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The poet’s been framed

books Updated: Mar 02, 2012 20:30 IST

Martin Kampchen, Hindustan Times
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On Tagore: Reading the Poet Today

Amit Chaudhuri

penguin viking

Rs 399 pp 178

Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary has created a stir in the publishing industry that was unimaginable even a year ago. It comes as a pleasant surprise that some of the current generation of Bengali writers in English have participated in the celebration. Amitav Ghosh has translated him, and now Amit Chaudhuri has collected a handful of essays he mostly wrote for Western readers into a book.

In his introductory essay, Chaudhuri pours out his doubts about an inner resistance to the poet whom he “jettisoned” as a young man, never wanting to have anything to do with him. This probably mirrors a typical attitude of the English-educated élite. However, not till the end of this essay that is meant to make Tagore palatable to readers, can Chaudhuri bring himself to write a straight-forward and unapologetic sentence about the poet’s relevance within Indian and world literature.

In fact, Chaudhuri rediscovered Tagore not as a literary figure of merit but as an object of study in the post-colonial/modernist ambit of reflection. So we get to know a great deal about the origins of ‘orientalism’ and how colonial scholars either orientalised India or how India, in particular Tagore, responded by falling in line or else resurrecting his independent stand. The book’s title could well have been ‘Seeking Tagore’s place in history’. Chaudhuri is well-read, he is an astute theoretician of post-colonialism and draws from divergent sources; he always attempts and mostly succeeds in being interesting, even intellectually entertaining. He throws up associations, comparisons and insightful quotations which make us exclaim “Oh, how clever, how elegantly expressed!”

However, the author here lacks the seriousness which is so evident in his fiction. His jargon-laced, elaborate sentences rarely stop to substantiate, to create a context, to probe deeper with a degree of intellectual humility. In his essay ‘A Pact with Nature’, for example, he criss-crosses his terrain, starting with Edward Said and William Jones, touching on TS Eliot and Edwin Arnold, then gets down to writing on Debendranath Tagore and his family, proceeds to respond to ‘Gitanjali’, not without making a snide remark about WB Yeats, launching into a definition of the ‘Oriental’ and ‘Orientalia’, and finally arrives at the subject his title has promised to deal with: the ‘impact nature had on Tagore’. But suddenly, by some sleight of hand, we arrive in Egypt and find ourselves getting more confused by a discussion on Shakespeare. And so on. Sorry, is there any line of thought in all this? Despite all of Chaudhuri’s originality and felicity of thought, somewhere along the winding ways of his mind, he forgets for whom he is writing; his readers fall by the roadside.

Martin Kämpchen is a translator of Rabindranath Tagore’s works from Bengali to German. He lives at Santiniketan

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