Characters: Buddhadeva Bose, a Bengali poet (1908-1974) and Hannele Pohjanmies, a Finnish translator; the narrator of the story
Time: Phalgun, the end of February 2008
Scene: A road in a forest
“O hi, I was hoping to see you, there’s something I want to tell you,” I said to him. “Thank you for your poems! And thank you so much for that wonderful book of yours, ‘Tagore: Portrait of A Poet’! You see, I have been translating his poems into Finnish…”
“You have?” he said. “You speak Bengali?”
“No, I translate the English ones. I do not think anyone has translated them into Finnish from Bengali, at least not many of them. There are not many people who speak Bengali in Finland, anyway and the publishers do not like the retranslations, so Tagore’s own English poems are all we have.”
“Finland, he has this famous poem where he speaks about Finland – “
“I know, of course I know! I have translated it, too, but it has not been published yet! My mother remembered having heard it on the radio during the war, at the beginning of the 1940’s, I do not know if it could have been possible.”
“It is a famous poem, and that’s why many Bengalis know about Finland.”
“Yes. But the Finnish people do not know about the poem and they do not know Rabindranath very well, either. I was surprised to find that poem for the first time. It was wonderful that he had been thinking about Finland.”
“With compassion,” says Buddhadeva.
“Yes…I have to admit, in secret I have been imagining that perhaps Finland was in his mind some other time, too. ‘Your songs, like birds from the lonely land of snow…’ Or sometimes as he spoke about migrating birds on their way north. But perhaps he was just thinking of some far-off Siberia.”
“He has written about birds in rather many of his poems, actually.”
“So have you! You know, I have translated several poems of yours in Finnish, too, and you speak about birds in almost every one of them!”
“Well, maybe I just have chosen the ones, where the birds are flying or calling. But, on the other hand, is there anything more important than the birds, especially the migratory birds?”
“I do not know,” he smiles. “But how come you have translated us, Rabindranath and me?”
“We had Tagore’s poems on the bookshelf at home when I was a child. The translated Finnish collections, all two of them. And when I was little, I liked the poems of ‘The Gardener’, but I did not understand the ones of ‘Gitanjali’. My parents were theosophists and they were talking about Indian religions quite often. They were artists. My father was a composer and writer and my mother an eloqutionist, so I heard poems all the time.”
“Sounds like an artists’ home…”
“In fact, it was a farmhouse, and I used to work hard in the fields and with the cattle since I was five. It has been a great help now that I have translated Tagore’s poems, ‘close to the land’. Our family ordered a farmers’ magazine, and once, in the year 1962, there was a whole page article about Rabindranath, with pictures. I still have it saved. There was even a picture of Padma, his boat.”
“It was the same year that my book was published, the one about Tagore,” Buddhadeva says.
“You mean this,” I say, and dig a book from my bag – a slender book with white covers. “I have this always at hand. There is something about it. But no wonder, I do not get rid of your poems, either!”
“So where did you find them?”
“I wrote an e-mail to Ketaki Kushari Dyson to ask some things about Tagore and she had recently translated your poems in English, a whole big collection with a remarkable foreword…”
“Oh, you might have met… now there’s a lady! She knows so enormously much about everything. She has travelled around the world to study the life of Rabindranath and translated his poems in English, I also have that book near me all the time… She also wrote a fine book about Victoria Ocampo and Tagore. It is quite a thriller!”
I look at Buddhadeva for a moment, lost in thought.
I continue, “I think there might be something she would like to ask you. If you two meet, I’d like to be a fly on the wall and hear your conversation. It was from her that I heard about your poems and then I ordered the collection that she had translated and started to read it. The poems started bothering me and they were difficult, your world is so different from Tagore’s…”
“Of course it is different! A whole different era!”
“Then I came to that ‘Calcutta’. What a magnificent poem! I read it again and again and started to cry every time. Then I had to translate it. And while I was doing it, I felt how the poem was changing me.”
“So have you been in Calcutta?”
“No, but I have met other Calcuttas in my life. Calcutta can be anything; something that changes you and that you are grateful to. Something like a mother.”
He is silent.
“But there is some similarity in your poems, Tagore’s and yours,” I say. “The centre of everything in them is the heart. I have counted it in Tagore’s poems – ‘heart’ is the word that occurs especially often in them, more often than ‘flowers’, ‘song’, ‘earth’ or ‘stars’.”
“In my poems, too?” Buddhadeva sounds surprised.
“I have not counted, but it doesn’t have to, it is in the centre anyway. And so too, it is in this book, that you have written about him.”
I open the book and leaf the pages. “I have been thinking about his personality so much. His poems are like a warm sea current…on the other hand, I can feel two levels in them, one high in the spheres and another deep under the earth. And then I find this in your book, you write about Tagore: ‘I do not think of him as a tract of land where edifices are built and tunnels forged through mountains, but as a stretch of water, changeable, continuous, always on the move, cool and bland when you first get down into it, but with depths and hidden currents which can sweep you away unless you are wary.’ I love this! I love these sentences! I could plunge into them and swim in them!”
He listens, with a little smile on his face.
“And hear this, you write in an other place: ‘---I have the awful feeling that if Tagore had not existed, I as I am today would not have existed either. --- I am inclined to say that we of our generation owe more to Tagore than can be expressed in words; for it now seems that the rain-cloud or sunset made us pause and ponder just because he had told us they were beautiful; and it was he who had sharpened our sorrows and refined our joys, and taught us to be individuals and not mere units in a society, and to whisper that terrible word, ‘ love’.”
“Are you in love with him?” he asks.
“I am in love with his poems. Well, I fell in love once while reading one of his biographies, not in him, but the writer who was his son Rathindranath. What a warm-hearted writer! Such a beautiful text! Do you think that the Bengalese really are different from other people after having lived among the poems of Rabindranath?”
“Have you met any of them yourself?”
“I have been in correspondence with Ketaki Kushari Dyson, she is fantastic, always so kind and helpful, but I have only met one in person, a young woman who is studying in Finland. She smiled like a flower, she was sweet like a little bird, her name was Somdatta…”
Buddhadeva does not say anything. He looks sad. It is quiet.
“I am sorry for your wife,” I whisper. “It was so sad she got ill. I have read your memoirs on your visit in Santiniketan to see Rabindranath. He had so many sorrows in his life, also…”
“Have you ever thought, what you would say to him if you met him?
“Oh, that is a huge question. If I suddenly met him on the road I would probably say: Is it really you? Would you have a moment…? You see, I am your Finnish translator, I translate your English poems… Thank you so enormously much for everything, for all the poems, especially the songs! There is something miraculous in them! You have seen something that is floating in the air, unseen by the others, and you have gathered it in your songs, between the lines. There is invisible music in them!”
“Invisible music?” Buddhadeva breaks in.
“And I would tell him not to regret his English poems, they have given much delight to so many people. And I would say that I am sorry he had so much sorrow in his life, and that I admire his courage and strength. How, in spite of everything, he just went on. And finally, I would thank him especially for all the poems where he encourages people.”
I think for a moment.
“I think he was quite often afraid, since he wrote so many encouraging poems. I see him as very vulnerable and inconsistent deep inside, but that does not prevent one from writing fine poems. Anyway, it is worthy of respect, if someone does courageous things even if one is afraid. Don’t you think he was rather lonely? There was pain behind the beauty, perhaps for all his life.”
Buddhadeva looks at me, musing.
“The flowers in Finland are very small,” I say to him. “But there is nothing as beautiful as the flowers in the woods at the beginning of summer, the white Arctic starflowers and May lilies, they are the most beautiful thing in the world. If it were possible, I would bind them into a wreath and hand it respectfully to Rabindranath; I would crown him with the light of the short Finnish summer…”
“Is that not love?”
“Well, yes…and compassion, too. Ah, his poems…I totally agree with you about this: ‘In the deep shadows of rainy July, with secret steps, thou walkest, eluding all watchers – ‘ Or how about this: ‘Do not call him to thy house, the dreamer, who walks alone by thy path in the night. – “Buddhadeva starts to recite: “Clouds heap upon clouds and it darkens. Ah, love, why dost thou let me wait outside at the door all alone – “ “Exactly! I love these!” He smiles. “You know,” I say, “I have read a lot about him and started to think that everybody has a Tagore of his or her own. Every time I read a new book or article about him, his picture changes like in a kaleidoscope.” “He was a many-sided person, too,” Buddhadeva says. “Do you think that people tend to see him as similar to themselves?” I ask. “What does it reveal about you, the way you describe him, writing about the secret undercurrents? They are there in your poems, too.” “They are?” “Your poems, you pain in the neck, I cannot get rid of them. They cling to my skin like sharp hooks! I have translated some of them…they will be published in a poetry magazine, its name is ‘Tuli & Savu’, ‘Fire & Smoke’. The first one will be ‘Calcutta’.” Buddhadeva smiles. “So the poetry of Bengal lives in Finland?” “Tagore in Finland,” I sigh. “It is like a lonely row of the prints of a hare in the snow. There are those two collections of poems I already mentioned, and they have been reprinted a couple of times. ‘Sadhana’ has been translated as well as ‘Gora’, ‘Home and the World’, ‘My Reminiscences’ and some others, all of them almost a hundred years ago – but after that, nothing for a long time. ‘Religion of Man’ was translated in 1990. At that time I used to talk very often about Tagore with a friend of mine, who knows a lot about the poet, and we were wondering about the situation. Then a friend from Germany sent me a whole bunch of Tagore’s books, all recently published, and I started to investigate the situation in other countries. I found out that there were new translations and reprints everywhere.” “Did someone ask you to translate the poems, then?”
“No, I just started to translate them for myself. Then I gave them to my friends and since they liked them, I offered them to a publisher. My Tagore-knowing friend did somewhat the same, but he founded a publishing company of his own, by the name Memfis Books. He published his translation ‘Stray Birds’ in the autumn of 2001, and my first little selection ‘A Song of Love’ was published next autumn, by another publisher. Then Memfis Books started to publish my translations, too, and has now published two more collections, ‘Lover’s Gift’ in 2006 and ‘Fruit-Gathering’ in 2007. There will be a larger collection ‘Poems’ in autumn 2008.” “The English poems of Tagore are very different from the original Bengali ones…” “Of course they are different! Everybody says that he kept changing and renewed himself all the time and never wrote the same poem twice! They are not translations, they are totally new poems about the same subject, sometimes there are twenty years in-between – how could they be the same? I know there are many people who do not like them, but they have their own value, don’t they? He wrote some prose poems later in Bengali, too, and he liked the way the Japanese said things so shortly in their poems…and he says, that he has tried to capture in his English translation the heart and core of his original Bengali – is it not interesting to find out in his own opinion what the core of the poem has been? Of course, I know they are not good English, but in this case, you have to separate the content from the form. The oil from the cask!” Buddhadeva listens, looking inquiringly at me, and I go on: “As I translate them in Finnish, I look at their content, I listen with my heart and try to hear, what the poet wanted to say, and try to see what he has seen. Then I write it in Finnish, in as simple words as possible, but so that the poem sings.” “And how do you do that?” “I do not know. I just hear the rhythm. The difficult thing is, that reading a poem is always interpreting and every reader interprets in his or her own way. Translating is also interpreting – how to translate a poem so that the possibility of different interpretations does not disappear?” “Invisible music again, right?” Buddhadeva stares at me.
“I guess so,” I laugh. “The English poems were a kind of bypath to Rabindranath, he loved freedom. Sometimes it makes me think of the line ‘in the smile that dances at the corner of dark eyes.’ But it was not a passing whim. There are well over thousand of them and the last ones were made in 1940, on his sickbed. You know, I have met people who like his English poems more than the original Bengalese ones that they have read in English translations; they are shorter and more compact. Your poems, by the way, are compact as such.” Buddhadeva does not say anything. He looks at the horizon.
“I am trying to write about you in Finland, both of you, and I hope I convey a correct image of you to the readers – but what is the correct image? I can only write what my own heart is saying. When I read Tagore’s reminiscences, I hear the voice of ‘Little Prince’ – you know the book written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry? It has been called ‘the fairy-tale of our era’. It says that you do not see important things with the eyes but with the heart. I do not know whether the Finnish people have had a wrong image about Tagore … Finland is between the East and West and, in addition, far away in the North. I have read that after the Nobel-prize the people in Europe had a very religious image of him, but ‘The Gardener’ has always been more popular in Finland than ‘Gitanjali’. The Finnish people are not very religious or seeking prophets, rather on the contrary. Recently there was a referendum about the question, who would be the national hero of Finland, and there were many who voted for a peasant, who, on the ice of a frozen lake, killed a catholic bishop who had come to bring Christianity to Finland almost a thousand years ago.”
“Did he win? The referendum?”
“No, the Field Marshal won; he led the Finnish army against the Soviet Union during the war, so that Finland stayed independent.”
“So here’s the poem ‘Apaghat’ again,” Buddhadeva says. “Finland bombed by the Soviet forces.”
“Yes… A couple of years ago two Finnish young women collected an anthology of erotic poems, they placed two poems from ‘Gitanjali’ in it. In an old detective story there is a sailing yacht by the name Gitanjali… But Tagore is highly respected here, anyway. People admire his cosmopolitanism, it has received attention from a very high level recently. A professor of history has spoken a lot about it. In any case, I think that the West is not a homogenous culture, with the same image of Tagore everywhere. The East is not homogenous, either.”
Buddhadeva looks confused. “A short summer? And you like short poems?”
“It is an ecological question. The Finnish people are slow… there is no sense in wasting energy in a cold climate. They are shy and do not talk much. But they like sentimental songs and love to dance tango. There are not very many of them, maybe only as many as the Santhal-people in your country. The winter is very long and dark, and that is why the summer is such an important thing. It only lasts for a moment!”
“And you would bring a wreath of summer flowers to Rabindranath! What about me?”
“If you could hear the birds singing in the lucid summer night, when the migratory birds have come back! If one of them would have dropped a feather, I would hand it to you.”
I put the book back into my bag. “Now I have taken up a lot of your time… it was so nice to meet you! Thanks again for writing this book. Remember, the beginning of June is the best time to visit Finland, that’s when the forest is most beautiful… It is not a Bengali jungle, but it has helped me to translate your poems. I will be sitting there in front of my house, with a book of poems and a writing pad in my hands. And the book is like Platero of Juan Ramón Jiménez, the donkey that carried his soul, only his soul…”
Buddhadeva smiles. “Thank you, and have a good journey!”
The main sources:
Bose, Buddhadeva: Tagore: Portrait of A Poet. Papyrus, Calcutta 1994 (First Published 1962).
Das, Sisir Kumar (Edited): The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore. Volume One: Poems. Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi 1999 (First Published 1994).
Dyson, Ketaki Kushari: In Your Blossoming Flower-Garden. Rabindranath Tagore and Victoria Ocampo. Sahitya Academi, New Delhi 1996 (First Published 1988).
Jiménez, Juan Ramón: Platero and I. Translated by William H. and Mary M. Roberts. The New American Library, New York and Toronto 1960.
Tagore, Rabindranath: I Won’t Let You Go. Selected Poems. Translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson. UBSPD, New Delhi 1992.
Tagore, Rabindranath: Selected Poems. Translated by William Radice. Penguin Books, London 1987.
Tagore, Rathindranath: On the Edges of Time. Visva-Bharati, Kolkata 2003 (First Published 1958).
The Selected Poems of Buddhadeva Bose. Translated and Introduced by Ketaki Kushari Dyson. OxfordUniversity Press, New Delhi 2003.
translated by Hannele Pohjanmies
IÄlä kutsu häntä kotiisi, uneksijaa,
IIHyväile silmilläsi värejä, jotka kareilevat
Fill your eyes with the colours that ripple
IIIAamun valon sydäntä kouristaa
Puutarhuri (The original: The Gardener, 1913). Translated by Eino Leino. Otava 1913, 1924, 1967.
Uhrilauluja (Gitanjali, 1912). Translated by Eino Leino. Kustannusosakeyhtiö Kirja 1917, reprinted by Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö 1989 (entitled ’Lauluja’).
Villilintuja (Stray Birds, 1916). Translated by Pertti Seppälä. Memfis Books 2001.
Rakkauden laulu (A Song of Love, a selection). Translated by Hannele Pohjanmies. Kirjapaja 2002.
Rakkauden lahja (Lover’s Gift, 1918). Translated by Hannele Pohjanmies. Memfis Books 2006.
Hedelmätarha (Fruit-Gathering, 1916). Translated by Hannele Pohjanmies. Memfis Books 2007.
(On the way:)
Tähtitaivaan runot (Poems, 1942). Translated by Hannele Pohjanmies. Memfis Books 2008.
Toiselle rannalle (Crossing, 1918). Translated by Hannele Pohjanmies. Kirjapaja 2009.
Haaksirikko (The Wreck, 1921). Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1922.
Koti ja maailma (The Home and the World, 1919). Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1922, 1937.
Ahnaat paadet ja muita kertomuksia (Hungry Stones and Other Stories, 1916). Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1923.
Elämäni muistoja (My Reminiscences, 1917). Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1923.
Pimeän kammion kuningas ja muita draamoja (The King of the Dark Chamber and Other Plays, 1914). Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1924.
Gora (Gora, 1924) Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1925.
Sadhana (Sadhana, 1914). Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1926, 1967.
Persoonallisuus (Personality, 1917). Translated by J. Hollo. Otava 1928.
Ihmiskunnan uskonto (The Religion of Man, 1931). Translated by Heikki Eskelinen. Biokustannus Oy 1990.
Published in Parabaas May, 2008