Tagore’s works reflect both the pride his family felt in their Bengali culture and their belief in a deity who transcends the limits of time, place, and creed. Unlike other upper-class families who expected their children to receive the equivalent of a British education, the Tagores insisted that in addition to becoming fluent in English and familiar with European literature, their children know both Sanskrit and Bengali and read extensively in works written in those two languages. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the nationalist fervor sweeping across the subcontinent stimulated interest in native languages such as Bengali. The Tagores responded to this movement in 1877 by establishing Bharati, a monthly journal in Bengali.
It was there that Rabindranath Tagore’s first poems appeared. Though they were highly praised, it soon became clear that this young man did not intend to hold to tradition. He rejected the formal tone of older Bengali poetry, he invented new poetic forms and tried out new meters, and most shocking of all, he wrote in the vernacular. Tagore was just as free-spirited when he set his poems to music, adapting classical forms at will. Since the short story was a relatively new form, Tagore could not so easily be criticized for his short fiction. However, some readers were surprised by his interest in the powerless and by his use of a simple, colloquial style. Tagore’s importance as a Bengali writer cannot be overstated. He is credited with single-handedly transforming the Bengali language. Moreover, his experiments with form and content made it possible for his successors to move into the literary mainstream. For these reasons, Tagore is called the father of modern Bengali literature and a major influence on Indian writers.
Even in translation it is evident that Tagore is a master of description, plot, and characterization. However, another reason for his lasting appeal to readers throughout the world is his spirituality. In Gitanjali Song Offerings, it is evident that Tagore regards his deity as an ever-present companion. In Tagore’s fiction and his plays, it is equally clear that he sees life as a struggle between good and evil. Neither creed nor class can guarantee virtue; Tagore’s noblest characters are often the most powerless, whether because, like Nikhil in Ghare bire (1916; The Home and the World, 1919), they live by their principles or because, like the lowly title character in the short story “Kabuliwallah,” they are capable of unconditional love. Tagore’s sympathy for children, for women, and for the poor is evident throughout his works. His distrust of ritual is shown in the short story “Forbidden Entry,” in which the guardian of a temple to Krishna has no compassion for human beings. By contrast, the way in which someone in power should behave is illustrated in his best-known play, Dkghar (pb. 1912; The Post Office, 1914), in which a king commands that a dying boy’s fantasy be fulfilled.
Tagore’s philosophy was also evident in the subject matter of his lectures, which were written in English and therefore could be published without having to be translated. One of his most popular volumes, Sadhana: The Realisation of Life (1913), deals with the problem of evil and the relationship between human beings and the divine. In Nationalism (1917), which was drawn from lectures presented in Japan and America, Tagore courageously criticized the nationalistic attitudes of modern nations and specifically of those two. Both that volume and The Religion of Man (1931) continued to be reprinted and reread long after Tagore’s death.
In The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (1994-1996), edited by Sisir Kumar Das, which contains both works Tagore composed in English and Bengali works that he himself translated into English, it is evident that Tagore could handle the English language as skillfully as Bengali. Therefore scholars can no longer consider Tagore merely an important Indian writer. Though he did play a major role in the development of his native language and literature, he is also considered a predecessor of the many South Asians now writing in English.
Gitanjali Song Offerings
First published: Gitnjali,1910 (English translation, 1912)
Type of work: Poetry
In a series of lyrical poems, the writer voices his yearning for union with the divine.
Gitanjali Song Offerings is a collection of 103 prose poems, selected by Tagore from among his Bengali poems and translated by him into English. The collection brought Tagore international attention and won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although Tagore later published more than twenty additional volumes of his poetry in English translation, Gitanjali Song Offerings remained one of his most beloved works.
Western readers immediately noted similarities between Gitanjali Song Offerings and the biblical Song of Songs, which most theologians insist deals not with a human union but with Christ’s love for his church. Though Gitanjali Song Offerings also is filled with sensual imagery, there is no doubt that Tagore’s subject is the relationship between a human being and the divine. When Tagore mentioned his admiration for Vaishnava poetry in an essay published in 1912, undoubtedly he had in mind the Gita Govinda, a long poem written in the twelfth century by the Bengali poet Sri Jayadev, which Westerners have often called the Indian Song of Songs. The Gita Govinda shows the god Vishnu, in his incarnation as Krishna, in passionate pursuit of the cowgirl Radha. Since Vaishnavism, or the worship of this very human god, was especially popular in Bengal, Bengali poets often wrote about Krishna’s love for Radha. Though Tagore himself, reared a theist, did not adhere to Vaishnavism, he drew upon the Vaishnava tradition for his imagery because he saw the many similarities between the pursuit of a lover and a human being’s pursuit of the divine or the reverse. The Vaishnava tradition also accounts for variations in the poetic voice. Sometimes, as in numbers 49 and 52, the speaker seems to be a woman like Radha, a beggar maid waiting for her king; at other times, the poet is clearly a male, desirous of union with the divine.
Though Gitanjali Song Offerings is a collection, not a single narrative, it does have a certain unity. All of the poems are devotional in nature, and they all have the tender tone of conventional love poems. There are also several motifs or subordinate themes that are repeated and recombined throughout the collection. In the first three poems, for example, the writer emphasizes his smallness and his helplessness before his lord. Then the emphasis shifts to what is expected of the writer: He must live a life of truth, purity, and simplicity, thus reflecting the nature of the divinity he serves. However, in several poems, including number 73, the poet maintains that union with the divine does not mean renunciation of the senses but a fuller appreciation of what they reveal, notably the beauties of the natural world.
Though in number 35, the writer asks that his country be led toward reason and freedom, usually the prayers are personal. Naturally, the mood may shift: Though many are poems of praise and joy, some speak of the writer’s desperate longing for the beloved, and others express feelings of abandonment. Toward the end of the volume, the writer turns to the subject of time, and finally, he anticipates his own death. Gitanjali Song Offerings ends on a note of triumph, with the poet finally united with his beloved God.
The Home and the World
First published: Ghare bire, 1916 (English translation, 1919)
Type of work: Novel
An idealistic husband frees his wife from her traditional role in society, only to have her betray him with the ruthless leader of what proves to be a terrorist movement.
The Home and the World is set during the height of the Swadeshi movement, a boycott of British goods that was initiated in 1905 as a protest against Great Britain’s arbitrary division of Bengal into two parts. At first, Tagore was one of the leaders of Swadeshi, but when protests evolved into violent conflicts between Muslims and Hindus, Tagore left the movement. In The Home and the World, he explained why he did not approve of what Swadeshi had become.
The novel consists of twenty-three chapters, each of them a first-person narrative by one of the three major characters. The first and the last chapters are both labeled “Bimala’s Story,” thus emphasizing the fact that the young wife Bimala is the pivotal character in what is superficially a love triangle but, more profoundly, is a conflict between two points of view, one good, the other evil. The other two narrators are Nikhil, Bimala’s husband, a wealthy landowner with Enlightenment views and a benevolent nature, and Sandip, a charismatic but completely unscrupulous Swadeshi leader.
Although for some time her husband has urged Bimala to move out into the world, it is not until she meets the charismatic Sandip that she decides to take advantage of the freedom Nikhil has offered her. The first time Sandip comes to dinner, he urges her to remain with the men and take part in the discussion. Nikhil feels that he must invite Sandip to be his guest while he is in the area, but a few days stretch into weeks, and Sandip is still present. Although he admits to the reader that he believes strong men have the right to take whatever they want, he conceals his ruthlessness from Bimala. Instead, he flatters her, calling her the “mother” of the Swadeshi movement, or the “Queen Bee.” Though Nikhil’s old master, who is visiting, urges him to get rid of Sandip, Nikhil knows that Bimala would not permit him to evict the agitator. However, when he learns that the Muslims are planning to attack his home in order to kill Sandip, Nikhil informs his guest that he must leave.
Meanwhile, Bimala has given her jewels to Sandip, as well as a large sum of money, which she stole from her husband with the aid of Sandip’s young follower Amulya, whom she has taken under her wing. Just before fleeing from the Muslims, Sandip does return the money and the jewels, insisting that for once in his life he has felt pangs of conscience. However, Bimala has recovered from her infatuation with Sandip and his cause. She now realizes that Nikhil is not only good but also wise. Before she can ask his forgiveness, however, her chivalrous husband gallops off to protect some women he hears are being mistreated by Muslim looters. Several hours later, Nikhil is brought back, critically injured. Amulya is dead. Despite the fact that Tagore does not rule out the possibility that Nikhil will live and become reconciled with his repentant wife, The Home and the World is often described as Tagore’s darkest novel. It is significant that when the noted director Satyajit Ray filmed The Home and the World in 1984, he changed the ending: In his version, Nikhil’s body is brought back, and Bimala is left with nothing but regrets.
Selected Short Stories
First published: 1991
Type of work: Short stories
Peasants and landowners alike choose between compassion and cruelty, virtue and vice.
In his introduction to this volume, editor and translator William Radice explains his reasons for including only short stories that Tagore wrote during the 1890’s, when he was in his thirties. At that time, Tagore was preoccupied with the narrative form, as is evident from the fact that fifty-nine of his lifetime’s output of ninety short stories came out of that relatively brief period. Most of the thirty stories in this collection are set in the Padma River region of East Bengal and reflect both his new understanding of peasants like those around him and his appreciation of a particularly beautiful part of his native land.
Several of these stories are supernatural, such as “Skeleton,” in which a female ghost appears to tell a story of love and death. Others resemble folktales; in “The Hungry Stones,” a man in a railway waiting room describes events in a mysterious accursed palace, but before he can finish his narrative, a train arrives and he is shown to his compartment, leaving his audience in suspense. “Wishes Granted” is a moral tale like those found in every literary tradition. In it, a father and his son have their wishes granted by a passing divinity, only to find that they were better off before.
However, though Tagore himself suggested in a much later interview that most of the early stories were simple re-creations of village life, in fact they are complex descriptions of human behavior, with ironic or tragic endings. One of the best known, “The Postmaster,” is typical. The title character is a well-educated young man from Calcutta, who has been sent to work in a remote village. Ratan, the orphan girl he hires to do his housework, becomes his only companion, and he finds himself very much attached to her. He even begins teaching her to read. When he becomes ill, she nurses him back to health. However, soon afterward he tells Ratan that he has resigned his position and will soon be leaving. To his amazement, she begs him to take her with him, but he refuses. He tries to make up for abandoning her by offering her money, but she will not take it. As his boat sails down the river, the young man consoles himself by musing on mutability, but Ratan is heartbroken. Though the author concludes by pointing out that people allow their hearts to deceive them, in fact, like many of the other stories in this collection, “The Postmaster” is really about the exploitation of the innocent and good by those who are financially better off, more powerful, or just more heartless.