Grand old modernist
Translated by Sipra Bhattacharya
Harper perennial, Rs 350
To be bitten by the Rabindranath bug can be fatal. It stops the victim from going to the man’s writings and forces him to look upon Tagore with a strange veneration. Thanks to my intense dislike of Rabindrasangeet (which went into the same attic filled with modern jazz, ballet and musicals), I was vaccinated against this disease early enough. But what has enthralled me despite all is a strand of Tagore’s prodigious output: his short stories.
There have been many anthologies of Tagore’s short stories in English (Selected Short Stories edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri and published by Oxford University Press being a notable one). But what The Return of Khokababu: The Best of Tagore does is take the gravitas off and bring us a sample of, not the translated stories of a canonical writer, but of staggeringly good stories by an underrated master of the genre.
Sipra Bhattacharya’s translations are lucid, faithful and will give even the Bengali-reader, seeking a refuge from the dated Bengali of Tagore’s original (secret?) pleasure.
The collection starts with the very first short story Tagore ever wrote, The Bathing Ghat’s Story. He wrote this in 1884 a few months after his beloved sister-in-law and muse Kadambari Debi killed herself. Tagore’s narrator is the ghat, who tells the story of a woman who drowns herself in the river. ‘Kabuliwala’ is the story of fathers and daughters and teeters at the edge of sentimentalism but doesn’t fall over. Hungry Stones (more correctly translated as The Hungering Stone), uses the popular genre of the historical romance and stitches it to another mutated genre, the Gothic ghost story.
But my favourite is Manihara. On the face of it, it’s a standard Victorian ghost story plonked on to a 19th century Bengal. But layers are peeled as we proceed along the story of Phanibhushan Saha and his jewellery-obsessed wife, Manimalika. It’s a domestic chamber drama; it’s a supernatural tale; it’s a psychological exploration. And as the tale-outside-the-tale that book-ends the story tells us, it’s about the mechanics of telling a tale.
Stories like The Girl Next Door, The Living and the Dead and the novella The Broken Nest (on which Satyajit Ray’s Charulata is based on) are great insights into the human condition, filtered through that of the minds of women. It’s not an exaggeration to say that women, especially in his early life, played an immense role in Tagore’s dealings with the world.
Which is why it would have been great to read this book with Chitra Deb’s Women of the Tagore Household (Penguin, Rs 499). I say ‘would’ because the translation of this illuminating book is stilted, with no effort made to do anything but to translate and print Deb’s engaging narrative. There’s no introduction, no chapter breaks; the sub-quality photos have no captions worth having. Exactly the sort of book that makes people run miles away from any ‘Tagore-Shagore’.