Rabindranath Tagore 1861–-1941
(Name also transliterated as Ravindranatha Thakura) Indian short story writer, poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, painter, and songwriter.
Tagore is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern Bengali short story and is credited with introducing colloquial speech into Bengali literature. He has been compared to such masters of the short story form as Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant. Tagore's short fiction is often set in rural Bengali villages and is peopled by characters from the underprivileged sectors of society, reflecting Tagore's commitment to social realism in prose and his ten years among such individuals. Many of Tagore's short stories also include elements of the supernatural and bizarre. The celebrated Indian film director Satyajit Ray has adapted several of Tagore's tales into movies.
Tagore was born May 7, 1861, in Calcutta, Bengal, India, which was then under British rule. His father was a famous religious reformer, mystic, and scholar who was popularly referred to as Maharshi, Great Sage. From 1879 to 1880, Tagore attended University College in London, but returned to India before completing his studies. At twenty-two, Tagore married his ten-year-old child bride. He published several volumes of poetry during the 1880s, and throughout the 1890s Tagore managed his family estates in rural Bengal. There he encountered the villagers upon whom many of his characters are based, and many of his most renown short stories were written during this period. In 1901, Tagore founded an experimental school, combining Indian and Western thought and culture; this school became Visva-Bharati University in 1921. During the first decade of the new century, Tagore suffered extensive personal tragedy as he endured the deaths of his wife, his father, and three of his children. In 1913, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry collection Gitanjali (1910; Song Offerings); he spent the following years travelling throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas to lecture and read from his works. Tagore was a supporter of the cause for Indian national independence from Britain, although he publicly criticized some of Gandhi's ideas. However, like Gandhi, Tagore was also active in combatting the Indian caste system. Throughout his life, Tagore was a prolific writer of novels, plays, popular songs, and numerous works of nonfiction. While in his seventies, Tagore began painting and made a significant contribution to modern Indian art. Tagore died on August 7, 1941.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Tagore's short stories are available to English-language readers in several major volumes, including The Hungry Stones (1916), Mashi (1918), and Broken Ties (1925). More recent translations include Collected Stories from Rabindranath Tagore (1970) and Collected Stories (1974). As a short fiction writer, Tagore was a practitioner of psychological and social realism. His stories depict poignant human relationships within a simple, relatively uneventful plots. In “Postmaster,” a young orphaned girl employed by the postmaster in a remote village regards him as a surrogate father; when he returns to his home and family in Calcutta she is devastated at being left behind. Failing to appreciate the depth of her longing for family, the postmaster laughs at her request to be taken home with him. The story “Kabuliwalla” concerns a man who appears brusque, crude, and violent—to the extent that he is in prison—but is so sentimental about his faraway daughter that he cherishes a crumpled piece of paper because it is smudged with her fingerprints. “The Return of Khokababu” is about a servant who while caring for the infant of a wealthy couple briefly looks away from the child during which time it drowns and is never found. The servant moves away, marries, and has a son of his own. When the son is grown, the servant brings him to the wealthy couple claiming that he had in fact kidnapped their infant son years ago and is now returning him. Tagore's short stories often focus on the struggles of women and girls in traditional Indian society. Many of these tales are concerned with marital relationships and the various forms of estrangement and conflict between husband and wife. “A Wife's Letter” is narrated by a woman writing to her husband describing the many injustices imposed upon married women. In the tale “Vision” a woman goes blind after which her husband begins to neglect her and falls in love with a young girl. “Number One” depicts a woman who commits suicide in order to escape the conflict she feels between her sense of duty to her husband and her love for another man. In “Punishment,” a man kills his wife in a fit of rage; his brother, wishing to save him from punishment, convinces his own wife to testify that she is the murderer. Several short stories by Tagore involve elements of the supernatural and contain qualities of the eerie or weird tale, thus inviting comparison to the fantastic tales of Edgar Allan Poe. “The Hungry Stones” is about a man staying in an old palace who becomes enchanted by invisible ghosts; in “Living or Dead,” a woman, thought to be dead, regains consciousness during her funeral only to be regarded by her family as a phantasm, and to prove that she is truly alive, she drowns herself; and “The Skeleton” portrays a man who engages in dialogue with the ghost of a skeleton used in classroom demonstrations.
“The modern short story is Rabindranath Tagore's gift to Indian culture,” observed Vishwanath S. Naravane in 1977. Of Tagore's two hundred short stories, Naravane asserted, “about twenty are pearls of the purist variety.” Many of Tagore's short stories became available in English after he had gained international acclaim as the Nobel Prize-winning poet of Gitanjali. Early reviewers in English received Tagore's stories with mixed appraisal; while some applauded his short fiction, others found them of negligible quality. Later critics have commented that these early reviewers were ignorant of the context of Indian culture in which the stories are set. Commentators have praised Tagore for his blending of poetic lyricism with social realism, as well as the way in which his unearthly tales maintain psychological realism within an atmosphere of supernatural occurrences. Scholars frequently praise Tagore's short stories for the deeply human quality of the characters and relationships. Mohinder Kaur commented of Tagore, “With an infinite sympathy and rare psychological insight, he works out the emotional possibilities of different human relations.” For example, B. C. Chakravorty says of “The Postmaster,” counted among Tagore's finest short stories, “The story by itself is hopelessly uninteresting. But it acquires immense interest on account of the passages of lyrical grandeur which give a poetic expression to the feelings of the orphan girl and those of the postmaster.”