Yogayog (Nexus) by Rabindranath Tagore: A Book Review

Meenakshi Mukherjee

Yogayog (Nexus) by Rabindranath Tagore. Translated from Bangla with notes by Hiten Bhaya; Rupa & Co, Delhi; 2003; Pp 328; ISBN : 81-291-0180-7.

When the works of Rabindranath finally came out of copyright in the new millennium, there began a scramble among publishers to cash in on the brand name ` Tagore’. Rupa & Co immediately launched a series they called `Rabindra Rachanavali’ which merely recycled in attractive packaging the old and often substandard English translations of Tagore’s books. These flawed -- and sometimes abridged -- translations were not revised, no notes were added, no editorial attempt was made to situate these texts of another era in their historical context and in most cases no mention was made of the fact that these are not new books, merely reprints of faded small-print editions earlier available under the Macmillan imprint. Unsuspecting readers who buy these elegant pocket-sized glossies are duped into thinking this is new-age Tagore in fresh English rendering to suit the temper of the present generation. But if they ever bother to read the volumes they purchase (the books make lovely gift items, and it is too tempting to pass them on) they would end up with the same impression that many Tagore readers in translation have had in the past: that he is an over-rated writer, an icon for the Bengalis whose time is over. It is unfortunate that the opportunity for a fresh translation was passed over by Rupa in their haste to capture the market, although other publishers (e.g., Penguin, Srishti) have fared somewhat better.

Yogayog (Nexus) is in fact the only new translation of Tagore Rupa & Co have published, and it is so much superior to all the refurbished material they have been purveying so far, one wonders how this miracle happened. Given the total lack of editorial policy in their Rabindra Rachanavali series, it seems hardly likely that Rupa commissioned this translation in order to fill a gap in the corpus of Tagore translations in English. The chances are that it was a labour of love for the translator Hiten Bhaya, who incidentally has also translated Rabindranath’s two books on Bangla language and on Linguistics entirely on his own initiative. Rupa probably accepted the manuscript offered to them without fully realising the value of what they had in their hands.

Of the eight novels written by Rabindranath (twelve, if one counts the novellas) Yogayog (first serialised in 1927-28) is the only one never translated into English before this. It is an unusually poignant but relatively less discussed text which has been overshadowed by the politically charged novels like Gora and Ghare Bairey. The politics in this novel is not of the nationalist variety -- its historical context is the decline of the landed aristocracy in Bengal and the emergence of an enterpreneur class. Caught in the resultant clash of values, Kumudini is unable to see her path clearly. The last daughter of a family of refined taste but depleted resources, she is married to a self-made man proud of his enormous wealth. Nurtured by the mythology of Shiva-Sati, she was mentally prepared to love the abstract idea of a husband ignoring the crudeness of the actual man she was married to. But her admiration for her elder brother -- also her mentor -- creates a complication in the marital relationship. This elder brother Bipradas is an idealised character -- liberal, intellectual, compassionate and artistic with an attractive aura of melancholy about him. His illness could be a metaphor for the precariousness of such a man’s survival in the world of buying and selling. Unable to make money, he sinks deeper and deeper into debt until the entire family property gets irretrievably mortgaged to Kumudini’s husband. Kumu is caught between her duty to her husband and her desire to be with her sick and distraught brother, nursing him, learning music from him and reading together. The husband and the brother are paradigmatically opposed characters -- one obsessed with money and objects, the other like an incandescent flame, rising above the mundane. The grossness of the husband is further reinforced by his blatantly carnal relationship with his brother’s widow while Kumudini is away from home. The novel ends with Kumu’s discovery of her pregnancy -- which compels her to go back to her husband. It is difficult to imagine a sadder resolution of her predicament. The biological entrapment of women is highlighted with a ruthlessness unusual in writing from those pre-feminist days.

Yogayog is a powerful feminist text despite (or because of) the fact that it ends with a woman’s defeat. Nora slamming the door and going out of the house was a potent image that heralded an entire movement, but the door closing in on Kumudini to imprison her for ever is a more searing statement. That it can be seen as a happy ending by most people around her makes it even more disturbing. Motir-ma, a staunch supporter of Kumu in her husband’s house was nevertheless seriously upset at her declaration of independence: “Madhusudan may be absolutely unworthy of her, he may have been grievously wrong, but still he was a man. By virtue of being a man he was somewhere naturally superior to his wife -- a fact that is unarguable. Can one win a case against our Maker? “ Kumudini’s pregnancy clinches Motir-ma’s argument..

For a while Kumudini herself does not know what is the right course of action for her. She justifies her rebellion against her husband by identifying herself with Mirabai. She sings Mira’s bhajans to calm herself but for her the `giridhar nagar’ does not become real. She tells her brother “ … if suffering is our inescapable lot, then we have to accept it and find a way of transcending it. That is why women stick to religion so desperately.” The brother does not believe in religion; transcendence through music is enough for him. Music is repeatedly used as a sub-text in the novel -- sometimes to create a mood, sometimes as a signifier for spirituality. One of the most memorable moments in the novel comes just before the end: brother and sister playing raag bhairavi on their esraj together, as the rays of the early morning sun pour on them through the flowering branches of gulmohur.

Bipradas, the brother is the only unqualified feminist in the novel who sees her sister’s insult as the insult to all women, and insists that she stay on in the house on her own right, not a dependent on her brother. But this touching bond between the brother and sister foregrounded in the novel cannot distract us from the main issue -- which is economic. Reading Yogayog in the new millennium it is difficult to ignore a historically situated romanticism that valorised spirit over body, other-worldliness over money and put on a pedestal the non-achiever who turns his back on worldly success. Instead of censuring Bipradas for not managing his property better, we are expected to admire his saintliness. One also notices a nostalgia for the vanishing landed gentry who were supposed to have been the custodians of art and refinement, and an unconcealed contempt for the crassness of new money. The present generation might question this crypto-feudal perspective, but it is necessary to recognize the inevitability that shaped this attitude at the beginning of the twentieth century, given the class composition of the literary community of the time.

I will refrain from making the customary comments on the quality of translation. I had read the Bangla original years ago and decided not to go back to it for the sake of writing this review. The pleasure of reading this time depended entirely on the seduction of translated text and I did not want to spoil it by nitpicking over words. After all, the target reader of a translated novel is not the one who will compare the two texts paragraph by paragraph, but one who is ready for a willing suspension of the knowledge of an earlier incarnation.. Hiten Bhaya’s rendering succeeds in holding the reader’s attention till the last page. Instead of writing an elaborate Introduction the translator gives extensive notes at the end clarifying the myths which are integral to the novel and the cultural details of a Bengali joint family at the turn of the last century. I am grateful to him for including in the notes the translation of a highly interesting statement made by Rabindranath when he decided to change the title of the novel from Tin Purush (Three Generations) to Yogayog. I have never come across anywhere else an attempt to theorise the act of naming a novel. The translator Hiten Bhaya, a former member of the Planning Commission who was also Chairman, Hindustan Steel and Director, Indian Institute of Management, brings to bear upon his work the economy and efficiency of his earlier profession. The Translator’s Foreward is a model of brevity, where he touches upon only two points -- the problems of translating metaphors and the challenge of finding a title for the translated novel that will not violate Rabindranath’s own theory about naming novels. Thereafter he lets the seventy-five year old novel speak for itself.

Published in Parabaas March 25, 2004.

Send us your feedback

©2004 Parabaas