critique for their silence—or worse—in the face of Japan's newly-emerging supernationalism, including the Japanese treatment of China), and with the administrative leadership of both British India and the Soviet Union (he compared the Soviet achievements in school education across its Asian and European span very favourably with the gross neglect of school education in British India, while also chastising the Soviet leadership for its intolerance of criticism and of freedom of expression).5

Tagore's commitment to a reasoned understanding of the world around us came through also in his wholehearted support for scientific education (his school insisted on every child's exposure to the new findings emerging anywhere in the world). The same commitment to reason is seen also in Tagore's cultural evaluations, including his firm mixture of pride in Indian culture and rejection of any claim to the priority of Indian culture over all others. It is also seen in his refusal to see something called 'the Indian civilization' in isolation from influences coming from the rest of the world: this remains very relevant today, not just as a critique of what is now called the 'Hindutva approach, but also of the widely popular theses of the clash of civilizations', which is frequently invoked these days as a gross—and rather dangerous—simplification of the complex world in which we live. In every case, Rabindranath'

5More discussion of each of these issues can be found in my 'Tagore and His india'. See also, Krishna Dutta and Andrew Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996).

firm convictions were driven explicitly by critical reasoning which he clearly spelt out.

And yet to many contemporary observers in Europe and America, Rabindranath appeared to be anything but a follower of reason. It was faith he was identified with, and with a penchant for mystification over seeking clarity. While some of Tagore's admirers (of suitably mystical kind themselves) loved this 're-done Tagore', others found it unattractive, even detestable. A clear formulation of that interpretation of Tagore can be found in two unpublished letters of Bertrand Russell to Nimai Chatterji.6 On 16 February 1963, Earl Russell wrote to Nimai Chatterji:

I recall the meeting [with Tagore] of which Lowes Dickinson writes only vaguely. There was an earlier occasion, the first upon which I met Tagore, when he was brought to my home by Robert Trevelyan and Lowes Dickinson. I confess that his mystic air did not attract me and I recollect wishing he would be more direct. He had a soft, rather elusive, manner which led one to feel that straightforward exchange or

6. I am including, with Chatterji's permission, extracts from Russell's letter to him. Nimai Chatterji, a literary observer and critic, wrote to a great many people who knew Tagore asking them to comment on what they knew of—and thought of—Rabindranath, and this will form the corpus of a book on Tagore, we hope before very long (Chattterji's reluctance to publish his writings has been frustrating for his friends like me).

in England—W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and others—in which his poetical exposition, particularly in Gitanjali, of what can be seen as extraordinary features of the world overwhelmed his understanding of ordinary but very important things that make up the world and in which Tagore was (as Boyhood Days confirms) deeply interested from his very early days. This would later flower into his interest in science, culture, education, politics, ethics and epistemology. Russell 'knew' what to expect from the man that Lowes Dickinson brought to Russell's home, and he seemed to have decided that he got plentifully exactly what he expected to get from Rabindranath. Tagore's admirers in England would not leave much room for ahy way of contrasting the allegorical poetry of Gitanjali (itself over-mysticised by its English rendering) and Rabindranath's prosaic beliefs about the ordinary world. As I have discussed elsewhere, Rabindranath was initially happy enough to play this role, even though he was shocked by the over-praise he was getting.7

7. On the day after the famous literary evening of the reading of Tagore's poems in London that W.B. Yeats had arranged on 27 June 1912, he wrote to my grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen (who taught at Shantiniketan and later wrote, among other books, Hinduism, published by Penguin): 'Last night I dined with one of the poets here, Yeats. He read out the prose translations of some of my poems... People have taken to my work with such excessive enthusiasm that I cannot really accept it. My impression is that when a place from which nothing is expected somehow produces something, even an ordinary thing, people are amazed—that is the state of mind here.'

The second factor is Russell's propensity to dismiss anything that he did not find to be immediately clear to him. If Rabindranath got the raw end of that perspective in Russell's reactions to him, he did not fare any worse than Friedrich Nietzsche had in the caricature of him that Russell had produced in his History of Western Philosophy, in the form of a simulated conversation between Nietzsche and Buddha concocted by Russell to bring out the stupidity—as well as some possible nastiness—of Nietzsche's ideas as interpreted by Russell.8

Despite the importance of these factors, Rabindranath's understanding of intellectual priorities did, in fact, have some special features which contributed to the misunderstanding that is being examined. One of them was Tagore's willingness to accept that many questions will remain unresolved and their answers can remain incomplete. The domain of unfinished accounts would change over time, but not go away, and in this Rabindranath saw not a defeat but a humble—and also beautiful—recognition of our limited understanding of a vast world, even an incomprehensibly large, possibly infinite, universe (the kind of remark that so exasperated Russell). Rather than seeing this as a defeat of reason he clearly saw this as the way reason works in human life, at

8. Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy was first published by Simon and Schuster in the USA, New York, in 1945.

any point of time.9 He also saw some aesthetic beauty in the continuing incompleteness of our answers: this is where, I presume, Russell would have walked away had Tagore not been sitting at Russell's own home.

We can glimpse the early beginnings of this celebration of the unresolved and the incomplete in many remarks in Boyhood Days (this is another 'hint' to the young reader), but none perhaps more spectacular than the youthful Rabindranath's retreat from the discipline of tutored knowledge that was being poured into him. He would regain his peace when he could resume his reflection of the vast universe that lay beyond his tutors' grasp (p. 47):

In bed, at last, I found some moments of leisure. There, I listened to the story that never reached its conclusion: 'The prince rides across the boundless terrain . . . '

This is not the occasion to pursue Tagore's views of knowledge and reason further, and yet I found it striking, as I was rereading Boyhood Days (I had read the book, in Bengali,

9. Some features of Tagore's radical views of epistemology and objectivity played a big role in his much-reported conversation with Albert Einstein, on which see 'Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth', The New York Times Magazine, 10 August 1930. An attempt to understand Tagore's scientific position in terms of contemporary theories of realism (particularly Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism, Open Court, 1987) can be found in my essay, 'Tagore and His India'.

in my own boyhood days), how many of these connections with Tagore's epistemic and aesthetic priorities were already beginning to take shape in those early days.

Before ending, I would like to make a couple of comments on a more mundane subject. It has been claimed that to say goodbye is 'to die a little'. To read the translation of a book one knows in the original is also to die a little, and no translation, no matter how good and accurate, can prevent that.

One of the special problems arises in this case from the fact that words in one language sometimes do not have exact equivalents in another language. The problem is compounded by the fact that some words have more than one near-equivalent in another language. In fact, the English rendering of Gitanjali, somewhat influenced by Tagore's early admirers in England, had tended to select the most 'mystical' of the near-equivalents, sometimes mercilessly killing the necessary ambiguities in Tagore's Bengali expressions.

The plurality of near-equivalent English words applies even to the title of this book. 'Chhelebela'10 in Bengali refers to childhood, even though the word used in that compound expression, to wit 'chhele', also does mean a boy, in its literal and original use. The Bengali language dropped gender about seven hundred years ago (there is not even any

10. Bengali sounds can be translated in different ways in English—a problem made more difficult by the fact that some Bengali sounds do not even exist in English! And here I am following the notation that the translator has chosen.

equivalent of the English distinction between 'he' and 'she', or between 'him' and 'her'), and it is quite standard for words like 'chhele' to be used to cover both sexes, that is, girls as well as boys. So 'chhelebela' could be translated as 'Childhood Days', and not specifically as 'Boyhood Days'. In this case, this might not matter tremendously, since Rabindranath was indubitably a man and his childhood was clearly his boyhood as well.

There is perhaps more of a problem with Tagore's 'Preface' which begins with the sentence: 'I received a request from Goswamiji to write something for the boys.' There were both boys and girls in the school (indeed my mother herself had been a student there long before me), and no matter what the genderized form of the Bengali expression is, Tagore's interest in presenting his recollections of his early years would have involved his willingness to cater to the curiosity of both boys and girls in the school (there is internal evidence of this in the text as well of Tagore's reach across the gender divide). Goswamiji too whose request, we learn from the Preface, started off this entire project, was a marvellous teacher, and as I remember vividly, cared no less for the girls than for the boys. The request for 'something for the boys' (taking the genderized form of words in the restrictive sense) must have included the girl students at the school as well. The coverage of many Bengali words, such as 'chhele', has this plasticity.

These uncertainties are, I suppose, inescapable in moving a book from one language to another. What is altogether remarkable is how much of the basic content of the Bengali original (including the atmosphere, the stories, the fears and the excitements, and Tagore's early reflections and analyses) have come through vividly and powerfully in this English version. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to introduce this fine translation of a remarkably engaging and stimulating memoir to the English-reading public. There is much to enjoy and learn from in this little book.

October 2006

Amartya Sen

Boyhood Days


I received a request from Goswamiji to write something for boys. Let me write about the young Rabindranath, I thought. I tried to enter that spectral world of the past. Its dimensions, internal and external, no longer correspond to the present-day world. Oil lamps, those days, emitted more smoke than light. The world of the mind had not yet been surveyed by science; the possible and the impossible were intertwined, the boundaries between them blurred. The language in which I have described those days is naturally easy, as suitable as possible for the minds of young boys. I have not changed my style while describing the stage when, with the passing of time, the naive fancies of childhood began to clear like a fog from my mind; but the sense of those passages has crossed the limits of childhood. My account has not been allowed to breach the boundaries of childhood, but these recollections arrive, ultimately, at the threshold of adolescence. Pausing there, one can understand how a boy's psychology had evolved to maturity through an extraordinary convergence of accidental and inevitable circumstances. The special appropriateness of presenting this entire narrative as an account of one's 'boyhood days' lies in the fact that the growth of the child also signals the evolution of his spirit. In the early stages of life, it is this process that is primarily worth tracing. From his surroundings, this boy easily absorbed the kind of sustenance that his spirit found congenial. The efforts to civilize him through conventional educational methods he accepted only in a limited measure.

Some features of this book's contents may be found also in Jibonsmriti, my memoirs, but that has a different flavour—like the contrast between a lake and a waterfall. That was a story, while this is birdsong; that belongs to the fruit basket, this to the tree, the fruits vividly visible among the surrounding branches and foliage. A while ago, like images captured on camera, some traces of this book had appeared in a book of verse. The book was called Chhorar Chhobi, 'Pictures in Rhyme'. The prattle in that book was part childish, part mature. The expressions of joy in it were largely of a whimsical, juvenile sort. In the present work, they assume the form of boyish prose.

Rabindranath Tagore

The Boy

I was then of tender age, and slight,

Like a wingless bird, my frame was ever so light.

From the neighbouring rooftop, pigeon flocks would rise

And crows on our balcony rails would utter raucous cries.

From across the street came the hawker's cry,

His gamchha-covered fish basket full of topshe fry.

There was Dada on the terrace, his vision fixed afar,

His violin tuned to the strains of the evening star.

Casting English books aside, to Boudidi we'd race,

A red-bordered sari framed her lovely face.

Hiding her keys in a flowerpot, like a prankster from hell,

I would try her temper, and test her love for me, as well.

Kishori Chatujje would arrive at nightfall,

In his left hand a hookah, on his shoulder a shawl.

The tale of Lav and Kush he would recite, at speed;

To my textbooks and notes I paid no more heed.

How I wished, that by whatever means at hand,

I could somehow join a minstrel band!

Travelling with my songs from place to place,

I wouldn't have a care about examinations to face.

When the schoolday was over, homewards I'd go,

And over our rooftop, I'd see the clouds hanging low.

In torrents of rain the street was sunk,

The pipes spouted water, like Airavat's trunk.

In the darkness, I listened to the music of the rain,

And thought of the prince, lost in a boundless terrain.

Of Kuyenloon, Mississippi and Yangtse Kiang I'd heard—

The mountains and rivers that in maps appeared.

The known, the half-known and the far-far-away,

Wove a web of many colours, so bright and gay!

A myriad movements, and sounds of myriad kinds,

In a flimsy universe, encircled by my mind.

Inside that world, my thoughts would lightly glide,

Like birds beneath a cloud, or flotsam on a tide.

Shantiniketan, Ashadh 1344*

* [Note: In the Bengali calendar this corresponds to the year 1937 of the Gregorian calendar.]



'I was then about seven or eight. I had no useful role to play in this world; and that old palki, too, had been dismissed from all forms of useful employment . . . '

Hidden inside an ancient palanquin on a hot lonely afternoon, a young boy sets off on an imaginary adventure.

He encounters gangs of bandits, arrives at palaces where kings bathe in sandalwood-scented water, and the hunter forest with a bang! of his gun. The boy, gifted with a vivid imagination and a sensitive mind, grew up to become one of India's greatest poets and thinkers.

Translated from the bengali by radha chakravarty

In Boyhood Days Rabindranath Tagore recounts his growing up years with gentle wit and humour. He describes life evening came from castor-oil lamps; when hackney carriages raced through the city's streets and women travelled in early love for music and poetry, the myriad influences that shaped his thinking and about the other members of his large, gifted family. Boyhood Days brings to life an era long time he takes his first steps in the world of literature.

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