Rumbling Empires and Men Speaking to Storms

Ketaki Kushari Dyson

Michael Collins, Empire, Nationalism and the Postcolonial World: Rabindranath Tagore’s writings on history, politics and society, Foreword by Tapan Raychaudhuri, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York. Routledge/Edinburgh South Asian Studies Series. Pp. xviii + 212.

Last May, at a conference in London organized by the Tagore Centre UK to mark the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, I heard a young scholar read an interesting paper on Tagore’s relationship with C. F. Andrews and Edward Thompson, calling it ‘a trans-national politics of friendship’. The speaker, Michael Collins, was Lecturer in the Department of History at University College London, and his study of Tagore’s relationship with the West from 1912 to his death had earned him a doctorate at Oxford. His book based on those researches was then in the pipeline. I was preparing an article covering the responses of bideshis to Tagore and wanted to include him in my coverage, especially as I had never heard of him before. So I got in touch with him by e-mail. He replied and explained that parts of his forthcoming book were available on the Internet as articles, and he also kindly sent me a version of what he had read at the conference.

He explained that his training was in political science, the history of political thought, imperial history, and postcolonialism, and he was trying to make the best use of that training by looking critically at Tagore’s English writings in the relevant fields, adding that these, after all, represented ‘what remains accessible to the vast majority of the world’s reading public’. He considered Tagore’s prose writings on history, politics, religion, society, and culture to be of profound and enduring importance, adding that many historians and political scientists had not understood this and had only a vague sense of Tagore as a ‘mystic poet’. It was that omission that he was trying to correct. He blamed some of the postcolonial historians for doing Tagore an injustice.

Collins explained that he was a great admirer of Tagore’s ideas in education and rural development, and also of much of Tagore’s practice, and dismissed the notion of Tagore as a ‘dreamer’ as ‘utter nonsense’. However, he said that he would still criticize Tagore’s ‘politics of friendship and his belief that building individual connections could actually bring about change’, because ‘much more radical change was, is, required’. This is where, for him, Tagore’s exchanges with Gandhi over politics became very important.

I was grateful to Michael Collins for clarifying his position to me before his book came out, and was able to include a few paragraphs on him in the article I was writing. What he was telling me fitted very well with what I have felt for some time now, namely, that Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike tend to come into the hall of Tagore studies through different corridors, and therefore in these highly globalized times, it is necessary for us to have a better conversation and listen to each other more carefully. Thus, given the corridor through which I came to that hall, there is, for me, no contradiction between Tagore’s different sides – the thinker, the doer, and the dreamer. He was all those things. He was a deep and inspiring thinker, but not a systematic philosopher, and he had no interest in systematizing his thinking, tying up all the loose ends of his thoughts as a professional philosopher might want to. He was also a pragmatist, so he would do what was doable, but he was not by temperament a political activist, and he would not push action beyond what seemed, in his world-view, to be right and appropriate. And yes, of course, he was also a dreamer, because his core identity always remained that of a poet and a creative writer, and it was from that centre that all his other activities radiated. That is why Gandhi’s path would not be his path, which was a poet’s path. His humanism was a poet’s humanism.

It is thanks to Michael Collins that I got a review copy of his book – his first book – when it came out. I am thankful for that also, as it is a very expensive book! At this point let me stick in a personal preamble. Of course, the personal is also political! I have a quarrel with the publishers of this book, who have seen it fit to print such a densely argued academic text in an excruciatingly small font size. This makes it a taxing read for readers of ‘mature years’, and a real challenge for that sub-category amongst them whose vision has been impaired in some way. In the past two years I have had the misfortune to slip into that category. When I agreed to review this book, I hadn’t anticipated that the font would be so diminutive. It was a shock when I received the book and held it between my hands. These days I have to read books with my glasses off because that way my eyes focus best. But even with my glasses off and sitting under a strong light, it was a struggle to read this book. Because of my interest in the subject, I read the book as soon as it arrived, but was then distracted from writing the review by the task of having to prepare one paper after another for various Tagore conferences. Now that I have read the book a second time, and want to write the review quickly, before the details fade from my mind, I am finding it extremely tricky to move my eyes between the 18 pt font in which I have to write on the screen and the pages of Dr Collins’ book, which look like 10 pt to me. The book is not so bulky, and yet the publishers’ recommended retail price is £85, and even at the price is £80.75. Couldn’t such a pricey book have been set up in a font size that was more comfortable for the eyes? Surely the publishers could have afforded to spread the matter over a few more pages instead of squeezing it so desperately as to suggest that paper rationing is in force in Britain?

The blurb explains that by ‘presenting a new interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore’s English language writings’, the book places Tagore’s work ‘in the context of imperial history and thereby bridges the gap between Tagore studies and imperial/postcolonial historiography’. In his Introduction, subtitled ‘Tagore, imperialism and a global intellectual history’, the author elaborates his intentions thus:

What I wish to do ... is explore some of the reasons why – following his immense fame c. 1913 – Tagore has been consistently misunderstood, misrepresented, sometimes ignored, and in many respects diminished as a writer and thinker. Among Western academics, beyond a few poems, perhaps one or two novels and some of his paintings, much of Tagore’s output – especially his essays on philosophical, political and social issues, and his provocative ideas about imperialism and nationalism – has not received the critical attention that it might have. ... my aim is to show that Tagore remains of relevance to historians, political scientists and theorists of modernity, postmodernity and the postcolonial world who are concerned with ideas and with action; with politics broadly construed. (p. 1)

Is there perhaps too much foreshortening in the picture presented here of the way Tagore has been neglected since the highs of 1913? We all know that the Tagore cult waned in the English-speaking world, but he did continue to be highly respected in other regions, for example in Spain and Latin America. The Spanish versions of his poetry, prepared from the English by the Jiménez couple, were extremely popular, and had some influence on the early poetry of Pablo Neruda. Both Zenobia Camprubí de Jiménez of Spain and Victoria Ocampo of Argentina worshipped him. So did the German Helene Meyer-Franck, who learnt Bengali to translate him from the original. The Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel who died very young but is now regarded as one of the foremost avant-garde Slovenian poets of the inter-war generation, also read him with devotion and was profoundly stirred by his anti-nationalist ideas. The performance of The Post Office in the Warsaw ghetto still reverberates in Polish memory. Albert Einstein and Romain Rolland did enjoy interacting with Tagore. And in England Leonard Elmhirst, who founded Dartington Hall under Tagore’s influence, continued to cherish his memory till his own death. It is also true that a new wave of translations done directly from the original Bengali began to appear in Europe from the 1980s onwards, receiving appreciation. Kathleen O’Connell of Canada and José Paz Rodriguez of northern Spain continue to be devoted admirers of Tagore’s educational ideas. Realistically speaking, I wonder what better international response we could have expected. Let’s face it: in England, the languages and humanities are no longer so important in the school curriculum; poetry has ceased to be a mainstream cultural activity; the short story is no longer a very widely practised genre; and Indian novels are appreciated only if they are written in English. The English have also consolidated a reputation for not caring about the life of the intellect, unlike the French. It is not the intelligentsia but the media that govern our lives now and tell us who should be our heroes and who should be made invisible or just forgotten. It is true that someone within British academia could have done this kind of research on Tagore’s ideas before Michael Collins. Perhaps that is precisely where a post-imperial lethargy did play a part.

Within the framework the author has set himself, this is a well-researched book, structurally well-arranged, and certainly an interesting and meaningful contribution to the English-language discourse on Tagore building up during the 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth. One could, however, find a few problems with the framework itself. I wonder why the academic environment that nurtured this research project didn’t persuade this promising young scholar to go the extra mile and adopt an approach that would incorporate more comparative and interdisciplinary elements, thereby making the study more holistic and integrated. I knew that the study was based on English-language material, yet when I held the book in my hands and noticed that the Bibliography cited no Bengali-language source-material at all, that fact struck me with some force. The rationale for such a decision has not been explained in the book. We assume that the real reason for excluding Bengali material is simply that the author does not know the language (or cannot read complex texts in it), but in that case does that not need to be properly acknowledged? Is the lack of Bengali not, prima facie, a limitation in a research project dealing with Tagore’s thoughts? If not, why not? This critical question has not been addressed, and I would call this a gap in the framework. After all, the author is a historian, and historians are supposed to get as close to their sources as possible, are they not? Would an equivalent project dealing with a Continental European writer and intellectual, and relying on English material only, have been regarded as OK at the doctoral level in Oxford? In the absence of any real discussion of the language issue, one might be tempted to interpret the silence in a negative way – as a continuation of an imperial superiority complex, an implication that the native languages of subjugated peoples are not really worth acquiring. I can, of course, tell from Dr Collins’ evident respect for Tagore and his ideas that he does not think that way, but this gap in the framework, as it appears to me, needed to be firmly closed by means of an adequate discussion of why he has done things the way he has done them. He could have honestly admitted that he hadn’t had time to master the language for professional purposes yet, but will do his best to prove his thesis on the basis of English-language material, whether translated or written by Tagore originally in English. The lack of a proper discussion of this issue has left his thesis somewhat vulnerable, and I think it was the duty of those who guided him to make him aware of the danger. When all is said and done, the English versions of Tagore’s Bengali texts, done by others and sanctioned by him in his lifetime, do not always follow the originals as closely as they should.

One could raise the uncomfortable question whether, in the author’s perspective, those from former British imperial territories who have not written (or do not write) in English, and have not been translated into English, can ever gain admission into ‘global intellectual history’. Can they even enter the so-called ‘margins and footnotes’? One could also ask: if the author does not have access to Bengali, how can he really assess, as a responsible historian, ‘Tagore’s place in the popular collective memory of today’s Bengal’ (p. 2)? How can he be so sure that Tagore is still ‘a much maligned and misunderstood figure’ in modern Bengal (p. 2)? My perception of the situation is different. At the popular level, Tagore has become a cultural icon in both Bengals, so much so that the stuffy atmosphere of worship surrounding his figure can sometimes be a hindrance to serious researchers and translators.

Having said that, I cannot agree with Ramachandra Guha’s view, quoted by Collins, that ‘Bengal in general, and Bengali intellectuals in particular,... have provincialised and parochialised Tagore, turning a thinker of universal reach and significance into [a] local hero’ (p. 3). There is nothing to stop a person from being a thinker of universal reach and significance and a local hero at the same time. There is no intrinsic contradiction between the two roles. It is natural that a writer like Tagore, who did so much to turn his native language into a supple literary medium, capable of expressing the twists and turns of modern thought, and who at the same time continues to touch the affective lives of Bengalis at all levels through his poems and songs, should be able to fulfil both roles.

Of course Tagore received criticism from fellow Bengalis from time to time; all serious authors have to face some criticism in their lifetime; but many of those criticisms have now receded, are of the past, and if Collins had networked with scholars who belong to the ongoing Bengali-language discourse, he would have found that Bengali scholars do appreciate Tagore both as a poet/songmaker and as a thinker. To cherish him as a poet and songmaker is not to provincialize him! The power of a poet is over the affective lives of those who speak the poet’s language. To call him a Bengali is entirely appropriate, but we also value him as a thinker in the international perspective. I did try to point this out in my introduction to my translations of his poems, and many of us are outspoken in our appreciation of his universal humanism. General readers respond first to a poet’s emotional appeal. Not everybody has the intellectual capacity to evaluate the thinker. Tagore belongs to both camps, artistic and intellectual, and perhaps pays a price for being too good at too many things!

In course of my projects on Tagore, I have had the good fortune to interact with eminent Bengali academics such as Prof. Satyendranath Roy, Prof. Amlan Datta, Prof. Nemaisadhan Bose, or Prof. Sankha Ghosh, to mention some of the seniormost figures only (indeed, the first three are now dead), and they have invariably recognized the thinker in Tagore: they have had no problem about recognizing his stature as a thinker. Surely Bengali intellectuals deserve some credit for that? Has Dr Collins never met or interviewed such people? Nor is it true to say that ‘Tagore is known as a Bengali, whilst Gandhi is never referred to as a Gujarati’ (p. 3). We Bengalis do see Gandhi as a Gujarati – very much so! – with a distinct ethos derived from his community and caste.

I have a lot of sympathy for the way Dr Collins assesses the roles of Edward Said and the subalternists in the way they have dealt with Tagore. I only wish someone would explore the deep ambiguity of Said’s exploration of Eurocentric arrogance. Historically speaking, much of Europe’s cultural arrogance in the Asian context was fed by a Christian illusion of superiority to ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’. Did Said avert his face from this issue because he was, after all, an Arab Christian? Perhaps someone has already looked at this question? As for the Anglophone discourse of the subalternists, one is tempted to apply the French proverb: ‘plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose’. In the end, it is politics. The subalternists, though they may very occasionally pen a piece in Bengali, are not all that close to the Bengali-language discourse and maintain, to all intents and purposes, an elitist distance from it.

I also understand Collins’ reservations about aspects of Kripalani’s biography of Tagore, but am puzzled by his ringing endorsement of the Dutta-Robinson biography (‘[the] most comprehensive recent biography’, p.12), which many of us know to be deeply flawed in several respects. Dr Collins seems to be unaware of the furore this biography caused amongst Bengalis in the mid-1990s. Dutta and Robinson had a splendid opportunity to project an accurate and comprehensive picture of Tagore to English-reading audiences, but they did not make real use of that opportunity, and ironically, their book encouraged some of those very misconceptions about Tagore, and undervaluations of his achievements, about which Dr Collins is himself complaining so bitterly in this book. They focused on Tagore the man, his colourful personality, and not on his works. They harped on about his untranslatability and were sceptical about how much of his literary writings could be accessed by non-Bengalis. On 19 February 1995 the reviewer reviewing the Dutta-Robinson biography in the Sunday Times wrote: ‘Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson’s lengthy new biography seems uncertain whether to admire or apologise for Tagore, and ends up doing both half-heartedly.’ On 9 March 1995 the review of the biography in the daily Times was titled ‘The wisest fool in Calcutta’; a picture of Tagore carried the caption ‘artist posing as a sage’; and the reviewer came to the conclusion that one could ‘hardly claim that, in any serious sense, Tagore was a thinker at all’. The Times reviewer ridiculed Tagore’s humanistic thinking, as portrayed in the book, and called Tagore’s international aspect ‘the nonsense side of his career’. I haven’t forgotten the disbelief that rippled within London’s Bengali community when these reviews appeared. If the Dutta-Robinson biography could have triggered such serious and fundamental misunderstandings about Tagore, then surely the historian in Dr Collins needs to take that on board? I would contend that when someone is writing the biography of a major writer and thinker, an ability to focus on the minutiae of linguistic and literary details does matter, and a deficit in that respect compromised the Dutta-Robinson biography. I cannot go into further detail as I am not reviewing that book here – it is Dr Collins’ book I am reviewing – but I did review the biography when it came out and what I said is in the public domain in Bengali.

A similar focus is also needed when bringing such a personality within the domain of intellectual history. Thus, when Dr Collins says: ‘To put it bluntly, Tagore’s interest in, to choose a popular example, English Romantic poetry is almost entirely irrelevant to an understanding of his philosophy’ (p. 14), I have to disagree. Tagore always identified himself as a Romantic, and the influence of the English Romantic poets on him is there for all to see. By his own admission, Keats was his favourite English poet; his affinities with Shelley are well recognized; and he loved nature, as the Romantic poets did. But I agree with Dr Collins whole-heartedly when he proposes to show that ‘Tagore was a more empowered, purposeful, provocative and transgressive figure than he has sometimes been given credit for’ (p. 14). The point is that there are subtle and profound connections between the poet, the thinker, and the doer, and recognizing those connections only enriches our overall understanding of Tagore’s mind. Even when using material Tagore wrote originally in English, it is imperative to remember that this was his second language, and that the ambience of his first language would have been hovering around his consciousness even when he was penning his thoughts in English. Thus I would question the excessive use of English words like colonizer, colonized, colonialism when trying to understand Tagore’s thinking. There are really no exact equivalents for such terms in the autochthonous linguistic system in which Tagore was embedded. So when Collins gives Tagore credit for showing us ‘the agency of colonised intellectuals’ (p. 20), I wonder if Tagore would have recognized himself in such a mirror. To convey the concept of a colonized intellectual in Bengali, we would need several extra explanatory words. There is really no quick and easy way to translate such a phrase. Certainly, we have a respectable enough word for colony in Bengali, upanibesh, of immaculate Sanskritic origin, and we can easily translate a sentence such as ‘The Portuguese, the French, and the English established colonies along the Indian coastline’, but there is a degree of conceptual acrobatics in a phrase like ‘colonised intellectuals’ which resists a quick transfer into Bengali. Tagore understands ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’; after all India had major empires before the British established theirs, and the British themselves considered that they had inherited the mantle of the Mughal Empire; but if Tagore had to convey the notion of ‘colonised intellectuals’, he would have put it differently: perhaps more like ‘once-wise men whose minds had been enslaved by their new masters’. Tagore understands ‘ruler’ and ‘ruled’, ‘king’ and ‘subject’, ‘master’ and ‘servant’: such concepts are easily understood in the linguistic context of Bengali. He rejected the concept of ‘nation’, saw it as potentially very dangerous, and pointed out that there was no equivalent for it in Bengali. In a land where many races had mingled and combined to create a multicultural civilization, that mingling itself was of paramount importance, and no single paradigm of a process called ‘colonization’ could command total allegiance. It is necessary to grasp such details if we wish to understand where Tagore the humanist thinker was coming from. Every language encapsulates a world-view, and Tagore’s mother tongue made a significant contribution to his humanism.

Dr Collins claims that ‘Rabindranath remains a controversial figure’ and ‘continues to provoke extreme responses, both positive and negative’ (p. 34). We know about the rabindra-puja, but I wish he had given us some concrete examples of extreme negative responses in our times. Is he thinking about the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, or the banning of Tagore songs from Dhaka radio when Pakistani ideology prevailed? But no examples are discussed in detail.

Dr Collins’ portrait of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay and his interaction with Tagore is well done. Some of the subsequent discussions of Tagore’s religious ideas left me feeling that a number of things that Dr Collins has had to extract laboriously from secondary sources in English could have been instantly illuminated if he had taken a quick dip in the poetry. Where Tagorean ideas such as ‘this dweller of our heart’ and ‘the Inner Man’ are discussed (p. 43), his debt to the Bauls could have been highlighted. While Tagore’s Upanishadic legacy is accepted by all, his debt to the grassroots humanism of Bengal is less well understood by Western critics. This indigenous humanism had been nourished by the centuries of coexistence of Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi ideas on Bengal’s soil and had a profound influence on Tagore. The influence of Sufi ideas, via the Bauls, is an important thread with a political tinge, as it is a vital link between the two Bengals and their understanding of Tagore. Baul poets continue to be active in both wings of Bengal and comment on modern society. Philosophical-religious ideas expounded by Tagore, ideas which acquire social and political dimensions, move with an inevitable ‘exotic’ gait when presented in exegetic English prose, whether Tagore’s own or that of modern critics, but are more masterfully expressed in the poems of the original Bengali Gitanjali. The spot where Collins talks about Tagore’s vision of the commingling of races and cultures in India, ‘the ocean of humanity’ (p. 47), is crying out for a direct quotation from poem no. 106 of the Bengali Gitanjali, where Tagore elaborated the metaphor. (Perhaps Dr Collins would care to look up my translation of this poem in the second edition of my translations from Tagore’s poetry.)

Reading this book, I have asked myself whether historians and literary scholars have over the years developed very different attitudes towards interdisciplinary scholarship. My own doctoral work was interdisciplinary, combining literary and historical dimensions. I talked to historians and got bibliographies from them. Literary scholars are used to paying attention to the thinking of a writer, his ideas, his social-political activities (if any), but are historians perhaps not all that interested in what they see as the merely literary aspects of a writer? Are they only interested in extracting what they see as real history from suitable material, leaving the rest as useless for their purposes? But Tagore himself has commented facetiously on historians as those who collect much rubbish and miss the vital clues! If historians dealing with the history of ideas ignore the evidence of literary texts and the interdisciplinary connections, they may be missing out on valuable insights that they might have otherwise gained. After all, many a literary text could also be regarded as the Mother of History. Many were once part of an oral tradition, representing the only known or surviving history of a people, with some extra doses of myth-making and embellishments.

Talking about historians, the Foreword to this book has been written by Oxford historian Prof. Tapan Raychaudhuri. I wonder why Raychaudhuri quotes from the poem ‘Proshno’ in a truncated translation. Whose translation is it? His own, or Tagore’s? Why didn’t he just quote Radice’s translation, which is of the whole poem? And yes, the poem does indicate a ‘deep aversion to imperial oppression’ (p. xvii), but the poet’s question is a more generic and fundamental cri de cœur, meaningful in the context of all human societies. It is about the persistence of evil and our failure to embrace what is good. I am also intrigued by the fact that Raychaudhuri finds the distinction Tagore made between baro ingrej and chhoto ingrej ‘quaint’ (p. xvii).

In Collins’ thesis, Tagore’s 1912 visit to London occupies a central position. According to him, it ‘grew out of a major shift in his thinking that followed the violence of the swadeshi period’. He elaborates:

The years 1912 and 1913 mark the period during which Tagore emerged into the metropolitan public sphere. It constituted a new development in his identity, during which he began to write profusely and directly in English on a wide range of social, political, philosophical and theological issues: in short, this was the moment at which he became an English language theorist and critic. Most significantly of all, the archive for this period can be read as revealing the first enactment of Tagore’s grand design for repairing the damage done by colonialism to the relationship between East and West. (p. 49)

As I have understood, for Collins it is very important to establish the intentionality of Tagore’s grand project. It is by virtue of his intentions that Tagore enters the metropolitan arena, a successful negotiation with which makes him a player in what Collins calls ‘global intellectual history’. Tagore wanted to reach out to his peers in the imperial capitaI and imagined that he could make a meaningful and beneficial intervention in the conflicts between the rulers and the ruled. The Nobel Prize boosted his confidence and the plan became bigger, a grand global project. (The Latvian scholar Viktors Ivbulis has called it ‘Tagore’s Western Burdens’: see his paper with that title in Rabindranath Tagore: A Timeless Mind, Tagore Centre UK and the ICCR, London, May 2011).

Since Collins wishes to restore to Tagore what he sees as Tagore’s rightful place in ‘global intellectual history’, he develops his angle on this with much energy and digging into supportive evidence. There is a good coverage of the roles of other players in the events: Rothenstein, Yeats, Ezra Pound, the members of the Nobel committee. He also casts retrospective glances at the figures of Rammohan Ray and Keshabchandra Sen, who had been well-received in England before Tagore. What does Collins make of the fact that Sturge-Moore’s original letter proposing Tagore’s name for the Nobel Prize has disappeared from the Nobel archives and only a copy now remains? (Nityapriya Ghosh writes about this in Rabindranath Tagore: A Timeless Mind, referred to above.)

This particular critical juncture in Tagore’s life had other aspects as well, which, had they been given some importance in the narration, would have only enriched the history, giving us a more rounded picture of events. The story of human beings, with their conscious intentions and subconscious desires, their strengths and frailties, their ambitions and illusions, their less than satisfactory interactions with others, their agency as well as their helplessness, is perhaps more knotted and gnarled and messy than professional historians, in their anxiety to perceive patterns, would like to admit. Thus, in the period immediately prior to the 1912 voyage, Tagore’s preoccupations embraced a few other things besides his recoil from the violence of the swadeshi movement. He had established his school, but then lost his wife, his father, and two of his children. He neglected his health, was depressed, and worked hard to regain his composure. The poems of Smaran, Shishu, Kheya, the Bengali Gitanjali record the ups and downs of his moods. He also wrote a stream of essays in Bengali. Getting medical attention was indeed also an important motivation for this voyage. Collins mentions it, but does not seem to see it as important. But Tagore had haemorrhoids, which contributed to his suffering and mental tension. There are resonances between lines written by Tagore and by Gerard Manley Hopkins, another poet with a deep religious commitment who also suffered from the same ailment. Tagore hoped to get relief from homeopathic treatment in America, but that did not yield the desired results. He finally had surgery in a London nursing home in the summer of 1913. The operation was eminently successful and Tagore did not suffer from this illness ever again. It was the end of a painful chapter and he must have felt that he had gained a new lease of life. Surely, such personal aspects of one’s life do also contribute to the trajectory of one’s career. His illness cured, Tagore could engage energetically in his international mission.

Collins refers to The Gardener as ‘Tagore’s second collection of English language poems’ (p. 53). I am sure he knows that the poems in that collection are all translations from Bengali. Does this perhaps betray a ‘postcolonial’ anxiety about Tagore’s literary credentials in English?

I am sure Collins would have enriched his analysis of Tagore’s 1912 foreign trip if he had taken into account, even if briefly, Tagore’s two previous trips abroad, as a teenager and then again as a young man. The experiences had left their mark on him, shaped some of his ideas, given him glimpses of English family life, the role of women, the honesty of ordinary workers, and also given him valuable exposures to Western art and music, and indeed, parliamentary politics. The fact that as a teenager he had seen English family life from close quarters probably contributed a great deal to his steadfast refusal to see the English as ‘others’, his ability to see them as members of the same human family.

Dr Collins finds support for his arguments in the Tagore-Gandhi debates. His coverage is good, though I am not sure why he thinks that people haven’t paid enough attention to these arguments. I would have said that the affinities and differences between the two men are well understood. But perhaps it is the British historians who are the real targets of Dr Collins’ criticism? Dr Collins states that he has ‘a good deal of sympathy for Gandhi’s position throughout his exchanges with Tagore’ and considers that it is ‘a major shortcoming of Tagore’s position that unlike Gandhi he appears to have little appreciation of political economy or, more specifically, the way in which economics might determine the structure and character of civil society’ (p. 98). But if Tagore did not appreciate those issues, why would he have taken so much interest in rural reconstruction, agricultural reforms, and the question of how to alleviate the poverty and indebtedness of the peasants? Why did he invest his prize money in rural banking and try to make his tenant-farmers self-reliant? I would have said that in respect of their social, political, and economic ideas, both men were in fact Utopian visionaries. It may not be possible to translate their dreams (in the best sense) into reality, except in small pockets of space and in small doses. The modern world has neither given up violence nor done away with the tribal nation-state. Two thousand years after Christ we are unable, as a species, to love one another. Nor do revolutions seem capable of delivering the fraternity they promise. Tagore’s anguished question in the poem ‘Proshno’ is, as I said, generic. It remains just as relevant today as it was when he wrote the poem. On the issue of violence as a means to liberation, an interesting comparative study for Dr Collins would really have been to look at the thoughts and actions of three men: Gandhi, Tagore, and Subhashchandra Bose.

Though Dr Collins has marshalled many of his arguments on the basis of Tagore’s English-language essays and letters, some original and some translated, which he has diligently studied, the fact remains that there is really a continuity between Tagore’s social, political, economic, and philosophical ideas as expressed in his Bengali and English writings. I can recognize the Bengali originals of some of the pieces he refers to, and there is a remarkable continuity of ideas between the discursive prose and the poetry. The ‘intentionality’ that Collins is in search of is just as clear, if not more, in the Bengali texts. Tagore acknowledges the revivification that India has experienced through her contact with Britain, and at the same time sees that India could teach the West a few things too, that because of her history, India could play a special role in integrating humanity. The humanism is very evident in the poetry. Even looking carefully at just one major text, the original Bengali Gitanjali, one can see the poet’s twin convictions: the need to see a brother in a stranger’s face, and that India had a special mission in this respect. The lack of recognition for Tagore the thinker that Dr Collins laments throughout his book is basically a problem in the context of the English-language discourse. In so far as it persists so many years after the end of the Empire, it indicates a continuing imperial state of mind in sections of the Anglophone academia. Surely it should be possible to overcome it?

Dr Collins acknowledges that he has come to know Tagore through his wife, who is a British Bengali. He told me that in his first e-mail to me, but it is refreshing to see that he has acknowledged this personal element in the book also. I also admire him for his courage in undertaking this work in spite of linguistic constraints. He set himself a task, knowing what he could and could not do, and he has worked hard at it, and made something of it. A great tick for the human spirit. I only wish that the academic environment within which he undertook this project had encouraged him to widen the scope of his investigations and include some of Tagore’s creative writings in good modern translations within the analytical framework, as students of Comparative Literature might have done. The work would have gained by being more inclusive, comparative, and interdisciplinary. Can we really maintain a rigid boundary between our intellectual and affective lives? An artificial boundary between history and literature has been maintained in the book, which could have been discarded. Had that been done, there would have been no sense of strain in the arguments, and they would have flown forward with an unstoppable momentum. Collins quotes E. J. Thompson as saying that ‘no man should let himself be at the mercy of his similes’ (p. 71), but Tagore was a poet, and it is natural for a poet to speak through his similes and metaphors, his sensory images, the musicality of his phrases. All that is part of his armoury of persuasive techniques. Historians use them too!

I am sorry that nobody in the academic world that Dr Collins inhabits could point out to him that ‘Rabindra Rachanab[a]li’, to which a Tagore quote is assigned at the head of his Tagore-Gandhi chapter, is not enough as a reference. He needs to say which edition and which volume. Without such information, it is no better than referring a Shakespeare quote to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. There is a more serious problem on pp. 91-92. Collins quotes a passage and assigns it to Crisis in Civilization. I could not find it there, or in the original Bengali text, Sabhyatar Sankat. I suspect the passage in question is from Civilization and Progress, a lecture delivered by Tagore in China in 1924.

The ultimate failure in the communication between Yeats and Tagore is discussed in a well-researched chapter. ‘In essence, Tagore was instrumentalised by Yeats: he came to represent aspects of a forgotten past that Yeats sought to resurrect for his own cultural nationalist purposes’ (p. 103). Collins comments with some exasperation: ‘Contrary to almost all of the existing literature on the Tagore-Yeats encounter, it had little to do with mutuality or an authentic meeting of cultures’ (p. 113). Again, this is a problem especially in the context of English-language discussions. Bengalis have realized for a long time that there were problems in the Yeats-Tagore encounter. Collins insists that the breakdown in communication between the two had less to do with Yeats’ dissatisfaction with the quality of the later translations and much more to do with Yeats’ failure to see where Tagore was coming from – a failure at a more fundamental level. I am sure there was a basic failure on Yeats’ part to engage with Tagore’s cultural background and with his ideas at a deep level, yet the limitations of the later translations did play a part in irritating Yeats. After all, both were poets, and the best way for two poets to relate to each other is through the poetry first, before trying other routes, and things went wrong there. Collins has not quoted Yeats’ famous exasperated comment with which Bengalis have been familiar for a long time. ‘Damn Tagore,’ he had said in a letter to Rothenstein, possibly in 1935, ‘We got out three good books, Sturge Moore and I, and then, because he [i.e. Tagore] thought it more important to see and know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation.’ I have known about this passage since 1966, when I saw it quoted in Buddhadeva Bose’s book Kabi Rabindranath (1966). So though there was a failure in communication at a fundamental level, the role of poor-quality translations as a simple irritant cannot be eliminated.

At the end of the day, Tagore did not grasp where Yeats was coming from either. Perhaps we need to accept that all such encounters are ‘imperfect’.

Linguistic and translation issues do matter when dealing with the ramifications of stories about writers. Collins comments that both Yeats and Tagore ‘grew up in the shadow of austere, dominant, and dissenting father figures’, one Irish Protestant, the other Brahmo (p. 102), and in his note on this statement, he says something very strange:

Tagore’s father would feature prominently as the ‘King of the Dark Chamber’ in his novel of that title, published in English translation in 1914. See Rabindranath Tagore, My Reminiscences (London: Macmillan, 1917), p. 102. (p. 184)

I have no idea from where Dr Collins gathered this bizarre information. I haven’t got the English My Reminiscences at home – books which I can read in the original I do not usually read in translation – but I am sure no such information is given in the Bengali Jibansmriti, which on the contrary paints a memorable and affectionate portrait of Debendranath, especially in the context of Tagore’s journey with his father to the Himalayas when he was a boy. King of the Dark Chamber is in any case not a novel, but a play, the translation of Raja, and I have never heard that the king in Raja was modelled on Tagore’s father. There is some muddle here.

For me, the chapter on Tagore’s relationship with E. J. Thompson and C. F. Andrews is the best chapter in the book, where Dr Collins has truly found his métier. The account is lively, provocative, and funny, like a stage show, and all three men come alive. As regards Tagore’s ‘politics of friendship’, another project of a Utopian nature, which does not deliver results in a global sense, but which we all employ from time to time to survive and to augment our circle of friends in a globalized age, it has occurred to me that again, the discussion could have been enriched by some pertinent comparisons. For instance, the Tagore-Thompson-Andrews triangle with its emotional ups and downs invites comparison with the Tagore-Elmhirst-Ocampo triangle, which would have brought in a player who was a female from Argentina. How does gender and the South American context change the perspective? Andrews’ possessive attitude towards Tagore must have been apparent to observers; Victoria Ocampo, confiding to Elmhirst, actually jokes about it.

Likewise, Tagore’s interactions with distinguished non-British Europeans such as Albert Einstein and Romain Rolland would have yielded some fascinating comparative points. Rolland could not forget that Tagore had felt a certain fascination for the character of Mussolini. The nature of fascism was not immediately clear to someone outside the sphere of European politics, and also the writer in Tagore responded to the heroic but flawed character of Mussolini, who perhaps reminded him of characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Rolland was frustrated that Tagore could be busy exhibiting his art when Europe was sliding into fascism. In this respect Victoria Ocampo understood the creative artist in Tagore better than C. F. Andrews or Romain Rolland.

Earlier in this review I complained against the very small font size in which the book has been printed. I must end with another grouch against the publishers for not having seen to the copy editing and proof corrections for such a pricey academic book with greater professionalism. On p. 26 we are given a quotation from Kalyan Sen Gupta, but when we turn to the appropriate note on p.166, we are given a reference to Mahashweta Sengupta. On p. 32 we have ‘Keshub Chandra’ and ‘Caitanya’, two different ways of transliterating the same Bengali consonant on the same page. Ch is more appropriate (and indeed most frequently used) in this book; the romanized-devanagari-style c looks like the odd man out. I know such irregularities are not the end of the world, but such a discrepancy on the same page may generate doubt and confusion among readers about how to pronounce the initial consonant in Chaitanya’s name. So we need to be smarter.

I am sure Dr Collins will go on to do further meaningful work in suitable areas of his choice. My main message to him at this point would be: don’t let the academic hierarchy persuade you that there is anything wrong with being interdisciplinary. On the contrary, the combination of the approaches of different disciplines can make intellectual work really take off – in a spectacular way.

[Please note that in quotations I always follow the spelling and punctuation of the text I am quoting from, but in my own text I follow my own practice. Thus I write colonized, but in this book the same word is spelt colonised. I also put a comma before and when a number of things are being enumerated. These habits, acquired when preparing my own doctoral thesis according to Oxford University regulations, are ingrained in me. Occasionally, as in my translations of Tagore’s poetry, I have had to submit to the publisher’s ‘house style’ and see the z in some of my spellings changed to s. Apparently, this is more the Cambridge style!]

© Ketaki Kushari Dyson

Published in Parabaas April, 2012.

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