In 1930, The New York Times published a conversation between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore. Thousands came to hear Tagore speak at Carnegie Hall and Life magazine published a photo of Helen Keller lip-reading Tagore. Joesph Goebbels, who, in his youth had loved Tagore’s poetry in German, denounced him as a ‘world liberal’ at the Nuremberg Rally. The night before Paris fell to the Nazis, passages from Tagore were broadcast on French radio.
What about us non-Bengali Indians, though? Growing up in post-1947 India ensured that we all knew several Tagore clichés, even if our formative years were spent in remote cantonments in the Central Indian plains. For one, that bit about the Taj Mahal in Tagore’s poem ‘Shah Jehan’ that it was “a teardrop on the cheek of Time”. Then, Verse 35 from ‘Gitanjali’ that every Indian child who ever went to ‘English-medium’ school had to learn: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high… Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” How many certificates, shields and cups must have been garnered by that poem in inter-school elocution contests! It is to Indian children like Abe Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to Americans, or our other staple, Pandit Nehru's ‘tryst with destiny’ speech.
And just as the indefatigable legacy of dancer Uday Shankar is the school pageant and the ‘variety function’ at clubs, annual days and RWA Diwali Milans, the Tagore legacy that none of us escapes is Rabindra Sangeet. (Akla cholo re endures beyond Bengal though as an anthem through life's grotty bits.)
As for ‘Kabuliwala’, surely that’s the Balraj Sahni Hindi film not Tagore’s story? Shantiniketan that Tagore founded as a crucible for refined regeneration is now reckoned a has-been place, a quaint relic from the nationalist phase. Only the jokes about feeble boys and sturdy girls are told over, usually by Bengalis themselves, just like the best Sardarji jokes come from Sikhs. We are obscurely proud that Tagore won a Nobel Prize for Literature but merely amused when the medal is stolen.
The Bangladeshis sing Rabindra Sangeet more movingly than us. Delhiites said as much so last week any way at the India International Centre Tagore Utsav. His works are rather like the bound volume of Shakespeare’s Complete Works on our shelves: a must-have but almost never a must-read.
But what we don’t know — or were never told — about Tagore is electrifying. Gandhi called him ‘The Poet’ and so he became ‘Bengali No. 1’. However, Tagore himself was a huge fan of the 18th century reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy and was inspired by him to write extensively on social reform. He may be cemented on a pedestal now as Bengal’s holiest cow, but when his work first appeared in print, he was torn apart by critics and the public alike for he made people uncomfortable, telling hard truths through stories about caste, politics, the male ego and society that there was no evading in their heads.
I submit that’s the biggest and best reason to keep hold of Tagore in this millennium, more than his poetry, more than Rabindra Sangeet, more than Shantiniketan, more than his amazing range and skill as a painter, more even than his brilliant, moving essays. Most of that part seems to have declined into dead history that was dynamic and useful at one stage in our nation’s life but got overtaken by other tastes and trends. But Tagore’s short stories are outstanding. They are world masterpieces and it is our loss if we do not read them, know them and pass them on with honour and delight to young India.
He wrote almost a hundred short stories, the first Bengali writer to evolve the short story into an art form, articulating our paradoxes with tenderness, irony and edge. Most were written in the 1890s and published in several journals, 36 in Sadhona that he personally edited. (Literary magazines like this showcased and encouraged new Bengali writers right from the late-19th century).
Later, during World War I, several stories like ‘The Wife’s Letter’ and ‘Woman Unknown’ appeared in the monthly magazine Sabuj Patra. ‘Once There Was A King’, an erotically nuanced story, is another treasure, like ‘The Hungering Stone’ and ‘Lost Jewels’. Today, a great way to catch up on Tagore in English is through Oxford University Press’s Selected Short Stories edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri and Picador’s Tagore anthology edited by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, where, to use a Tagorean phrase, we encounter “the enthusiasm of a chivalrous mind”. I'll wager that these books won’t stay unread on anybody’s shelf.