What did the most popular and critically acclaimed contemporary Bengali novelist think of Tagore's novels, written about a hundred years ago? Find out from this essay by Sunil Gangopadhyay, written in his inimitable style on Tagore's 50th death anniversary. This essay first appeared in the Bengali periodical Desh in 1991.
I’m reading Chokher Bali (1901; translated as 'The Eyesore', 'Binodini', 'A Grain of Sand') again after a long time! Must be at least thirty years. This is the third time I’m reading it.
I started reading Tagore’s novels at a very inappropriate age. I was in middle school at that time. During one summer vacation at my maternal uncle’s place, I found some torn pieces of Tagore’s books in a closet. In those days I had a termite-like appetite for books. I voraciously read—ate them with my eyes—whatever I could lay my hands on.
In those days, children’s books in Bengali were few and far between. Reading those books hardly took any time at all. But laying hands on the books for the adults was a strict no-no. Our elders were not as lenient as they are now. One often heard the rebukes that reading such ‘novels and plays’ was sure to corrupt our young minds. Of course, I had no desire to protect myself from ‘corruption’. In truth, growing up to be something other than a ‘good boy’ seemed quite attractive to me.
I clearly remember my very first novel by Tagore. It was Shesher Kobita (1929; lit. The last poem, translated as 'The Last Poem', ‘Farewell, My Friend’). For a thirteen-year old boy, it was not a digestible story by any means. But I read on from the very first page, enrapt in some wondrous desperation. I don’t know how much of it I understood at that time, but those words overwhelmed and intoxicated me. That was when the magic of good writing touched me for the first time. Reading every line seemed like a great new discovery. Even without understanding anything about the majesty of love, I fell in love with Labanya. She was my first lover. The end of Shesher Kobita was the beginning of my adulthood.
I used to be quite proud that I had read all the novels by Tagore. In college I would taunt anyone expressing ignorance about Gora (1909; ‘Gora’) or Ghare-baire (1916; ‘The Home and the World’). But I realized later that reading them at a very young age was not good enough and I needed to read them again as an adult. That was when I started reading them again from the beginning. This time as an adult, I was not just an enchanted reader anymore but also a discerning critic. Still, I finished my second reading with genuine admiration. I am a fond reader of Tagore. I bow to his greatness and glory, but in public, I have often sounded contemptuous about his writing. It was not being two-faced, or hypocritic. Till the sixty’s decade, there was an exaggerated adoration of Tagore amongst his followers, a tendency to make him into a God-like figure, that was quite intolerable to the young writers like me. The great writers of that time—from Suniti Kumar Chattopadhyaya to Syed Mujtaba Ali—used to say that there was nothing worthwhile reading after Rabindranath Tagore, and nothing would ever be equal to his greatness. Tagore’s was the last word. To fight this pervasive attitude, we would pooh-pooh his writings in public. Yet, we were all privately entranced by his poems, we all enjoyed his writings, but we would never place his books on our writing tables. Anytime we picked up our pens, we dismissed him from our minds.
‘Three pairs of kicks scatter Tagore’s Complete Works on the doormat.’ I had to suffer plenty of verbal ‘kicks’ after writing the above line in one of my poems. Yet, around the same time, when a contemporary prose writer was repeatedly bragging in one of our chat groups about not having read a word of Tagore or that there was no need of reading Tagore to write good prose, I was incensed enough to slap him.
I am anxious about reading Tagore’s writings after such a long time. Would I be able to read through them? I had promised myself that I would read on only if I was attracted to it. There was no use reading just for the sake of completion. I do not have that kind of patience anymore. I am not reading them casually. There is a responsibility this time. For Tagore’s 50th death anniversary, the Editor of Desh magazine has ordered me to write an essay about the acceptability and significance of Tagore’s writings in the current era. Tagore himself had imagined how his poems would be accepted by a future reader after one hundred years. That century too is about to be completed. Tagore’s wish did not remain unfulfilled. We know many readers still read his poems. Tagore had often wished that even if nothing else remained, his songs at least would stand the test of time. His songs have indeed endured. Even today, his songs continue to thrill the Bengalis (and some non-Bengalis too) all across the globe. But Tagore did not say anything about the longevity of his novels.
I have at home the seventh volume of Rabindra Rachanaboli (Complete Works of Tagore in Bengali), published by the West Bengal government. It contains six novels, in actuality, five novels, as Projapotir Nirbondho was the same as Chira Kumar Sabha (The Batchelors’ Club, 1926). Even though the government edition counted it as a novel, the Vishwa Bharati edition does not agree with it. Vishwa Bharati has published a complete compilation of all the novels by Tagore. There are 12 of them. Projapotir Nirbondho is not included amongst them.
I started from the very first novel. Bou-Thakuranir Haat (1883; The Young Queen’s Market) was written when Tagore was only twenty-two! For a twenty-two-year-old youth, to write such a novel was definitely extraordinary. And the novel too could be labelled as such but it is not worthwhile reading now. It is natural for a writer to have strong feelings about his very first novel, Tagore had it too. But the characters never grew out of their ‘doll playing’ stage. At eighty, Tagore too had commented that ‘One could take another look at this story’. In spite of starting with all good intentions, I could not progress far. Udayaditya and Basanta Ray later reappear in Tagore’s play Muktadhara (1922; The Waterfall), but in this novel they are very weak. Even the language has none of Tagore’s usual magic. One of the basic rule of prose is that the two consecutive sentences must not end with the same verb. In his first novel Tagore did not seem to be aware of it. After finishing one sentence with ‘chhutite lagilo’ (kept running), he ended the next sentence with ‘san san korite lagilo’ (kept running fast). After reading half the book with great difficulty I felt this was more for the researchers, it had no use for me.
At age twenty-six, Tagore wrote his second novel Rajarshi (1887; The Royal Sage). I still remember the bewilderment I felt after reading it the first time. Even after reading and seeing the play Bisarjan (1923; Sacrifice, stage adaptation of Rajarshi) many times, I still remember the sweet relationship of King Gobinda Manikya and the two beautiful children Hasi and Tata in the beginning of Rajarshi. Hasi’s question, ‘Why so much blood?’ still hits in my heart. The novel Rajarshi definitely carries the signature of a great writer. While describing the monk Bilwan nursing the suffering Pathans, Tagore wrote, ‘I am a monk. I have no caste. I am only a human. Who cares about castes when people are dying? When God’s creation man is asking another for love, how does the caste matter?’ It is amazing that Tagore wrote this in 1887, when our society was riddled with casteism and other superstitions. In later years Swami Vivekanada too had echoed the same sentiment.
Tagore started writing novels to satisfy the demands of the editors of the monthly magazines. Just like nowadays, when the writers rush their stories before Durga Puja publications, a few mistakes are often overlooked, serialized novels often had to be stretched to fill the spaces. Tagore too had to suffer through similar indignities. In Chokher Bali, there are mistakes due to inattention—confusion with casual and formal ‘you’s. Rajarshi has unnecessary repetitions. Tagore himself admitted that he had to stretch the story to meet the demand of the magazine. According to him, the story could have ended in the fifteenth chapter but he had to prolong it to thirty-fourth! In past, only the first seven sections of the classic Kumarsambhabam was written by Kalidasa. The rest were added on by other poets. Nowadays writers—even Tagore himself—add on to their own stories without depending on others.
In fact, after Jaisingha’s death in Rajarshi, the plot merely limps along. The descriptions of the Mogul soldiers and the fugitive Shah Suja do not match with the main plotline. Tagore never could bring out the majesty and the details of the historic eras. Bankim Chandra was much more successful in that regard. Tagore washed his hands off by briefly mentioning ‘here Shah Suja’, or ‘there Aurangzeb’ in different paragraphs. In the last two paragraphs of the novel, he abandoned even his own style and simply quoted from another book. Unthinkable way to end a novel!
From these two novels of his early adulthood Tagore perhaps realized that historical plots were not his cup of tea. Thus, none of his later novels dealt with historic periods.
Yet, with or without remote histories, all literature has to deal with the contemporary history. Later on, these descriptions provide the sources of historic studies. In none of his novels Tagore paid much attention to these background details. When exactly did the events take place, how did the characters relate to the events in the society or the country, such questions never bothered him. One cannot even claim that Tagore deliberately kept his plot untouched by such background details as he wanted his story to be for all times and all ages. In Tagore’s own language one could say, ‘Even to reach eternity, one must sail in a contemporary raft.’ Otherwise the journey becomes aimless and blurred. Except for the mentions of the white soldiers in one or two places in Chokher Bali, the reader has no clue who the rulers of the country were at that time, whether the society was prosperous or corrupt or what was the status of law and order in the society. Except for the love crisis, the reader gets no clue about any other crises occurring at that time.
The writer who is most forgetful in his personal life, who never keeps track of what is going on in his own family, who is most indifferent even if a brick falls off his roof, that writer, when he creates a family or a group or even a single person in his stories, has to be fully aware of the social and economic realities of his characters. If the schoolmaster in his story has three daughters, he must be indebted about their marriages. If he has three sons, he must be worried about their education. The writer must inform the readers about the earnings of the schoolmaster or whether he got mired in bank loans or in the pawn shops. All this must be determined by the literary creator of the characters. God may be indifferent to some of His children but the writers have no such excuse for the characters they create. Even slight inconsistencies in the ages, livelihoods or relationships of the characters would cause disharmony. Good literature does not tolerate it. Poets can be like Gods but the novelists must be more worldly. Of course, some novelists like Kafka and Camus have brought a different style of writing but that came much later. Tagore, however, had maintained his poet-like nonchalance in his novels too.
In the novel Chokher Bali, we first come across two friends, Mahendra and Bihari and a mysterious lady, Binodini. The stories of two friends recur in many of Tagore’s writings. Even though they are friends, one of them usually has a strong personality and the other is more of a follower or disciple of the first. One lives with his parents, whereas the other lives alone and has no parent. This Mahendra-Bihari pair with slight transformation appears as Yogendra-Ramesh in Noukadubi (The Wreck), Gora-Binoy in Gora, Nikhilesh-Sandip in Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) or Shachish-Shreebilas in Chaturanga (1916; Quartet). All are of similar type. In Chokher Bali, Tagore does not mention about any jobs or earnings of these two friends, both appear well to do, they rent houses wherever they please, go out on vacations whenever they want, they always seem to have enough servants, cooks and housekeepers around them. They are generous in spending money but we get no clue where that money comes from. The characters too show no such concerns. Earlier, we learn that they are students of medicine, Bihari seems to be a student of engineering too. Yet their conversations show no hint of their trainings, nor do they show any eagerness to apply their knowledges, let alone earning a living in their professions. Such realities are totally absent from their conversations.
Critics often say that Chokher Bali is the very first psychological novel in Bengali literature. This is not an original statement, Tagore himself had hinted about it. He claimed that the writing style of Chokher Bali is new and unique, here the internal conflict of the characters was more important than the descriptions of the background events. This was a new literature style. Are we readers obligated to accept whatever the writer claims about his creation?
According to Tagore’s own admission, (as given in the preface of the first edition of his collected works) he started writing Chokher Bali after much deliberation, keeping Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in mind. Tagore’s friend Shreeshachandra published it in Bangadarshan magazine’s new division, adding Tagore’s name to it. He was just forty years old. Bankim was writing one novel after another in the main edition of Bangadarshan. The editor of the new division also had to do a similar act. Of course, there was a tacit challenge in it. When Tagore started his serialized Chokher Bali, his wish was to surpass Bankim’s Bishabrikkha (Poison Tree). Bankim’s writing was full of external events. Tagore did not try that. He focused on the internal conflicts of the three love-smitten characters.
At forty years of age, Tagore was quite mature as a novelist. He had already written many short stories and gained experience. He was aware of the modern writing styles in the world literature. Chokher Bali was his ambitious creation.
While reading this third novel of Tagore, I had to go to Delhi for some reason. From there while roaming in Rajasthan by train or staying in guesthouses, whenever I found some time, I immersed myself in Tagore’s writings. Friends and acquaintances stared at me in surprise. Many asked me what I was up to. I just smiled without answering. And went back to Chokher Bali as soon as the guests left. Occasionally I asked myself if I really needed to read the entire novel, if I was really enjoying it, whether the book really drew me in. Faint answers, no, I wasn’t enjoying it, perhaps I didn’t need to read the whole book. I was turning the pages to see how many were left. At the end of every chapter I hoped this was the end before finding another unnecessary chapter beginning. Did Tagore extend it just to fill the space as a serialized novel for a monthly magazine? It would have been better as a smaller sized publication like those in the Puja special editions.
Chokher Bali’s main success is the character Binodini. The other two male characters could be made responsible for many of its failures. A blend of greed and purity, grace and cruelty, Binodini is definitely a unique character in Bengali literature. Young, beautiful and literate, this widowed woman openly showed the keen hunger of her mind as well as in her body. She felt cheated by life and sometimes she flared up in revenge but her innate purity always stopped her from mindless destruction. Compared to her, the two male admirers appeared useless. They ran around aimlessly without reaching anywhere. Binodini played them like puppets on a string. The two men had no original thought or action, not even raising their hands to touch their noses!
In short, even reading till the end, the book was not satisfactory. Tagore stuck his two puppets to their respective places on the wall and exiled the ash-covered fiery Binodini to Kashi. At the end when Mahendra suddenly stoops to touch Binodini’s feet, it only tastes sour to the reader. This does not feel like a ‘new style of literature’ at all.
Within the next two years Tagore finished his next novel Noukadubi (1906; 'The Wreck'). This novel is not as reputed. Many critics think that after Chokher Bali, Tagore fell back a few steps to write this simple story. Even though I had read it before, I remembered very little of it. If I remembered Rajarshi and Chokher Bali yet could not recall Noukadubi, perhaps it was not worthwhile remembering. But once I started, I did enjoy the story. The hero Ramesh soon appeared familiar. He was good looking, well educated, well to do, lived in a rented house in Calcutta. Just like Bihari of Chokher Bali or Binoy in Gora. Tagore never liked to mention the parents of his main characters. Either he killed them quickly or kept them ill throughout of some mysterious malady that was never explained. Here too, he briefly introduced Ramesh’s father and made him disappear. Unencumbered, Ramesh jumped in the romantic entanglements with his two ladies. Ramesh’s neighbor and classmate Jogendra was a Brahmo boy with a smart and pretty sister Hemnalini. Eighty or ninety years ago, pre-marital love affairs could only occur with Brahmo girls as they were the only ones who could openly meet with men. Thus, it was useful to have a Brahmo family in the story. When Ramesh and Hemnalini had almost fallen in love with each other, Ramesh’s father appeared and almost dragged his son by the ear to marry him off to a little girl from the village. The sinking of the boats happened right after this.
Of course, there is some inconsistency here. Ramesh did not have a mother; the bride did not have a father. In those days, it would have been unthinkable for the bride’s mother to leave right away with the new couple for their in-laws’ place. But, for the sake of the story, the writer invoked a storm and obliterated Ramesh’s father, mother-in-law and all other relatives and friends by sinking all the boats. Only the hero and his new bride survived clinging to a sand bar. After a hasty wedding, the bride and groom hardly knew each other. Three months after returning to Calcutta, Ramesh discovered that the young bride was not his but somebody else’s wife! The girl herself was not aware of it either. She considered Ramesh as her husband and already devoted her heart to him. Ramesh could not keep her, nor abandon her. At last, he decided to put her in a boarding school and went back to having tea at Hemnalini’s place. This novel describes at least twenty-five various tea-settings and tea-drinking. Must be a record in world literature! The love affair of Ramesh and Hemnalini reached the stage of marriage proposal. On the other hand, the young bride Kamala was not going to stay in school for ever. She was coming home for the summer vacation.
So far there is a nice tension in the story. We all know that Tagore’s heroes are never cheaters or swindlers. Ramesh would never lie to Hemnalini to marry her but what would he do with the helpless Kamala? Even though polygamy was common in those days, Tagore never described it in any of his novels. Hemnalini’s father Annada-babu was a pure Brahmo and a straightforward man. He liked and trusted Ramesh very much. Thus, when the story was becoming quite interesting, Ramesh and Kamala left Calcutta for Gazipur. Kamala had just become a woman but Ramesh never shared a bed with her. On the other end, a minor villain named Akshay started causing trouble at Hemnalini’s house. When the story was really getting interesting, a doctor named Nalinaksha appeared. Needless to say, he too is well qualified and knowledgeable in medicine as well as Sanskrit and literature. He is so devoted to his Hindu mother that he did not even take tea in a Brahmo house. Yet, he had no problem being attracted to Brahmo Hemnalini. At this point, as soon as we come to know that this Nalinaksha is Kamala’s husband, lost in the same storm from another boat, we lose all interest in this overly dramatic story. We know at the end that Ramesh and Hemnalini and Nalinaksha and Kamala will get together, but only after a lot of unbelievable events and hide-and-seek between the four players taking up many pages in between. And it was only a game, nothing more than that. That is why this story makes no impression in one’s mind.
Tagore did not have any ambition regarding Noukadubi. He wrote later that the parts of the stories with ‘poetic expressions in the descriptions and sufferings’ would easily identify him as the writer. It is true. He is indeed a superb craftsman of words, but a weak one as a story teller.
I finished Noukadubi in Jaisalmir, at the other end of Rajasthan. On the return train, I was hesitating whether to start the next novel Gora (1909; lit. fair skinned; ‘Gora’). My last experience of reading Gora was not pleasant. I stumbled over those long speeches. There were no lighter moments, no fun or jokes in such a large novel. As a rule, reading in train ought to be lightweight. Should I skip Gora and take up a lighter novel? But I decided to stick to Gora. I was reading the novels chronologically, and that would also help me understand the evolution of Tagore’s style of writing.
I had to wait in Delhi station for three hours before catching the train to Calcutta. In the waiting room I started on Gora. And this time I kept on reading without stumbling anywhere. Those long speeches created no hurdles. Did I change so much? Is that what happens with aging? I do read essays but essay-type novels had never attracted me before.
Ramananda Chattopadhyay had sent three hundred rupees to Tagore and requested him to write a story in Prabasi. Tagore did not write any story but spent long two and half years in writing Gora and sending monthly installments as a serialized novel. Many think that only modern writers have to write to earn a living, Tagore too wrote many times to earn money and meet the editors’ demands. To one editor—probably Manilal Gangopadhyay—he once wrote to increase his payment from eighty to one hundred rupees for a short story. I would be curious to know if he got only three hundred rupees or more for Gora. Perhaps Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay’s able successor Prasanta Kumar Pal may throw some light on this subject.
As if following Noukadubi, we see Binoy (a character similar to Ramesh) in Gora. He was educated, well to do and lived alone in a rental house in Calcutta. He had no parents alive. Some uncle was mentioned once or twice but was never seen. A Brahmo family lived near his house. Paresh-babu is quite similar to Noukadubi’s Annada-babu. Although Annada-babu was a rough sketch, Paresh-babu was painted in full color. He had a formidable wife and four daughters. Out of these four, Lalita and Sucharita were elevated in the roles of the heroines, the other two were left neglected. Labanya was older than Lalita but the poor girl was not even mentioned during all the conflicts regarding Lalita’s wedding. Tagore could never manage too many characters. Even in a large novel like Gora, there were very few significant characters. Much of the story dealt with Hindu vs. Brahmo philosophical arguments but Panu-babu, who represented the Brahmos, was not portrayed strongly. As an opponent of the staunch Hindu Gora, he too should have had strong personality and idealism. Although Paresh-babu, in his open mindedness, did try to unite the Brahmos and the Hindus.
The character of Gora is quite novel and unprecedented, so is his mother Anandamoyi. Right in the beginning of the novel, we come to know that Gora was not Anandamoyi’s biological son. He was a white, European boy adopted by this Brahmin Hindu family. Anandamoyi was more than a mother to him. Gora did not know his past history. He was born at the time of Sepoy Mutiny, so we can date this story to the last quarter of the Nineteenth century. At that time only those born as Hindus were accepted as Hindus. So, we see that all Gora’s bragging about Hinduism were empty. All his long speeches were useless arguments. At some time his true history would be exposed. Tagore maintained that dramatic tension for a long time.
I enjoyed reading Gora because all those thoughts and debates about religions are still very contemporary and pertinent. Gora strongly supported the greatness of Hinduism, even with its castes and superstitions. Tagore presented his arguments so logically that when Gora does realize his self at the end, the readers too wake up to the truth. Gora is Tagore’s most significant writing because its perspectives are not limited but encompass the entire nation. The patriotism here is not just a loud demand. It is a restatement of the self-respect of every Indian. Before Gora, Bengali literature had no such portrayal of a national perspective.
Even more surprising than Gora is his mother Anandamoyi. She is not quite a real woman but one drawn in bright and strong color of idealism. Flooding such a large novel with long speeches, Tagore shows excellent self-control in the last chapter where Gora learns of his past in a quietly emotional way and Anandamoyi’s briefest response moves us to tears. After reading the last page I had to sit still for some time, then wipe my tears and go for a walk outside.
Gora and Ghare Baire are the best-known novels by Tagore. In between, he also wrote Chaturanga. But I never liked Chaturanga. I felt it was haphazard and inattentive. Initially, the character of the elder uncle is quite startling. This is the first time Tagore introduced an atheist whose religion is humanism, above all other religions. That is why he does not show repugnance to a prostitute and can nurse an untouchable tanner. He even tried to marry his nephew to the prostitute. But Tagore could not go far even with all these revolutionary ideas. He made the prostitute commit suicide and even killed off the atheist uncle summarily. The rest of the story is insignificant, mere copy or repetition of Chokher Bali. Again we see two friends Shachin and Shreebilas, one with strong personality and other quiet and insipid. Between them is a widowed but spirited woman Damini who also resemble Binodini. There is another irrelevant character Lilananda Swami who adds nothing original or important.
Ghare Baire is my favorite novel. I had read it before going to see it being staged by Shambhu Mitra. I read it again before seeing the movie directed by Satyajit Ray. That is why I remember this novel clearly. I cannot support the political views in the book but one has to be enchanted with the beauty of the writing. But even amidst that enchantment a few questions occur. Like in other novels, here too we see two male friends, Nikhilesh and Sandip, but why is the writer so partial to Nikhilesh? Why does he have to make the revolutionary Sandip also rapacious and selfish? If the revolutionary lover Sandip was made to be a pure idealist, how would he have fared against Nikhilesh? Would Bimala still suffer so easily from self-reproach or would she face a more complicated love triangle? Of course, Tagore did not paint his villain as coarsely as they do in the movies and theaters. His Sandip did have some scruples. He was not a mere pleasure-seeker. He had built up a strong philosophy of destruction. Bimala too is a bright gem in Tagore’s literature. She makes this novel so readable.
After Ghare Baire, Tagore did not write any novel for a long period of twelve years.
The seventh volume of Tagore’s collection ends with Gora. By then I had gotten hooked to Tagore’s novels. I wanted to read them all, but where to find them?
After coming back from Delhi, I visited Tripura for a few days. This was the land of the novel Rajarshi. I had already read Rajarshi. In Tripura I finished Gora. After returning to Calcutta, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Within a few days I left for Shantiniketan. There I came to know that Vishwa Bharati had published the entire collection of Tagore’s novels. I was not aware of it. I bought one copy containing all the novels, for Rs. 140, from the bookstore in Shantiniketan.
But why did Tagore stay away from writing novels for twelve years? I would very much like to know. Did he become too busy with his new global fame after receiving the Nobel prize? Perhaps he had to travel a lot and didn’t get a chance to write something large? Or the editors could not badger him like before? I really wanted to know. But there was no biography of Tagore in my possession. I could have searched in the library but I wasn’t into research, just into enjoying the novels. Research will not be done by me in this lifetime. It would have to wait for more qualified scholars.
I knew there were many criticisms after publication of Ghare Baire. Was Tagore in a huff because of that? In answering to one magazine’s criticism, he wrote, ‘Many do not like my writing. They usually try to tell me in a language which I do not understand.’
After twelve years, he wrote the next novel Jogajog (1929; lit. Liaisons, translated as 'Liasions', The Relationships', 'Nexus'). The novel was initially titled Tin Purush (Three Generations). I was amused to learn the story behind this name-changing. The editor of Bichitra magazine had made Tagore promise him a novel. But Tagore had not even started to write. The worried editor requested just the title of the novel for his advertisement; the actual writing could come later. In a hurry, Tagore named it Tin Purush and got rid of the messenger. Writing a title even before starting the novel? This sort of thing happened only to us small-time writers. Even Tagore had to do it?
After committing to a title, Tagore got himself in some problem. After writing two installments, he changed the title to Jogajog. To keep the original title, he would have had to write a much longer saga and he was not ready for that. This was, of course, a loss for Bengali literature. In my opinion, the title Tin Purush is quite pertinent to the story of Jogajog too. While reading the last page I had to exclaim, “What? No more?” How could the novel end here? A dramatic conflict was just reaching its peak and suddenly the book ended! Tagore really cheated us here.
Jogajog starts like this, ‘Today is 7th Asharh. Abinash Ghoshal’s birthday. Today he turns thirty-two. From early morning, bouquets of flowers and congratulatory telegrams are arriving.’ This is how the story starts. I have asked people who had read the book two or three times, ‘Can you tell me who is this Abinash Ghoshal?’ Nobody could answer. I asked again, ‘This is the person who starts the novel. What is his role in the story of Jogajog? How is he connected?’ They all scratched their heads, truly, nobody even noticed. How could they? There is no mention of Abinash Ghoshal in the entire novel. The person who starts the story is absent in the rest. Abinash Ghoshal is indeed Tagore’s unwritten third generation.
However, whatever else Tagore wrote in Jogajog is formidable indeed. It was very different from all others. The topic was not religion, nor patriotism. This time the story had a more modern theme—economic conflict. It was about the fall of the old-rich generation of landowners and rise of the new-rich businessmen. This time there were no two friends, but two competitors, rivals Bipradas and Madhusudan. Of course, the boastful, avaricious, arrogant Madhusudan would be the winner. Time was on his side. Yet, Tagore’s sympathy was towards Bipradas. He was not only the declining generation but also the last representative of the vanishing aristocracy. In him, we get a glimpse of Nikhilesh from Ghare Baire. The landowner could have been exploiter, tyrannical and lecherous but as an aristocrat he belonged to a higher class and status. He was refined, generous and a connoisseur of arts and other finer things in life. Defeat of such a qualified man is imbued with a tragic majesty. Bengalis publicly mourn them. At one time, Tagore’s grandfather Dwarakanath Tagore was the second richest businessman in India. Within a couple of generations the Tagore family managed to do away with the business and focused on religion, arts and culture. The way Tagore portrayed Madhusudan, the readers come away believing that all successful businessmen are cruel, harsh, heartless and totally devoid of any artistic or cultural sense. Additionally Tagore even hinted at Madhusudan’s genetic inferiority. This was not fair. No writer should blame genetic or familial problems of any character. Here perhaps we glimpse Tagore’s own landowner biases. In spite of all this, Madhusudan does come up as a strong character, made with real flesh and blood. Between Bipradas and Madhusudan stands Kumu. An ageless, luminous beauty. Even Madhusudan felt weak, again and again, in front of her. Her unwelcome pregnancy delivers a gut punch to the readers’ sensibilities, although it was an undeniable reality. As the novel suddenly ends here, a strong sense of dissatisfaction lingers in our minds.
Already at the time of writing Jogajog, the post-Tagore era had started in Bengali literature. Young writers were noisily claiming to begin new rules and styles in poetry and prose. Tagore wanted to have some fun with them, and masquerading as an anti-Tagore modern writer, he wrote down Shesher Kobita (The last poem). With this book he proved how ‘modern’, how youthful his pen could still be. Shesher Kobita is still fresh and enjoyable today. One could almost read it up in one sitting. Only the poems here have not become modern.
After Ghare Baire—not counting the incomplete Jogajog—Tagore did not write any other full-size novel. What he wrote could be called in modern parlance ‘novel-like long stories’. He started Dui Bon (Two sisters) with a theory that women are of two types. One type is predominantly mother and another is lover. As a theory, it is nothing new. A man needs both the types in his life. The story in Dui Bon basically tries to prove this theory. This story is not at all satisfying. At the end Sharmila miraculously gets cured by taking some roots and herbs from a hermit returning from the Himalayas, and the two sisters separate. This clearly shows, that for the sake of maintaining the societal norms, Tagore did not dare take the story any further. Tagore himself realized this and started writing another novel Malancha (1934; 'The Garden') in the same theme. Instead of regarding it as a separate book, one could consider Malancha as an improved edition of Dui Bon (1933; 'Two Sisters'). Here Neeraja is chronically ill from the beginning. She will never recover. Sarala has come indispensably in the life of Aditya, Neeraja’s husband. She wants to occupy the entire garden. Here Tagore did not evade the harsh truth. His description of the dangerous envy of a dying wife resonates loudly in one’s mind. Arts here cannot ignore the forceful reality, Neeraja’s ‘chemise-clad, pale, gaunt image’ becomes immortal in literature.
Char Adhyay (1934; 'Four Chapters') has been my favorite from my teen age years. Once I had even memorized it by pages after page. This time I tried to test myself if I still remembered those passages. Yes, I do recall some of it, ‘Your voice startled my whole being, that note struck my heart like a sudden flash of light; as if a glorious bird swooped from the sky and snatched away my forever.’ ‘You have the infallible power to make me forget, otherwise I would be embarrassed for forgetting. I will admit a thousand times that you can make me forget. If I did not forget, I would doubt my manhood.’ ‘I have adorned your slim frame with my words, you are my spreading, twining vine, you are the limits of my joy and sorrow. There is an invisible shroud around me, shroud of words, they come down from the literary heaven and keep away the crowd.’
The novel Char Adhyay too created much commotion. Tagore could never completely support the armed resistance movement; here he repudiated those actions. In spite of their mistakes and ignorance, I cannot accept this trivialization of the sacrifice of so many fiery youths. I do not think Tagore even had a clear understanding of their activities, because the descriptions of the tea shop or the secret hidden corner are rather amateurish. The edition I read as a teen ager had a preface describing the defeat of Brahmabandhab Upadhay, a staunch supporter of the armed resistance. Even at that age, I did not like it. Later many critics questioned its historic veracity and the preface was dropped from the later editions.
Anyway, Tagore said again and again that Char Adhyay should be considered only as Ela and Antu’s love story and not pay too much attention to the background. This time I did just that. I have not read such intense dialog of love anywhere in Bengali literature. No modern writer has yet surpassed such language.
After finishing Char Adhayay I felt ‘This is it? No more?’. Reading twelve novels continuously had kept me in a trance. I kept wondering why Tagore did not write any more novels after Char Adhyay.
In the first two novels, Tagore’s language had not yet matured in the typical style of his later years.
In the third novel, Chokher Bali, the language was too ordinary, as if Tagore deliberately kept it plain in contrast to Bankim’s serious-sounding, overly ornamented writing style. The ordinariness occasionally did shine in clear light but in other places became plainly descriptive. He kept the formal Bengali style omitting the Sanskrit words. But the formal style was maintained in the verbs in dialogs too. ‘I bow at your feet, tear up those letters’, sentence sounds close to colloquial, but the verb ‘tear up’ is still ‘chhniriya’, not yet ‘chhnire’. After Noukadubi, in Gora the dialogs became fully colloquial. But surprisingly, later, in Chaturanga, Tagore again went back to the formal style. There is no explanation of such linguistic retreat. After this, under Pramatha Chowdhury’s influence, Tagore completely gave up formal Bengali. Ghare Baire was first published in totally colloquial Bengali, in Sabuj Patra magazine. All of Tagore’s novels are heavy in dialogs. And these used to be long in the earlier novels. Towards the end, in Char Adhyay and Shesher Kobita, the dialogs are short throughout and much less descriptive.
In his long life, Tagore wrote only twelve novels. It was not as if he wrote each with great care or much thought or each with a new topic. He copied himself again and again, brought back the same characters with minor changes. Tagore is incomparable in his short stories, but not so in his novels. He was a poet. He did not have the patience of writing pages after long pages of prose. Many of his novels are rushed at the end. In Rajarshi, he did not even write the end but finished the job by quoting from another source. In Chokher Bali, after the long back and forth conflict, Binodini’s future was decided very summarily at the end. Gora’s ending too was short but adequate. In Chaturanga, Tagore killed off many characters in the end, like Hamlet, but why did he suddenly get busy to kill Damini too? Damini was quite hale and hearty, but suddenly we were told that she had some heart condition and in next ten lines, Tagore killed her off and ended the novel. Even the ending of Ghare Baire, in my opinion, is rather like getting rid of a burden. Nikhilesh was injured. And Amulya? There is not even a complete sentence about his condition. ‘He was shot in the chest, he was done.’ Is this the last line of such a philosophy-heavy novel? Was Tagore relieved by writing ‘He was done.’ and thought ‘Thank goodness, the novel is over.’? As far as Jogajog, many critics believe it to be incomplete, Char Adhyay too demands a few more pages in the end. Besides, why do all the novels have to end with someone’s death?
Another funny thing, yes, it is rather funny, is that most couples in Tagore’s novels are childless. Asha-Mahendra in Chokher Bali are childless, Gora’s Anandamoyi was childless, even though there was a son from her husband’s previous marriage. In Ghare-Baire, Nikhilesh-Bimala are childless, as are the couples in Dui Bon and Malancha. In Chaturanga, Shreebilas weds Damini, spends two springs, but had no child or conjugal love. Tagore himself belonged to a large family in Jorasanko, why was he so keen on childlessness? One wonders.
Previously, I had read the novels just for reading pleasure, this time I added the perspective of a critic. But basically I am not a critic, I am a lover of words. Now I remain busy with many obligations. I never thought I would be able to read all twelve novels in one go. But I carried the books everywhere, Calcutta, Delhi, Rajasthan, Shantiniketan. In some places there were no newspapers. I read the books before falling asleep at night and continued reading them upon waking up in the morning. In some places I got up and walked away from a meeting, just to be able to read a few more pages of an unfinished novel. I knew all the stories, still I never skipped a single page. I read them for my own personal pleasure, being genuinely attracted to the stories. While reading in Shantiniketan, I would stare outside sometimes and wonder if Tagore walked along this street or sat in that corner writing down the chapters. His liberal humanism shines strongly from each page. Reading all together, I feel that he was primarily a romantic, and an artist of love. Both the pain and pleasure of love are widely evident in his writing. But he also had a universal perspective. He wanted a secular India with dignity and self-respect for every person. He had written about the Muslims in many of his novels. In Gora, Ghare Baire and Chaturanga he tried to unite the humanity in a bond of easy friendship. We are his countrymen. But we, the latest generation, have not followed his wishes, did not accept his philosophy. Thus the casteism, communal violence and all kinds of meanness and envy have still remained in our society. Still, reading his novels provides a few moments of self-realization. One does not feel like reading anything else for some time.
Published in Parabaas May 7, 2020.
Translated by Chhanda Chattopadhyay Bewtra.
Illustrated by Hridi Kundu.