Let him speak in his own voice

Three books by Uma Das Gupta

Ana Jelnikar

A Difficult Friendship: Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore, 1913-1940, edited by Uma Das Gupta;  New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003; Pp 243; ISBN: 019566312-8

Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography, by Uma Das Gupta; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004; Pp xii+105; ISBN: 019566980-0

Rabindranath Tagore: my life in my words, selected and edited with an introduction by Uma Das Gupta; New Delhi: Penguin Viking, 2006; Pp xx+395; ISBN: 0-67-099916-4

At a time when interest in Rabindranath Tagore, also in the non-English speaking West, may be said to be entering a new phase, with the promise of a wider readership both inside and outside academic circles, all three of Uma Das Gupta’s books, published in impressive succession of each other, carry a weighty significance. From the point of view of contemporary global history too, which numerous scholars across the board of humanities have rightly perceived as having entered a new cycle of imperialism, Tagore’s idea(l)s offer much scope for important reappraisal. The three books by Uma Das Gupta on Tagore, two of which are biographies and the third an edited collection of letters, are an important contribution in this direction.



 Biography is an art in itself. Not unlike literary translation, it requires its author to be able to read as a critic and write as a writer. Uma Das Gupta succeeds on both counts. Her works dealing with the life of the Bengali polymath are an outcome of years of careful research and extensive reading. While in her short biography of Tagore, her voice is clearly in the forefront, in Rabindranath Tagore: my life in my words, she is, as it were, a hidden presence. Her style is engaging, achieving a fine balance which satisfies the general reader and specialist alike. Moreover, her longstanding involvement with Santiniketan, going back to her parents’ close association with Tagore, gives her writing an intimacy that brings the reader even closer to the subject.


For a Tagore biography to succeed, however, there is yet another requirement. It is suggested by Tagore’s own scepticism towards retelling life’s events as they supposedly really happened. Even in the case of autobiography, they are of necessity artistic recreations, in Tagore’s case captivatingly so. A sensitive biographer is therefore urged to adopt an approach that is concerned less with the chronicling of external events than with elaborating ideas which informed the artist’s long and creative life. Uma Das Gupta clearly takes this as her guideline in organising the contents of both the biographies, a point she makes in her Introduction to Rabindranath Tagore: my life in my words: “In the final analysis, [Tagore’s] life history is mainly a biography of ideas and artistic creations.” Ideas, in Tagore’s world, take precedence over life’s happenings, though his life was astoundingly rich in both. 


The main ideas explored in Rabindranath Tagore; A Biography are those of the poet as an educator and rural reformer and not so much as a writer and poet. This choice seems in part pragmatic, dictated by the author’s own area of expertise (her knowledge of the history of Tagore’s institution of Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan). At the same time it is motivated by presenting the lesser covered sides of Tagore and his many concerns[1]. Finally, there were the constraints imposed by the OUP biographies series, with its objective that the life histories of men and women who contributed towards building modern India be short.


Thus in just over a hundred pages of ten concisely written chapters, packed with information (sometimes gleaned also from oral sources), the life of Tagore is portrayed through a series of interrelated themes, such as nationalism, internationalism, lessons from India’s history, the need for an alternative, world-encompassing education, a search for self-esteem, to mention the main ones. What we are presented with, is, in Uma Das Gupta’s formulation, “an indefatigable man of action”: a founder of a school and a university, a pioneer in rural reconstruction work, an untiring globe-trotter out on a mission, in other words a man struggling every step of the way to make a difference in the lives of his countrymen and “bring change”, in what small way he could, “to an unequal and unjust world”. Oftentimes against great odds and little understanding both at home and abroad, Tagore is seen to emerge as what another eminent scholar William Radice has termed a “one-man counter-culture”.


If Uma Das Gupta’s biography extends the portrayal of Tagore beyond the common perception of him as a poet and writer – and the subject of Tagore’s creative writing is dealt within fewer than ten pages – there is certain poetic justice in that she closes the biography with a poem. The social consciousness in Tagore was never separate from his artistic consciousness; the man of action was never far from the contemplative man. The ethical source from which both drew was essentially the same: “a universal humanist outlook”. This was the imaginative ideal, the biography makes clear, in terms of which Rabindranath was ceaselessly moving, with many twists and turns on the way, from occasionally quite traditionalist beginnings, but over the years through ever-widening sympathies and sensibilities as both a man and poet.


Closing the biography with a poem which bespeaks a strong a sense of remoteness, even failure, in the face of the world’s vast impenetrable demands, serves also another point. It shows Tagore at his most vulnerable and human. The poem’s selection seems almost strategic in that it resists the temptation for a larger-than-life portrayal of the poet, as it also importantly suggests a point of contact between him and our own individual lives. “I believe that if we can inwardly relate to this poem”, says Uma Das Gupta, “we shall find he is there as a friend in our lives helping us to live with honesty in our weaknesses and our strengths.” That is surely the best way to keep Tagore’s legacy meaningful and alive.


One of the many strengths of this short biography is the wide assortment of citations, sourced from Tagore’s own writings but also from those of others, with which Uma Das Gupta weaves the threads of the main body of her text into a tight and multicoloured fabric. Each and every chapter is preceded by at least two pithy quotations, which help set the tone and drive her point home. It seems she misses no opportunity to give Tagore – or anyone else deserving, for that matter – a chance to speak. Even her decision to confine herself to selecting letters for the Appendix from the body of his letters written in English is guided by her desire “to represent him in his own words”. Language too is no barrier: where English translation is unavailable or inadequate, she resorts to her own translation skills and opens another chink for the non-Bengali readers to appreciate Tagore more fully.


All these skills come to bear more fully in her Rabindranath Tagore: my life in my words, a book of almost four hundred pages. Although this project was initiated by Penguin books and not the author herself (she was invited to “write” Tagore’s autobiography), it feels as though it had grown organically from her shorter biography. The sources she draws on and translates from are vast and impressive. She had not only plumbed the Rabindra Bhavana archives in Santiniketan but also the Department of Western Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library (University of Oxford) and Senate House Library (London) for the papers of Tagore’s various English correspondents. To know that only the Santiniketan archives house close to six thousand letters is to get a sense of the Herculean task she undertook.


There are as many as 117 entries translated by her from the original Bengali, nearly all of which appear here for the first time in English. Only a few of the letters to his wife and children had previously appeared in Krishna Dutta’s and Andrew Robinson’s translation in their Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore. Those who do not read Bengali, but love Tagore and want to access as much of his writing as possible will be extremely pleased by this turnout. In the meantime, another important autobiographical work, Ātmaparichay, which Uma Das Gupta draws on and translates from, has also appeared for the first time in a full English translation.


Having more than one translation at hand to draw on is always useful. It gives a fuller, and more contested, picture of what for non-Bengali speakers must remain an unattainable original. The site of contestation opened up by the two different translations of some of Tagore’s letters to his family, particularly to his wife, is indeed interesting.  It raises questions that seem to divide opinion among Bengalis to this day. Consider this example from one of the letters Tagore wrote to Mrinalini Devi. In Uma Das Gupta’s translation, the passage reads:


Please don’t work any harder for my happiness. Your love is enough. But it would be very nice if you and I could work together and think together with one mind. I know that cannot always happen even if we wish it […] I don’t wish to leave you out of anything. Everyone has the right to do things their own way, as they would like to. It may not be possible for you to agree with my wishes and inclinations every time – I would not worry about it. It is good enough if you spare me sadness wherever possible, and sweeten my life the way you do with your love (emphasis mine).


While in Dutta and Robinson, the same passage is rendered as:


To make me happy you need not try very hard – your sincere love is enough. Of course, if you and I could be united in everything we do and think, that would be best – but one cannot will such things […] I do not want to leave you behind in anything – but at the same time I am afraid of forcing you. Each of us has his own separate taste, inclination and ability. You do not possess the power to make your own nature correspond with my wishes and inclinations. Therefore, instead of torturing yourself about it, if you sweeten my life with your love and care, and try to protect me from unnecessary pain, your efforts will be precious to me (my emphasis).


Every translation is inevitably also an act of interpretation, but the two interpretations emerging from the above passages are pulling in two quite different directions. Telling your wife how much you value her love, hoping to transcend all separation and merge in both thought and action, while realizing that is unattainable, is quite different from telling you wife that she is incapable (you do not posses the power) of moulding herself to your expectations, so she need not torture herself about it, for inevitably she will be left behind, something you deeply regret. The interpretative thrust that guides Dutta and Robinson rests on their conviction that “while Rabindranath was certainly affectionate towards [Mrinalini], his feelings did not seem to have had the depth of genuine companionship”. Elsewhere in their introduction the finality of their verdict is even more disparaging: “Rabindranath’s simple affection for his young wife Mrinalini, and her lack of sophistication, are clear from this letter, written on board ship to Europe”.


In contrast, Uma Das Gupta’s reading evokes an altogether softer, more intimate, at times deeply touching, voice. “His letters tell us how closely he communicated with her, how much he wanted his family near him”.  If one interpretation places Tagore’s young family “at the centre of his life”, the other sees his family to have been an increasingly subordinate part of “the greater cause to which he felt his life was dedicated”. Inadvertently, as with all translated texts, we find ourselves pondering how much of what we are reading is the actual voice of Tagore and how much the voice of the translator. Where do the two successfully converge and where do they pull apart? The greatest challenge of any translation is in getting the author’s voice to come across as authentically as possible in another language, and to resist the temptation of imposing one’s own. It is an exercise in humility as much as in linguistic aptitude. Through his own trials as a translator of his own writings, Tagore came to understand the vital importance, as well as the difficulty, of achieving both.


Translation is clearly a sensitive issue. In the appositely titled A Difficult Friendship; Letters of Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore 1913 – 1940 it was the very question of translation that first drove a wedge between Tagore and the ex-Methodist missionary, historian, novelist and poet, who was also his first serious Western biographer. With its overt criticism of Tagore, Thompson’s second biography brought their friendship to a near breaking point. Whether that criticism was justified is an issue that still animates discussion in “Tagore circles”.


Edward Thompson (18861967) was born of Wesleyan Methodist missionary parents and spent his first six years in India. He was then taken to England by his parents, only to return at the age of 24, taking up a teaching post at Bankura College in southern Bengal. He learned Bengali well enough to be able to read and appreciate Tagore in the original. Entering Tagore’s life at the crucial juncture of the poet receiving the Nobel Prize, when having English translations became a matter of increased urgency, Thompson, being a creative writer himself, was drawn into the intricate web of Tagore’s many literary collaborators and associates.


He was a zealous participant, sometimes over-zealous, and Tagore, having risen in stature overnight and suddenly pulled into the vortex of public life, did not find it easy to cope with Thompson’s eagerness to assist him. “When men thickly surround me and clamour for their dues”, he wrote to Thompson in what must have been more than a subtle attempt to ward him off, “they do not get my best”. Indeed, in this exchange Tagore reveals a side to his character that those who desire to see him as superhuman would prefer to ignore. There was certainly something of a prima donna in the way he would engage Thompson when it suited him and dismiss him when it did not.


The ins-and-outs of what came to pass between the poet, the translator-cum-proofreader circle of Tagore’s English collaborators, and the Macmillan Company of London is minutely recorded and presented in another of Uma Das Gupta’s sophisticated and scholarly books. All the surviving letters between the two men are arranged into eight chronologically arranged chapters and annotated with comprehensive notes. The book also has a substantial introduction covering the wider background to their relationship, as well as separate smaller introductions to the letter sections, providing further context and commentary to their exchange.


At times the commentary seems almost more interesting than the letters, which often deal with the practicalities of their working relationship, and are rather brusque and factual. Certainly they are not as engaging as the letters Tagore wrote to William Rothenstein or C. F. Andrews, his other two lifelong friends and associates. It was only towards the end of their difficult friendship, once they had both managed “to overcome national egoism, personal pain, and mutual annoyance” (Das Gupta’s 2003: 2), and were able to share their ideas with understanding that their letters became more full-bodied. Tagore was able to appreciate more fully Thompson’s “interest in international justice” and assimilate his harsh criticism of his own translations in a moment of painful self-realisation: “I have done gross injustice to my original productions partly owing to my incompetence and partly to carelessness”. Thompson, on the other hand, gave Tagore all the recognition he deserved: “[Y]ou stand for a new kind of man, neither Eastern nor Western but a reconciler of the best of both”. 


While the two biographies are clearly aimed at a wide readership across the English-speaking world, Difficult Friendship is more specifically a Tagoreophile treat. It complements nicely earlier works dealing with this troublesome but ultimately fulfilling relationship across the colonial divide, especially E. P. Thompson’s brilliant study of his father’s relationship with the Bengali poet, aptly titled Alien Homage.

If there is an air of polemics surrounding this corner of Tagore studies (E. P. Thompson apart, we can mention also William Radice, Harish Trivedi, and Mary Lago), Uma Das Gupta chooses to steer away from these controversies. In her characteristic fashion she prefers to present the facts and let them speak for themselves. 




Dutta, Krishna, Andrew Robinson (eds.), Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2005


Lago, Mary M., India’s Prisoner”: A Biography of Edward John Thompson 1886-1946, Missouri, 2001


Kathleen O’Connell, Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2002


Radice, William, “Preface to the 1994 Reprint” in Rabindranth Tagore; Selected Poems, London: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 7-11


Radice, William, “Introduction” in Rabindranath Tagore; Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems, tr. by William Radice, London: Angel Books, 2001


Tagore,  Rabindranath, Of Myself (Ātmaparichay), tr. by Devadatta Joardar and Joe Winter, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2006


Thompson, E., P., Alien Homage: Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993


Trivedi, Harish, “Introduction” in Edward Thompson (1989) Rabindranath Tagore; Poet and Dramatist,  Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. a1- a39


[1] With respect to presenting Tagore as an educator, another admirable study which relates the poet’s personal background to his educational thought deserves mentioning: Kathleen O’Connell’s Rabindranath Tagore: The Poet as Educator.

Published in Parabaas May 7, 2007.

Illustration by Amitabha Sen.

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