reviews and essays

Torn Leaves

The letters of the young Tagore reveal a poet in full possession of his voice

By ROSINKA CHAUDHURI | 1 March 2014

IN 1875–76, when Rabindranath was only 14 or 15 years old, the older brother he was closest to, Jyotirindranath Tagore, took him along to the Tagore estates in East Bengal, which he was then managing on behalf of the family. This was Rabindranath’s first glimpse of Shilaidaha, the place by the Gorai river to which he would return repeatedly during what he called “the most productive period of my literary life … when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest freedom my life has ever known.” It was here, in 1912, that Rabindranath first put his hand to the translations that turned into the Gitanjali and won him the Nobel Prize; it was also here—alongside all the other small towns and villages bordering the myriad rivers of this part of Bengal—that he returned when he became manager of the estates himself in the 1890s.

Rabindranath must have expressed some interest in leaving the family home in Jorasanko and taking up this job in Shilaidaha, as a letter from Debendranath Tagore to his son seems to show. Received two days before his wedding in December 1883, the letter advises Rabindranath that “simply living in the mofussil would be of no use without knowing the nature of the work,” and that he should therefore begin to prepare by spending some time in the estate office scrutinising the accounts, making a summary each week and showing it to his father. Once satisfied that the work had been learnt, he would then allow his youngest son to proceed to the mofussil. Nothing came of this idea for the next seven years, however, and it was only in 1889 that Rabindranath finally took over as manager of the estates.

The letters Rabindranath wrote his niece Indira from these mofussil locations of the Tagore estates will be available now in English for the first time in their entirety as Letters from a Young Poet, shortly to appear from Penguin Books. Beloved of Bengalis, who consider the text a classic, all the letters were copied out by Indira into two hardbound exercise books. A selection of these was published in 1912 as Chinnapatra (an English translation of which appeared under the title Glimpses of Bengal in 1920), revised and edited by Rabindranath himself based on the version that existed in the exercise books, giving them a literary shape, and arguably turning them into a distinct fictional narrative of his own.

Approaching the Tagore birth centenary year in 1961, the full Bengali text of the letters was published in a volume called the Chinnapatrabali in 1960, almost 20 years after his death; as the editor put it: “In the present day, there can be no conceivable reason for us to discard any part of Rabindranath’s own writings at all.” The English title, Glimpses of Bengal, was an apt one for Chinnapatra: the subject matter of these edited letters was Bengal—riverine, beautiful, green and vast—and the trope of seeing, or “glimpsing,” some of the wonder that was Rabindranath’s Bengal came through exactly in that choice of title. It had, as it happens, no relation at all to the Bengali title, Chinnapatra, which is a neologism made up of two words—chinna, or “torn,” and patra, meaning “letters” or “leaves.” To this compound word, the editor of the 1960 edition added a suffix, “abali,” which denotes collectivity—so patrabali would mean collected letters.

The woman who receives these letters is a silent but considerable presence in this book, an equal as an interlocutor, and not one to be written out of the narrative of its history. This is corroborated by Rabindranath himself repeatedly. As he said to Indira on 7 October 1894, he feels his letters achieve completion because they are addressed to her, and are expressive not only of his own inner essence but also of hers: “I have written letters to so many others, but nobody else has attracted my entire self to themselves in writing.” But this ability to be responsive was only one small part of the accomplishments of Rabindranath’s young, talented and beautiful niece, daughter of the distinguished Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian to enter the Indian Civil Service, and Jnanadanandini Debi, an influential, educated and independent woman, a pioneering symbol of women’s emancipation and the creator of the modern Indian sari. Indira Debi Chaudhurani, as she was known after her marriage to the distinguished writer and literary critic Pramatha Chaudhuri, made a tangible contribution to the culture of her time. This lay not only in the elusive arena of her influence and presence but also substantially in the fields of music (she notated a great many of Rabindranath’s songs) and music theory, autobiography and memoir and, notably, in the domain of the essay form, at which she excelled, and in translations from English and French into Bengali.

When these letters are being written to her, Indira is between 14 and 22 years old, an eminently marriageable age at the time, but one she spent waiting for Pramatha Chaudhuri, whom she eventually married in 1899, unusually late for a woman of her times. In a letter-poem Rabindranath wrote to her brother Suren from Nasik published in the magazine Bharati, we have a riotous depiction of the relationship between uncle and niece, written in a comic and deliberately inelegant mix of Hindi and Bengali, where, addressing Suren, he says of her: “This woman, your sister, is torturing me so/ I can’t think of what to do or where to go!” Uncle and niece and nephew had many names for each other; among these, the most consistent nickname for Indira at home was Bibi, and he was their Robika, a diminutive of Rabi-kaka. Here, in these letters, however, he frequently addresses her as “Bob.” It could be speculated that this was an affectionate reference to the anglicised lifestyle of his brother’s household, and the strange Englishness of the endearing nickname seems typically paradoxical of him, the committed Bengali man of letters. He left it out of the version of the letters he edited himself, the Chinnapatra, yet the use of it is so affectionate, so engaging and particular in tone, that its presence in the letters adds an incalculable element that exactly captures the relation between these two as nothing else could have done.

Although written between September 1887 and December 1895, from when he was 26 to the age of 34, only two of the letters collected in Chinnapatra are written in 1887, after which we skip a year and find a couple more from 1889, to be followed by four more from 1890. The flow of letters begins at a more consistent speed from 1891 onward up to 1895, when Rabindranath properly began work as manager of the Tagore estates, work that he toiled at with some success, but to which there is surprisingly little reference in the letters themselves. “All this work to do with land records and land holdings and litigation and clerks”; “the arrangements for the transfer of property to another name on the rent-roll … and the Birahimpur estate records”; “when the head rent-collector, the office clerks and the people arrive, I will have to concentrate on the collection of taxes”: these are some of the few words in these letters on the subject of the work Rabindranath was doing in the districts. Mostly, instead, the days and nights of work and leisure in the mofussil come together in one shimmering stream of existence, as he ruminates: “My estates exist exactly at the spot where the moonlight falls; yet the moonlight says, ‘your estates are a fiction’, and the estates say that the moonlight is all a sham! I, as an individual, am right in the middle.”

“I, as an individual” is a phrase that exactly captures the substance of much of these letters, as their unedited and full version presents us the man himself in the middle of the moonlight and the estates, and, even more particularly, the young man at a formative age, in mature adulthood as a man and a writer, a poet in full possession of his voice. The letter writer here is youthful husband, younger brother, father of infant children, maturing poet, and growing literary sensation. The tone in the early letters is somewhat hesitant, slightly diffident, often embarrassed and, equally, hugely amused and often quite wicked. This is the young man he was before he won the biggest literary prize in the world, before he was knighted, before he had established himself in the social and literary world; in short, this was, figuratively speaking, Rabindranath before he became “Tagore.”

IN THESE YEARS RABINDRANATH PUBLISHED a stream of poems, prose, dramas, essays and songs, including, significantly, Manasi (1890) and Sonar Tari (1894), while also editing (and frequently complaining about) the family-run journal Sadhana. This is also when Rabindranath wrote some of the best short stories in the Bengali language (collected and published much later as Galpaguccha), penned in close contiguity to the Bengal countryside that gave them sustenance. Vignettes of many of the most memorable characters of the short stories appear with some frequency in these letters. The postmaster featured in the story ‘Postmaster’ makes an appearance more than once—his wryness and sense of the absurd are portrayed in satirical descriptions of the man and his relationship with the village people; we also find out that he was both abashed and pleased at the same time about the story featuring him as the protagonist. The young village tomboy who features in another famous story, ‘Samapti’ (The Ending), is also to be found here in the original, with the poet looking on as she is forcibly parted from her natal family at the riverside and sent off to her distant in-laws by boat. The process of creating a story (‘Megh o roudra’—clouds and sun) around a specific character is described in another letter:

One of the pleasures of writing stories is that those I write about completely occupy my entire free time, they are the companions of my solitary mind—during the rains they drive away the sorrow of separation in my closed room, and when it is sunny, they roam around in front of my eyes like the bright scene on the shores of the Padma. That is why I have managed to make a small, proud, wheat-complexioned girl called Giribala descend into the world of my imagination this morning.

If the characters in the stories are here, then so are their critics; more than once we find Rabindranath exasperated with opinions expressed by witless reviewers on the quality of his work. His comments on the culture of reviewing in India, unfortunately, have an even greater resonance today than they did then.

The manner in which literary analysis is engaged with in our country is completely uneducated. There’s no point in hearing: ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t like it’. That only gives you a particular person’s opinion; it doesn’t give you the truth of that opinion. If that opinion comes from somebody who is sufficiently capable of appreciation or experienced in literary affairs then even that might make you think a little. But just any person’s opinion has no value at all. Our country lacks good reviewing skills—and the primary reason is that the people of our country do not have an intimate acquaintance with literature.

If reviewers are the bane of one’s life, then being forced to write reviews unwillingly is a situation that invites the greatest sympathy, and the plight of a young man in the “lonely leisure” of a “tranquil Phalgun afternoon” in 1895, sitting on his private boat “upon the still waters of the Padma, with the golden sunlight, blue skies and ashen sandbanks” in front of him, having to “embark upon a review of Dewan Gobindaram published by Sri Yogendranath Sadhu” is even more pitiable. The perfect day will “be wasted” for a book as well as a review that nobody will ever read. A wonderful digression on “a big glossy blue-coloured bee in a yellow cummerbund” follows, along with a meditation on the role of the bee in Indian literature, and the letter concludes: “Just this moment another boat passed by mine. One of its Muslim oarsmen was lying flat on his back with a book on his chest and loudly and tunefully reciting from a poem. That man too has an appreciation of life—I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to sit him down to review Dewan Gobindaram even if you beat him up.”

The figurative beating he was taking at this time was in relation to Sadhana, writing for and editing which diverted Rabindranath not only from simply soaking in the beauty of the landscape—and he has much to say about the virtue, even the indispensability, of leisure (“the complete rasa of idleness”) here—but also from his most favoured vocation, from writing his poems and songs, his real work. Delightfully, we even have a description of the advantages of composing a tune in the bathroom for the song ‘bara bedanar mata bejechha tumi he amar prane’ (Oh you have played upon my heart like the deepest hurt), quite a good song, he admits, and a favourite of his:

Firstly, the seclusion; secondly, no other duty may claim you – if you pour a tin of water over your head and spend the next five minutes humming, your sense of duty doesn’t suffer too much – and the greatest advantage, that since there’s no possibility of an audience, one can freely contort one’s face as much as one wants.

Contorting the face is common in Hindustani classical musicians, especially vocalists, and is indicative of the utter surrender to expression; fascinatingly, he describes a similar abandon in the moment of composing music as well.

For Rabindranath here, there is “more joy to be obtained from the completion of a single poem than in the writing of a thousand pages of prose.” Prose is “an absolute specimen of a burden,” while in poetry, “one’s thoughts attain a completion, almost as if one can pick it up with one’s hands.” There’s even a time for poetry and a time for prose; his “short poems keep coming up spontaneously” in the heat of summer, and he is helpless before their demand. It will be winter, possibly, before he can deal with certain ideas for plays in his head, and this leads him to the realisation that, “With the exception of Chitrangada, all my other plays are written in the winter. That is the time when the passion of lyric poetry cools down a bit and one can sit down calmly and quietly to write plays.” An entire letter dated 20 November 1894 is devoted to the difference between prose and verse, of how prose belongs clearly to work and poetry to an immense ease or leisure, which is why poetry, indispensably, encapsulates the unnecessary.

Seeing (dekha) is a trope that informs and illuminates the lines of these letters repeatedly, inexhaustibly, and urgently. In a letter written from Puri, he says of his own desire to describe: “Some people have minds like the wet plate of a photograph. The picture you take has to be printed immediately on paper, or it spoils. My mind is of that kind.” The mode in which the mind captures these images is one of stillness, of rest, of immobility, and of meditation: “this sitting quietly on one’s own and looking” while the boat floats on in its journey to Goalundo. The rains, his favourite season always, transport him to another world. On the first day of the monsoon in Shilaidaha in 1892, thinking on the fact that a time will come when “there will not be a single day remaining in my life of this day of Kalidasa, this day of Meghdut, this first day of the rains in India for all of time past,” all he wants to do is to “look once again at this world very carefully.” Looking is also something that is inextricably tied to the landscape he traverses on his favourite houseboat. “I am not yet satiated with what I have drunk of this sky,” he says, which is so expansive precisely because “Bengal is on level ground,” giving one a vast “vista of its fields, [and] its riverbanks.” In short, “there’s no other place like this to keep looking and looking, and to fill up one’s heart by looking.”

The seeing eye, however, is never far here from the inner eye of reflection and introspection, and the real theme of these letters is reminiscent of his contemporary, the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in more than one of his works. Although the more obvious correspondence may seem to be with the celebrated Letters to a Young Poet, which is advertised on Amazon as “the most famous and beloved letters of the 20th century” and essential reading for “all people who seek to know and express their inner truth,” that text remains more uniformly distant, lofty, and advisory in tone in comparison with Rabindranath’s letters to Indira, which differ from it, among other things, in their intimate immediacy and their joyful affirmation of the everyday. It is, rather, Rilke’s The Book of Hours’ revelations of a lowly god, where god is but the embodiment of the artist’s development and inspiration, “God, the rhyme”, and the astonishing trembling life of the moment in Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge that come simultaneously to mind in this context. Like Rilke, Rabindranath was a prolific letter-writer, and again like him, all his letters “are about himself, intimately, even when they are also about someone [or something] else,” as Robert Vilain observed in his introduction to Rilke’s Selected Poems. More than anything else, Letters from a Young Poet is about the poet’s own inner life, his struggles toward comprehension, and, above all, his perils as a poet or an artist. Repeatedly, in these letters, we come across a determination to elucidate his own apotheosis of art, to clarify to himself the artist’s role in society, to advocate that art and work are not dissociable, and to reiterate his belief in poetry’s superiority. These themes play themselves out in letters crucial to our understanding of Rabindranath’s writing.

THE LANGUAGE OF THESE LETTERS is direct and unencumbered; compared with some of the poetry of the early period, the prose is straight and lean, conversational and contemplative. As we immerse ourselves in the sensuous Bengali, the particular intimacy of the epistolary form allows us, for a moment, to be alone in the man’s company. It is worth remembering that before these letters were written, Tagore had already published Europe Prabasir Patra (1879–80; 1881)—the first letters ever published in conversational Bengali—and he might well have been thinking of eventually publishing these missives to Indira too. What is also worth keeping in mind as we read is that these letters are unrevised manuscripts published in full, with the exception of censored sections. For someone who was famous for his endless and tireless revisions of his own manuscripts, the knowledge that the words here flow in an unselfconscious and unrestrained stream of thought is noteworthy, because the book does not merit a place in the world as a volume of collected letters, but rather as a literary work in its own right.

Often the sentences in these letters are very long, unbroken except for the successive commas, continuing in their meandering way as they follow the thread of a thought:

The ferries cross the river, travellers with umbrellas in hand walk by the road next to the canal, women immerse their wicker baskets and wash rice, the farmers come to market with bundles of tied jute on their heads—two men have flung a tree trunk on the ground and are splitting its wood with an axe, making a thak thak sound, a carpenter works upon an upturned fisherman’s boat under an asvathha tree, repairing it with a chisel in hand, the village dog roams around aimlessly by the canal, a few cows lie lazily on the ground in the sun, swishing away flies with a lazy movement of their ears and tails before they feed upon excessive amounts of fresh grass, and when the crows sitting on their backs irritate them beyond endurance, they shake their heads at them and express their annoyance.

The cinematic image has a predecessor in such a paragraph, and the correspondences with the slow panning camera movement in Satyajit Ray’s visualisation of village life in the Apu trilogy cannot be coincidental. Along with the beauty of the hypothetical camera’s movement across this scene is the accompanying sound track that records, exactly and mesmerisingly, the incandescent nature of background sounds in the Bengal countryside; again something that Ray did path-breaking work on in his films. In a letter from Shahjadpur in 1893 Rabindranath records:

The few monotonous thak-thak thuk-thak sounds of this place, the cries of the naked children playing, the high pitched tender songs of the cowherds, the jhup jhap noise of the oars, the sharp sad sound of the oil mill hitting the nikhad note, all of these sounds of work together and are in a sort of proportion to the bird call and the sound of the leaves—all of it seems to be some part of a long dream-like sonata full of peace and enveloped in pity, somewhat in the mould of Chopin, but composed and bound to a very vast, spread out, yet restrained metre.

The sensory is a source of delight, always. Again and again, he gives his thanks for being able to absorb with his senses the astonishment of just being in the world; as he put it in a song many years later: “I hear, I see, I pour out my heart upon the breast of this earth / I have searched for the unknown in the midst of the known, / That is why my song awakens to wonder.”

Repeatedly, he mentions the rustle of nature: “… this light and this air, this half-melancholy, half-happy feeling, this continuous trembling in the leaves of trees and fields of grain,” the “shivering sound” of coconut fronds, or of the leaves of the shihsu trees in the south garden. The physicality of the rustle of nature he evokes brings to mind Barthes’ famous definition of “the rustle of language” in his essay of the same name: “to rustle is to make audible the very evaporation of noise: the tenuous, the blurred, the tremulous are received as the signs of an auditory annulation.” On a Bolpur November, when “the endless cooing of the pigeons from within the dense mango orchards turns the entire field, and sky, and wind, and dream-like long hours of dappled afternoon, into a song of separation’s sorrow,” Rabindranath feels that “even the sound of the clock on my table seems to have merged into the tender melancholy of the afternoon’s rustle of sound.” That rustle of sound comes to him with special intensity in the afternoons, like the “hum of bees” from far off, bearing memories of his life that have travelled to him “from very far away, borne upon their various and mixed rustling noise (marmardhvani).” The ancient Greek described by Hegel that Barthes ends his brief essay with might well be a description of the poet Rabindranath: “he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence.”

The responsiveness of this man to the sensory does not need the idylls of the countryside to find expression. In a letter from Calcutta in March 1895, he speaks of a morning spent in utter idleness, and of how, yet, he feels “no regret at all for this laziness,” for “this basanta morning breeze really wastes me.” He continues:

Just letting this generous warm wind waft upon the whole body seems like a duty worth doing – it seems as if the flow of this sweet breeze is a conversation that nature outside holds with me. That I was born in this world, that the spring breeze came and touched me, that the smell of the kanakchampa flower filled my head, that occasionally a morning such as this came to me in obeisance like a message from the gods—in the brief life of a man, how can this be insignificant!

Ruminating on the fact that “all these forgotten unconscious moments too are an important part of a successful life,” he has no regret for the idle enjoyment of the morning, and also thinks, “If this time had been spent in listening to a good song too one would not have regretted it.”

Music and painting are two fields analogous to his poetic vocation in which “the conventionalized formal language of bourgeois society” … “has disintegrated,” as Adorno remarked of the expressionism of Klee, Marc and Kandinsky and the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern around 1918 in Europe in his essay ‘On the Relationship between Painting and Music Today.’ “A rebellion against reification” is how Adorno describes the impulse of refusing any “compartmentalization of the objective spirit’s zones.” Rabindranath’s creative accomplishments in these fields still await such inspired theorisation, but the fact that he forged an idiom in his painted work that, likewise, considered “the material, indeed the sphere of aesthetic objectification itself, insignificant alongside the pure self-articulation of the subject” is evident to any viewer of his art work. But that was much later. Now, in the years these letters are being written, he had not yet launched his career as an artist, although he reveals that, secretly, he wants to be a painter too, even though he is “well-known as a colour-blind person”:

Unlike the other knowledges, one cannot hope to acquire it easily—to attain it is like breaking the mythical bow; you cannot win its favour until you exhaust yourself with repeated strokes of the paintbrush.

The “repeated strokes of the paintbrush” he mentions are with regard to the sort of painting being done at the time by Ravi Verma, whose work is mentioned in these letters, or indeed, by his nephew Abanindranath Tagore. His subsequent discovery of the work of the Bauhaus painters, Klee and Kandinsky among them, that he was then instrumental in bringing to Calcutta in an exhibition in 1922, perhaps set him free from his own conventional earlier notions, allowing him to almost abandon “similarity to the object” in visual art.

Written from a variety of locations, as he travelled on work or on holiday, with family or more often alone, the letters contained in this book are intensely visual insights into a landscape and countryside that contain, for the young man who writes of them, a narrative of discovery and belonging. Even though a few of these letters were sent from London or Calcutta, the vast majority of them are from the towns and villages and even rivers of Bengal, and the litany of place-names mentioned at the head of the letters may be said to constitute a poem in themselves, from his boat on the Ichamoti or from Shahjadpur or Shilaidaha, from Boalia, Bolpur, or Baliya, to Cuttack or Dighapatia, Patishar or Natore. The road or the path so beloved of him, used so often as a metaphor in the poems and songs, here becomes incarnate; thus we have letters written “On the way to Kushtia,” “On the road to Goalundo,” or “On the waterway to Dighapatia.”

These place names now belong to Bangladesh, and that country has found new ways to reinvent the poetry of this text. In a play created from Rabindranath’s letters in the Chinnapatrabali titled ‘Banglar mati banglar jal’ (“Bengal’s Land, Bengal’s Water”), itself a phrase from one of Rabindranath’s best known patriotic songs, Sayyed Shamsul Haq has devised a drama with Rabindranath as the main character, but more crucially, with all the ordinary people he wrote of in these letters—Gofur Mian, Gagan Harkara, the members of the Sunitisanchari sabha, the village postmaster, the boatmen, the revenue collectors—as the other characters who speak in their own distinctive dialects.

The ordinary women of village Bengal, especially, are a source of constant wonder—not just their shyness or their beauty, but also their strength and combativeness as he observes how, although “hidden behind her veil,” one woman has a “voice like bell-metal” that emerges “without a “trace of any fear or anxiety,” and that in this she is representative of most of the others of her sex and class. The rich complexity of these letters resides also, then, as the playwright has seen, in the range of people who make an appearance in them and in the involvement of the writer observing them going about their daily lives.

WRITING ON THE EAST BENGAL LANDSCAPE of his youth in the early twentieth century in Bangali jibane ramani (The woman in Bengali life), Nirad Chaudhuri comments that its beauty has a certain “vastness, glory, and majesty” about it that “lay in Bengal’s waters.” Eight of Rabindranath’s greatest short stories, according to Chaudhuri, are written in close proximity to Bengal’s waters at this time, and the writing here, he feels, is as “generous and tender” as the teardrop Rabindranath had envisaged as a metaphor for literary creativity in these environs. The life of the Bengali, he says, resided in that landscape of “river, water, a free, generous and blue sky, in clouds as dark as kohl or as white as the swan, in rice fields stretching up to the horizon and dense green forests.” With Partition, that landscape has been lost, and with it, Chaudhuri feels, the Indian Bengali has lost access to the natural wealth that was like his heartbeat.

For Rabindranath, in these letters, that heartbeat of the water and the land in close conjunction with each other resonates within him as he traverses “this shadowy Bengal, encircled by the embrace of its affectionate rivers.” Smaller rivers, huge awe-inspiring rivers, rivers that wind their way through the sleepy countryside, rivers made dangerous by strong currents or stupefied by the lack of any—the Ichamoti, the Gorai, the Yamuna, the Padma—make repeated appearances here. The river Padma is eulogised again and again—she is a beloved presence, a living presence, sometimes calm, as in the winter, but often angry and swollen and magnificent in the poet’s favourite season, the monsoon. The scenes on the shores of these rivers—of domestic rituals, children’s play, women’s chatter, farmer’s work, ferries plying—all find a mention as Rabindranath’s boat moves through their everyday lives and practices, forward on a journey called life.

In his book Chay Ritur Gaan (Songs of Six Seasons), Ranajit Guha calls the connection between Rabindranath and nature expressed in his letters and songs “antaranga atmiyata,” an intimate relationship. The perception of nature as an “autochthonous entity” has a “particular local impulse,” and is felt most keenly by Rabindranath, he thinks, in the evening and afternoon of certain seasons—that feeling of the revealed character of nature is related to a feeling of immediacy. Light, space and air are like an addiction in the pages of these letters. Again and again, Rabindranath speaks of these things being as essential to him as the oxygen in his lungs. “The sky, the light, the air and song have come together from every direction and loosened me up and absorbed me within themselves,” he writes from Shilaidaha in 1892. Writing from the boat on the way to Boalia in the September sunlight in the Sarat season of1894, he exults:

How I love the light and the air! Perhaps because of the appropriateness of my name. Goethe had said before he died: More light! —if I had to express a wish at a time like that then I would say: More light and more space!

Frugality of habit and extravagance of feeling, inner emotion and outer delight, leisure and work, land and water, the everyday and the eternal, each mode of being is contradicted and complimented by its opposite in the pages of this book of letters. Such a correspondence is a form of literary extravagance possible only when a surplus of thought and emotion accumulates. Other forms of literature remain the author’s and are made public for his good; letters such as these that have been given to a private individual once and for all become the reader’s with an intimacy that is therefore characterised by the more generous abandonment. What they do, above all else, is allow us to savour the plangent feeling of being in the presence of a young poet within the radiant particularity of time and place inhabited so intensely by him in these letters.

 

Adapted from the introduction to Letters from a Young Poet, translated by Rosinka Chaudhuri, forthcoming from Penguin Books India.

The ordinary women of village Bengal, especially, are a source of constant wonder—not just their shyness or their beauty, but also their strength and combativeness as he observes how, although “hidden behind her veil,” one woman has a “voice like bell-metal” that emerges “without a “trace of any fear or anxiety,” and that in this she is representative of most of the others of her sex and class. The rich complexity of these letters resides also, then, as the playwright has seen, in the range of people who make an appearance in them and in the involvement of the writer observing them going about their daily lives.

WRITING ON THE EAST BENGAL LANDSCAPE of his youth in the early twentieth century in Bangali jibane ramani (The woman in Bengali life), Nirad Chaudhuri comments that its beauty has a certain “vastness, glory, and majesty” about it that “lay in Bengal’s waters.” Eight of Rabindranath’s greatest short stories, according to Chaudhuri, are written in close proximity to Bengal’s waters at this time, and the writing here, he feels, is as “generous and tender” as the teardrop Rabindranath had envisaged as a metaphor for literary creativity in these environs. The life of the Bengali, he says, resided in that landscape of “river, water, a free, generous and blue sky, in clouds as dark as kohl or as white as the swan, in rice fields stretching up to the horizon and dense green forests.” With Partition, that landscape has been lost, and with it, Chaudhuri feels, the Indian Bengali has lost access to the natural wealth that was like his heartbeat.

For Rabindranath, in these letters, that heartbeat of the water and the land in close conjunction with each other resonates within him as he traverses “this shadowy Bengal, encircled by the embrace of its affectionate rivers.” Smaller rivers, huge awe-inspiring rivers, rivers that wind their way through the sleepy countryside, rivers made dangerous by strong currents or stupefied by the lack of any—the Ichamoti, the Gorai, the Yamuna, the Padma—make repeated appearances here. The river Padma is eulogised again and again—she is a beloved presence, a living presence, sometimes calm, as in the winter, but often angry and swollen and magnificent in the poet’s favourite season, the monsoon. The scenes on the shores of these rivers—of domestic rituals, children’s play, women’s chatter, farmer’s work, ferries plying—all find a mention as Rabindranath’s boat moves through their everyday lives and practices, forward on a journey called life.

In his book Chay Ritur Gaan (Songs of Six Seasons), Ranajit Guha calls the connection between Rabindranath and nature expressed in his letters and songs “antaranga atmiyata,” an intimate relationship. The perception of nature as an “autochthonous entity” has a “particular local impulse,” and is felt most keenly by Rabindranath, he thinks, in the evening and afternoon of certain seasons—that feeling of the revealed character of nature is related to a feeling of immediacy. Light, space and air are like an addiction in the pages of these letters. Again and again, Rabindranath speaks of these things being as essential to him as the oxygen in his lungs. “The sky, the light, the air and song have come together from every direction and loosened me up and absorbed me within themselves,” he writes from Shilaidaha in 1892. Writing from the boat on the way to Boalia in the September sunlight in the Sarat season of1894, he exults:

How I love the light and the air! Perhaps because of the appropriateness of my name. Goethe had said before he died: More light! —if I had to express a wish at a time like that then I would say: More light and more space!

Frugality of habit and extravagance of feeling, inner emotion and outer delight, leisure and work, land and water, the everyday and the eternal, each mode of being is contradicted and complimented by its opposite in the pages of this book of letters. Such a correspondence is a form of literary extravagance possible only when a surplus of thought and emotion accumulates. Other forms of literature remain the author’s and are made public for his good; letters such as these that have been given to a private individual once and for all become the reader’s with an intimacy that is therefore characterised by the more generous abandonment. What they do, above all else, is allow us to savour the plangent feeling of being in the presence of a young poet within the radiant particularity of time and place inhabited so intensely by him in these letters.

 

Adapted from the introduction to Letters from a Young Poet, translated by Rosinka Chaudhuri, forthcoming from Penguin Books India.

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Rosinka Chaudhuri is a professor of cultural studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. She is the author, most recently, of The Literary Thing: History, Poetry and the Making of a Modern Literary Culture (2013).

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