About the Book
Rabindranath Tagore wrote over a hundred short stories, weaving together myths, fairy tales, and modern day fables. Writing at a time when the romantic narrative was in vogue, Tagore's short stories are pioneering writings which reflect his rural experiences, childhood memories, humanism, and religious philosophy, as well as his views on the historical and political realities of colonial Bengal.
First published by Oxford University Press in association with Visva-Bharati, this classic collection is a valuable introduction to Tagore's short stories.
About the Author
Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
The principles of translation for a series like this cannot be laid down simply or definitively. Indeed, they cannot really be laid down at all: they take shape as the work advances, with many modifications and, inevitably, some compromises. Compromises are specially called for when a number of translators join in a common programme. I must thank all the translators in this volume for having agreed to a modicum of uniform practice.
Such a modicum does not get us very far. Literary translation proceeds by a series of particular, contingent judgments, virtually a species of inspired adhocism. For a start, it soon becomes imperative to break the translator's shibboleth that the same word in the original must always be rendered by the same word in translation. This is sometimes notoriously impossible. Abhiman, for example, must be rendered according to con- text by 'pride', 'hurt pride', 'resentment', conceivably 'sulks'. But such instances only highlight a general problem.
We have thought it appropriate to vary, according to context, the rendering of Bengali months. Where a specific date or timing was involved, or an unusually strong association had to be preserved, we have retained the specific name-Asharh, Shravan, Phalgun etc. Where there seemed to be only a general reference to a season or time of year, we have used a more general term-spring, monsoon, etc.
Similarly, words indicating relationships have usually been rendered by their simple English equivalents-father, brother, aunt, sister-in-law, etc. even where the Bengali term might be more specific: masi (mother's sister), pisi (father's sister), etc. But Bengali terms have been used where an English equivalent would be unattainable or cumbersome ( Thakurpo, Boudi); or sometimes where the emotional nuance, intimacy and/or local flavour of the Bengali seemed important.
A special problem relates to Bengali names for plants, animals and objects of everyday Indian life. Some of these have recognised English names; others, unfamiliar Latinate ones; while sometimes the Bengali name is the only one available. Yet the terms may be contextually on a par, so that translating them involves a tricky manipulation of registers.
A variant of the same problem occurs where a Hindi term has passed into English, while the Bengali word is different. The Bengali ashwattha tree is peepal in Hindi and hence in English; the garment a Bengali calls a panjabi is the Hindi, and hence English, kurta. In such cases, as a rule, the latter category has been preferred for its wider currency and assimilation in English.
Place-names and mythological names have been standardised even where the original text uses a variant: hence always Varanasi rather than Kashi, and uniform use of Shiva, Durga, etc. where Rabindranath might refer to these deities by one or other of their innumerable names. Exceptions have been made where the significance of a particular term affects the surrounding text-e.g. through a quibble or metaphoric use, or in a special set application (thus Benarasi, not Varanasi, san).
Another class of problems concerns English words embedded in the original Bengali text. They have been put in italics where they convey a distinctive tone or ambience, as most extensively in The Laboratory'. But to iralicise all such words would create a distracting irritant, as many of them sit quite naturally in the Bengali. Even in The Laboratory', English technical terms clearly need not be marked off in this way. Italics have been used only where a separate contextual register is involved.
Explanations and annotations have been placed in notes as a rule. But to reduce distracting references on minor matters, small explanations have sometimes been worked into the translation. This is such an accepted practice that it hardly needs to be spelt out. Words or passages carrying a note have been indicated by an obelisk (t) in the text.
The more one translates, the more one admits the difficulty of logical consistency, though no two persons might agree on what or how much inconsistency to allow. Our aim has been to preserve the Indian and Bengali nature of the stories, with their material, social and intellectual ambience; yet to make them readable in an internationally acceptable register free of esoteric idiom and reference. The simple, dignified, un- distorting directness of Rabindranarh's narrative prose demands to be translated in an equivalent version of the target language. This calls for great discretion, even a measure of eclecticism, in negotiating the culture- specific course of the text.
The transliteration of Bengali and other Indian words holds out another challenge. Where familiar English spellings exist, they are inconsistent. Attempts at standardisation run into many problems. Standard Bengali pronunciation seldom agrees with the original Sanskrit or its closer approximation in Hindi; none of these can be conveyed by the English (Roman) alphabet; efforts at logical equivalence offend against familiar practice and, hence, acceptability. Diacritical marks solve most technical problems but create others of access and reception. In a volume like the present, they can serve as an impediment to the general reader intent on the story.
Here too, a working compromise seems the only feasible solution. We have rendered Bengali names and terms according to current standard Bengali pronunciation rather than the original Sanskrit one. Given the paucity of vowels in the Roman alphabet, this (or indeed any) practice harbours ambiguities, especially as the single vowel a must perforce render both and (The alternative would be to use 0 for both and which is equally misleading and less familiar.) The solitary exception we have admitted is paan (betel leaf), which is acquiring the status of a standard English spelling. Also, following the common practice, "f and have both been rendered by sh and by s, though the difference has virtually ceased to matter in Bengali; and the k + sh compound been spelr as ksh though invariably pronounced as kh in Bengali. Following general practice again, the j+ n compound has been rendered as gn.
Yet classical Sanskriric names and terms must be retained in familiar spellings based on the Sanskrit pronunciation. To depart from these would confuse readers; at the same time, the Sanskrit transliterations clash with those of their Bengali versions or derivatives. We thus have Yama and Yamuna but fatin and fagnanath; Rama, but Dukhiram and Ramkanai. This is clearly unsatisfactory, but a perfect solution seems impossible.
strategies and conventions. Shri Sankha Ghosh selected the stories, offered wise advice and moral support, yet never impinged on his colleagues' freedom. Dr Tapobrara Ghosh spent immense time and labour not only over the Introduction and notes but in a detailed review of the translations: the book has gained substantially as a result. Shri Subhendu Das Munshi also gave valuable assistance in this regard.
I am grateful to the Late Radha Prasad Gupta, Smt Aparna Chakrabarti, Shri P. Thankappan Nair and Professor Gautam Bhadra for answering queries. Finally, my thanks to Siddhartha Chaudhuri for valiant assist- ance with the computer.
We have taken the opportunity of the first reprint to make a few small revisions and corrections. I am grateful to Professor D.K. Lahiri Choudhury and Dr Ananda Lal for their assistance in this regard.
Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore) was born in the city of Calcutta. From his infancy, he seems to have longed for the countryside; but he first left the city at the age of eleven. During a fever epidemic in Calcutta, he was re- moved to a riverside villa at Panihati, now swallowed up by the city but then entirely rural.
The countryside the boy had dreamt of lay just behind the villa, but ir was forbidden territory. One day he secretly followed two of his elders out of the gates, down leafy village lanes, past ponds girded with trees. A barebodied man, whose appearance he would never forget, was cleaning his teeth with a neem twig beside a pond. To the sheltered child of an elite family, this man seemed to dwell in a different world. Presently the elders realised they were being followed, and the boy was scolded and sent back.!
He saw nothing more of the countryside on that trip; but the man by the pond was implanted in his memory. He might have made that man the subject of his first short story. This is not idle fancy, because Rabindranath's earlier stories are largely based on his rural encounters. Panihari is near Calcutta, but the rural lore of his childhood is derived chiefly from East Bengal, where he would later set most of his stories. Rabindranath's mother Sarada and his great-aunt Shubhankari had links with Jessore District, now in Bangladesh. It was from Shubhankari that, among other fairy-tales, Tagore heard the story of Malanchamala that he would one day work into Asambhab Katha (An Impossible Tale). From the family estates in East Bengal, the retainer Abdul Majhi would bring not only delicacies but stories of improbable feats and encounters.
Many of the servants who dominated Rabindranath's boyhood also hailed from East Bengal. The servant Shyam, who would confine the child to a room by drawing a chalk circle round him, told him stories of bandirs. When he had finished his studies and come up to sleep, maids like Pyari, Shankari and Tinkari must have recounted to him folk-tales from East Bengal.4 These humble women, no less than Shubhankari Devi, planted the seeds not only of the evident fairy-tale of 'A Fanciful Story' but of the folk and fairy-tale motifs in many other pieces.
Of course Rabindranath read fairy-tales too. Even in the last year of his life, he remembered his childhood Bengali version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Merrnaid'P In the story 'Subha', when the dumb girl Subha thinks of herself as the sole princess of the waters, discovered by Pratap in a jewel-lit palace, she is casting herself in the mould of Ander- sen's heroine as well as Manimala, the heroine of an East Bengal fairy-tale.
Other plots and characters can be traced to Rabindranath's childhood days. One of them concerned the Yaksha or jakh, an erstwhile mortal- often child-now turned to a treasure-guarding spirit of This macabre legend is central to The Inheritance'; in 'The Golden Deer', it combines with alchemical fancies. Tales of bandits reached him from many sources: the servant Shyam's yarns; the ex-bandit watchman of the family estates at Bolpur, the future Shantiniketan; the bandits who once had their hide- out under the very chharim trees where the poet's father Debendranath set up his spiritual retreat? A specific act of banditry on the Taltore plain near Bolpur suggested to Tagore his last, unfinished tale, The Story of a Mussalmani', set in a turbulent period of history.
When Rabindranath was nearly twelve, he went on a tour of the Himalayas with his father, visiting Bolpur for the first time on the way. It was no doubt on this tour that Debendranath found time to tell his son stories-like the one about the epicurean extravagance of the old-time ba-bus, who tore the edges off their dhotis to spare their sensitive skins8 like the Babus of Nayanjore in 'Grandfather'.
The folk drama or jatra would often be staged in that household. The children were forbidden to watch: only once did Rabindranath see a performance, on the legend of Nala and Darnayann I just like that described in the story Apad (The Nuisance). In sharp contrast was a memory of the Normal School that Tagore briefly attended. The boys were ryrannised by the foul-mouthed and cruelly sarcastic Sanskrit teacher Haranarh, 10 the model for the pandit Shibnarh in Ginni (The House- wife). Again, as a boy, Rabindranath would have sight of three 'foreigners': the Punjabi servant Lenu, a Jewish perfume-seller called Gabriel, and an Mghan trader in baggy clothes and a sack of merchandise. II The last was surely the model for Rahamat in 'Kabuliwala',
Needless to say, in the unwritten stories of Rabindranath's childhood, he was often himself the hero. While staying with his father at Dalhousie in the Himalayas, he would walk among the pine trees, touching those mute giants and communing with their ancient spirit. The boy in 'Balai' goes wandering in the deodar woods in similar communion with nature.
Rabindranarh first saw the East Bengal countryside at the age of fourteen. He made two visits to their property at Shilaidaha, with his father in 1875 and with his elder brother Jyotirindranath in 1876. There are virtually no records of the first visit; hence the following glimpse, from one of the Chhinnapatrabali (Stray Letters) he wrote much later to his niece Indira Debi, takes on special value:
I suddenly remembered the time I was coming down the Padma by boat with my father. One night, at nearly two, I woke up and opened the window. In the clear moonlight, upon the still river, a young man was rowing a little dinghy and singing more sweetly than I had ever heard song before. I suddenly thought, if! could go back to that day. would set out on the flood-tide in a narrow dinghy, sing and captivate the world and see what it contained.
This clearly foreshadows the sensibility of the boy Tarapada in 'The Visit- or'. In his childhood, Rabindranath heard stories of Indian history from his cousin Gunendranath. This nascent sense of history developed on an 1878 visit to Ahmedabad, where his brother Saryendranath was a civil servant. Sarvendranath had been assigned Quarters in the great Muzhal palace of Shahi Bag. Transported there from the upstart city of Calcutta, Tagore was struck by the vast rooms, haunted by a sense of the past if not by actual spirits. This was when he first conceived of 'Hungry Stone', though of course the story took shape much later.
After a few months in Ahmedabad and Bombay, Tagore sailed for Europe in 1878. His eighteen months' stay yielded many encounters with a sycophantic and feeble-spirited community of anglicised Indians, for whom he never lost his contempt and anger. A common ploy of this tribe was to conceal a marriage back in India, so as to freely enjoy the company of unmarried Englishwomen. 16 This unlovely conduct was worked into the conclusion of the story Prayashchitta (Penance). The more general sycophancy and feeble spirit of British-loving Indians at home forms the substance of The Royal Mark'.
In mid-1881, when Rabindranath had just turned twenty, he spent a long time in Moran Sahib's villa in the French colony of Chandan Nagar (Chandernagore). The steps led up straight from the ghat or landing- stage on the River Hooghly to the broad porch of the villa. In the evening, Rabindranath would go on boat-rides with his brother jyoririndranarh and the latter's wife Kadambari Debi. In the summer of 1884, shortly after Kadarnbari's death, a river cruise on Jyotirindranath's launch Sarojini revived those memories of his days at Chandan Nagar: a track through tall trees to the river, down which village women came to fetch water; boys at play, swimming and throwing mud at each other; here and there a riverside village with rows of fishing boats; cattle and stray dogs roaming among the huts, while cottagers went about their chores and a naked child stood gazing at the launch. What has he seen of Bengal, thought Rabindranath, who has not looked upon this river scene at sun- set As he looked on, the outline of a story took shape in his mind. He began to ponder on the ancient, often derelict ghats along the Ganga. Such a ghat seems to be not a human artefact but a part of nature, like the trees lining the bank. It has intimate ties, stretching over generations, with every man or woman who has gone down its steps: to fetch water or to bathe, to sit or to play, perhaps taking a tumble down the slope. And the famous singer, blind Shrinibas, who sat singing and playing his violin on the steps at dusk while people gathered round: who remembers him now? Gradually, the chain of ghats was conflated in Rabindranath's mind into a single one that captured his imagination. This is where the riverside ghat scored over his previous memories. While his early verse reflects some of those earlier experiences, none had inspired a short story at the time: they were laid by, often no doubt for later use. A partial exception might be the piece entitled Bhikharini (The Beggar-Woman), published in 1877; but by the writer's own appellation, this was a set of' connected ramblings' rather than a short story.
By contrast, memories of the ghat at Chandan Nagar inspired, in 1884, his first short story, 'The Ghat's Story'. An old ghat is personified and cast as narrator. The work preserves the colloquial, personalised style of traditional folk-narrative but not its direct, uncomplicated recital of events. The same technique is used in the next story, Rajpather Katha ' (The Highway's Story), where however the narrative content is slighter, so that the piece hovers between the idiom of narrative and the idiom of poetry.
These two short stories, the earliest in the language, did not receive their due from the conservative critics of the time. Nevertheless, they make us revise the conventional view of Rabindranath's career as a short- story writer. This is commonly dated from 1891, when he went to look after his family estates in East Bengal. Instead, we must trace it to a bereavement in 1884. Rabindranarh's sister-in-law Kadambari Debi took her own life a few months before21 the composition of 'The Ghat's Story'; that story too ends with a desperate woman plunging into the river. Her death threatens to put out the stars, till it is assuaged in the expansive in- difference of the highway in the next story. The death of Kadambari not only released Rabindranath's poetic energies, as commonly admitted, but it also made him a teller of tales. The deceased Kadambari became the poet's daemon, identified with the life-deity (jiban-debata) recurring through his poetry, a mediating force between microcosm and macrocosm. But even this macrocosm is not cosmic or superhuman; it is human and humane. In 1904, while de- tailing his poetic development, Rabindranath wrote of this deity: 'My de- sires and my self-interest confine my life to a set purport; [the deity] breaks those confines, over and over, linking it to the Vast, the Immense, through separation and deep pain. Already in Kabikahini (The Poet's Tale), his earliest book of poems, Rabindranath had evoked the figure of a 'guardian deity' by merging the pagan daemon with the Christian guardian angel in the character of Nalini. There, the deity had been a construct of the poetic imagination. After Kadambari's death, poetic fancy was transformed into the deepest truth of his life and being. Kadambari died in 1884. Between that year and 1886, Rabindranarh gave his poetry a new direction in the poems to be collected in Kari 0 Komal (Sharps and Flats). In Jibansmriti, his reminiscences, he has analysed his mental state at the time:
In my childhood, I would look out through a chink in the wall of our inner quarters and open my heart with eager gaze to the various world outside. In my early youth, the world of human life attracted me in the same way. There too I had no entry: I stood at the margin. I would see a boat sailing over the waves, and every- thing within me would reach out and call to the ferryman from the shore. Life wanted to set out on life's journey.
The soul in its lonely room yearned for an invitation to the joys and sorrows of the festival of life.Just as I once sat within the chalk circle drawn by a servant and longed for the expansive playroom of the world, so in my youth did my lonely heart reach out achingly towards the great realm of the human heart. It was hard of attainment, hard of access, far away.
The day was approaching in my life for the union of the homely and the alien, the inward and the external. The journey of life could no longer be taken lightly as 2 painted image: it must proceed by the land route through human habitations, through the rugged path of good and evil, joy and sorrow: so much breaking and building, triumph and defeat, conflict and union.
Rabindranath wished to see the great world of humanity not only reflected in his own life but acrualised in Bengali literature. This was only fitfully possible in the romance-oriented writings of the age. He voiced his dis-satisfaction openly in two letters to a friend, the minor novelist Shrish- chandra Majumdar. In 1886 he wrote:
You have created a living picture of our familiar Bengal in your book. No other Bengali writer has done this successfully. Most Bengali books these days make me wonder whether at some future date, people will debate whether there really was a land called Bengal at the time when these works were being written.
And again in 1888:
Don't go in for the trials of history or didacticism: instead, show the depths of the simple human heart, the ever-joyful history of man's daily life with its little sorrows and delights. No one has yet spoken of the joys and sorrows of ordinary Bengalis dwelling in the heartland of Bengal. Bankim Babu has successfully presented the modern Bengali, foster-child of the nineteenth century; but wherever he has talked about the Bengali of old times, he has had to make up a great deal as he went. He has depicted a number of great figures like Chandrashekhar and Pratap who might have belonged to any nation. but he has not been able to depict a Bengali. No one has properly told the story of the eternally oppressed, patient, familial, domesticised, peace-loving Bengali, dwelling on the quiet margin of the hyperactive world.
The trials of history or didacticism': this sarcastic phrase bears special significance. A few years earlier, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee) had written Anandamath (1882) and Debi Choudhurani (1884), where a romantic view of history becomes the vehicle for didacticism. Rabindranath himself could not resist the trend. His novels Bouthakuranir Hat and Rajarshi (first published in book form in 1883 and 1887 respectively) are historical romances, even if the former attempted a certain dernyrhicising of King Pratapadirya. The letters to Shrishchandra thus pertain to their writer as well as to Bankimchandra. Rabindranath himself was yet to write of ordinary Bengalis from 'the heartland of Bengal'.
In 1889, Rabindranath was put in charge of his family estates spread over Nadia, Pabna and Rajshahi districts as well as parts of what is now Orissa. His new responsibilities took him to Shilaidaha in Nadia for near- Iya month in November 1889; to Shahzadpur in Pabna for over a month in January 1890; and again to Shilaidaha for about three weeks in June 1890. From January 1891, he made a longer stay at Parisar in Rajshahi. His artistic self was virtually reborn by this passage from an urban elite existence to humble village life.
In assessing the stories he now began to write, critics have understand- ably stressed this new intimate contact with the countryside. No doubt many of these stories were only made possible by the rural sojourn. But all of them do not present rural life, nor is their world restricted to the countryside. Even among the villagers, many had been touched by urban influences or experiences; many of them worked in the towns and came home during holidays. The countryside was dotted with small towns, at some of which Rabindranarh halted on his journeys along the river.
Moreover, he visited Calcutta from time to time during his sojourn. His new experiences and responsibilities must have made him more mature and independent, no longer confined to the patrician family circuit. Even before this, the lives of ordinary Calcuttans had always fascinated him. When staying at a house on Circular Road in 1883, he would study the rhythm of daily life in a large adjacent settlement. The work, play and rest of the inhabitants seemed to him like an unfolded tale. After returning from East Bengal, he looked at the people on Calcutta streets with fresh eyes, like a foreigner: he realised that their very familiarity had prevented him from truly apprehending them all this time.
In a word, although this profounder grasp of humanity owes much to Rabindranarh's stay in East Bengal, it did not exhaust itself within rural confines. The stories of this period are never merely rustic or regional: the writer's growing sensibility led him beyond all such bounds. About this time, he wrote in the poem Basundbara (The Earth):
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