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RABINDRANATH TAGORE

Selected Short Stories


RABINDRANATH TAGORE
Selected Short Stories
Translated and Introduced by
MOHAMMAD A. QuAyuM
Macmillan India Ltd. 2010
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For
My daughter Sasha
Always keep our culture
close to your heart
as you entwine your soul
with the culture of the new land.
-.
Acknowledgements ix
About the translator xi
Rabindranath Tagore: A Biographical Essay xiii
Introduction xxix
The Postmaster 1
Assets and Debts 8
The Path to Salvation 15
Sacrifce 25
Kabuliwala 33
Subha 43
Mahamaya 51
The Editor 60
Punishment 66
The Professor 78
Privacy 99
Deliverance 103
Imprudence 107
The Auspicious Sight 112
CONTENTS viii
Number One 119
Purifcation 136
Balai 143
The Painter 149
A Womans Conversion to Islam 155
..,.
I am grateful to the following people for reading earlier drafts of
some of the stories and giving their valuable comments: Dr. Tully
Bennett, Dr. Gillian Dooley, Debora Matthews-Zott (Flinders uni-
versity, Australia); Professor Fakrul Alam (university of Dhaka,
Bangladesh); Professor Radha Chakaravarty (university of New
Delhi, India); Dr. Vijay Lakshmi (Philadelphia, uSA); Professor
Clinton Seeley (university of Chicago, uSA), and Professor Ron
D.K. Banerjee (Smith College, uSA).
I am also grateful to the three anonymous readers appointed
by Macmillan for their sensitive evaluation and comments on the
manuscript. Their suggestions have certainly helped to improve
the work.
Thanks are also due to Mr. Sanjay Singh of Macmillan
Publishing for his enthusiastic cooperation in the publication of
the book.
To my mother Rawshan Ara Lily who used to hum Tagore
songs to me in childhood and my father Abdus Salam who
bought me a copy of Galpaguccha (Rabindranaths Collected
Short Stories) on my eleventh birthday, my debts far exceed my
gratitude.
Finally, to my wife Natasha and daughter Sasha, thank you
for the unwavering love and constant support.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia MOHAMMAD A. QUAYUM
November 2010
. ....
Mohammad A. Quayum is professor of English at the International
Islamic university Malaysia, and has taught at universities in
Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and the united States.
He is the author/editor of 21 books, including A Rainbow
Feast: New Asian Short Stories (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish,
2010), Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-
Malaysian Literature (Singapore National Library Board, 2009),
One Sky, Many Horizons: Studies in Malaysian Literature in
English (Kuala Lumpur: Marshall Cavendish, 2007), Saul Bellow
and American Transcendentalism (New york: Peter Lang, 2004)
and The Merlion and the Hibiscus: Contemporary Short Stories
from Singapore and Malaysia (New Delhi: Penguin Books,
2001).
His essays on American and Post-colonial Literatures have
appeared in distinguished literary journals in Australia, Canada,
India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, the uK and
the uSA.
Quayum is a leading literary scholar in South-east Asia, and
the most frequently cited critic on Malaysian literature in English.
He has a second book on Rabindranath Tagore and a book on
Asia-Pacifc literatures forthcoming in 2011.
.....~ .,.
.,..,. ..,
R
abindranath Tagore, Asias frst Nobel Laureate once
described by W.B. yeats to Ezra Pound as someone
greater than any of us,
1
and whose poetic piety was
compared by Pound himself to the poetic piety of Dante
2
was
born on 7 May 1861, in a rich, culturally prominent, Brahmin
family, in Calcutta, India. His grandfather, Prince Dwarkanath
Tagore (1794-1846), was a personal friend of Queen Victoria.
Tagores father, Maharishi (a great saint) Debendranath Tagore
(1817-1905), was a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist
religious movement that sought to revive the monistic basis
of Hinduism as laid down in the Upanishads. This movement
was founded in the nineteenth century, by an enlightened and
infuential Bengali, who is often deemed the pioneer of the
Bengal/Indian Renaissance, and was dubbed by Tagore himself
as Bharat Pathik (Pathfnder of India), Raja Ram Mohan Roy
(1773-1833).
3
1
Quoted in Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit, eds. Rabindranath Tagore:
Universality and Tradition, uSA: Rosemont Publishing, 2003, p. 213.
2
Quoted in Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, eds. Selected Letters of Rabind-
ranath Tagore. Cambridge, uK: CuP, 1997, p. 102.
3
On separate occasions, Tagore also described Roy as, a very great hearted man
of gigantic intelligence and the greatest man of modern India. See uma Das Gupta,
ed. The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism, New
Delhi: OuP, 2009, pp. 10, 42.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xiv
Tagore was the fourteenth child in a family of ffteen, but he
grew up as the youngest member in the household, because
his younger sibling died early. He lost his mother, Sarada Devi,
in adolescence, and because his father travelled frequently to
distant places, including the Himalayas, on various spiritual
quests and pilgrimages, Tagore grew up under the reign of
servants or servocracy. In My Reminiscences, he humorously
recollects how these servants were negligent and oppressive;
to avoid their responsibility, they would often put the boy at
a spot in the servants quarters, draw a chalk line around him,
and warn him with a solemn face and uplifted fnger of the
perils of transgressing the circle.
4
Such forceful confnement
created a defant wish in the little boy to wipe the chalk line and
fnd the horizon; a desire that fuelled the poets imagination in
subsequent years and made him yearn for the boundless world
of nature, and reject all thorny hedges of exclusion, or labels
and divisions, that stood in the way of forming a global human
community, transcendent of boundaries or circumscribing
circles.
Tagore was educated at home. At seventeen, however, he
was sent to England to study law, but returned after a year,
without fnishing his studies, because he could not cope with
the English weather, or bear to live away for long from the
sights and sounds of Bengal. He started writing at the age of
eight, and wrote with such astonishing facility for one of such
young age that by the time he was eighteen he had written 7,000
lines of verse. Tagores literary awakening came from reading
the medieval poets such as Chandidas and Vidyapati.
5
He also
found his inspiration in the early Vaishnava religious literature.
When he was still in his teens, he revelled in the beauty of this
early Bengali poetry and, with his precocity of youth, imitated
their style and published some poems under the name of Bhanu
Singh Bhanusinher Padavali (Songs of Bhanu Singh). Later,
4
Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, eds. Rabindranath Tagore: An Antho-
logy, New york: St. Martins, 1997, p. 57.
5
Although Vidyapati wrote in Maithili, his padas had an immense infuence on
the medieval Bengali poets.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xv
Tagore rejected his juvenile poems as merely conventional and
imitative of the old classical style, but these youthful endeavours
created enough of a splash in Bengali literature to persuade
a young Indian researcher at a German university to include
Bhanu Singhs poems in a PhD thesis on the lyric poetry of
Bengal, without realising who the poet actually was (and the
PhD degree was duly awarded).
However, Tagore was not the only gifted child in the family.
His sister Swarnakumari Devi (1856-1932) was one of the frst
woman novelists in Bengal, and the entire family displayed such
talent in literature, music, art, philosophy, and mathematics,
that they ran their own journal. It is in one of these family
journals that Tagore published his frst poems and embarked on
his literary career. A myriad-minded genius, Tagore excelled in
many genres. He was no doubt primarily a poet, but he was also
an actor, playwright, producer, musician, painter, educationist,
cultural reformer, philosopher, novelist, short story writer, and a
critic of life, politics, art and literature.
It is because of this many-sidedness of his genius its
variety (vaichitra), abundance (prachurya) and dynamism
(gatimayata) that Sisir Kumar Ghosh once described him as a
Complete Man; nana-Rabindranath, or many Tagores, folded
into one.
6
In a letter to his niece, Indira Devi, Tagore explained
his multiplicity of interests in a light, humorous tone, To tell
you the truth, I do not quite know what my real vocation is or
should be. I am very much in the position of a young woman
who, in the pride of her youth, is unwilling to part with any
of her suitors.
7
Tagores creative output includes more than a
thousand poems, over two thousand songs, eight novels, nearly
two dozen plays, eight or more volumes of short fction, twelve
volumes of travel writings, and a mass of prose on literary,
social, religious, political and cultural issues. He not only wrote
6
Sisirkumar Ghosh, Rabindranath Tagore, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2005,
p. 131. Ghosh also points out that Nirad C. Chaudhuri spoke of two Rabindranaths
or dui Rabindranath, the poet and the sage (133).
7
Quoted in Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography, London:
OuP, 1962, p. 339.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xvi
the lyrics to his songs but also set them to music. Moreover, he
was a talented painter, and some of his doodles and paintings
were exhibited in several Western cities, including Berlin, New
york and Paris.
In 1901, Tagore started an experimental school at Santiniketan
(Abode of Peace), where he tried to put into practice his
upanishadic ideals of education. Built on the medieval model of
tapavana, classes in this school were held mostly outdoors, with
the assumption that students would gain more from lessons held
in a natural setting. As an alternative to Western education, the
school emphasised local elements in its curriculum, including
a focus on Indian classics and the use of Bengali as the medium
of education; but at the same time, to avoid provincialism, it
included courses on a great variety of cultures, from the East and
West. Furthermore, Tagore emphasised the need for teaching
science along with literature and humanities in his institution.
To avoid gender bias, he made it co-educational.
In 1921, the school was elevated to Visva-Bharati university.
8

The institution had little money and the fees were low, so Tagore
would go on lecture tours to different parts of the world to raise
money. His lecture honoraria, $700.00 a scold,
9
as well as most
of his Nobel Prize money, went to support the institution. Even
Mahatma Gandhi raised money for it. Tagore gave so much
time and energy to the school because he believed that lack of
basic education was the fundamental cause of many of Indias
social and economic affictions. In my view, the imposing tower
of misery which today rests in the heart of India has its sole
8
Tagore chose an ancient Sanskrit verse for the motto of his university: Yatra vis-
vam bhavati eka-nidam which means, Where the whole world meets in one nest.
Obviously Tagore set up the university to fulfl his mission of creating a harmonious
world, where India and the world would reciprocate and enrich from each others
cultures. Visva-Bharati, he announced, represents India where she has her wealth
of mind which is for all. Visva-Bharati acknowledges Indias obligation to offer to
others the hospitality of her best culture and Indias right to accept from others their
best. For more details, see Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography, p. 267.
9
Amartya Sen, Foreword. Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, Ed. Krisnah
Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Cambridge, uK: CuP, 1997, p. xxiii.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xvii
foundation in the absence of education. Caste divisions, religious
conficts, aversion to work, precarious economic conditions
all centre on this single factor,
10
he explained. Emphasising
the importance of education in the eradication of Indias social
problems, especially the blight of caste segregation, Tagore
further wrote in a letter to Myron Phelps:
Whenever I realise the hypnotic hold which this gigantic system of
cold-blooded repression has taken on the minds of our people, whose
social body it has so completely entwined in its endless coils, that
the free expression of manhood even under the direst necessity has
become almost an impossibility, the only remedy that suggests itself
to me and which even at the risk of uttering a truism I cannot but
repeat, is to educate them out of their trance.
11

Tagores life was marked by several paradoxes; inconsistency
was the hallmark of his personality. A poet, he was also very
much a practical man,
12
and managed the family estates in
East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and Orissa, where he would
spend days on a boathouse, interacting with ordinary people
whilst writing in his spare time.
13
His time there brought him in
close touch with common humanity the patient, submissive,
family-loving, Bengali ryots
14
and increased his interest in
social reforms. Many of his letters written to Indira Devi, from
his estate in Shelidah, often interspersed with humour, show
the affection and sympathy Tagore bore for the poor villagers
who made their living by working on his land. In a letter to a
Bengali woman friend in 1931, the daughter of an orthodox
zamindari family from Natore in East Bengal, he declared in
10
Quoted in Amartya Sens, Tagore and His India. The Argumentative Indian.
London: Penguin Books, 2005. p. 114.
11
uma Das Gupta, p. 257.
12
Tagores enormous merit consists in this, Aldous Huxley once wrote, that he
was at once a great idealist and a practical man of actions. Quoted in Sisir Kumar
Das, Introduction, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: A Miscellany, vol.
3, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996, p. 14.
13
Tagore was appointed manager of the familys agricultural estates in 1889. In
1899, he moved his family to Shelidah and established a home school there. In 1901,
he moved his family from Shelidah to Santiniketan.
14
uma Das Gupta, p. 440.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xviii
simple but pointed language, I love [my tenants] from my heart,
because they deserve it.
15
Critics who accuse Tagore of being a
bourgeois reactionary (Lukcs famous attack on Tagore in his
review of The Home and the World is a typical example
16
), have
perhaps misunderstood the writer, or failed to take into account
stories such as The Postmaster, Assets and Debts, Kabuliwala,
Subha, Punishment, and Purifcation, or his play The Post
Offce, which are all written with an empathy for the poor and
downtrodden in the society.
Tagores empathy also extended towards women. He
opposed gender hierarchy, created by the age-old patriarchy in
Indian society. Indian women have been oppressed since their
legal rights were curbed in the ancient Sanskrit text, Manus
Laws (Manava-dharma-sastra or Manusmriti). Women were
compared to dogs and crows as physical embodiments of
untruth, sin and darkness.
17
To dismantle such false notions
about women and restore to them the dignity that prevailed in
the Vedic Indian society, when women were seen as conducts
for the primal energy of the universe, primordial to the male
force, Tagore created several strong and assertive women in his
works. Charu in The Broken Nest, Bimala in The Home and the
World, Mrinmayi in The Conclusion, Chandara in Punishment,
and Kalika in Purifcation are examples of such women;
imbued with Shakti, they are naturally independent, vibrant and
self-confdent, and provide counter examples to the traditional
depiction of the timid, suffering Indian women, automatically
portrayed as social victims.
As a poet, Tagore preferred a secluded life, or one of sweet
obscurity on sea-shores of worlds, to keep in touch with
the muse of poetry. yet throughout his life he remained very
15
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 405.
16
Lukcs condemned Tagore as, a wholly insignifcant fgure [who] survives
by sticking scraps of the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita into his works amid the
sluggish fow of his tediousness. Quoted in Anita Desai, Introduction, The Home
and the World, p. 7.
17
Lyn Reese, Women in India, Berkeley, CA: Women in World History Curricu-
lum, 2001, p. 57.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xix
much a public fgure, both at home and abroad. He frequently
travelled overseas, out of duty, friendship and social obligation
sometimes acting as a literary luminary turned unoffcial
ambassador of India, pushing the wheelbarrows of propaganda
from continent to continent.
18
Like a perpetual wayfarer, a
chirapathik, he went from capital to capital in a regal manner,
while world leaders and prominent intellectuals vied for his
attention, and men and women jostled one another to catch
a sight of this poet and prophet from India. Several times, he
visited Europe, America and many Asian countries, and the
diaries he maintained, or letters he wrote, during these trips,
have come down to us in several volumes, as Tagores travel
writings.
19
Tagore is often seen as a mystical writer, or a voice of Indias
spiritual heritage, because of the formative infuences of the
Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita on him. He inherited the
upanishadic idea of a living presence of God in all created
objects, or the presence of self-luminous Brahman in the
hearts of all.
20
This resulted in a pantheistic and anthropocentric
worldview, that since God is present in nature and human
hearts, we ought to love nature and humanity to fulfl/realise
ourselves and to attain God.
21
Thus, love for God translated into
love for humanity and the world in many of his works, and this
is best dramatised in the following poem, used as an epigraph
to his essay, My Religion:
18
Sisir Kumar Das, p. 283.
19
Tagore had been on foreign tours twelve times. His frst visit was to England in
1878, where he went to study Law at the university College of London, and his last
visit was to Iran in 1932, taking his frst ever plane journey, where he was received
by His Majesty Reza Shah Pahlavi.
20
Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester, ed. and tr., The Upanishads,
New york: New American Library, 1957, p. 45.
21
In an interview with Albert Einstein, Tagore explained how human-centered
his religion was. He believed that truth of the universe is a human truth and that
ours is essentially a human universe in which Truth or Beauty could not exist
independent of human beings. Einstein and Tagore, The English Writings of Rabin-
dranath Tagore: A Miscellany, p. 908.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xx
In the deep of night, the man averse to worldly pleasures said:
I shall leave home to seek my desired God.
Who is it that has kept me here, tied?
God said, It is I, but the man paid no heed.
Clasping the sleeping infant to her breast
The loving wife lay at one end of the bed in deep slumber.
The man said, what are you all the trickery of illusion?
It is I, said God. No one paid any heed.
Leaving his bed the man called Where are Thou, my Lord?
God said, I am here! Still His words were not heard.
The child cried out in his sleep hugging his mother;
God said, Turn back. But His words were lost.
God heaved a sigh and said, Alas! Deserting me,
Whither goes my devotee to fnd me?
22
This sense of the interconnectedness of God and creation, or
the spiritual and the physical that God could be realised in the
daily realities of life, or by attending to practical matters, such
as looking after the family, instead of renouncing it for some
vague quest of divinity forms the basis of Tagores double
consciousness, or a multilateral ideology, that espouses the ideal
and the real, the visible and the invisible, the supernatural and
the tangible, simultaneously. Thus, those who consider Tagore a
religious writer devoid of the sense of reality, or an ideological
writer removed from facticity, are off the mark, and view him
in a partial light. Tagore himself saw life as a continual process
of synthesis,
23
and announced in My Religion, articulating his
inclusivist ideology, I am not in favour of rejecting anything, for
I am only complete with the inclusion of everything.
24
In Voice
of Humanity, he further wrote, I do not cry down the material
world. I fully realise that this is the nurse and the cradle of the
spirit.
25
Tagore was critical of modern civilisation for its one-sidedness,
exclusivism and lack of equilibrium; for its fragmented and
22
Indu Dutt, tr. A Tagore Testament. Bombay: Jaico Publishing, 1969, p. 33.
23
Anthony X. Soares, Rabindranath Tagore: Lectures and Addresses, Madras:
Macmillan India, 1970, p. 65.
24
Indu Dutt, p. 40.
25
Soares, p. 145.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxi
fragmenting nature; its predilection for the material rather than
the moral progress of humankind; its celebration of bloodless
policies, and canned, constructed ideas in lieu of a fearless
striving for truth, creativity and imagination; its cold worship
of science and money, instead of simplicity, self-reliance and
moral integrity of the individual and the community. He was of
the view that modern civilisation had an undue bias towards the
physical, intellectual and the practical; it was a soulless progeny
of greed,
26
in which man prospers, gains what appears desirable,
conquers enemies, but perishes at the root.
27
Tagore maintained
that modern civilisation is built on the law of necessity rather
than the law of truth; law of might, instead of the law of right;
and self-interest and success, rather than perfection of humanity.
Simply put, it did not care for the moral and spiritual aspects
of life, and was unilateral and monolithic in its pursuit of the
material. As a result, he saw modern civilisation as nothing but
a millstone round the neck of the human spirit, bringing with
it dehumanisation, despiritualisation, deformity and doom. In
Civilisation and Progress, Tagore explained:
[Civilisation] must be the expression of some guiding moral force
which we have evolved in our society for the object of attaining
perfection. A civilisation remains healthy and strong as long as it
contains in its centre some creative ideal that binds its members in
a rhythm of relationship. It is a relationship which is beautiful and
not merely utilitarian. When the creative ideal which is dharma gives
place to some overmastering passion, then this civilisation bursts into
confagration.
28
Tagores patriotism, or his love for India and Bengal, is
unquestionable. The many poems and songs he wrote com-
memorating the beauty of Bengal, still stir the blood of many
in his homeland. Bengalis across the border, or across religions,
love to hum/sing Tagores songs on emotional and spiritual
longing or the seasonal cycle of Bengal, at private moments or at
cultural occasions. Two of his patriotic poems were later made
26
Soares, p. 56.
27
Soares, p. 44.
28
Soares, pp. 43, 51.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxii
into national anthems of India and Bangladesh, making him the
only poet in history to have the honour of authoring two national
anthems. yet Tagore was opposed to jingoistic-chauvinistic
nationalism, or the form of patriotism that is tantamount to
idolatry of the nation and breeds sectarian arrogance, mutual
misunderstanding and a spirit of persecution.
29
He always
considered soul, conscience, and the fellowship of humanity
superior to the nation. In a letter to Abala Bose, the wife of the
celebrated Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937),
he wrote, Patriotism cannot be our fnal spiritual shelter; my
refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds,
and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as
long as I live.
30
Similarly, Nikhil, Tagores protagonist in The
Home and the World, says to his nationalist bandit friend
Sandip, appropriating his authors voice, I am willing to serve
my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far
greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to
bring curse upon it.
31

Tagores critique of nationalism is central to his imagination
and forms a part of his holistic outlook, or his search for the
creative bond of wholeness,
32
that he had derived from the
Upanishads. In his essays on nationalism, his poem The
Sunset of the Century, and his novels Gora, The Home and
the World and Four Chapters, Tagore shows how nationalism
is a destructive force that breeds hatred between communities,
peoples and nations; and acts as a major source of war through the
cultivation of parochialism, selfshness and self-aggrandisement,
29
Sen, Tagore and His India, p. 108.
30
Quoted in Quayum, Imagining One World: Rabindranath Tagores Critique
of Nationalism. Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 7.1 (Spring 2006): 49. For a full
discussion on Tagores view of nationalism, also see my articles, Tagore and Na-
tionalism, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 39.2, 2004, p. 1-6, and Empire
and Nation: Rabindranath Tagores Travel Writings, South Asian Review, vol. 26.2,
2005, pp. 41-60.
31
Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World [1915], Tr. Surendranath
Tagore, London: Penguin, 1957, p. 26.
32
Sisir Kumar Das, p. 264.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxiii
as well as the systematic othering of poorer nations by more
powerful nations. He argued that British colonialism was built
on the ideology of nationalism, as the British came to India and
other rich pastures of the world to plunder and thus to further
the prosperity of their own nation. He did not favour Gandhis
Swaraj because he believed that what India needed was not
political freedom but constructive work coming from within
herself, a thought impetus similar to that experienced by
Europe during the Renaissance that broke up the feudal system
and the tyrannical conventionalism of the Latin Church,
33
so that
she could rise again in her full might from the dry sand-bed of
dead customs.
34
Tagore believed in a dialogic, interactive world, in which
communities and nations would bear a deep sense of
sympathy, generosity and mutuality towards one another, and
shun exclusivity, parochialism and idolatry of geography for
a centrifugal outlook, principle of universality and reciprocal
recognitions. An advocate of inter-cultural alliance, he asked
the British to forsake their moral cannibalism, war madness
and political expediency and treat India as an equal partner
in creative engagement. Likewise, he urged India to give up its
dusty politics and blind revolution, and not thrust the West
off to fnd a separate identity for itself in total segregation. Such
isolationism and national narcissism would be disastrous for
both. Expressing his vision for a global society, in a letter to
Charles Andrews, Tagore wrote, I believe in the true meeting of
the East and the West.
35
In a letter to Foss Westcott, he expanded
on this idea Believe me, nothing would give me greater
happiness than to see the people of the West and the East march
in a common crusade against all that robs the human spirit of
its common signifcance.
36
Furthermore, taking exception to
Kiplings remark that the East and West were too divergent and
Never the twain shall meet, Tagore affrmed:
33
Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, p. 240.
34
Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, p. 166.
35
Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, p. 172.
36
Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, p. 197.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxiv
[East and West] are ever in search of each other, and they must
meet not merely in the fullness of physical strength, but in fullness of
truth the right hand, which wields the sword, has the need of the
left, which holds the shield of safety.
37
Tagores expression of a dialogic world also manifested itself
in his quest for unity among the Hindus and Muslims in India. He
believed that the future of India depended on the mutuality and
co-existence of the two major religious groups in the country,
and by extension all other ethno/cultural/linguistic groups. In
a letter to Myron H. Phelps, he explained that because of the
fercest confict of races, factions and creeds in India since the
ancient time, India has always given birth to geniuses such as
Ramachandra, Krishna, Ashoka, Akbar, Shankara, Ramanuja,
Kabir, Nanak and Chaitanya who have seen the necessity of
bridging these differences, allaying the endless struggle of
antagonism
38
and creating unifcation and tolerance among the
people. It is with this view, and acting as the genius or the
divine will incarnate of his age, that Tagore urged Hindus and
Muslims to know one another and respect each others cultures:
One of the most potent sources of Hindu-Moslem confict
is our scant knowledge of each other . It is only through a
sympathetic understanding of each others culture and social
customs and conventions that we can create an atmosphere of
peace and goodwill, he explained in his Preface, to a book by
Maulvi Abdul Karim, A Simple Guide to Islams Contribution to
Science and Civilisation.
39

It is also with the same intention of creating Hindu-Muslim
fraternity that he introduced a chair of Islamic Studies as well as
a chair of Persian Studies at Visva-Bharati. When riots broke out
in Chittagong and neighbouring areas in 1931, he appealed to
the Hindus and Muslims to shun their mutual recrimination and
37
Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, p. 213.
38
Dutt and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 76.
39
Rabindranath Tagore, Preface, A Simple Guide to Islams Contribution to Sci-
ence and Civilisation [1935], by Maulvi Abdul Karim, India: Goodword Books, 2002,
p. 7.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxv
join hands for the sake of bleeding humanity.
40
Moreover, in
a letter dated 30 September 1932, he called upon Gandhi to use
his patient love and political charisma to wipe out the deep
rooted antipathy [of Hindus] against Moslems
41
and build bridges
between the two largest religious clusters of the country, who
were constantly at each others throat, during the entire period
of Indias independence movement, eventually resulting in the
countrys abortive birth into two fractious nations in 1947 India
and Pakistan. His objective was to build a Mahajati in India,
nay the world, through mutual admiration and love, fellowship,
unity, and generosity of spirit of all Indians/humanity, in spite of
their caste, creed and colour, rejecting all forms of sectarianism,
cultural dogmatism or religious extremism.
42
Tagores contribution to Bengali literature cannot be
overrated. The Bengal Renaissance had produced such great
writers as Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91), Michael
Madhusudan Dutta (1824-73), Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
(1838-94), Taru Dutta (also known as Toru Dutt) (1856-77)
and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), but Tagore was the pre-eminent
writer of the entire movement. Referring to the Bengal literary
Renaissance, Charles Andrews commented, If Ram Mohan Roy
may be likened to the root of this tree of literature, planted deep
in the soil, Debendranath Tagore may be compared to its strong
and vigorous stem, and Rabindranath, his son, to its fower
and fruit.
43
It wouldnt be an exaggeration to describe Tagore
as the life-breath of modern Bengali literature and language.
Subsequent writers, especially those of the Kallol group, had
to strive hard to break the Gordian knot and come out of
Tagores shadow. Even more than half a century after his death,
he remains the towering fgure in Bengali/Indian literature. His
contributions to the awakening of Indian consciousness were
40
Dutt and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 404.
41
Dutt and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 417.
42
For a detailed discussion of Tagores literary treatment of Muslims and his at-
tempts to create Hindu-Muslim unity, see my article, A Herald of Religious unity:
Rabindranath Tagores Literary Representation of Muslims, South Asian Review, vol.
27.2, 2007, pp. 98-120.
43
Sisir Kumar Das, p. 222.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxvi
such that he came to be regarded by future generations as a
cultural hero, and the supreme symbol of Indian spirit. After
all, it was but Mahatma Gandhi who dubbed Tagore, Gurudev
(Master Teacher) and poet of the world (Tagore, in return, gave
the title Mahatma to Gandhi).
Tagore received many accolades in his illustrious life,
including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, an award that
gave rise to much controversy in the West.
44
A French writer, Jean
Guehenon, noted in a salutary reaction to the poets receiving
the award:
That the very name of a poet who in his country enjoyed such a
reputation should have been almost ignored by the whole of Europe
until these last few years, goes to prove the limits of human glory.
It also proves the narrowness of our civilisation and points out
whatever one may say its provincialism . The knowledge that
these ideals are different from ours, at least makes us aware of the
relativity of European concepts. We do not suffciently realise that
millions of human beings are fed on different ideals from ours, and
yet live.
45
But the Times of Los Angeles complained, echoing the
sentiment of much of the Western press on both sides of the
Atlantic, that young modern writers in Europe and America had
been discouraged by the award of the prize to a Hindu
poet whose name few people can pronounce, with whose work
44
Tagore himself of course responded to the news with a mixed emotion.
Whereas he was happy for himself and his friends for this extraordinary achieve-
ment, he was equally befuddled by the uproar it created both of commendation and
condemnation. Five days after receiving the award, he wrote to Rothenstein with the
touch of Tagorean irony and humour: Honours crown of honours is to know that
it will rejoice the hearts of those whom we hold most dear. But, all the same, it is a
very great trial for me. The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it has given rise
to is frightful. It is almost as bad as tying a tin can at a dogs tail making it impossible
for him to move without creating noise and collecting crowds all along . I cannot
tell you how tired I am of all this shouting, the stupendous amount of its unreality
being something appalling. Really these people honour the honour in me and not
myself. Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 131.
45
Quoted in Kripalani, p. 230.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxvii
fewer in America are familiar, and whose claim for that high
distinction still fewer will recognise.
46
In 1915 Tagore was knighted by King George V of England,
but the poet renounced his knighthood in 1919 in protest of
the heinous massacre at Jallianwalah Bagh, Punjab, by General
Dyer, in which 400 innocent Indians were killed and 1200 more
injured an act of violence caused by a political vendetta. In
1940, Tagore was accorded an honorary doctorate by Oxford
university, for which Oxford travelled to the poets doorstep
because of his ill health. The citation referred to Tagore as Most
dear to all the Muses, and Sir Maurice Gwyer, then Chief Justice
of India, who represented the university at the ceremony, said,
The university whose representative I am has in honouring you,
done honour to itself.
47
Tagore died in 1941, at the age of eighty. On hearing the
news of his death, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his prison diary,
Perhaps it is as well that (Tagore) died now and did not see the
many horrors that are likely to descend in increasing measure
on the world and on India. He had seen enough and he was
infnitely sad and unhappy.
48
Indra, Tagores second name,
refers to the Hindu god of war, and he had fought his entire life
against individual, national, cultural, and religious bigotry like
a valiant warrior. It would certainly have devastated Tagore
had he realised that India and his beloved Bengal would be
divided into two within six years of his demise, and that more
than one million people would die and ten million become
homeless, owing to the same false ideals he had fought so hard
to defeat.
49

46
Quoted in Kripalani, p. 226.
47
Quoted in Kripalani, p. 389.
48
Quoted in Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The
Myriad-Minded Man, New Delhi: Rupa, 2003, p. 368.
49
This information has been taken from Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India,
New york, Oxford: OuP, 1993. Wolpert explains, An estimated ten million people
changed lands that summer of 1947, and approximately one million of them never
reached their promised nation alive (348). According to Tareq Ali, however, the
violence of Partition claimed two million lives and made eleven million homeless
(10). Tareq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity,
London: Verso, 2002.
....
I
T is universally acknowledged that Rabindranaths reputation
as a writer lies primarily in his poetry. He was dubbed
Gurudev (Master Teacher), Kabiguru (Master Poet),
Biswakabi (World Poet) for his poetic achievements, and
awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for a collection
of poetry, Gitanjali. yet Tagore was also the founder of the
short story form in Bengali literature. He wrote 95 short stories
over a period starting in 1877, when Rabindranath was only 16
years old, till his death in 1941. He has been described as one
of the best short story writers in the world, and often has been
compared with the best of the European writers, Anton Chekov
and Guy de Maupassant. E.J. Thompson, who translated some of
Rabindranaths stories into English, once said that there was no
greater short story writer in the worlds literature
1
than Tagore.
Similarly, comparing Rabindranath to Chekov and Maupassant, a
noted Indian sociologist and writer, D.P. Mukherjee concluded,
The Russian classics have a candour of the soul, the French
have a candour of the mind, and Tagores have a candour of
feeling. If we are ashamed of feeling, Tagores stories are not
for us. If we have no such obsession, they are among the best
in the world.
2
Interestingly, Tagore himself seemed to have been aware
1
Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore,
Cambridge: CuP, 1997, p. 142.
2
Quoted in Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography. London: OuP,
1962, p. 153.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxx
of this comparison with the European writers. In an article in
Prabasi, published in May 1941, Tagore responded to a criticism
on the poetic nature of his prose in the stories in the following
words:
You speak about my language, and say that even in my prose I am a
poet. But if my language sometimes goes beyond what is appropriate
in a story, you cant blame me for that, because I had to invent the
Bengali prose myself. My language was not there; I had to create it
gradually and in stages. I had to create the prose of my stories as
I went along. Foreign writers like Maupassant that you often speak
of, inherited an already made language. If they had to create their
language as they wrote, I wonder how they would have fared.
3
The reference to Maupassant aside, Tagore is being unnecessarily
defensive here about the quality of his prose. If there is a poetic
fair, a kind of grandiloquence in the language of his narrative,
it is because his native genius was that of a poet, and unlike
writers whose talent is confned to fction mainly, forid and
fgurative language came to him naturally.
Tagores frst short story, Bhikharini (The Beggar Woman),
came out, as mentioned above, in 1877, but later he dismissed
it, together with much of his early work, as vapour-flled
bubbles that frothed and eddied round a vortex of lazy
fancy.
4
He continued to write short stories at a slow pace and
published four more stories before a radical change occurred
in his personal life, when his father unexpectedly appointed
him the manager of the family estates in East Bengal (now
Bangladesh) and Orissa in November 1889, forcing him thereby
to experience the rural outback frst-hand and the stark reality
of the common people living in the villages. Son of a zamindar,
Tagore had mostly lived a sheltered life before this; this sudden
exposure to the sufferings of the poor, illiterate tenants on their
family estates developed a new social and literary awareness
in the young writer. In an interview in 1936, Tagore explained:
3
Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore), Galpaguccha, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati, 2008, pp.
850-51.
4
Quoted in Kripalani, p. 68.
INTRODuCTION xxxi
I have different strata of my life, and all my writings can be divided
into so many periods. All of us have different incarnations in this
very life. We are born again and again in this very life. When we
come out of one period, we are as if born again. So we have literary
incarnations also.
5
Taking up the zamindari and living all alone on the family
boat at Shelidah (now in Kushtia, Bangladesh) or at the estate
building at Shahjadpur (in Pabna, Bangladesh) for protracted
periods, and then gradually settling to live there for about a
decade, obviously resulted in one such literary incarnation for the
writer. He now felt an urge to write short stories more seriously,
albeit not compromising his interest in poetry and the other
literary genres, such as drama and non-fctional prose. Tagore
lived in Shelidah, which became the estates headquarters, for a
little over ten years (1890-1901), and during this period also
known as the Shelidah period, or as Tagore later described to
W.B. yeats, the most productive
6
period of his literary career
he wrote as many as ffty-nine short stories. It is perhaps because
of this great furry of output in the form that Rabindranath came
to associate the beginning of his short story writing with this
stage of his career. In answer to a question by Joytindralal
Bandapadhyay, in 1909, for example, Tagore explained:
At frst I wrote poetry only I didnt write stories. One day Father
called me and said, I want you to take charge of the family estates.
I was surprised; I am a poet, I write poetry what do I know about
such matters? But he said, That wont do; I want you to take this
responsibility. I had no choice. Fathers order, so I had to go. This
duty brought opportunities for me to mingle with different kinds of
people, and this is how I began writing stories.
7
Likewise, in an interview in 1936, asked by his interviewer to
explain the background of [his] short stories and how they
originated, Tagore reiterated:
5
Galpaguccha, p. 853.
6
Cited in Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: A Myriad-
Minded Man (St. Martins, 1995), New Delhi: Rupa, 2003, p. 111.
7
Galpaguccha, p. 848.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxxii
It was when I was quite young that I began to write short stories.
Being a landlord I had to go to villages and thus I came in touch
with the village people and their simple modes of life. I enjoyed the
surrounding scenery and the beauty of rural Bengal. I got glimpses
into the life of the people, which appealed to me very much indeed.
My whole heart went out to the simple village people as I came into
contact with them. They seemed to belong to quite another world
so very different from that of Calcutta. My earlier stories have this
background and they describe the contact of mine with the village
people.
8
Of course, not all the stories are set in the rural outback and
not all of them are about the village people, although the vast
majority of them are. Kabuliwala, for example, is set in Kolkata.
However, Rabindranaths exposure to life in the country, his
direct contact with the soil of his land, the opportunity to see
how the deprived and downtrodden masses of his homeland
lived their simple, humdrum lives, without any opportunities to
improve their lot whatsoever, brought new fuel to his creative
energy. He had never liked Kolkata in the frst place, fnding it
too mechanical, regimented and ghettoised. About the genesis
of the city, he once sarcastically wrote:
Calcutta is an upstart town with no depth of sentiment in her
face and in her manners. It may truly be said about her genesis:
In the beginning was the spirit of the shop, which uttered through
its megaphone, Let there be Offce! and there was Calcutta. She
brought with her no dower of distinction, no majesty of noble or
romantic origin; she never gathered around her any great historical
associations, any annals of brave sufferings, or memory of mighty
deeds.
9

Therefore, the beauty and simplicity of his new rustic
surrounding moved and inspired him deeply, but at the same
time he found the living conditions of the peasant folk our
royts big, helpless children of Providence,
10
appalling and
outrageous. It is to express this two fold sentiments of love for
nature and the village life, on the one hand, and the necessity
8
Galpaguccha, p. 851.
9
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 22.
10
Kripalani, p. 148.
INTRODuCTION xxxiii
to redress the plights of the exploited villagers, on the other,
that he turned to writing short stories and, as well see later, in
a realistic and reformist vein.
In addition to this new development in the writers personal
life, his literary associations and opportunities also encouraged
him to take up the short story form more passionately and
steadily at this time.
In May 1891, Tagore was appointed the literary editor of a new
weekly magazine, Hitabadi. Taking this opportunity, he wrote
a new short story for the magazine every week and published
six stories in as many weeks. Since copies of the magazine have
not survived, it is not possible to tell exactly in which order
the stories were published. However, the feedbacks from the
readers as well as the editor were not positive, so he decided
not to continue with the magazine. Two of the stories from
this period have been included in this book The Postmaster
(Postmaster), Rabindranaths frst short story classic, and Assets
and Debts (Denapaona).
In 1891, the Tagore family introduced a new monthly
magazine, Sadhana, of which he became the chief contributor
and later, editor. The magazine lasted for four years, 1891-95,
and this turned out to be the most productive years for his short
stories. Inspired by this new opportunity, where he didnt have
to worry about the views of the editor, he continued to churn out
new stories almost every month, eventually publishing 36 stories
within this limited time. Many of Rabindranaths best known
stories were published during this period, and I have chosen
seven of them for this book The Path to Salvation (Muktir
upai), Sacrifce (Tayag), Kabuliwala (Kabuliwala), Subha
(Subha), Mahamaya (Mahamaya), The Editor (Sampadak) and
Punishment (Shasti).
However, tired of the unshared editorial responsibility,
coupled with fnancial diffculties and attacks from literary
opponents, Tagore was eventually forced to close down the
magazine. This brought a pause to his short story writing, until
he began to write again for another family magazine, Bharati,
of which he acted willy-nilly as editor from May 1898 to April
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxxiv
1899. It is believed that the renowned scientist Sir Jagadish
Chandra Bose, who became a close friend of Rabindranath after
their frst meeting in 1897, also had a particular role in Tagores
composition of short stories during this period. He would visit
Rabindranath at Shelidah regularly and cajole him to read out
a new story every time. Every weekend that Jagadish came to
Shelidah, Tagores son Rathindranath writes, he would make
father read out to him the short story that he had written the
previous week and get a promise from him to have another
ready the next weekend.
11
Tagore published eleven stories
in all in Bharati, and I have selected three of them for this
book The Professor (Adhyapak), Deliverance (uddhar) and
Imprudence (Durbuddhi).
It appears that while writing for Bharati, Tagore also published
two short stories in another magazine, Pradip Privacy (Sadar
O Andar) and The Auspicious Sight (Shubhadrishti) both of
them published in 1900. I have included both the stories in the
book as samples of Tagores work during the closing years of
the magnifcent Shelidah period.
After this productive phase, Rabindranaths interest in short
stories became intermittent. That great urgency and resolve of
the Shelidah period faded somewhat, but he still continued to
publish short stories in journals such as Prabasi and Sabujpatra.
Prabasi was edited by Ramananda Chatterjee who shared
Tagores disapproval of Gandhis Non-Cooperation Movement,
and Sabujpatra was edited by Paramatha Choudhuri, another
renowned Bengali writer and a younger friend of Rabindranath,
who later married Tagores niece Indira Devi. I have taken four
stories from this period for this book Number One (Paila
Nambar), published in Sabujpatra, and Purifcation (Shangskar),
Balai (Balai) and The Painter (Chitrakar), published in Prabasi.
The last story in this volume, A Womans Conversion to Islam
(Musalmanir Galpa), was never published in Rabindranaths
lifetime. The story was dictated on 24-25 June, 1941 and
published in Ritupatra, without any modifcation, fourteen years
11
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 55.
INTRODuCTION xxxv
after the writers demise. Although more like an outline and an
incomplete draft than a fnished story, it is a testimony that Tagore
never lost his interest in the form entirely and if circumstances
were right, he could still come up with a compelling story.
In the interview cited earlier, Tagore expressed his relative
dislike for his later stories and comparing them to the ones
written during the Shelidah period, he said:
My later stories have not got that freshness, though they have greater
psychological value and they deal with problems. Happily I had
no social or political problems before my mind when I was quite
young. Now there are a number of problems of all kinds and they
crop up unconsciously when I write a story. I am very susceptible
to environment and until and unless I am in the midst of a certain
type of atmosphere I cannot produce any artistic work. During my
youth whatever I saw appealed to me with pathos quite strong, and
therefore, my earlier stories have a greater literary value because of
their spontaneity. But now it is different. My stories of a later period
have got the necessary technique but I wish I could go back once
more to my former life.
12

In spite of this statement by the writer, Tagores stories
essentially deal with the same social, psychological, economic
and political issues, whether written during the earlier period
or the later period of his career. In an open letter to one of his
readers, published in 1918, Tagore claimed that his stories were
artistic creations, primarily intended to give enjoyment to his
readers and not written with the overt intention of acting as a
teacher or giving moral lessons.
13
Perhaps in the earlier stories,
this artistic element was predominant, while in the later stories
there was a greater sense of teaching and moralising, but as
a realistic writer he was never fully detached from his work,
never far from a reformist tendency in his fctional writings.
As well see later, in all the stories selected for this book from
the full range of his work, Tagore shows the same profound
understanding of human nature and examines the inherent
follies and foibles of the humankind, sometimes with a deep
12
Galpaguccha, p. 853.
13
Das, pp. 737-41.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxxvi
sense of pathos and sometimes with a sympathetic humour, and
sometimes intertwining both.
Human relationship with all its complexities, sensitivities and
multiple shades preoccupy the author in almost every story,
whether it is the relationship between a man and a woman,
husband and wife, father and daughter, brother and sister,
Hindus and Muslims, higher caste and lower caste; friends,
enemies, or rivals; or just strangers who have been brought
together accidentally or by a certain event. Emancipation of
women and children, education of the depressed classes, village
reconstruction and creating opportunities for village dwellers,
eradication of caste hierarchy, healing the religious rivalry
between Hindus and Muslims, ruthless greed and money worship
leading to oppression and exploitation of the helpless, are some
of the concerns that link Tagores stories, especially the ones
included in this book, in spite of the period of their composition.
And there is also an undercurrent of humour running through
many of these stories warm, tolerant and sympathetic humour,
sometimes mixed with witticism or irony as in Deliverance
and Number One arising from his extraordinary capacity
to perceive the ridiculous, ludicrous and the comic in human
beings, and especially in his own personality.
II
Rabindranath, as I have said, was essentially a realistic writer
in his short stories. He shows an extraordinary fdelity to his
surrounding and truthfulness in the treatment of his material
in the stories. If we follow the letters he wrote to Indira Devi
during his sojourn at Shelidah and Shahjadpur, we can see how
much of the descriptions of nature and society from there were
transmuted and incorporated into his narratives. In several of
the letters, Tagore has acknowledged this close correspondence
between his experience and his fctional representation, or the
semblance of art and actuality in the stories. In a letter dated 25
June 1895, for example, he wrote:
INTRODuCTION xxxvii
As I sit writing bit by bit a story for the Sadhana, the lights and
shadows and colours of my surrounding mingle with my words. The
scenes and characters and events that I am now imagining have this
sun and rain and river and the reeds on the river bank, this monsoon
sky, this shady village, this rain-nourished happy cornfelds to serve
as their background and to give them life and reality.
14

In another letter, dated 5 September 1894, Tagore commented:
Noontime in Shahzadpur is high noon for story writing. It was at
this time, at this very table, I recall, that my story, The Postmaster,
took over my thoughts. The light, the breeze and the movement of
leaves on all sides combined and entered my writing. There are
few kinds of happiness in the world more flling than the happiness
of creating something in which the mind is totally immersed in its
surroundings.
15
Despite such repeated affrmations by the writer, many of his
critics accused him of writing unrealistic and fantastic stories, far
removed from the actualities of life. These critics saw Tagore,
the son of an aristocrat and a rich landlord, incapable of genuine
sympathy for the poor.
16
Therefore, they dismissed his depiction
of the common, the average, the everyday as mere fgment
of his imagination. Tagore responded to such criticisms in a
conversation with Buddhadev Bose in 1941, brushing aside his
detractors and reaffrming his view that the stories were written
in a realistic mode:
At one time I used to rove down Bengals rivers, and I observed the
wonderful way of life of Bengals villages. I would say there is no
lack of realism in my stories. I wrote from what I saw, what I felt in
my heart my direct experience. Those who say that my stories are
fanciful are wrong.
17
In hindsight, it is amazing to think that Tagore could be
accused of unreality or inauthenticity in the portrayal of life
14
Quoted in Amiya Chakravarty, ed. A Tagore Reader, New Delhi: Rupa, 2003,
p. 45.
15
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 41.
16
Galpaguccha, p. 849.
17
Quoted in William Radice, Introduction, Rabindranath Tagore, Selected Short
Stories (DC Publishers, 1991), London: Penguin Books, 2005, p. 13.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xxxviii
and reproduction of natural objects and actions in his stories.
Anyone familiar with the life and landscape of Bengal could
discover its dust, feel, spirit and smell; its sights and sounds; its
lights, shades and myriad colours; its seasons, riverbanks and
riverine countryside; its humble people going about their daily
business; its women and children living their loving, lovable but
pitiable lives, in these stories. As Buddhadev Bose himself has
astutely suggested:
All of Bengal can be found here. Not only facts, but her living soul:
we feel her pulse as we turn the pages of Galpaguccha. Her changing
seasons, the vital fow of her rivers, her plains, her bamboo-groves,
her festival canopies and chariots; her cool, moist, richly fertile
fragrance; her mischievous, noisy, lively boys and girls; her kind,
skilled, intelligent women.
18
Two things need to be highlighted here with regard to Tagores
realism in the short stories he was a realist not merely in the
ordinary sense of the term but, aware or unaware, he shared
certain characteristics with the literary movement of Realism that
fourished in Europe and America in the second half of the
nineteenth century; and secondly, his realism was tinged by a
shade of impressionism that although he was a realistic writer,
he was not interested in photographic details of an incident or
the accuracy of the palpable actual but rather in the Aristotelian
concept of mimesis in which the allegiance was to an idea, an
impression, a mood, an emotion, a character, an action, a seed
experience, instead of the mere cold, scientifc facts.
If we summarise the attributes of literary Realism, we notice
that apart from faithful representation of the material, the writers
of the movement also shared a strong sense of democracy,
in that they were interested in the common man, rather than
heroic individuals or in legends and myths. They also believed
in the ethical function of literature, that literature should arouse
sympathy for the common man, heighten the consciousness of
readers about the reality of the human condition, and avoid
being a source of moral harm. Moreover, Realistic literature was
18
Radice, p. 13.
INTRODuCTION xxxix
character driven, and more interested in the psychology of the
actors than in the symmetry of the storys plot.
I am sure readers can see these qualities in Tagores short
stories. Who could deny that Rabindranath wrote with a sense of
democracy and deep sympathy for the common man, when we
read stories such as The Postmaster, Kabuliwala, Punishment,
Imprudence or Purifcation? In each of these stories, his heart
goes out to the poor and the eternally oppressed a homeless,
uneducated, destitute orphan girl, Ratan, in The Postmaster; a
humble fruit-peddler from Kabul, walking the streets of Kolkata,
away from his loved ones, only to make a living for himself and
to sustain his family back home, in Kabuliwala; an impoverished
family that succumbs to ruthless violence and a cold, heartless
lie that result in the death of two helpless, married women, in
Punishment; two vulnerable and defenceless fathers in a remote
village who are viciously exploited by corrupt offcials only so
that they could cremate their dead daughters, in Imprudence;
and the merciless humiliation of an old sweeper by the so-called
people of piety and patriotism, only because he is a sweeper
and an untouchable, in Purifcation.
Needless to say that in each of these stories Tagores concerns
are essentially moral and ethical as he is trying to expose the
ugly side of society; the devastation that occurs from excessive
gluttony and extortionate claims of ambition, or from the
multiplication of money, as Tagore said, whose motive force
is greed.
19
He believed in the equality and fellowship of all
human beings. He urged his readers to shun Kuvera, the god
of money and the genius of property that knows no moral
responsibility, and embrace Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity,
who is graceful and beautiful because, he argued prosperity
is for all. [Lakshmi] dwells in that property which, though
belonging to the individual, generously owns its obligation to
the community she presides over that wealth which means
19
Sisir Kumar Das, The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore: A Miscellany,
vol. 3, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1996, p. 513.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xl
happiness for all men, which is hospitable.
20
This was Tagores
way of introducing a sense of justice and benevolence into the
readers soul; for in his short stories he recurrently pleaded
for social justice, protection of the helpless, education of the
illiterate, material well-being of the indigent, and an unfettered
dignity for women and children.
Moreover, Tagores stories are mostly character driven. Often
the focus is on a single character at a moment of crisis, either
emotional or spiritual in nature, and his objective is to show
how this character resolves the crisis or learns to live with it. In
many instances, there is also an interest in the invisible life of
the characters, and outer actions are often meant to refect the
interior of the main character his/her joy, sorrow or anguish.
Stories such as The Postmaster, Subha, Mahamaya and Balai
certainly ft this pattern as they have been deliberately named
after the main character. In other stories too such as The
Professor and Number One we notice Tagore following the
fate of his protagonist, drawn with a few and highly selective
brush strokes, than paying attention to the plot; recounting the
motives, circumstances and internal action of the characters
seem to preoccupy him more than recording the precise details
of an action or developing a symmetrical plot for the story.
In drawing these parallels with the Realist movement, my
objective is of course not to place Tagore in the tradition of
Western Realism, as that would be utterly inappropriate. There
is no evidence to indicate that he consciously sought to adopt
the values of the movement; he may not have been even
aware of its existence because of his temporal proximity and
geographical distance. But the affnities do help to establish the
point that he was a realist in his short stories. Moreover, Tagore
was too complex a writer to be pigeonholed. He was like a
lumpy bag containing myriad assets. Realism grew in Europe
as a reaction to Romanticism, but Tagore accommodated the
tendencies of both in his sprawling imagination. In his poetry
20
Das, p. 513.
INTRODuCTION xli
he was lyrical and idealistic, but in his prose, and particularly in
his short stories, he was more down-to-earth and realistic. The
American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, Everything
has two handles, there must be both.
21
On another occasion, he
added, A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
22

Likewise, in the fnal section of his poem Song of Myself,
Whitman declared:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
23
Perhaps no other writer came to embody this philosophy of
multilateral consciousness or encompassing many in one,
educed by the American Renaissance writers, more than
Rabindranath Tagore.
Earlier I suggested that Tagores realism has an impressionist
tinge to it, which means that he was more interested in the
impression that a character, an object or an experience made
on his mind than in the cold details surrounding it. The idea
was to take that impression and place it in the cauldron of his
imagination so that it is enriched through a process of fltering
as well as confation with other experiences and observations,
before becoming the subject of his story. This process of fltering
and blending would also transmute the particular experience
into something larger, saying something about humanity as a
whole. Thus in a letter in 1931, Tagore wrote, Remember one
thing; a story is not a photograph. unless whatever I have seen
or heard dissolves and becomes part of the aggregate memory, it
has no place in a short story.
24
On another occasion, explaining
his creative process, he wrote:
21
Quoted in F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance. London, Toronto, New
york: OuP, 1954, p. 24.
22
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Relaince, The Norton Anthology of American Lit-
erature, Vol. B, General Editor, Nina Baym, New york, London: W.W. Norton, 2003,
p. 1164.
23
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, The Norton Anthology of American Literature,
Vol. B, General Editor, Nina Baym, New york, London: W.W. Norton, 2003, p. 2275.
24
Galpaguccha, p. 848.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xlii
when I am writing a story, my contemporary experience is
woven into its fabric, and also my personal likes and dislikes. The
possibilities that lie deep in human nature are the basis of the plots
of all the best stories and dramas in literature. Events happen in
a different manner in different places. They are never the same on
two occasions. But mans nature, which is at the root of these events,
is the same in all ages; therefore the author keeps his eye fxed on
human nature and avoids all exact copying of actual events.
25

If we study the genesis of some of the stories referred to in
his letters and interviews, we fnd that this is precisely how
Tagore composed his stories; his mind would be activated by
a certain scene or incident or character and he would weave a
story around it by intuitively blending it with an assortment of
other experiences as well as with his broad understanding of
human nature. The Postmaster, for example, was suggested
by a real postmaster who worked at the estate offce building
at Shahjadpur. There are several references to him in Tagores
letters. The city-bred postmaster didnt like his sluggish life in
the village, and this was enough to set the authors imagination
working and create a moving story of human relationship
between the postmaster and a simple, guileless, orphan girl,
Ratan. The real postmaster even saw the story after its publication
in Hitabadi and, Tagore recounts in a letter to Indira Devi,
touched on it (in a conversation with the writer) after a series of
bashful smiles.
26
However, it should be noted that although the
story was born out of a casual contact with an actual postmaster,
Tagores fctional character is very different from the living
person narrated in his letters. The actual postmaster himself
had some writerly qualities; He tells of the most improbable
things in the gravest possible fashion,
27
Tagore says in one of
his letters. In another, he adds, I must say I like the man. He
has a fund of anecdotes which I dip into and silently enjoy.
He also has a nice sense of humour. That is how he catches
25
Das, p. 740.
26
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 32.
27
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 22.
INTRODuCTION xliii
and holds ones interest.
28
But the fctional postmaster has been
reduced to a timid, practical and sombre person; and Ratan is of
course the creation of his imagination, perhaps based on some
village girl that he had come across in Shahjadpur or Shelidah.
The same principle of composition also applies to Kabuliwala,
Balai and other stories. Kabuliwala was inspired by a real
Afghan man who, Tagore said in an interview, came to our
house and who became very familiar with us.
29
But the story
was also inspired by his daughter Bela, his eldest born and
his favourite child.
30
Bela was just like Mini. Minis dialogues
are almost entirely taken from Bela, Tagore affrmed on one
occasion.
31
Therefore, while the story was based on two real
people, he had to apply his imagination to bring these two
people together and create the story. He had to also imagine,
as he pointed out in the same interview, that the Kabuliwala
too must have a daughter left behind in his motherland to be
remembered by him.
32
This is where the story became poignant,
as it helped to show that fatherly love is the same everywhere
despite cultural differences.
Balai refects Rabindranaths life-long love for nature. He was
sensitive to nature since childhood. There are many passages in
the story which echo Tagores real-life experiences with nature
which have also been narrated in his letters. Here is one that
shows his mystical kinship with the earth through its various
stages of evolution:
I feel as if dim, distant memories come to me of the time when I was
one with the rest of the earth; when on me grew the green grass, and
on me fell the autumn light; when a warm scent of youth would
rise from every pore of my vast, soft, green body at the touch of the
rays of the mellow sun, and a fresh life, a sweet joy, would be half-
consciously secreted and inarticulately poured forth from all the
28
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 32.
29
Galpaguccha, p. 852.
30
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 27.
31
Galpaguccha, p. 857.
32
Galpaguccha, p. 852.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xliv
immensity of my being, as it lay dumbly stretched, with its varied
countries and seas and mountains, under the bright blue sky.
33

Here is another, taken from a letter to Tejeshchandra Sen,
written in 1926:
My mute friends around my house are raising their hands to the sky,
intoxicated with the love of light; their call has entered my heart.
The stirrings of my heart are in the same tree-language: they have no
defned meaning, yet many ages hum and throb in them.
34
Thus although the story was suggested by his own childhood
experiences of nature, he had to distance himself in the narrative
by introducing a fctional child and his unique environment.
Notwithstanding this, the story is real as Tagore shows a
profound understanding of human nature in his portrayal of
Balais love for nature as well as his family members. There is
nothing fanciful about the way Balai interacts with his uncle and
aunt; it is obviously drawn from his shrewd observation of life
and society around him, whether at Shelidah or his own family
home at Jarosanko.
III
Tagores stories show an extraordinary thematic unity. Over
and again he returns to the same social, psychological,
cultural, economic and political issues, despite their period of
composition. Most of them are about human nature and human
relationships and show how our fundamental values, attitudes
and emotions either unite us or separate us. Humankind is
capable of profound love, fellowship, tolerance, understanding
and mutuality but also equally capable of hatred, selfshness,
vanity and narrow conformity to the age-worn practices of
society, be they religious or cultural in nature. These two forces
33
Kripalani, p. 338.
34
Quoted in Tapobrata Ghosh, Introduction, Trans. Sukanta Chaudhuri, Rabi-
ndranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories, Ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri, New Delhi: OuP,
2000, p. 28.
INTRODuCTION xlv
co-exist in us like light and shade, day and night, ebb-tide and
high-tide, and sometimes love triumphs in us and sometimes
we are overtaken by the impulse of evil.
Tagore knew that evil is a reality in human life, for where
there is no possibility of evil, there can be no place for good,
35

he said. It is like disease and health; there can be no health
without the possibility of disease. He also acknowledged the
presence of suffering and pain in life. Sometimes, pain is a
necessary price to make ourselves worthy human beings; that
it is the hard coin which must be paid for everything valuable
in this life, for our power, our wisdom, our love.
36
But pain
invoked for self-gratifcation or for some worldly gain can result
in retribution and bring misery. Thus many of his characters
become better human beings through their psychological ordeal
or experience of suffering, while others continue to suffer or
cause suffering; but as a thumb of rule, so far as Tagore is
concerned, it is mostly men who are the source of suffering, and
women and children the victims of it. This is because, he saw
men as the makers and guardians of society and civilisation, and
women and children its unwilling captives.
Within this broad scope of investigating the complexity
of human nature and human relationships, some of Tagores
stories focus on certain specifc socio-cultural issues of his time.
Thus, for example, The Postmaster interrogates the problem of
increasing gap between the village and the city which Tagore
saw as a major handicap for Indias success as a nation; Assets
and Debts deals with the evils of child marriage and dowry
practice; Sacrifce with widow remarriage and caste hierarchy;
Kabuliwala with the issues of racial and religious harmony;
Mahamaya with caste rigidity and the viciousness of suttee;
Punishment with the vices of caste and patriarchy; Purifcation
with religious and political hypocrisy, and A Womans
Conversion to Islam, again with caste hierarchy and the virtue
of religious unity. The Editor and The Painter explore the
35
Das, p. 740.
36
Das, p. 66.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xlvi
destructive effects of the passion of greed; when any civilisation
gives the frst place to greed, Tagore said, the soul relation
between man and man is severed.
37
He dramatises this view in
the context of family relationship in these two stories.
Some of the stories deal with basic human frailties and
shortcomings, such as excessive piety and self-righteousness in
The Path to Salvation; vanity and overweening arrogance in
The Professor; jealousy and overprotectiveness in Privacy; and
credulity and impulsiveness in The Auspicious Sight. These are
stories written in a lighter mood, sometimes in self-mockery,
and are mainly intended to arouse laughter than to hurt or
offend. They serve as comic relief in the otherwise emotionally
intense stories that Tagore wrote, and testify that in spite of
his seriousness of temperament, Tagore also had a humourous
side to his imagination; he could sympathetically laugh at the
ridiculous and ludicrous in himself and his fellow beings.
In several of the stories, Tagores love and tenderness are
monopolised by women and children; he often portrays women
and children with profound sympathy and admiration. Tagore
believed that women were victims of a masculine civilisation; a
civilisation built after mans own temperament and tendencies,
and in which woman for ages have been constrained to a
narrowness of sphere.
38
But women could not be held captives
for ever, nor could they be crushed by male aggression and
arrogance because they were endowed with Shakti, a vital
charm, the living symbol of divine energy,
39
without which
the masculine powers would remain inactive and dormant.
Therefore, giving equal status to women, instead of forcing
them to submission, was the only way to create a balanced
and meaningful civilisation in which man and woman could
complement each others attributes and talents and create a
paradise on earth.
It is from this perspective that he depicts a whole gallery of
37
Das, p. 432.
38
Das, p. 676.
39
Das, p. 676.
INTRODuCTION xlvii
suffering but strong women who are trounced by the wheels of a
heartless society but who refuse to compromise their self-worth
or dignity. Thus, we have Nirupama, a child bride in Assets and
Debts, who is forced into humiliation and then to a tragic death,
only because her doting father couldnt pay enough money for
her dowry, but who rebuffs all pressures from her in-laws. In
Subha, the author shows the resourcefulness of a young girl
who is utterly ignored by society and eventually betrayed by
her parents into a sham marriage, ruthlessly abandoning her to
an unknown man but a marriage to which Subha had never
consented because her parents conspired to conceal from the
suitor that she was a mute. In Mahamaya again, Rabindranath
depicts a woman who has an enormous will and self-conviction
but whose brother forces her to marry a dying man to save their
caste and then coerces her to mount the funeral pyre of her
dead husband, only for her to escape from the jaws of death and
return to the man she loved. But the physical scar she acquired
at the time of suttee comes between her and Rajeevlochan, and
the proud Mahamaya would rather live outside the periphery of
a brutal society than with a lover who couldnt accept her the
same way with the scar on her face as he did in the past.
In Punishment, Chandara is the tragic heroine who, betrayed
by her husband into a false confession of killing her sister-in-
law, would rather accept the gallows than live with the man she
found totally unworthy of her. In Number One, Anila is the
victim of an insensitive husband who is vain, egocentric, too
full of himself, and always takes his wife for granted, reducing
her status from a wedded-partner to a maid-servant but who
eventually abandons him to fnd her freedom. In the process,
she also rejects the love from her neighbour, Shetankshu, an
aristocrat, who had written twenty-fve letters to her admiring
her unique beauty, because to her both her husband in his
intense egotism and pride and her neighbour in his dreaminess
and passion are unconscious of her true self and fail to see her
as their equal.
Tagore also pays homage to children in several of his short
stories. He considered children closer to God and nature for
RABINDRANATH TAGORE xlviii
their innocence, candour of feeling and sense of pure joy. In a
poem Highest Price, Tagore shows how children were capable
of inducing happiness more than worldly power, wealth or the
lure of a woman. This sentiment is expressed in characters such
as Mini in Kabuliwala and Balai, who are totally free of the
miseries of the adult world. Both Mini and Balai are vibrant,
creative, honest and spontaneous; they are more living, as
Tagore would say, than grown-up people, who have built their
shells of habit around themselves.
40

However, while children deserved to live in love and freedom,
surrounded by objects of nature; more often than not, they
were victims of the same masculine supremacy and ruthless
male exploitation, or unbridled greed, competition, and tribal
hatred,
41
that sought to crush womans nature to dust. Thus,
we see how the six-year old Prabha in The Editor becomes
a victim of her fathers senseless greed for money and power,
until of course he returns to his senses at the end of the story
through an epiphany and reinstates Prabha in his heart. Prabhas
father, the storys narrator, began with the humble intention
of making some money to pay for his daughters dowry, but
somewhere along the way his heart was entirely consumed by
money and a false sense of arrogance which brought untold
sufferings for the young girl. In Imprudence, again, the father
begins with a modest desire to raise a dowry good enough
to fnd a suitable groom for his daughter, Shashi. But soon he
becomes so preoccupied with money that Shashi is replaced in
his heart with Mammon; and neglected and left to herself, the
motherless Shashi gets infected with cholera and dies on the day
of her wedding. In The Painter, it is the artistically inclined little
Chuni who becomes the target of his materially driven uncle,
Govinda. Govinda is determined to perpetually drill his own
love for money into the boys impressionable mind, but he is
eventually saved by his imaginatively resourceful mother who
takes him out of Govindas care.
40
Das, p. 78.
41
Das, p. 799.
INTRODuCTION xlix
In several of the stories, such as Assets and Debts, Kabuliwala,
Subha, The Editor, Imprudence and The Auspicious Sight,
Tagore has deliberately depicted father-daughter relationships
to show how fathers were infuential in determining the future
of their children, especially if they were girls. In a traditionally
patriarchal society like India (Tagores undivided India or
the Subcontinent), girl children were (and still are) often less
preferred than boys, and therefore it is more important for them
to get the fathers love, protection and blessings. In this sense,
Ramsunders unwavering affection for his daughter Nirupama,
in Assets and Debts; the Kabuliwalas yearning for his daughter
back home in Afghanistan, and the narrators heartfelt love for
Mini, in Kabuliwala; or Nabin Mukherjees tenderness for Sudha
in The Auspicious Sight, are outstanding examples of how
fathers could selfessly adore and care for their daughters and
make a positive difference in their lives. Likewise, Banikanthas
failure to protect Subha, or the failure of the narrators in The
Editor and Imprudence to care for their respective daughters,
Prabha and Shashi, are negative examples that Tagore would
want all fathers to avoid.
While most of the stories deal with Hindu characters, or those
from Tagores own religious community, in Kabuliwala and
A Womans Conversion to Islam, the author has introduced
Muslim characters. The Kabuliwala is not only a Muslim but also
one from Afghanistan, while Habir Khan is an Indian Muslim.
Both the characters have been depicted positively and with
compassion, which shows that Tagore had no prejudice against
Muslims as such. By introducing Rahmat, an Afghan Muslim,
as a family friend of the narrator, a Hindu Brahmin, and by
creating a special friendship between the burly Afghan and the
little Bengali girl Mini, Tagore is introducing a cross-racial and
cross-religious relationship, which was extraordinary given the
history of Hindu-Muslim confict in India, as well as the deep-
seated prejudice that the Bengalis generally had about these
Afghan traders. A herald of religious unity and an advocate of
racial harmony, he is trying to sow the seed of trust among
RABINDRANATH TAGORE l
his readers from different communities. Addressing the issue of
Hindu-Muslim rivalry, Tagore once wrote:
One of the most potent sources of Hindu-Moslem confict is our scant
knowledge of each other. We live side by side and yet very often
our worlds are entirely different. Such mental aloofness has done
immense mischief in the past and forebodes an evil future. It is only
through sympathetic understanding of each others culture and
social customs and conventions that we can create an atmosphere of
peace and goodwill.
42
The introduction of Rahmat as a caring father and his unmediated
affection for the little Mini is Tagores attempt to break the
religious and racial aloofness which had plagued India, and
create sympathetic understanding between cultures.
A Womans Conversion to Islam is also written in a similar
vein. It is the story of a Hindu girl, Kamala, who is rescued from
abduction by brigands and sheltered by a Muslim man, Habir
Khan. Kamalas family, being Brahmins, repudiates her for her
deflement by contacts with a Muslim man, whereas Habir Khan
allows Kamala to continue living in one isolated part of his house
as a Hindu woman, without ever forcing her to convert to Islam.
These opposite images of orthodoxy and magnanimity suggest
that Tagore wanted all Indians (both Hindus and Muslims) to
shun the narrowness, bigotry and prejudice represented by
Kamalas uncle and aunt, and embrace Habir Khans spirit of
tolerance, mutuality and inclusivity, in order to create a united
India in the midst of its cultural and religious divergence.
Religious orthodoxy is also decried in Purifcation, a story
in which an untouchable man is humiliated and physically
assaulted by a sanctimonious mob for unwittingly touching
a caste Hindu. But the story is also about political hypocrisy,
in which Rabindranath takes a swipe at Gandhis Swaraj.
Kalika, who is an ardent nationalist and a champion of Indias
political freedom from the British, refuses to come to the aid
of an untouchable man at his moment of crisis and forces her
42
Rabindranath Tagore, Preface, A Simple Guide to Islams Contribution to Sci-
ence and Civilisation (1935), by Maulvi Abdul Karim, India: Goodword Books, 2002.
INTRODuCTION li
husband, Girindra, who offers to rescue him from the brutal
attack and take him into his car, to drive off from the scene. This
exposes the self-serving agenda of the so-called nationalists;
they were not fghting for the freedom of all Indians but only
for a small privileged group of their own. Tagores contention is
that such freedom would not bring respite for the vast majority
of Indians who were being daily exploited, humiliated and
marginalised by their fellow countrymen. What India needed
frst and foremost, he argued, was inner purifcation and a
genuine desire to address the problems which were eating into
its social and moral fbre.
Finally, a word on Tagores perception of humour, which has
not been adequately addressed by his critics yet. We know from
reading his letters that despite being a naturally serious and
thoughtful person, Tagore also had a healthy sense of humour.
In several of his letters, he narrates his experiences with the
British offcers who would come to visit him from time to time
for offcial work at his estate offce, or his experiences with his
estate tenants, in a humourous vein, often mixing self-mockery
with sympathetic laughter. Here is one about a British offcer
who had come to his area on offcial duty and Tagore feels
compelled to be hospitable with him:
And so at midday this zamindar babu placed his pugree on his head,
picked up one of his visiting cards, climbed into his palanquin, and
sallied forth. The magistrate was sitting in the veranda of his tent
dispensing justice, fanked by constables. A crowd of supplicants
waited nearby beneath the shade of a tree. My palanquin was set
down under the shahibs nose and he received me cordially on his
wooden cot. Hospitality was required of me; I said, Do come
and eat with me tomorrow night. He said, I am due elsewhere
to arrange for a pig sticking. I (inwardly exultant) said, What a
shame. The sahib replied, I shall be back again on Monday. I (now
feeling despondent) said, then please come and eat on Monday. He
instantly agreed. Never mind, I sighed to myself Monday is a fair
way off.
43
43
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 16.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE lii
Here is another one, about a group of young boys who had
come to plead to him for some extra furniture for their school.
Their spokesman (one of the young boys) gives a high-fown
speech to convince the zamindar about their plea, and continues
with his speech even after Tagore has consented to the request.
The boy had memorised his speech and felt compelled to fnish
it despite the poets agreement, and so Tagore writes:
Had I refused to supply the seats he probably would not have minded,
but had I deprived him of his speech that would have struck him as
intolerable. Therefore, though it kept more important matters waiting,
I gravely heard him out. If someone with the right sense of humour
had been about, probably I would have jumped up and run next
door. But a zamindari is simply not the place for a humourmonger
here we display only solemnity and high learning.
44

In another letter, Tagore explains how he was in the habit
of telling humorous stories to his children, and urges a friend
to help him obtain some of those materials for his evening
storytelling sessions:
If you are placing an order with Chunder & Brothers please include
the following books:
Choice Works of Mark Twain
Mark Twains Library of Humour
published by Chatto and Windus.
Each evening I sit surrounded by my family circle and read to
them by lamplight. I have discovered that Mark Twains humour is
the family favourite Bela and Belas mother fnd it particularly
funny. I have copies of Tramps Abroad and Innocents Abroad but I
have nearly exhausted the humorous sections. I remember noticing
in Thackers some time ago some short English farces in two or three
acts can you send me a basketful?
45
It is important for readers to keep this side of Rabindranaths
personality in mind while reading the stories, especially the ones
I mentioned earlier The Path to Salvation, The Professor,
Privacy and The Auspicious Sight. While he was essentially
44
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 21.
45
Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 51.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE liv
a serious writer, often writing in the vein of an acute observer,
mindful of human sufferings (especially the plight of the socially
deprived classes as well as women and children), seeking to
improve their lot, he was also at the same time capable of a
good laugh now and then at the inherent weaknesses and
shortcomings in the human personality, including himself. This
is what brings poignancy, variety and colour to his stories,
adding to their richness of theme as well as their mood and
atmosphere, making them ever so intriguing, stimulating and
appealing to his readers.
....
1
S
oon after his appointment, the postmaster was sent for duty
to the village of ulapur. It was an ordinary village. There
was an Indigo factory nearby and, using his infuence, its
English proprietor had managed to get a post offce established.
Being from the city of Kolkata, our postmaster found himself
like a fsh out of water in his new rustic surrounding. His offce
was in a dingy cabin house, adjacent to a slimy pond flled with
water-hyacinth and covered with bushy trees on all four sides.
The employees of the factory had little upbringing or free time
to associate with this gentleman.
The urban-bred young man was also lacking in social skills.
Whenever he went to a new place, he looked either confused
or arrogant, and could barely interact with the villagers. On
the other hand, he didnt have much work at offce either.
Occasionally he wrote poetry expressing a romantic sentiment
of happiness at the sight of foating clouds and futtering shrubs,
but god knew that if some genie from the Arabian tales came
and transformed the bushes into paved roads overnight and built
high rises that kept the clouds out of sight, then this emotionally
fagging sensitive persons life would be revived again.
The postmaster worked on a meagre salary, so he had to
cook his own meals. He was assisted in his housework by a
destitute orphan girl, in return for a little food. The girls name
was Ratan. The prospects of her getting married soon looked
faint.
1
Bengali title: Postmaster. First published in Hitabadi, 1298 (1891).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 2
In the evening, when curls of smoke from fumigation spiralled
from the cowsheds, crickets chirped merrily in the thickets,
tipsy bauls
2
in distant villages started playing on tom-toms and
cymbals and singing at a high pitch; sitting on the porch in the
dark, the poets lonely heart would agitate slightly at the sight
of the trembling boughs; at that hour, standing in one corner
of the house, the postmaster would light a dim lamp and call
out, Ratan. Ratan would be sitting on the doorstep and waiting
for that call, but she never came into the house immediately.
Instead, she would reply, Sir, do you need any help?
What are you doing?, the postmaster would ask.
I am lighting the freplace. I have work in the kitchen, Ratan
replied.
your kitchen work can wait. Can you frst get me the tobacco
pipe?
Soon Ratan would step into the house with cheeks infated,
blowing persistently into a lighted tobacco bowl. Taking it from
her hand, the postmaster would ask her abruptly, Ratan, do
you still remember your mother? That was a long story, some
of which she could recall and some of which she couldnt; but
her father loved her more than her mother did and she still
remembered her father faintly. After a long day, her father used
to return in the evening, and scattered images of some of those
evenings were somehow still frmly fxed in her mind. In the
midst of their idle talk Ratan would gradually settle down on
the clay foor of the house, next to the postmasters feet. She
remembered that she had a little brother, and long ago the two
of them had played together by fshing in a nearby pond, taking
the broken twigs of trees as fsh rods. More than any of the
serious incidents, this particular memory cropped up in her
mind. Sometimes they would continue to chat late into the night
and the postmaster would feel too lazy to cook by then, so the
two of them would fnish their dinner with the stale curry from
2
A class of unorthodox religious devotees in Bengal, of either Hindu or
Muslim background, who live an itinerant life and sing devotional songs
in a special mode.
THE POSTMASTER 3
the morning and a few baked breads that Ratan would prepare
by making a quick fre.
On some evenings, sitting in his offce chair at one corner of
the cabin house, the postmaster would recall memories of his
own family his mother, little brother and elder sister. Those
fond memories flled his lonely heart, away from home, with
pain. The agonising thoughts, which he could never share with
the employees of the indigo factory, recurred in his mind and
he narrated them freely to this little illiterate girl without ever
considering it inappropriate. Eventually, it so happened that
during their conversations, the girl started calling his family
members in his own fashion, addressing them as ma (mother),
didi (elder sister), dada (elder brother), as if she had known
them forever. In her little heart, the girl had even pictured the
imaginary faces of these people.
It was the rainy season and a warm gentle wind was blowing
softly on a sunny afternoon. An odour emitted from the sun-
drenched vegetation, as if the respiration of a fagging earth was
blowing directly onto the body, and an alien obstinate bird was
singing all through the afternoon, complaining repeatedly to the
world. On that day, the postmaster was relatively free. The rain-
washed, shiny, rustling leaves of trees and the piled up clouds
gathering in layers in the sky after the rain, in the white light of
a partly sunny day was really a sight to behold. The postmaster
was attentively observing that sight and wondering what if he
had someone he loved close by at that hour, someone whose
heart was tied with his, and was the idol of his soul. It occurred
to him that the plaintive monotone of the bird and the surging
noise of the foliage in an afternoon landscape void of human
presence were also perhaps telling a similar story. No one knew
it or would perhaps believe it, but the heart of the postmaster
of that little village, living on a meagre salary, flled with such
thoughts of anguish and yearning on silent afternoons, especially
during the festive holidays.
Heaving a deep sigh the postmaster called out, Ratan.
Ratan was sitting at the foot of a guava tree, her legs stretched
out, eating a raw guava. On hearing the voice of her master, she
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 4
ran inside and asked breathlessly, Dada Babu, did you call me?
Ill teach you how to read bit by bit every day, the postmaster
replied. With that, he spent the whole afternoon teaching her
the alphabets, and in a few days fnished teaching her the
compound letters.
There was no end to the rain in the monsoon season, and
slowly it flled up all the rivers, canals and marshy land; day and
night there was the croaking of frogs and pounding of rain.
Most of the roads were inundated by rainwater and boats were
used for travelling to the market.
One day, it had been raining heavily since morning. The
postmasters student, Ratan, kept waiting at the door for a long
time for the routine call from her master. But when she heard
no call, she slowly went inside on her own, with her book and
writing slate in hand. She saw the postmaster lying on his cot,
and, thinking that he was resting, she was about to step out
of the house again quietly when at once she heard the call,
Ratan.
She stepped back in a hurry and asked, Dada Babu, were
you sleeping?
The postmaster replied in a weak voice, I am not feeling
well. Could you check with your fngers the temperature on my
forehead?
Being sick on a rainy day, in a lonely life away from home,
one would long to be comforted with affectionate care. One
would imagine the soft touch of a womans hand, wearing
bangles, on the burning brow. Afficted by ill-health in this
extremely secluded life, one yearns for the mother or sister by
the bedside in the form of a loving woman, and the yearning
of this lonesome individual didnt go in vain. The young Ratan
was no longer a little girl. Instantly she assumed the role of the
mother called the physician, gave him medicine at appropriate
hours, waited by his bedside the whole night, prepared his diet
on her own accord, and asked him over and over again, Are
you feeling a little better, Dada Babu?
After many days, frail in body, the postmaster stepped out of
the sickbed and decided enough was enough. He must get a
THE POSTMASTER 5
transfer from the place. Referring to the unhealthy environment
of the village, he hastily wrote a petition to the authorities in
Kolkata, requesting for a new posting.
Relieved of her nursing duties, Ratan returned to her old
seat at the threshold of the house. Sometimes she pried inside
and saw the postmaster lying on the cot or sitting on a bench,
absentmindedly. When Ratan was sitting there, awaiting a call
from him, the postmaster was eagerly awaiting a reply to his
appeal. Hunkered down at her seat outside the house, the girl
went over her old lessons countless times lest all the compound
letters got mixed up whenever she was called unexpectedly
and asked to recite them by rote. Finally, the call came one
evening after about a week, and, stepping into the house with
an effusive heart, Ratan asked, Dada Babu, did you call me?
Ratan, I am leaving tomorrow, answered the postmaster.
Where to, Dada Babu?, Ratan asked.
I am going home.
When will you be back?
Never.
Ratan didnt ask any more questions. The postmaster explained
to her voluntarily that he had applied for a transfer and his
request was granted; therefore, he was now taking discharge
from his current posting and going home. When the postmaster
fnished, both of them went into a prolonged silence. The lamp
was burning dimly at one corner of the house, and rainwater
was dripping onto an earthen lid, seeping through the rundown
roof of the house.
After a while, Ratan got up languidly and went to bake some
bread. It was not done as spiritedly as in the past, because she
looked preoccupied. On completion of his evening meal, Ratan
asked the postmaster, Dada Babu, will you take me to your
home?
How could I do that!, said the postmaster with a laugh. He
never bothered to explain to the girl why it was not possible.
Throughout the night, in her dream and wakefulness, the girl
heard the cackling laugh of the postmaster and his curt reply,
How could I do that!
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 6
In the morning the postmaster saw his bathing water in the
pail like everyday, a habit of bathing with river water carried
home in a bucket which he had formed in Kolkata. For some
reason the girl had never asked him about his time of departure,
but in case he needed the water in the morning she went to
the river late at night to fll the bucket. Concluding his bath, the
postmaster called out for Ratan, and stepping into the house
quietly, Ratan looked up at her masters face in silence for his
command. The master said, Ratan, Ill tell the person who comes
to replace me to look after you the way I did. you dont have to
worry that I am leaving. There was no doubt that those words
came from a loving and kind heart, but who could fathom a
womans mind! Ratan had quietly swallowed many reproaches
from her master in the past, but she couldnt accept those mild
words. Howling out, she said, No, no, there is no need for you
to say anything. I dont want to be here.
The postmaster was struck dumb by her response because he
had never seen Ratan behave that way.
The new postmaster arrived. Handing over duties to him,
the outgoing postmaster was about to leave. At the time of his
departure he called Ratan and said, Ratan, I have never been
able to give you anything, but today I am leaving behind a little
money which will support you for a few days.
Saving some passage money for himself, he took out all the
money he had received as salaries from his pocket. Ratan fell
at his feet and started pleading, Dada Babu, I beg you, there is
no need to give me anything; no one has to worry about me,
please. She then rushed out of the house.
The postmaster heaved a sigh, took his carpetbag in hand,
the umbrella on his shoulder, lifted his blue and white trunk to
the porters head and began walking towards the boat calmly.
When he got into the boat and it started moving out of the
dock, the rain-inundated river appeared surging like the earths
eyes suffused with tears, and he began to feel an anguish in his
heart the melancholic face of an ordinary village girl seemed to
tell the story of an inexplicable tribulation of the entire world. A
passionate thought crossed his mind, Let me go back and bring
THE POSTMASTER 7
that forlorn girl with me. But the sail had set; the monsoon
currents in the river were fowing rapidly. Crossing the village
they were already in sight of the crematorium ground, and a
notion dawned in the mind of the listless traveller drifting on the
stream separation and death are a recurrent fact of life. What
is the point of going back? Arent we all solitary on this earth?
But no such idea arose in Ratans mind. She simply went on
wandering around the posthouse with tears in her eyes. Perhaps
she had a faint hope that Dada Babu might come back she
couldnt leave the place, breaking that magic bond. Ah, frail
human heart! Its illusions are endless; sense comes to the human
mind at a sluggish pace; it clings onto false hopes defying even
the strongest of evidence, until one day the hopes fee, sucking
the last drop of blood from the heart. Only then the sense
returns, briefy, before the heart becomes restless again to enter
into a new delusion.
.. . .
1
W
hen a daughter was born, after fve sons, the parents,
out of their lavish love, named her Nirupama, the
inimitable one. Such an attractive name had never
been heard in the family before. usually names of gods and
deities, such as Ganesh, Kartik, Parvati, were used.
The family was now considering Nirupamas marriage. Her
father Ramsunder Mitra went around looking for a suitable
groom but could hardly fnd one to his own liking. At last, he
found out the only son of a lofty Rai Bahadur.
2
The ancestral
wealth of this Rai Bahadur had dwindled considerably, but still
the family was aristocratic.
The grooms family asked for a dowry of 10,000 rupees and
many extra gifts. Ramsunder agreed without a thought; he
couldnt let such a groom slip through his fngers.
But in no way could he raise all the money. Even after
pawning, selling and exhausting every other means, there was
a defcit of 6000-7000 rupees. In the meantime, the day of the
wedding was drawing near.
The wedding day fnally arrived. Someone had agreed to
lend the rest of the amount at an exorbitant rate of interest,
but he failed to show up on the appointed day. A furious row
broke out at the wedding assembly. Ramsunder humbly begged
to the Rai Bahadur, Let the auspicious ceremony take place,
1
Bengali title: Denapaona. First published in Hitabadi, 1298 (1891).
2
Offcial titles once conferred on important Hindu citizens, especially
during the colonial period.
ASSETS AND DEBTS 9
Ill defnitely pay off the debt. The Rai Bahadur replied, The
groom could not be brought to the assembly until the amount
was paid in full.
The women of the house began wailing at this dreadful
incident. The root cause of the misfortune sat mutely in her
silk wedding sari and ornaments, her forehead anointed with
sandal-paste. It was not that she was harbouring much love or
respect for her prospective in-laws.
Meanwhile the situation turned favourable. The groom
suddenly became defant of his father and declared, I know
none of this haggling and transaction, I have come to marry and
marry I shall.
The father complained to everyone around him, See, sir, how
the boys behave these days. Some elderly men present at the
hall answered, Its because they get no moral and religious
education nowadays.
Seeing the poisonous fruit of modern education in his own
son, the Rai Bahadur sat despondent, and the wedding was
solemnised in a gloomy and cheerless fashion.
As Nirupama was about to leave for her in-laws house, her
father pulled her to his breast and failed to hold back his tears.
Wont they let me visit you again, father?, she asked. Why not,
my daughter; if not, Ill go and fetch you, the father replied.
Ramsunder went to see his daughter frequently, but he had
no respect in his son-in-laws house. Even the servants looked
down upon him. In a separate house away from the main living
quarters, he was allowed to see his daughter for fve minutes on
some days, and on other days he was denied even that.
unable to bear such humiliation at a relatives house,
Ramsunder decided that the money had to be paid somehow.
But he was already tottering under the burden of his current
debts, and stretched to the limit with the family expenses. To
avoid meeting his creditors, he had to constantly adopt various
wily strategies.
In the meantime, the girl was being taunted by her in-laws at
every turn. It became a daily routine for her to shed tears behind
closed doors at the insults heaped at her family.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 10
In particular, her mother-in-laws grudge wouldnt abate.
If someone remarked, What a beautiful bride! Her face is so
soothing on the eyes, the old lady would angrily retort, yeah,
she is very pretty! Pretty as the family she came from.
Even her food and clothing were neglected. If a kind neighbour
pointed out a faw, the mother-in-law replied, She has enough,
meaning, if the father had paid full price, the daughter would
get full care. Everyone behaved as if the bride had no rights in
the house; she had entered it by fraud.
Perhaps the father had come to know of such neglect and
humiliation of his daughter. He decided to sell the house.
But he kept it from his sons that he was about to make them
homeless. His plan was to sell the house and then continue to
live there on rent. He would manage it so tactfully that his sons
would have no clue about the matter before his death.
But his sons came to know. They protested and begged him
not to do so. Especially, the three elder sons who were married,
and one or two even had children. Their objections grew so
resolute that he had to call off selling the house.
Ramsunder then started borrowing small sums of money from
different sources at a high interest. The situation became such
that he could no longer meet the family expenses.
Nirupama understood everything by looking at her fathers
face. The old mans grey hair, emaciated face and ever-cowering
appearance provided testimony to the familys unbearable
poverty and anxiety. When a father is guilty of a wrongful act to
his daughter, how can he hide the remorse from that infraction!
Whenever Ramsunder was allowed to see his daughter even
for a while, one could tell from the way he laughed how heart-
broken he was.
Nirupama became restless to go home for a few days to
console her distressed father. She could no longer bear to be
away on seeing his haggard face. One day she asked Ramsunder,
Father, take me home for once. The father replied, All right.
But Ramsunder lacked the power to carry out his wish. The
natural claims a father has to his daughter had to be pawned for
the lack of dowry money. Even to see his daughter he had to
ASSETS AND DEBTS 11
beg meekly, and if he was denied permission on any occasion,
he didnt have the face to ask a second time.
But if a daughter wants to come home on her own accord,
how could a father not bring her? So the insult, indignity and loss
that Ramsunder had to experience to raise 3000 rupees before
he could bring the request to the attention of his daughters
father-in-law best remain unsaid here.
Wrapping the banknotes in a handkerchief and tying it at a
corner of his shawl, Ramsunder went and sat beside the man. He
began calmly, with a smile, by frst narrating the local news. There
was a spectacular burglary at Harekrishnas house, he recounted
the full details of it; comparing the intelligence and temperament
of the two brothers, Nabinmadhab and Radhamadhab, he sang
praises of Radhamadhab and condemned Nabinmadhab; he
gave a fantastic account of a new disease in town, and then,
fnally, putting the tobacco pipe down, he said as if in a course
of conversation, Oh, yes, yes, my brother, I still have some
money owing for sure. I remember it everyday and ask myself
to bring some as I come to visit you, but somehow it slips my
mind. Besides, I have grown old, my friend. After such a long
preamble, he took out the three notes with seeming unconcern
and aloofness, but which were actually like three of his ribs.
Seeing only 3000 rupees, the Rai Bahadur burst out in a
raucous laughter, and said, Let it be, I wont need that. Citing a
conventional Bengali phrase, he said he didnt want to make his
hand reek for no reason.
After this incident, no father can ask to bring his daughter
home, but Ramsunder thought such propriety didnt suit him.
After sitting in a mortifying silence for a long while, he fnally
brought up the matter in a low voice. The Rai Bahadur replied,
Not now, and gave no reason. He then left the place on the
pretext of work.
Ramsunder lost the courage to face his daughter, and tying
the notes in trembling hands at a corner of his shawl he returned
home. He took a vow that until he could pay up all the money
and lay claims on his daughter confdently, he wouldnt return
to the Rai Bahadurs house.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 12
Days and weeks passed. Nirupama sent messenger after
messenger but received no sight of her father. Finally, hurt, she
stopped sending emissaries which stung Ramsunder, but still he
didnt go to visit her.
The month of Aswin, sixth month of the Bengali calendar,
came. Ramsunder said, I must bring my daughter home during
this puja festival or else I, and made a dreadful vow.
On the ffth or sixth day of the puja festival, Ramsunder
once again tied a few notes at the edge of his shawl and
prepared to go out. His fve-year-old grandson came and asked,
Grandfather, are you going out to buy a cart for me? For a long
time, the boy had been having the fancy to ride in a push-cart,
but Ramsunder found no means to meet that wish. Then a six-
year-old granddaughter came and complained tearfully that she
had no decent dress for visiting friends this festive season.
Ramsunder knew that well, and had brooded over it intensely
while smoking his hookah. He had sighed many times thinking
over how the women of his household would have to attend
the puja invitation at the Rai Bahadurs house wearing their little
jewellery like paupers asking for favour; but such thoughts had
done him no good except to make the marks of his age on the
forehead deeper.
With the cries of his poverty-stricken household in his ears,
the old man stepped into the Rai Bahadurs house. Today there
was no hesitation in him; no diffdence and timidity in greeting
the servants and the security guards like in the past. He was
told that the Rai Bahadur had gone out and he would have to
wait for some time. But unable to hold back his excitement,
Ramsunder went in to meet his daughter. Tears rolled down
his face in uncontrollable joy. Both father and daughter cried,
unable to speak for a while. Then Ramsunder said, I am taking
you home this time, my daughter. There are no obstacles now.
At this time, Ramsunders eldest son Haramohan barged into
the room with his two little sons. He cried, Father, have you
decided to ruin us utterly?
Suddenly turning furious, Rumsunder yelped, Am I to
condemn myself to hell for your sakes? Wont you let me do
ASSETS AND DEBTS 13
what is right? Ramsunder had already sold the house. He had
taken every measure so that his sons wouldnt fnd out about
the sale, but noticing that they still had found out he became
upset and angry.
His grandson clutched round his knees tightly, looked up,
and asked, Grandfather, wont you buy me that cart?
When he got no reply from the stooping Ramsunder, the boy
went up to Nirupama and asked, Aunty, will you buy me a cart?
Nirupama fgured out the whole situation. Father, she said,
if you give one more coin to my father-in-law, you wont see
your daughter again I swear.
Ramsunder replied, Shame, daughter, never say such a thing!
Besides, if I fail to pay the money, it brings dishonour on me
and on you too.
Nirupama said, It is humiliating only if you pay the money.
Does your daughter have no dignity? Am I only a bag of money;
so long as there is money I have value? No father, dont insult
me by paying that money. Besides, my husband doesnt want it.
Then they wont let you visit us, my child, said Ramsunder.
What can you do if they dont? you also dont try to take me,
Nirupama replied.
Ramsunder took up the shawl in trembling hands with the
money still tied into it, put it back on his shoulder, and again
returned home like a thief avoiding everyones gaze.
But that Ramsunder had brought the money and left without
giving it, persuaded by his daughter, did not remain a secret.
Some inquisitive, eavesdropping maid informed it to Nirupamas
mother-in-law. Hearing it, the old womans malice crossed all
limits.
Her in-laws house turned into a bed of arrows for Nirupama.
Her husband had left home soon after their marriage to take up a
posting of Deputy Magistrate in another part of the country, and
on the pretext that she might be corrupted by contact, her in-
laws forbade her from all kinds of interaction with her relatives.
At this time, Nirupama fell critically ill. But her mother-in-law
could not be fully blamed for it. She was extremely negligent of
her own health. She slept the whole chilly autumn nights with
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 14
her head close to an open door; in winter she remained barely
clothed. Her meals were irregular. At times, when the maids
forgot to bring her food, she didnt once open her mouth to
remind them. The notion that she was living on the mercy of the
master and lady as well as the servants and maids of a strangers
house was becoming deep-seated in her mind. But even this
attitude was unbearable for her mother-in-law. If she observed
Nirupamas slight apathy towards food, she would say, Isnt she
from a noble family? Provisions of a poor household are not to
her taste. Or, Look at her, how graceful she looks! Day by day
she is becoming more like a piece of burnt wood.
When the illness became more severe, the mother-in-law
said, Its all a sham. At last, Nirupama pleaded to her mother-
in-law, Please allow me to see my father and my brothers just
once, Mother.
Its only a ploy to go to her fathers house, was the old ladys
reply.
It might sound absurd, but the evening Nirupama started
gasping for breath, she was seen by a doctor for the frst time,
and that also turned out to be his last visit.
The eldest daughter-in-law of the household had passed
away; her funeral rites were carried out with great pomp. The Rai
Chaudhuries were renowned in the district for their ceremonial
immersion of the idol at the end of the puja festival; the Rai
Bahadurs gained an equal fame for their spectacular cremation
of the eldest daughter-in-law. Nobody had seen such a huge
sandalwood funeral pyre in the region. Only the Rai Bahadurs
could afford the stately funeral ceremony that followed, and it
was rumoured that they had run into a bit of debt as a result.
While consoling Ramsunder, everyone gave long descriptions
of the pomp and grandeur of his daughters death.
Meanwhile, a letter came from the Deputy Magistrate, I have
made all arrangements here; please send my wife to me without
delay. Rai Bahadurs wife replied, My son, we have found
another girl for you, so take leave immediately and come home.
This time the dowry was set at 20,000 rupees, all in cash.
.~ ..
1
F
akirchand had been a sombre person even in his
childhood. He never seemed out of place in the company
of old people, and could barely tolerate cold water, winter
or humour. First of all, he was of a serious nature, and besides,
he used to cover his neck with a black woollen scarf for much
of the year. Therefore, he looked like a very dignifed person.
On top of that, his upper lip and cheeks were covered with a
thick growth of beard and moustache from an early age, so that
there was not even the slightest room for a smile to fourish on
his face.
His wife Haimabati was a young girl, and her mind was
absorbed in worldly pleasures. She liked to read Bankims
novels, and derived no satisfaction from worshipping her
husband like a god. She was a lively person, like a blossoming
fower eagerly awaiting the undulation of the wind and the
fresh light of morning. She had anticipated much affection and
entertainment from her husband in her adolescence, but the
husband took every opportunity to teach her Bhagavad Gita, and
routinely recited the scripture to her in the evening. Sometimes,
he punished her physically for her spiritual advancement. The
night Fakir would discover Bankims Krisnakantas Will under
Haimabatis pillow, he would fnd peace only by making the
frivolous young woman cry all night. Reading a novel and
deceiving the husband-lord too! However, through constant
1
Bengali title: Muktir upai. First published in Sadhana, Chaitra 1298
(March-April 1892).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 16
advice, instructions, lectures on piety, and coercion, the high
and mighty husband eventually succeeded in eradicating all
smiles from Haimabatis face, destroying her peace of mind, and
draining away every bit of her youthful exuberance.
But for austere people there are too many obstacles in the
society. By and by, Fakir became the father of a son and a
daughter, and so his social ties multiplied. Prodded by his father,
even a dignifed person like Fakir had to go from offce to offce
to fnd a job, but the prospects of getting one looked faint.
Then he thought, Let me renounce society like the Buddha,
and left home in the middle of night.
II
Another incident needs to be narrated here.
Sasthicharan, a resident of Nabagram, had one son; his name
was Makhanlal. Soon after his frst marriage, when no children
were born to his wife, he married again to meet his fathers
demand, and for the excitement of change. After that wedding,
seven daughters and one son were born from his two wives,
one after another.
Makhanlal was a very frivolous and playful person; he was
reluctant to shoulder any serious burden. There was the burden
of so many children, and when two navigators of the family
started steering the ship in different directions, unable to take it
anymore, he too ran away from home late one night.
There was no sight of him for many years. It was rumoured
that to fnd the bliss of having a single wife he had secretly
married again in Kashi, and that the wretched fellow had indeed
found some measure of peace. But now and then he restlessly
longed to return home but dared not for the fear of being caught.
III
After loitering in several places for many days, Fakirchand
showed up in the village of Nabagram. Sitting in the shade of
THE PATH TO SALVATION 17
a banyan tree by the roadside, he said with a sigh, Supreme is
the life of a religious mendicant. Wife, wealth and children are
but illusions. Where art thou, my wife in scarlet sari, and my
children! Thereupon he started singing:
Listen, O listen, my foolish heart,
Listen to the sayings of the saint,
On how to fnd salvation,
And follow that counsel.
Break the shell of worldly ties,
To seek out the pearl of freedom,
Oh erring spirit,
Thou oblivious soul.
Suddenly he stopped chanting and muttered, Whos that? Is it
my father? Is he on the trail? What a disaster! Hell drag me back
to the black hole of family life. I must fee right now!
IV
Fakir rushed into a house nearby. The old householder was
sitting quietly and smoking a tobacco pipe. Seeing Fakir enter,
he asked, Who are you?
Fakir replied, My good sir, I am a hermit.
A hermit? Come, come into the light, my son, exclaimed the
old man.
With that he dragged Fakir near the lamp, bent close to his
face, scrutinised him likean old man studying a religious text,
and began muttering, This is my own Makhanlal! The same
nose, the same eyes, only the forehead has changed a bit, and
that same beautiful face covered with a bushy moustache and
beard.
Then the old man affectionately stroked the bearded face of
Fakir a few times, Makhan, my son!, he said, outright.
Needless to say, this old man was Sasthicharan.
Bewildered, Fakir shouted, Makhan! My name was never
Makhan! Whatever my previous name, now people call
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 18
me Chidananda Swami. If you like, you could also call me
Paramananda.
Sasthicharan replied, Call yourself Chire or Paramanna,
2

fattened rice or sweet rice dessert, or whatever you like, but
how can I not recognise you as my son, Makhan! Why on earth
did you have to run away from home! What do you lack? you
have two wives; even if you dont love the frst one, there is
the younger wife. you also have no lack of children. Against all
odds, you have seven daughters and a son. I am your old father,
how much longer will I live? This household will be yours.
How dreadful!, exclaimed Fakir in alarm. The very mention
of that frightens me.
Then he understood the situation and thought to himself,
Whats the harm if I hide here for a couple of days pretending
to be the old mans son? Ill fee as soon as my father leaves this
place after his unsuccessful search.
Fakirs silence removed all doubts from the old mans mind.
He called his servant Keshta and said, Go and announce to the
village that my Makhan has returned.
V
Very soon a huge crowd gathered in front of the house. Most
people of the neighbourhood agreed that, indeed, it was
Makhanlal. Some expressed doubts, but people were generally
so eager to believe the story that they were incensed at the
sceptics. As if the cynics were there to deliberately spoil the
fun, to read a fourteen syllable line intentionally as seventeen.
The sooner these people could be gagged, the sooner the
neighbourhood would fnd relief. They neither believed in
ghost stories, nor in exorcism; when other people were struck
dumb by a strange story, they would resort to nitpicking. In
a sense they were infdels. No harm if they were sceptical of
ghost stories, but to express doubt about the identity of an old
2
Popular rice preparations of Bengal.
THE PATH TO SALVATION 19
mans lost son who had just returned home was utterly cruel.
Anyhow, scolded by the villagers, the protestors fell silent.
Without paying the slightest heed to the conspicuously sombre
nature of Fakir, the villagers circled around him babbling, Look,
look, our very own Makhan has become a swami, a saint; all
his life he was so facetious, but now, all of a sudden, he has
become a holy man.
Proud Fakir found the statements offensive but accepted
them willy-nilly. Someone moved very close to him and said
playfully, O Makhan, you were black like ebony, how did you
make your complexion so light?
Fakir replied, Through yoga.
Everyone said in unison, How amazing is the power of yoga!
Someone from the crowd retorted, What is there to be
surprised about! In the scripture, it is stated that when Bheema
tried to lift Hanumans tail but failed repeatedly, what made it
possible? yoga.
Everyone had to acknowledge this truth.
Just then Sasthicharan walked in and asked Fakir, Son, lets
go and visit the inner quarters.
This prospect hadnt occurred to Fakir earlier; it now struck
him like a shaft of lightning. After remaining silent for a while,
and withstanding much vulgar mockery from the crowd, he
fnally said, Father, I have become an ascetic now. I cant enter
the zenana.
At this, Sasthicharan said to the crowd, In that case youll all
have to leave the room. Ill ask my daughters-in-law to come
here. They are very anxious.
One by one everyone left. Fakir thought, I should take to my
heels now. But realising that the villagers would chase him like
a dog the moment he stepped out, he remained sitting there
motionless.
The moment Makhanlals two wives walked in, Fakir bowed,
greeted them by touching their feet, and said, Mothers, I am
your son.
Instantly a bangle fashed like a glittering knife before Fakirs
eyes and a voice rang out, like a gong struck with a thick rod,
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 20
you wretched man, who did you call your mother!
A second voice followed in a higher pitch, shattering the
peace of the entire neighbourhood, Have you gone completely
blind! Why cant you die and leave us in peace!
Not used to hearing such abusive language from his own wife,
Fakir meekly answered, with folded hands, you are making a
mistake. Let me stand in the light, and look at me carefully.
The two wives shrieked in succession, We have seen enough.
We have almost gone blind with your trickery. you are not a
little boy, nor were you born the other day. you cut your milk
teeth years ago. Do you have a fountain of life inside you! Just
because the regent of death has forgotten you, that doesnt
mean we have.
No one could tell how long that one-sided conjugal talk
would have lasted, because Fakir was standing there totally
speechless hanging his head. Hearing the uproar inside the
house and noticing that people were stopping by to eavesdrop
on them, Sasthicharan stepped in and said, All this while my
house was so quiet, there was not the slightest noise. Today it
really feels like my Makhan has come back.
Fakir pleaded with folded hands, Sir, save me from the
clutches of your daughters-in-law.
Sasthi replied, Son, you have come back after a long time,
thats why the frst few days may seem somewhat unbearable.
Very well, my daughters, you may go in now. Makhan will
remain here from now on; well not let him go anywhere.
After the two women took leave, Fakir said to the old man,
Sir, I now fully understand why your son renounced society.
Please accept my obeisance, I am leaving.
At this, the old man began wailing so loudly that everyone
in the neighbourhood thought Makhan had assaulted his father.
They all rushed to the scene and warned Makhan in the sternest
tone that no such pseudo-saintliness would be tolerated in the
village. He would have to live like the son of an honest man.
Someone commented sarcastically, He is not a great sage, but
a frst-rate fraud.
Fakir never had to listen to such obscene language before
THE PATH TO SALVATION 21
because of his lofty appearance with the lush beard covering his
face, and the scarf girdling his neck. However, lest the fellow
would run away, the villagers kept a careful watch on him. Even
the local zamindar gave his full support to Sasthi.
VI
Fakir realised that the watch on him was so strict that they
wouldnt let him out of the house except in death. Sitting there
all by himself, he began to sing:
O listen to the sayings of the saint,
On how to fnd salvation,
And follow that counsel.
Needless to say, the songs spiritual signifcance had faded
somewhat.
Days would have passed somehow even in that situation.
But at the news of Makhans return, a host of siblings of his two
wives arrived at the house.
First, they started pulling his beard and moustache, protesting
that they were not real but merely glued on to his face as a
disguise.
When someone starts pulling the moustache, even as noble a
person as Fakir found it diffcult to retain self-control. Moreover,
his ears were severely assaulted, frst by being pulled and,
second, through the use of such foul language the ears grew
red without twisting.
Later, they began asking him to sing songs for which even
the most modern and erudite music scholars would fail to give
a spiritual meaning. They also smeared the tiny visible part of
Fakirs chin with lime paste and soot while he was asleep; fed
him worthless vegetables like arum instead of edible roots, water
from the hookah in place of green coconut water and in lieu of
milk, at mealtimes; made him slip and fall by putting areca nut
under his low wooden seat; fastened a tail on his buttocks; and
in million other ways they razed Fakirs lofty solemnity to the
ground.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 22
Fakir tried in every way to frighten the hecklers; by ranting
at them, swelling and heaving with rage, threatening them, and
trying to chase them away, but in no way could he arousefear
in their hearts. Rather, he became more and more the butt of
public ridicule. Meanwhile, now and then he could also hear
peals of loud, sweet laughter from the inner house, which
sounded familiar, and made him more desperate.
This familiar voice is, however, not unfamiliar to the reader. It
will suffce to say that Sasthicharan was a distant maternal uncle
of Haimabati. After her marriage, being routinely oppressed in
her marital home, Haimabati, an orphan, would often take refuge
in a relatives house. Visiting her uncles house after a long time,
she had been witnessing an extremely amusing charade from
behind the scenes. Whether some vengeful instincts incited her
naturally fun-loving nature, only psychologists can tell; we are
not in a position to make that judgement.
Mockers might occasionally pause for breath, but it is diffcult
to fnd respite from those who are related to one by tender love.
The seven daughters and one son did not let go of Fakir for a
moment. The two mothers kept them constantly engaged in
demanding the fathers love. The mothers too had their rivalries
and each wanted her own children to get more affection. Both
continually kept instigating their children to outdo their rivals in
hugging andkissing their father and occupyinghis lap.
There is little need to point out that Fakir was a callous person
by nature; otherwise he wouldnt have so calmly abandoned
his own children. Children are not pious, nor are they awed
by the presence of saints, hence Fakir didnt have the slightest
measure of love for them; he was inclined to avoid children
as if they were worms and insects. Of late, with his children
constantly swarming all over him like a plague of locusts, he
had begun to resemble a history essay cluttered with footnotes
of varying sizes, marked with diverse letters of the alphabet.
These children were wide apart in age, but they all seemed to
lack the civility and propriety of adult men. This often brought
tears to the puritanical Fakirs eyes, and they were certainly not
tears of joy.
THE PATH TO SALVATION 23
When a strangers children called him father in various tones
to express their love, he felt like exerting his brutal force upon
them. But he couldnt do so out of fear, so he just sat there inert,
his face disfgured with hatred.
VII
ultimately, Fakir began to scream at the top of his voice, Ill
leave; lets see who will stop me!
Then the villagers brought in a lawyer, who began to
interrogate him. Are you not aware that you have two wives?
Fakir: yes, I came to know about it frst on coming here.
Lawyer: And you have seven daughters and one son, two
girls are of marriageable age.
Fakir: yes, I notice you know much more than I do.
Lawyer: If you dont take the responsibility of clothing and
sheltering your family, your deserted wives will take the legal
course; let me remind you of that.
Of all things, Fakir feared courts the most. He knew that
lawyers didnt care for the honour and prestige of saints during
their cross-examinations, and insulted them openly, and these
things were reported in the newspapers. Tearfully, Fakir tried to
explain the details of his real identity to the lawyer. The lawyer
repeatedly praised him for his cunning, presence of mind, and
ability to lie. Hearingthis,Fakir felt like biting his own hands
and feet in outrage.
Seeing Fakir trying to escape yet again, Sasthi was
overwhelmed with grief. The neighbours came and rebuked
Fakir in innumerable ways, and the lawyer threatened him so
fercely that Fakir was left utterly speechless.
After that when the eight children hugged Fakir from all
sides with great affection and almost choked him, Haimabati,
watching it from the inner rooms, didnt know whether to laugh
or cry.
Finding no other alternative, Fakir had in the meantime
written a letter to his father explaining thewhole situation. His
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 24
father, Mr. Haricharan, arrived at the scene on reading it. But the
villagers, as well as the zamindar and the lawyer, refused him
access to his son.
They produced many conclusive pieces of evidence to prove
that the man was Makhan and not Fakir. They even called in the
old nanny who brought up Makhan. She came and lifted Fakirs
chin with her trembling hands and scrutinised the face carefully.
Then she wept on Fakirs shoulder so profusely that a stream
fooded his beard.
When even that didnt stop Fakir, the two wives came out
and stood before him with their veils removed. The assembled
crowd quickly stepped out. Only the two fathers, Fakir and the
children stayed in the room.
With aggressive gestures, the two wives asked him, What
hell, what gate of death do youfancy?
Fakir didnt have an exact answer, so he kept silent. But his
body language indicated that he had no special liking for any of
the gates of death. For the time being any exit would suffce,
leaving this place anyhow would be enough for now.
Then another female fgure walked into the room and
submissively touched Fakirs feet.
Fakir was surprised at frst, but then he cried exultantly, Isnt
it Haimabati?
Fakirs eyes had never been flled with so much love at the
sight of his own wife or any other. It appeared as though the
very embodiment of salvation had arrived.
Another man was observing everything from the inner quarters,
his face covered with a shawl. His name was Makhanlal. He was
ecstatic at the sight of another man installed in his place, but
when he saw Haimabati arrive, he reckoned that the innocent
man was his own brother-in-law. Stricken with pity, he now
walked into the room and announced, No, its a deadly sin
to put someone who is related in danger. Pointing at his two
wives, he said, These are my scaffold, my curse.
Everyone in the neighbourhood was amazed by Makhanlals
extraordinary courage and generosity.
..,
1
E
arly spring wind, thick with the fragrance of mango-
blossoms was blowing on the frst full moon night of
Phalgoon (eleventh month of the Bengali calendar). The
incessant call of a sleepless cuckoo from the dense foliage of
an old lychee tree by the pond was permeating into a sleepless
bedroom of the Mukherjee house. Hemanta was either restlessly
detaching a lock of hair from his wifes chignon and wrapping it
against his fngers, or making a mild clanking noise by causing
friction between her bracelets and bangles, or gently pulling the
fower-wreath from her head and placing it over her face. As the
wind tries to stir a motionless tree in the evening by blowing
now from this side and next from another, giving it a little jerk,
so was Hemanta behaving.
But Kusum sat there inertly with her eyes absorbed into the
infnite void of the night drenched in moonbeams. Her husbands
restiveness bounced off of her. At last, with an impatient tug at
Kusums hands, Hemanta said, Where are you, Kusum? you
seem to be so far away that even an extensive search with a
huge telescope would yield but the faintest trace of you. My
wish is you stay a little close to me today. Look, look, what a
beautiful night it is out there!
Kusum turned her face from the empty space towards her
husband and said, I know a mantra which could crush this
moonlit night, this spring into a lie in an instant.
1
Bengali title: Tayag. First published in Sadhana, Baishakh 1299
(April-May 1892).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 26
Hemanta replied, If you know of any such mantra, better
not to utter it. Rather, if you know of any incantation that could
introduce three or four Sundays in a week or extend the night
to fve or fve-thirty of the following afternoon, then I would be
willing to hear that. So saying, he tried to draw Kusum a little
closer. Avoiding the embrace, Kusum answered, The word that
I wanted to reveal to you at the time of my death, I feel like
divulging it now. Today I feel, no matter how much you punish
me, Ill be able to endure it.
Hemanta was about to make light of the situation by reciting
a verse on punishment from the famous Bengali poet Jayadeva.
2

Right then he heard a pair of indignant slippers noisily rushing
towards his room. It was the familiar footsteps of Hemantas
father, Harihar Mukherjee. Hemanta became alarmed.
Harihar roared angrily from the door, Hemanta, drive your
wife out of the house right now.
Hemanta looked at his wife, but she didnt show any surprise;
stricken with grief, she only covered her face with her hands to
efface herself with all her will and energy. The southerly wind
still brought the cuckoos song into the house but nobody paid
any heed. This world is so infnitely beautiful but it can be
reduced to ruins so easily.
II
Returning home from outside, Hemanta asked his wife, Is it
true?
The wife replied, yes.
Why didnt you tell me for so long?
I have tried many times, but I couldnt. I am very sinful.
Okay then, say everything candidly today.
Kusum said everything in a weighty, steady voice as if she
was walking through a burning fre in gentle, resolute steps;
2
Jayadeva is the author of the musical epic Geeta Govinda. He lived in
the twelfth century.
SACRIFICE 27
nobody knew how much she was being scalded by it. Hemanta
walked away after hearing everything.
Kusum knew that the husband who had left would never
come back. But it did not strike her as strange; she took it as
easily as any other daily experience; so much drab numbness
had accumulated in her mind. Only, she felt inclined to think
that the world and love itself were totally false and meaningless.
Even the recollection of Hemantas past gestures of love educed
a drab, dreary, dreadful smile that like a sharp, cruel knife
left a scar all over her mind. Perhaps she thought, love which
appeared so magnanimous, which involved so much affection
and intensity a moment of separation which seemed so
tragic, and a momentary union so infnitely blissful that it was
impossible to imagine it to end ever was so futile in reality.
So fimsy! The moment the society struck a blow, infnite love
reduced itself into a handful of rubble. Just a while ago, Hemanta
was whispering excitedly, What a beautiful night! That night
had not ended yet; that cuckoo was still singing; the southerly
wind was blowing against the mosquito net; the moonlit night
was sleeping intently like a beautiful, happily exhausted woman
at one end of the bed beside the window. It is all a lie! Love is
a greater liar and a more inveterate follower of falsehood than
I am!
III
The next morning, emaciated from a sleepless night, Hemanta
rushed to Pyarishankar Ghosals house in a wild state.
Pyarishankar asked, Hello, son, whats the news?
Ablaze like a huge ball of fre, Hemanta said in a trembling
voice, you have defled our caste; ruined us youll have to pay
for it; so saying his voice got choked.
With a faint smile of ridicule, Pyarishankar replied, And you
have protected my caste and cared for my class; you have been
patting my back. you have so much of love and concern for
me!
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 28
Hemanta felt like reducing Pyarishankar instantly to ashes
with the fearsome energy of Brahma,
3
but he himself continued
to burn in the fame while Pyarishankar sat there calm and
unperturbed.
In a husky voice, Hemanta asked, What did I do to you?
Pyarishankar replied, Let me ask, what harm did my only
daughter and I have no other children except her do to your
father? you were little then, maybe you are not aware of it so
listen to me carefully. Dont be impatient, son; there is plenty of
humour in it.
When my son-in-law Nabakanta fed to England stealing my
daughters jewellery, you were an infant then. When he came
back after fve years with a bar-at-law degree, the fracas that
broke out in the village, maybe you would remember some
of that. Or maybe you wouldnt know about it as you were
in school in Kolkata then. your father, assuming the role of
village ringleader, declared, If you have the desire to send your
daughter to her husband, you couldnt bring her back again.
I begged, Dada (elder brother), forgive me this time. Ill make
my son-in-law atone for it in the harshest way; take him back
into the fold of our caste. your father refused to acquiesce; I
also couldnt forsake my only daughter. Giving up my caste and
community, I started a new life in Kolkata. But that also did
not settle the issue. When we had made all the preparations
for my nephews marriage, your father encouraged the brides
family to break off the wedding. Then I took a vow that if I
didnt retaliate, I was not a Brahmins son. Now perhaps you
have understood a bit, but wait a while longer; youll feel happy
when you hear the whole story there is some fun in it.
When you were studying in college, Bipradas Chatterjee lived
next to your house. The innocent man is dead now. A homeless
young widow from a Kayastha
4
family, named Kusum, lived in
3
The Hindu god of creation and one of the Trimurti or divine trinity, the
others being Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).
4
A Hindu caste, and the only sect who are referred to as direct descend-
ants of a Vedic god in the religious texts and the only ancestor worshipping
SACRIFICE 29
Mr. Chatterjees house like an adopted child. The girl was very
beautiful; the old Brahmin became a bit worried about keeping
her in sight of the college boys. But to hoodwink an old man
is not at all diffcult for a young woman. She often went to the
roof to hang out the laundry for drying and you too perhaps
could not commit your lessons to memory without stepping on
the roof. Whether you spoke to one another from each others
roof, only you could tell, but the old man became suspicious of
the girl from her movements. Because she increasingly became
unmindful in her household work, and like the goddess Durga
5

in her meditative state began to give up food and sleep. On
some evenings, she failed to restrain her tears without any
reason in the very presence of the old man.
At last, the old man discovered that you two had occasional
silent meetings with each other on the roof at proper and
improper hours even at noon, you would sit at a corner of
the roof under the shadow of the attic with a book in hand,
missing your classes at college; you had suddenly developed
such eagerness in solitary studies. When Bipradas came to seek
my advice, I said, uncle, you have been planning to go to
Vanaras on a pilgrimage for a long time; leave the girl in my
care and go on your devotional trip, I am taking charge of her.
Bipradas went for his pilgrimage. I took the girl, placed her
in Sripati Chatterjees house, and proclaimed him as the girls
father. you know of what followed after that. I feel very happy
telling you everything, from top to bottom, so candidly. It is
almost like a story. I have the intention of putting everything in
writing and publishing it in a book. But I am not accustomed
to writing. I have heard that my nephew writes now and then;
I intend to get him to write it for me. Though it would be best
sect of Hinduism, also called Chitranshi/Devputra. They are said to have a
dual-caste status, i.e. Brahmin and Kshatriya.
5
A form of Devi, the supremely radiant goddess, who is often depicted
as having ten arms, riding a lion, carrying weapons and a lotus fower,
maintaining a meditative smile, and practicing symbolic or ritual gestures.
She can redeem in situations of utmost distress.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 30
if you and he wrote it together, as I do not have the details of
the storys ending.
Without paying much attention to Pyarishakars fnal words,
Hemanta asked, Kusum raised no objection to the marriage in
any way?
Pyarishankar replied, Whether she had any objection or not
is hard to tell. you know, son, how womens mind works; when
they say no, we have to take it for yes. For the frst few days
in the new house, without being able to see you, she became
almost mad. you also, I noticed, had found out somehow. Often
starting for college with your books in hand, you would forget
your way and end up in front of Sripatis house, where you
seemed to search for something. Although it didnt look like you
were casting about for the road to Presidency College, because
only fying insects and the heart of lunatic youth found their
way through the windows of a gentlemans house. Seeing all
this I felt very sorry. I noticed that your studies were seriously
hampered and the girl was also in a dire state.
One day I called for Kusum and said, My child, I am an old
man, there is no need to be shy with me; I know the person you
worship at heart. The boy is also about to be ruined. My wish
is for you two to come together. Hearing this, Kusum began to
howl and ran away from the place. In this way, going to Sripatis
house in the evening from time to time, I sent for Kusum and
purposefully spoke to her about you to slowly rid her of her
coyness. Eventually, through a daily systematic discussion, I
managed to impress upon her that there was no way out except
marriage. There was no other alternative for a union. Kusum
retorted, How could that be possible? I said, Well present
you as one from a noble caste. After many arguments, she
asked me to seek your opinion about the matter. I said, the boy
is about to go mad, why is it necessary to talk to him about
such a complicated issue. There will be joy on all sides if the
task was completed safely and without causing much distress.
Particularly since there was no chance of the secret to come
out ever, why should we unnecessarily make the poor fellow
unhappy for life.
SACRIFICE 31
Whether Kusum could fgure it out or not, I could not be
certain. Sometimes she cried, sometimes she remained silent.
Finally, when I said, okay then, lets forget it, she became
restless. In this circumstance, I sent a marriage proposal for you
via Sripati. I noticed that it didnt take you long to give your
consent. Then all arrangements were made for the wedding.
Just before the wedding, Kusum became so adamant that I
could barely bring her around. She pleaded and begged, uncle,
lets not do it. I said, What a disaster! Everything is set, how
can we turn away now. Kusum said, you announce that I have
suddenly died you send me away from here. I said, Then
what will happen to the boy! He is in a heavenly bliss thinking
his long-time dream will come to fruition tomorrow, and you
want me to send him your death news suddenly today. Then
the next day Ill have to send you his death news, and the same
evening the news of your death will come to me. Am I about to
commit the ultimate sin at this old age?
After that, the wedding was completed at the auspicious
hour, and I felt relieved having fulflled one of my obligations.
you know what happened after that.
Hemanta asked, you did what you wanted to do to us, but why
did you also have to disclose it?
Pyarishankar replied, I noticed that your younger sisters
wedding match was fxed. Then I thought to myself, I have
defled the caste of one Brahmin family but only from a sense
of duty. Now my duty was to stop another Brahmin family from
losing their caste. So I wrote to them saying, I have evidence
that Hemanta has married a Shudras
6
daughter.
Retaining his calm with great effort, Hemanta said, Now that
Ill relinquish this girl, what will happen to her? Will you provide
her shelter?
Pyarishankar replied, I did what I considered as my duty, now
6
In reality, Kusum is not from the Shudra caste but a widow, and
widow remarriage was frowned upon among higher caste Hindus during
the period.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 32
to provide for someones abandoned wife is not my business,
and then he screamed out to his servants, Hello, do you hear,
bring a glass of green coconut water with ice for Hemanta Babu,
and bring some paan (betel leaf) as well.
Hemanta left the place without waiting for the cold hospitality.
IV
It was the ffth night of the dark lunar fortnight. Gloomy outside,
there was no chirping of birds. The lychee tree by the pond
appeared like a thick mark of paint on a black canvass. The
southerly wind turned round in the dark blindly as if it were in
a hypnotic state. The stars in the frmament looked through the
darkness in a steady gaze to fnd answer to some riddle.
No lamps were lighted in the bedroom. Hemanta was
seated on the bed beside the window, stirring ahead into the
darkness. Kusum lolled on the ground, hugging Hemantas legs
and hanging her face loosely over them. Time stood still like a
stupefed ocean, as if an invisible painter had drawn this one
abiding image on the eternal night; cataclysm on all sides and
a judge sitting in the midst of it with a guilty woman at his feet.
The slippers sounded again. Walking up to the room, Harihar
Mukherjee uttered, It has been quite long, I cant give you any
more time. Turn the girl out of the house.
On hearing the voice, Kusum hugged Hemantas legs instantly
with twice the vigour, putting all her feelings into it, kissed the
legs, took dust from the feet to smear her forehead, and then
let go of them.
Hemanta walked up to his father and said, I wont get rid of
my wife.
Harihar screamed, you want to be an outcaste?
Hemanta replied, I dont care for caste.
Then both of you leave the house.

....
1
M
y fve-year old daughter Mini is a chatty girl and cant
do without talking even for a moment. It took her about
a year since birth to acquire the talent for language,
and after that she has not wasted a single wakeful moment of
her life remaining silent. Often her mother chides her to keep
quiet, but I can never do that. Seeing the girl mute even for an
instant seems so unnatural to me that I fnd it unbearable. Thats
why my conversations with Mini are often lively.
One morning as I had just started writing the seventeenth
chapter of my novel, Mini walked into the room and began,
Father, our sentry Ramdayal calls a crow kauwwa instead of
kak.
2
He is so ignorant, isnt he?
Before I could begin to enlighten her on the differences
between languages, she launched into another topic. See,
Father, Bhola was saying that when elephants lift water with
their trunks and spray it from the sky, it rains. Dear, oh dear!
Bhola can speak such nonsense. He can rant day and night,
without making any sense!
1
Bengali title: Kabuliwala. First published in Sadhana, Agrahayan
1299 (November-December 1892).
2
Ramdayal is possibly from East Bengal (current Bangladesh) where
kauwwa is used widely instead of kak, especially among the lower
classes, to describe a crow.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 34
Without waiting for my opinion on it, she asked me out of the
blue, Father, who is Mother to you?
Sister-in-law, I thought to myself, but to Mini I replied,
avoiding the complicated question, you go and play with Bhola.
I have some work now. At this, she fopped beside the writing
table, close to my feet, and began to play a game of knick-
knack with her hands and knees, rapidly chanting a nursery
rhyme. In the seventeenth chapter of my novel, Pratap Singh
was jumping off the high balcony of the jailhouse at this time,
with Kanchanmala, into the river below in the dark of night.
Stopping her game abruptly, Mini ran to the window which
overlooked the main road, and began calling out at the top of
her voice, Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala!
A tall, shabbily clothed Afghan street vender, with a turban
on his head, a bag over his shoulder and a few boxes of dry
grapes in his hands was passing through the street slowly.
I have no idea what fashed through my daughters mind at
the sight of this man, but the moment she saw him she began
yelling. I thought, this nuisance with a sack over his shoulder
will show up in a moment and I wont be able to fnish writing
the seventeenth chapter of my novel.
But the moment the Kabuliwala, at hearing Minis call, turned
around with a smile and approached the house, she dashed
inside and couldnt be found anywhere. She had this childish
fear that if someone looked through the bag of this Afghan man,
several living children like herself would be found in there.
Meanwhile, the Kabuliwala stepped into the compound
and stood at the door with a smile and an Islamic salute. I
thought, although the characters in my novel, Pratap Singh and
Kanchanmala were in dire straits, it would be unseemly to call
the man all the way to the house and not buy anything.
I bought a few items and soon I was involved in a rambling
conversation with him on various topics including Abdur
Rahman, the Amir of Afghanistan, and the Frontier Policy of the
Russians and the British.
3

3
Abdur Rahman was the Amir of Afghanistan from 1880-1901. He was
installed by the British for supporting their cause against Russia.
KABuLIWALA 35
Finally, as he was about to leave the house, he asked, Sir,
where is your little girl?
To break Minis unfounded fear, I called for her from inside
the house. She came and stood nervously, pressing against my
body, and looking suspiciously at the Kabuliwala and his bag.
The Kabuliwala took out some raisins and apricots from inside
the bag and gave it to Mini, but she refused to take them and
remained pressed against my knees with a redoubled suspicion.
That was how their frst meeting ended.
A few days later, as I was leaving the house in the morning
for some important work, I saw my tiny daughter sitting on
the bench next to the door and speaking non-stop with the
Kabuliwala, who was parked next to her feet and listening to
her with a grin and interjecting now and then in broken Bengali
to give his opinion. In her short fve-year life, Mini had never
found a more intent listener before, other than her father. I
also noticed that she had lots of nuts and raisins tied up at the
loose end of her small sari. upon discovering this, I asked the
Kabuliwala, Why did you give all these to her? Please dont do
it again. With that, I took out a half-a-rupee coin and gave it to
him. The Kabuliwala took the money without any hesitation and
put it in his bag.
On returning home, I found that a full-scale row had broken
out over the coin.
Holding the white, round, shining piece of metal in her hand,
Minis mother asked her in a rebuking tone, Where did you get
the coin?
Mini replied, The Kabuliwala gave it to me.
Her mother chided, Why did you take it from him?
Mini answered sobbingly, I didnt ask for it. He gave it on
his own.
I stepped in to rescue Mini and took her out for a walk.
I learnt that this was not her second meeting with the
Kabuliwala. He had been visiting Mini almost daily, and by
offering her pistachio nuts he had already won a large part of
the girls childish heart.
The two friends had a few stock phrases and jokes which
were repeated in their conversations. For example, the moment
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 36
she saw Rahmat, my daughter would ask with a hearty laugh,
Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala, what is in your sack?
Adding an unnecessary nasal tone to the word, Rahmat would
roar, Hanti.
4

The essence of the joke was that the man had an elephant in
his sack. Not that the joke was very witty, but it caused the two
friends to double up in laughter, and the sight of that innocent
joy between a little girl and an elderly man on autumn mornings
used to move me deeply.
Another routine exchange between the two was, whenever
they met, Rahmat would tell the girl in his characteristic thick
accent, Missy, you should never go to the in-laws.
Bengali girls were commonly familiar with the term in-laws
practically since birth. But being more modern, we chose not
to load our daughters mind with precocious thoughts at such
a tender age. That was why Mini could never fully understand
Rahmats advice. But to keep quiet and not respond to a
statement was contrary to Minis nature. Therefore, turning the
phrase into a question, she would ask, Will you go to your in-
laws?
Making a huge fst with his hand, Rahmat would pretend to
punch at his imaginary in-law and say, Ill wallop my in-law.
Thinking of the plight of the unknown creature called father-
in-law, Mini would explode into laughter.
It was still early autumn that time of year when kings in ancient
days used to go out on conquest. Personally, I have never been
away from Kolkata which is why my mind always wanders
around the world. I am like an exile in my own home as my
mind constantly likes to travel to other places. The moment I
hear the name of a foreign country, my mind longs to visit that
unknown place. Likewise, the sight of an alien person brings
to mind the image of a lonely hut beside a river in the midst of
a forest, and I begin to imagine an autonomous, exultant way
of life.
4
A deliberate distortion of hati, elephant, to make Mini laugh.
KABuLIWALA 37
yet I am so dull and inert that every time I think of travelling
out of my little world, I panic. Thats why I used to mitigate my
desire for travelling somewhat by talking to this man from Kabul
in the morning, sitting in front of my writing table in my small
room. The Kabuliwala blared out stories of his homeland in his
broken Bengali and I fancied it all before my eyes: tall, rugged,
impassable mountains on two sides, red-hot with torrid heat,
and a caravan moving through the narrow, dusty passageway
in between; turbaned traders and travellers passing by, some on
camel back, others on foot; some carrying spears, and others
outdated fintstone guns.
Minis mother is naturally a timid person. Whenever she hears
a slight noise from the street, she thinks all the tipplers of the
world are rushing together towards our house. After living for
so many years in this world (though not many), she has still not
been able to temper her fear that the world is full of all kinds
of horrors: thieves, robbers, drunkards, snakes, tigers, malaria,
cockroaches and European soldiers.
She was not free of suspicion about the Kabuliwala, Rahmat,
and nagged me to keep a watchful eye on him. Whenever I
sought to make light of her suspicions, she asked me a few
pointed questions: Are there no such instances of child
abduction? Isnt slave-trade still in practice in Afghanistan? Is it
altogether impossible for a giant Afghan to kidnap a little child?
I had to agree that those were not impossible, but were
improbable. However, not everyone has the same capacity for
trust, so my wife remained suspicious of the man. But I couldnt
stop Rahmat from visiting the house either, because he had
done nothing wrong.
Every year, in January or February, Rahmat would go back to
his home country to visit his family. A money-lender, he was
unusually busy during this period collecting dues from his
clients before the trip. He had to rush from house to house
to raise the collectibles, and yet he found time to visit Mini. It
appeared as if the two were involved in a mischievous plot. The
day he couldnt come in the morning, he came in the evening.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 38
To see that huge Afghan sitting at a corner of the house in the
dark of evening in his baggy clothes and customary sack would
create a sudden fear in my mind. But the moment I saw Mini
rushing out of the house and greeting her friend, Kabuliwala, O
Kabuliwala, and the chums of incompatible years engaging in
their familiar bantering and innocent laughter, my heart would
fll with delight.
One morning I was sitting in my room and reading some
proofs. It was the end of winter, but for the last few days,
before the season came to a close, the temperature was freezing
and almost unbearable. I was enjoying the warmth of a strip
of morning sun that had alighted on my feet under the table,
travelling through the glass window. It was about eight oclock,
and most of the early risers had fnished their morning walk
with their necks wrapped in scarves and returned home. Just
then, I heard some commotion in the street.
I looked out and saw our Rahmat in handcuffs, escorted by
two policemen. They were being trailed by a whole host of
street urchins. There were marks of blood on Rahmats clothes
and a policeman was carrying a blood-stained knife. I stepped
out, approached the policemen, and demanded to know what
was going on.
Putting together details from Rahmat as well as the policemen,
I understood that one of our neighbours was indebted to Rahmat
for a Rampuri shawl and when the man denied his debt, an
argument broke out between them. In the heat of the argument,
Rahmat took out a knife and stabbed the man.
Rahmat was still hurling abuse in obscene language at the
dishonest man when Mini came running out of the house,
shouting, Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala.
In a fash, Rahmats face was flled with expressions of
happiness. Since he didnt have the sling bag over his shoulder
that day, their usual exchange on the subject could not take
place. So Mini asked him straight off, Will you be going to your
in-laws house?
Thats exactly where I am going, Rahmat replied with a
laugh.
KABuLIWALA 39
When he noticed that Mini did not fnd the answer quite
amusing, he pointed to his hands and added in his heavily
accented, patchy Bengali, I would have beaten up the in-law.
But what can I do, my hands are tied up.
Charged with grievous injury, Rahmat was sent to jail for
several years.
We almost forgot about him. Living our days through our
daily routines in the security of our home, it never occurred
to us once how this free-spirited man from the mountains was
spending his years within the secluded walls of the jail.
And the way Minis inconstant little heart behaved was
shameful even to her father. She easily forgot her old friend
and found a new one in Nabi, the syce. Then, as she continued
to grow up, she replaced all her elderly male friends, one after
another, with girls of her own age. She was hardly to be seen in
her fathers studio. In a way, I had almost ended all friendship
with her.
Several years passed. It was autumn again. Minis wedding
match had been fxed. She was to get married during the puja
holidays. This event will take the joy of our household to her
in-laws house, leaving us in darkness.
It was a sunny, resplendent morning. The rain-washed sun of
early autumn took the hue of pure gold. Its brilliance made even
the dingy, rundown brick houses in the inner lanes of Kolkata
look beautiful. The wedding shehnai
5
had started playing in the
house since dawn. Each note of that music seemed to come
right from my rib-cage in a sobbing tune and spread the sorrow
of an impending farewell to the world, mixing itself with the
radiant shafts of the autumnal sun. My Mini was to get married
that day.
There was a lot of hubbub in the house since visitors were
continually loitering in and out. An awning was being put up on
bamboo poles in the courtyard of the house, and the chimes of
5
A kind of wooden wind-instrument.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 40
chandeliers being rigged in the portico of every room flled the
air. There was no end to the rumpus.
I was going through the wedding accounts in my study, when
suddenly Rahmat walked into the room and stood before me
with an Islamic salute.
At frst I couldnt recognise him. He didnt have that customary
sack with him, or the long hair and his burly look. Finally, I
recognised him through his smile.
I asked him, Hello, Rahmat, how long have you been back?
I was released from jail last evening, he replied.
The words gave me a sudden jolt. I had never seen a homicide
before, so my heart finched at the sight of the man. I wished
he would leave the house immediately on this auspicious day.
I said to him, We have a function in the house today, and I
am quite busy. It is better for you to go now.
At that, he began to leave the house, but as he reached the
door, he turned back in hesitation and asked in a faltering tone,
Cant I see the girl just for a moment?
Perhaps he was convinced that Mini was still the same little
girl and would come out of the house running to greet him,
Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala, as in the past; their happy, playful
relationship of old had remained unchanged. Remembering
their past friendship, he had even brought a box of grapes and a
few raisins wrapped in a packet, which he must have borrowed
from some Afghan friend because his own customary sack was
not there with him.
I said once again, There is a ceremony in the house today. It
wont be possible to see anyone at this time.
He looked a little hurt by the statement and stood stupefed
for a time, gazing at me with a fxed look. Then he walked out
of the room abruptly with a simple bye.
I felt remorseful and thought I should call him back, but right
then I saw him turning around.
Standing close to me, he said, I brought these grapes, raisins
and nuts for the little girl. Please give it to her.
I took the fruits from him and was about to pay some money
when he grabbed me by the hand and said, youre a very kind
KABuLIWALA 41
man, sir, and Ill always remember it; but please dont pay me
for these fruits. Just as you have a daughter, I too have one back
home. It is remembering her face that I bring these gifts for your
child. I dont come here for business.
With that, he shoved his hand inside his huge baggy shirt
and brought out a grimy piece of paper from somewhere close
to his chest. unfolding it very carefully, he laid the paper open
on the table.
I could see the impression of a very small hand on it; not a
photograph, not a painting, but the trace of a tiny hand created
with burnt charcoal daubed on the palm. Every year Rahmat
came to peddle merchandise on the streets of Kolkata carrying
that memorabilia of his daughter in his pocket, as if the soft
touch of that little hand kept his huge, lonely heart fed with love
and happiness.
My eyes flled with tears at the sight of that piece of paper. It
no longer mattered to me that he was an ordinary fruit-peddler
from Kabul and I belonged to an aristocratic Bengali family. In
a moment I realised that we were both just the same he was a
father and so was I. The print of his mountain-dwelling Parvatis
6

hand reminded me of my own Mini. I sent word for her to come
out to the study immediately. Many of the women objected, but
I paid no heed. In her bridal dress and ceremonial makeup, Mini
came out from the inner quarters and stood beside me coyly.
The Kabuliwala saw Mini and became confused; their good-
natured humour of old also didnt work out. In the end, with a
smile, he asked, Girl, are you going to the in-laws house?
Mini now understood what in-law meant. So she couldnt
answer the way she did in the past. Rather, hearing the question
from Rahmat, her face became purple in shame and she abruptly
turned around and left. This brought back memories of their
frst meeting and I felt an ache in my heart.
Soon after Mini left, Rahmat slouched on the foor with a long,
deep sigh. It became obvious to him that his own daughter had
grown up as well and he would have to get to know her all over
6
Reference to goddess Durga, the daughter of the Himalayas.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 42
again. She would not be the same girl he had left behind. He
was not even sure what might have happened to her in the past
eight years. The wedding shehnai continued to play softly in the
courtyard on that autumnal sunny morning, and sitting there on
the foor of my house in an alley in Kolkata, Rahmat continued
to envision the images of the arid, hilly terrains of Afghanistan.
I took out some money and gave it to him. you go back to
your daughter in Afghanistan, Rahmat, and may the happiness
of your reunion bring blessings for my Mini too, I said.
I had to cut out one or two items from the clat of the
festivities for gifting that money. For example, the lighting
decoration was not as gorgeous as I had wanted it to be, and
the band party had to be cancelled. This upset the women, but
buoyed by a benevolent spirit, my auspicious ceremony became
more luminous.
..,
1
W
hen the girl was named Subhashini she who speaks
pleasantly who would have known that she would
be mute. Her two elder sisters were named Sukeshini
(she with beautiful hair) and Suhasini (she with charming
smile), so to keep to the rhyme her father named the youngest
girl Subhashini. Everyone now called her Subha for short.
The two elder daughters had been married off after an
elaborate search and considerable expense. The youngest one
now remained like a silent load on her parents hearts.
Not everyone realised that one who doesnt speak could still
feel, so they would express worries about her future in her
presence. She had understood from childhood that she had been
born as a curse of God in her fathers house. Consequently, she
always tried to hide herself from public view. She would think,
Its a respite if everyone forgets me. But can anyone ever forget
a sorrow? She was always wakeful in her parents minds.
In particular, her mother saw Subha as a kind of personal faw.
For a mother always considers a daughter a part of herself, more
than she does a son; any defciency in the daughter appears to
her, specifcally, as a cause of personal shame. Rather, the girls
father, Banikantha,
2
loved Subha a little more than his other
1
Bengali title: Subha. First published in Sadhana, Magh 1299 (January-
February 1893).
2
Banikantha is an ironic name because Bani refers to Saraswati, the
goddess of eloquence or speech, and Kantha means voice. Instead of be-
ing the voice of Saraswati, Bani happens to be the father of a girl who is
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 44
daughters. But the mother, considering her a taint on her womb,
was extremely annoyed with her.
Subha lacked speech, but she had two large black eyes with
long eyelashes, and her lips trembled like a tender, delicate leaf
at the hint of feeling.
Whatever emotion we express through language has to
be shaped largely by our own efforts; its almost like an act
of translation. It doesnt get right all the time and, for lack of
profciency, could even go wrong at times. But dark eyes do
not need to translate anything. The mind casts its own shadow
on them; emotion stretches out in them sometimes, and
sometimes remains caged; sometimes it fares up luminously,
and sometimes it grows dim in melancholy; sometimes it keeps
staring steadily like the setting moon, and sometimes it scatters
in all directions like agitated, brisk lightning. For one who has
no other language from birth except the expressions of her face,
the language of her eyes is infnitely generous and profoundly
deep its somewhat like the clear sky, from dawn to dusk
a soundless playground of light and shade. In this speechless
human being, there is a secluded nobility like that of lofty
Nature. That is why ordinary boys and girls were a bit afraid
of her and avoided playing with her. She was like the hushed
midday, wordless and companionless.
II
The village was Chandipur. The river was a small river of
Bengal; like the daughter of a humble hearth, it didnt go very
far; slender, untiring, it went about its tasks keeping well within
its banks. It seemed to have some kinship with everyone in the
villages on its two sides. Habitations were on both sides, and its
high banks were shaded with dense trees; down below the self-
mute. In spite of his meaningful name, he doesnt seem to have blessings
of the goddess.
SuBHA 45
oblivious, graceful village, Lakshmi
3
moved in quick steps and a
cheerful heart to perform her innumerable acts of benevolence.
Banikanthas house was on the riverbank. His fences made
with bamboo-slips, eight-roofed thatch house, cowshed,
husking pedal shed, haystacks, tamarind trees, mango, jackfruit
and banana groves attracted the attention of anyone passing in
a boat. It is not possible to say whether any of them noticed the
mute girl in the midst of such domestic affuence, but whenever
she found a leisure moment between household chores, she
would come and sit on the riverbank.
Nature seemed to recompense for her lack of language and
speak for her. The murmuring of the river, the confused noise of
people, the boatmens songs, the chirping of birds, the rustling
of trees all these blending together and becoming one with the
movements on every side, the comings and goings, agitation-
turmoil-vibration, would come and continuously break like
waves of the sea on the eternally silent shore of the girls heart.
These myriad sounds and movements of nature were also the
language of the mute a universal extension of the expressions
of Subhas long-eyelash embellished eyes. From the grassland
flled with the sound of crickets to the soundless stellar region
everywhere only gesture, beckoning, music, lament and sighs.
And at noon, when the boatmen and the fshermen went
home for lunch, the family men took a siesta, the birds stopped
chirping, the ferry-boat stayed idle at the dock, and the entire
teeming world in the midst of all activities suddenly came to a
stop, taking on a shape of dreadful desolation, then, under that
vast, fearful sky, only a mute nature and a mute girl would sit
facing each other in silence one under the blazing sun and the
other in the tiny shadow of a tree.
Its not that Subha did not have a circle of close friends. There
were the two cows in the cattle-shed, Sarbashi and Punguli.
They had never heard the girl utter those names, but they knew
the sound of her footsteps she had a wordless plaintive tone
3
The river is here compared to goddess Lakhsmi who stands for for-
tune, beauty and grace.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 46
which they could comprehend more easily than any language.
They understood, better than her fellow human beings, when
Subha was being affectionate towards them, reproaching them,
or pleading to them.
Subha would enter the cowshed, encircle the neck of Sarbashi
with her two arms, and graze her chin close to her ears while
Punguli, with a tender look in her eyes, would lick her. The girl
routinely visited the shed three times a day, but sometimes came
at unexpected hours as well. On the days she would be spoken
harsh words at home, she would come visit her two mute
friends at unusual hours they could somehow intuitively sense
her sorrow from her stoic, gloomy, poised look, and drawing
close to her body, rubbed their horns gently against her arms to
comfort her with a silent eagerness.
Besides them, there were goats and kittens. With these,
Subha did not enjoy an evenly balanced friendship, though they
were still devoted to her. The kitten would freely occupy the
warm lap of Subha at any time of day or night and prepare for
a comfortable sleep, indicating with signs that if Subha lightly
stroked its neck and back with her fngers that would help in
the inducement of its sleep.
III
Subha had found a companion amongst the higher species of
animals as well. But it was hard to make out the exact nature of
his relationship with the girl as he was a creature with speech;
therefore, the two did not have a common mode of expression
between them.
His name was Pratap, the youngest son of the Gossain family.
He was an utterly useless person. After much futile effort, his
parents had given up hope that he would engage in some
meaningful work to improve his lot in society. One advantage
idle people have is that, although their relatives are vexed by
them, they are popular with those who are not related because,
SuBHA 47
not being tied to any work they become public property. Just as
there ought to be a community-owned garden or two in a city,
not belonging to any particular household, similarly there is a
special need for a village to have a few idle people as common
property for all villagers. In work, leisure or fun, whenever there
is want of people, they could be found at hand.
Prataps main hobby was fshing. It is one easy way of
spending a lot of time. In the afternoons, he could often be
seen on the riverbank employed in this activity, and it gave him
the occasion to meet Subha. Whatever work Pratap did, he felt
good having a companion. When fshing, the best is to have a
silent companion, thus Pratap understood Subhas value. For
that, adding an extra touch of affection, Pratap called her Su,
while everyone else called her Subha.
Subha sat at the foot of a tamarind tree and Pratap, casting
his rod into the water a little away, kept gazing at it. Pratap
was entitled to one paan (betel-leaf) a day which Subha would
prepare with her own hands and bring for him. And perhaps,
sitting and staring for a long while, Subha would have a passion
for doing something of special help to Pratap, to be of some
use, to convey to him somehow that in this world she too was
no less essential. But there was nothing really for her to do.
She would then pray to God for some superhuman power to
magically do something so spectacular that Pratap would be
astounded and say, Goodness, I never knew our Subha had
such amazing powers!
Just think if Subha were a mermaid, who slowly came
up through the water and left a serpents head-jewel on the
riverbank! Quitting his silly fshing, Pratap would dive into the
water with the jewel, and reaching the underworld, who would
he see sitting inside a silver palace and on a bed made of gold?
But of course, Su, the mute daughter of Banikantha our Su,
the only princess of that silent, jewel-rich, underworld kingdom.
Could this not happen? Was it really that impossible? As a matter
of fact, nothing is impossible; yet, instead of being born in the
royal family of the underworld kingdom without subjects, she
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 48
was born in Banikanthas house, and there was no way she
could dazzle the Gossains boy Pratap.
IV
Subha was growing up. Slowly she began to be conscious of
herself. It was as if, on some full-moon night, a tidal wave from
one of the oceans had come to fll her inward spirit with a new
inexpressible awareness. She was observing, feeling and asking
questions to herself, and yet not understanding the meaning of
it all.
On some full-moon nights, Subha would slowly open the
door of her bedroom at the dead of night and timidly peep out
to fnd moonlit nature alone, like herself, sitting awake over
a world fallen asleep; in the mystery, excitement, melancholy
of youth, it had reached the farthest limit of solitude or even
going beyond that was flled with an eerie silence, but could
not express a single word. At the edge of this silent, bewildered
world of nature, there stood a silent, bewildered girl.
Meanwhile the parents, burdened with a marriageable
daughter, were growing more and more anxious. People had
also begun criticising them, and it began to be rumoured that
they might even be ostracised by the rest of the villagers.
Banikantha was well-off; he could afford two square meals of
fsh and rice every day, so he had enemies.
Husband and wife had a long discussion. Then Bani went
away for a few days. Finally returning home, he said to his wife,
Come, lets go to Kolkata.
Preparations for the journey began. Subhas whole heart
was flled with tears, like a morning overspread with mist. For
the last few days, with an inexpressible anxiety, she had been
following her parents about like a dumb animal. With her large
eyes she would look into their faces to comprehend something,
but they would not explain anything to her.
In the meantime, one afternoon, having tossed the fshline
into the water, Pratap said with a laugh, Hey, Su, I hear they
SuBHA 49
have found a groom for you. you are going to get married?
Make sure you dont forget us.
With that, he turned his attention back to fshing.
Subha looked at Pratap like a deer pierced to the heart looks
at the hunter, as if to say, How have I wronged you? She no
longer sat under the tree that day. Banikantha had woken up
from sleep and was having a smoke in his bedroom; Subha
came and sat at his feet and looking up began to cry. In the end,
as he tried to comfort her, tears also rolled down Banikanthas
withered cheeks.
They decided to leave for Kolkata the next day. Subha went to
the cowshed to bid farewell to her two childhood companions.
After feeding them with her own hands, she hugged them and,
flling her two eyes with all that she wanted to say, looked
intently into their faces; tears surged from under the lids of both
her eyes.
It was the twelfth night of the lunar fortnight. Subha stepped
out of her bedroom and, going to that ever familiar riverbank,
sprawled herself on the bed of grass, as if, hugging the earth
with her two arms this huge silent mother of mankind she
wanted to say, Dont let me go, mother. As I am holding you,
you also hold me back spreading out your two arms.
In a house in Kolkata, one day Subhas mother dressed Subha
up in ceremonial clothes. Gathering her hair tightly into a bun
and wrapping it with a gold-embroidered ribbon, covering her
with ornaments, she, as much as she could, obscured Subhas
natural charm. Tears streamed down from Subhas eyes. Lest
her eyes swelled and spoiled her looks, her mother scolded her
repeatedly, but the tears ignored her chidings.
The groom himself came with a friend to take a look at
the prospective bride. The girls parents became worried, afraid,
panicky, as if god himself had come down to pick his own
sacrifcial animal. From behind the scene, the mother, with
angry castigations, threats and roars redoubled the food of tears
in the girls eyes, and pushed her forward to face her examiners.
The appraiser, after a lengthy inspection, announced, Not bad.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 50
The girls tears in particular led him to think that she had a
heart, and he calculated, The heart that is grieving today at the
prospect of separation from her parents, could in a few days be
of use to me. Like the pearl in an oyster, the girls tears only
increased her worth; they spoke nothing else on her behalf.
After consulting the almanac, the wedding took place on a
particularly auspicious day.
After handing over their mute daughter to strangers, the
parents returned to their village their caste and the hereafter
both preserved.
The groom worked in north India. Soon after the wedding,
he took his wife with him.
In about a week, everyone realised that the bride was mute.
What no one understood was that it was not her fault. She had
deceived no one. Her eyes had said everything, but nobody
had comprehended it. She looked around but could not express
anything; the lifelong familiar faces of those who understood
the language of a mute girl were not there. An immensely
unspeakable agony rumbled in the girls perpetually silent heart.
No one except God could hear it.
The second time around, her husband, making use of the sense-
organs of both sight and hearing, married a girl who could
speak.
....,.
1
M
ahamaya and Rajeevlochan met at a dilapidated temple
by the edge of the river.
Without saying a word, Mahamaya cast her inherently
solemn gaze at Rajeev with a slight reproof. The essence of it
was, How dare you ask me to come here at this unearthly hour.
you have become so bold only because I have obeyed you so
far.
Rajeev always saw Mahamaya with a little awe; her sombre
glance made him even more nervous. He had thought of saying
a few words that would be lucid and intelligible, but he had to
forego that wish hastily. Being unable to avoid giving a reason
for their meeting, he sputtered, Lets run away from this place
and get married secretly. This no doubt conveyed what Rajeev
had in mind, but the preamble he had so carefully planned for
it remained unsaid. His words therefore came across as dry,
bare, and even strange. He himself felt embarrassed by them;
there was not even the possibility of repairing the words by
some tweaking and padding. After summoning Mahamaya at
high noon to this run-down temple by the riverside, all that this
silly man could manage to say was, Come, lets get married.
Mahamaya was an unmarried woman from an aristocratic
family. She was twenty-four years old. Like her teeming age, she
1
Bengali title: Mahamaya. First published in Sadhana, Phalgoon 1299
(February-March 1893). Mahamaya means illusion or divine power of illu-
sion, but also refers to goddess Durga and goddess Lakshmi.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 52
teemed with beauty; and like the autumn sunlight, she looked
like an icon of pure gold. Similar to the luminous ray of autumn,
she was bright but silent, and her eyes were open and unafraid
like the daylight.
Her father had passed away, but she had an elder brother
named Bhavanicharan Chatterjee. Brother and sister were alike;
not a word from the mouth, but there was a glow about them
that blazed silently like the midday sun. People were fearful of
Bhavanicharan for no reason.
Rajeev was a stranger to the village. He was brought along
by the British manager of the local silk factory. His father was
an employee of this Englishman. After his fathers demise, the
Englishman took responsibility for the young boy and brought
him to this village when he was still a child. The boys only
family was his aunt. They lived as neighbours of Bhavanicharan.
Mahamaya grew up as a childhood companion of Rajeev and
she shared a deep affectionate bonding with Rajeevs aunt.
Rajeev crossed sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and even entered
the threshold of nineteen, but he refused to get married despite
his aunts repeated pleas. The Englishman felt very happy at this
sign of good sense in the Bengali boy, and thought that the boy
had taken after him as he had himself remained a bachelor. The
boys aunt passed away in the meantime.
On the other hand, it was proving diffcult to get a suitor for
Mahamaya from an equally respectable family without spending
more money than they could afford. She also continued to
remain single.
But it needs to be said that although the god who overseas
matrimonial relations was not particularly mindful of this young
couple, the god of love had wasted no time. While the ancient
Prajapati, the lord of creatures, was in a drowsy state, the youthful
Kamadeva, god of love, remained ever alert and vigilant.
The god Kamadeva exerts his infuence on people in different
ways. Instigated by him, Rajeev stayed alert for a leisure moment
in which he could express his secret thoughts to Mahamaya,
but Mahamaya never allowed him that opportunity; her sombre,
silent look created a tremor in Rajeevs restless heart.
MAHAMAyA 53
Rajeev had succeeded in bringing Mahamaya to this ruined
temple by passionately urging her numerous times. So he
thought he would divulge everything weighing on his mind,
and either live happily thereafter or die. On such a critical day of
his life, all Rajeev could blurt out was, Come, lets get married.
After that, he remained tongue-tied like a confused student who
had forgotten his lesson. Mahamaya had never expected Rajeev
to propose to her so hastily, so she also remained wordless for
a long while.
The midday has many unspecifed plaintive sounds of its
own; they manifested in this silence. The partially attached door-
panel of the temple swayed gently with the wind, occasionally
giving out a low piteous cry. Pigeons cooed continually sitting
at the temples windows; woodpeckers pecked monotonously,
perching on the branches of the Silk Cotton tree; a lizard ran
through a heap of dry leaves making a rustling noise; a gusty
tropical wind came suddenly from the open feld shaking the
leaves of the trees into a clatter; the roaring waves of water kept
dashing against the collapsed river quay in a splashing sound.
In the midst of such dull, dreary din, a shepherd playing a rustic
tune on his fute sitting under the shade of a tree in the distance
could be heard. Lacking the courage to look at Mahamayas face,
Rajeev stood there leaning against the temples pillar, somewhat
exhausted and in a dreamy state.
After a while, turning his face, Rajeev looked towards
Mahamaya with pleading eyes. Mahamaya shook her head and
said, No, that is not possible.
Mahamayas shake of head shattered Rajeevs dream. Rajeev
knew that Mahamayas head moved according to her own laws,
and no one could sway it in a different way. With the intense
pride of aristocracy running in her family for generations, how
could she agree to marry a low-class Brahmo
2
like Rajeev? Love
is one thing but marriage is another. Mahamaya knew that Rajeev
2
A follower of the Brahmo Samaj movement in Hinduism of which
Tagores father was one of the founders.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 54
had grown so daring only because of her own rash conduct. She
prepared to leave the temple immediately.
Rajeev grasped the situation fully and hastily said, I will leave
the village tomorrow.
Mahamayas frst reaction was to pretend that she could care
little. But she failed to fake that emotion. She tried to move her
leg to take a stride but could not. Calmly, she asked, Why?
Rajeev replied, My manager is moving to the factory at
Sonapur and wants to take me with him.
Mahamaya kept silent for some time. She reckoned that their
lives were moving in different directions no one could be kept
under surveillance forever. So opening her tightly pressed lips
a little, she mumbled, Very well. It sounded almost like a sigh.
Following that brief exchange, Mahamaya was yet again
about to leave the temple when Rajeev exclaimed in utter
bewilderment, Mr. Chatterjee!
Mahamaya saw that her brother Bhavanicharan was coming
towards the temple. She instantly knew that he had found them
out. Sensing Mahamayas imminent danger, Rajeev tried to jump
through the temples broken wall. But Mahamaya restrained him
by holding onto his hands with all her strength. Bhavanicharan
stepped into the temple and took one hushed, collected look at
the two of them.
Mahamaya turned her eyes on Rajeev and said in a calm
voice, Rajeev, Ill become your wife one day. you wait for me.
Bhavanicharan stepped out of the temple without a word
and Mahamaya followed him in silence. Rajeev stood there
dumbfounded, as if he had just been handed a death sentence.
II
That same night Bhavanicharan brought a red wedding sari and
called up Mahamaya, Go, put this on. She came back wearing
it.
He then said, Come with me.
MAHAMAyA 55
No one had ever even hinted at disobeying Bhavanicharans
orders, and so was the case with Mahamaya.
The two started walking towards the cemetery near the
river. It was not far from the house. An old Brahmin was lying
there awaiting death. They came and stood by him. A priest
was also waiting nearby and Bhavanicharan gestured at him.
Immediately the priest made arrangements for the auspicious
occasion and stood ready. Mahamaya knew instantly that she
was going to be married to the dying man. She didnt raise even
the faintest of objections to it. In a dark house, dimly lighted by
the fre from two nearby funeral pyres, the wedding ceremony
was carried out with unintelligible religious incantations mixed
with distressful cries of the dying.
Mahamaya became a widow the next day. She was not gravely
distressed by it. Rajeev was also not shocked by the misfortune
like the way he was by the sudden news of Mahamayas
marriage. In fact, he even felt somewhat delighted by it. But
that feeling did not last long as a second piece of news followed
which bowled him over completely. He heard that there was a
lot of pomp and pageantry at the cemetery as Mahamaya was to
be cremated alive with her dead husband.
Rajeevs frst reaction was to call up his English manager and
ask for his help to forcefully stop the dreadful incident. Then
he remembered that his employer had left for his new posting
at Sonapur that morning. He wanted Rajeev to come with him
as well but Rajeev had stayed behind with leave for one month.
Mahamaya had advised him, you wait for me. No way could
he defy those words. He had applied for one months leave for
the time being. If need be, he would extend it to two, and then
three months; eventually he was prepared to quit his job and
live by begging but never give up the wait for Mahamaya.
While Rajeev was running frantically about and thinking of
suicide or something equally crazy, a torrential downpour with
a cataclysmic storm arrived in the evening. The storm was so
ferce that Rajeev felt as if the whole house would crumble
down on him. When he saw nature being lashed by the fury of
his own heart, he felt somewhat appeased. It seemed as if the
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 56
whole universe was acting on his behalf to redress the horrifc
situation. The same force that he would like to marshal, but
could not, was being wielded by nature from heaven to earth to
accomplish his mission.
Just then, someone pushed the door from the outside with
full force. Rajeev opened it and saw a woman in wet clothes
walk in. Her face was covered with a long veil. Rajeev knew
instantly it was Mahamaya.
Ecstatically he asked, Mahamaya, you have escaped from the
funeral pyre!
Mahamaya replied, yes. I promised I would become your
wife. I am here to fulfl that pledge. But Rajeev, I am not the
same me anymore, everything about me has changed. I am
Mahamaya only in my thoughts. Now tell me I could still
return to the funeral pyre. If you promise never to open my veil
and see my face, only then could I live with you.
It was enough to have someone return from the jaws of
death; everything else seemed trivial. At once Rajeev said, you
live with me as you wish. Ill die if you ever desert me.
Mahamaya replied, Okay then, lets fee right now to the
village where your employer has relocated.
Leaving behind his domestic possessions, Rajeev stepped out
of the house in that storm taking Mahamaya with him. The storm
was so ferce that it was diffcult to stand still; the velocity of
the wind lifted coarse grains of stone from the ground and blew
them against their bodies like piercing raindrops. Lest uprooted
trees came crashing on their heads, they travelled through an
open feld, avoiding the main road. The torrential wind pelted
them from behind. They appeared like two human beings who
were being blown away from the village towards some universal
dissolution.
III
Readers should not dismiss the story as occult or absurd. When
suttee was still in practice, similar incidents were believed to
have occurred on some rare occasions.
MAHAMAyA 57
Tied hand and foot, Mahamaya was consigned to the funeral
pyre, and it was duly set on fre. The fre started blazing, but
soon a violent storm and torrential downpour began. Those
who came to cremate them quickly ran into the nearby house
for dying people. The fre blew out rapidly. In the meantime,
the rope that tied Mahamayas two hands had burnt and set the
hands free. Groaning in pain from the burns, Mahamaya sat
up and quietly unfastened her two legs. Then she stood up,
wrapped her body in her partially burnt sari and, almost naked,
frst went to her own home. Nobody was there, as all the family
members had gone to the cemetery. She lit a lamp, changed her
sari, and then took one look at her face in the mirror. Violently
throwing the mirror away, she thought for a second. Then
covering her face with the end of her sari, she went to Rajeevs
house. Readers already know what followed after that.
Mahamaya was now living with Rajeev but there was no
happiness in his heart. A veil stood between them. Like death,
it remained a permanent feature in their life and tortured them
even more than death. Despair slowly numbs the anguish of
separation from death, but the veil that separated them continued
to vex their dreams.
There was already a kind of reserve and reticence in
Mahamayas personality, the repressive silence caused by the
veil made that doubly insufferable. It seemed as if Rajeev was
living within deaths embrace. Trapped in its fatal clasp, he
started to grow haggard every day. The Mahamaya he knew
previously was lost, and any desire to nurture their beautiful
childhood memories also became impossible because of the
recurrent presence of this veiled form in his life. Rajeev thought,
everyone was different, especially Mahamaya who, like Karna
3

in the Hindu mythology, seemed to have been born with a
natural coat of mail. She always had a protective layer around
her personality, but now born again, it looked like she had
3
Karna is considered one of the greatest warriors in the epic Mahab-
harata. Besides being an invincible warrior, he was known for his gener-
osity.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 58
returned with yet another covering. Living in the same house,
she was still so far away that Rajeev didnt know how to reach
her. Waiting outside a magic circle, he was only trying to solve
a delicate but powerful riddle with an insatiable thirst, like the
way the stars keep awake with steadfast eyes for the whole
night to penetrate the nocturnal darkness in vain.
The two lonely creatures lived together in that way for several
months.
On a monsoon evening, on the tenth day of the brighter
half of the lunar month, the clouds dispersed for the frst time
and exposed the moonbeams. The hushed moonlit night kept
waiting at the head of the sleeping earths bed. Sleepless, Rajeev
went and sat by his window. An odour from the nearby forest
scorched by summers heat and wearied songs of crickets were
foating into the house. Rajeev saw a large motionless pond
at the end of a row of trees shining in the dark like a silver
plate. It is diffcult to say if a human being could think straight
at that hour. Rajeevs mind kept on wandering aimlessly. Like
the forest, it reeked of some smell and produced faint sounds
like the humming crickets in the distance. No one knew what
exactly went through Rajeevs mind but he suddenly felt defant
of all rules. The monsoon night without clouds looked tranquil,
unruffed and beautiful, like the Mahamaya of earlier days. His
soul rushed headlong for that woman.
Rajeev got up in a dreamy state and walked into Mahamayas
bedroom. She was sleeping.
Rajeev came close to Mahamayas bed, leaned down and saw
a strip of moonbeam covering her face. But, alas, what was this!
Where was that familiar face he had known all his life? The
brutal fames of the funeral pyre had licked away a part of her
beautiful left cheek and left behind a mark of its vicious appetite
there.
Perhaps Rajeev was startled by the sight and made a
whimpering noise. Mahamaya woke up in alarm and saw Rajeev
standing by her bed. In a fash she pulled the veil over her
face and stood up. Rajeev realised he was about to be hit by
lightning. He fell on his knees and begged, Please forgive me.
MAHAMAyA 59
Mahamaya dashed out of the house without a word, never
looking back and never returned again. No one could fnd a
trace of her anywhere. The mute anger created by this heartless
goodbye left a bruise on Rajeevs life forever.
.
1
W
hen my wife was alive, I had no worries about
Prabha. I was then more preoccupied with Prabhas
mother rather than Prabha.
At that time, the sight of Prabha playing or smiling or
babbling, and the way she caressed me was enough to delight
me. I played with her as long as I felt like, but the moment she
started crying I returned her to her mother and found relief.
It never occurred to me that a lot of thought and effort was
required to bring her up.
In time, as my wife passed away prematurely, Prabha
dropped, as it were, from her mothers lap into mine, and I took
her up to my heart.
But I could never fgure out whether I felt more deeply the
responsibility of bringing up a motherless child with double
the affection and care, or she felt more fervently the duty of
protecting a widowed father with tenderness and love. She
began to act like the woman of the house from the age of six.
Soon it became quite obvious that this little girl was trying to
become her fathers guardian.
I was amused by her actions but readily submitted to her
control. I noticed that the more idle and useless I appeared to
be the more delighted she felt. I found out that even fetching
my own clothes or umbrella was enough to offend her. She
had never been gifted with as big a toy as her father! That is
1
Bengali title: Sampadak. First published in Sadhana, Baishakh 1300
(April-May 1893).
THE EDITOR 61
why, feeding him, clothing him or putting him to sleep gave her
such joy. Only when she was doing her arithmetical tables or
reading nursery rhymes did I have to keep my fatherly instincts
somewhat alert.
From time to time, however, the thought that I would need a
lot of money to fnd a worthy groom for my daughter, when she
grew up, worried me. Where would I get so much money from?
I was giving her the best education I could, but what if she were
to end up with a complete idiot?
This led me to concentrate on making money. I was now
too old to work in a government offce, and didnt have the
qualifcations to look for work in any other offce. After much
thinking, I chose to take up writing books for a living.
When a bamboo rod has a hole at its base, it becomes useless
because it can hold neither water nor oil. It can no longer act
as a receptacle, and is of no use for the tasks that one needs to
do with it daily. However, blown from the mouth like a fute,
it can still produce sweet music. Similarly, I knew that anyone
who wasnt smart enough to perform any of the chores and
needed to run a family could still write books. Encouraged by
this thought, I wrote a farce. Those who read it praised it, and it
was soon performed on stage.
Overwhelmed by this sudden taste of fame, I could no longer
keep myself from writing farces, and concentrated on doing it
all day long.
One day Prabha came to me and asked affectionately, with a
smile on her face, Father, wont you take a bath?
Go away. Dont bother me now, I snapped at her.
The girls face darkened instantly like a blown out lamp.
Immersed in my work, I even failed to notice that she had left
the room, heartbroken and silenced by my outburst.
I began to abuse my maids too and started shouting at my
servants. Whenever beggars came to my door for alms I would
shoo them away with a stick. My house was next to the highway
and so lost wayfarers would often ask me for directions. But
when they did, I would tell them to go to hell. Alas! Nobody
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 62
could understand how I was in the midst of writing the most
hilarious farces imaginable.
The money I was earning from my writing was nothing,
although I was having a lot of fun and becoming famous through
it. I was no longer driven by my original motive of making
money, so that I could marry Prabha off. Eligible bachelors
everywhere were being snatched away by the daughters of
other gentlemen!
I would probably never return to my senses without the
pang of hunger, but an opportunity suddenly came my way.
The zamindar of Zahir, a neighbouring village, who had started
publishing a newspaper, invited me to be its editor on a salary. I
took up the offer. For a while, I wrote with such zeal that in no
time the villagers came to see me as a celebrity. I began to feel
like the blazing sun and my ego was all puffed up.
Next to Zahir was another village called Ahir. The zamindars of
these neighbouring villages were feuding constantly. Skirmishes
used to break out between their men frequently in the past, but
now that had stopped because of a pact signed by them at the
behest of the local Magistrate. In this changed circumstance,
Zahirs zamindar had replaced his ferce stick fghters with my
poisoned pen! Everyone thought I was discharging my duties
and upholding my position with distinction.
My columns were so ferce that I managed to crush the
village of Ahir with my pen. Through those columns I villifed
the ancestry of the men of the village, and rubbished the history
of the village itself.
Things were shaping up well for me. I had even started to put
on weight. I had a radiant smile on me all the time. Every now
and then I would spoof the ancestors of the people of Ahir and
the entire Zahir village would explode with laughter, marvelling
at my wit. I was really having a ball.
Eventually, the people of Ahir began to publish a paper too.
There was no mincing of words in it. Obscene remarks were
hurled at us through the paper with such zest that even the
printed letters seemed to screech out at the reader. That is why
THE EDITOR 63
the people of Ahir and Zahir had little diffculty in understanding
their meaning.
But in my customary way I used to ridicule the enemy with
such tact and circumspection that in the end, neither friend nor
foe, could fgure out what it was that I was trying to say.
As a result, although I was really the victor, people considered
me to be the vanquished. Caught in a fx, I wrote an essay
on good taste. This was a big mistake because laughing at
something good and virtuous is not as easy as it is to sneer at
something silly. Good people are never effective in ridiculing
bad people as bad people are in ridiculing the good. Therefore,
my essay on good taste only helped to uproot and banish it
from the town.
I was no longer treated kindly by my employer. People no
longer focked to hear me in assemblies. No one came to chat
with me on the street. A few people even began to laugh at me
when I went out.
In no time people began to forget my farces completely. I felt
like a used up match. It was as if after lighting for a moment, I
was consumed by the same fre.
I was so frustrated that it seemed impossible for me to write
even a line, no matter how hard I tried to produce something.
It seemed to me that there was no happiness in life anymore.
Prabha was now afraid of me. She would not come to me
unless I asked her to. She realised that a clay doll was a far more
reliable companion than a father who fancied that he could
write funny things.
In the meantime, the newspaper published from Ahir began
to target me, leaving aside the zamindar of Zahir. It printed some
pretty offensive pieces about me. My friends and acquaintances
were so amused by these pieces that one by one they came
to read them out to me. Some of them said that although they
didnt agree with the content, the writing was simply dazzling.
That is, it was clear from the way these pieces were written that
I was being slandered. All day long these people kept on saying
the same thing over and over again to me.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 64
There was a small lawn in front of my house, and one evening
I was strolling there with a troubled mind. As the birds returned
to their nests and stopped twittering, surrendering themselves
spontaneously to the calmness of the evening, I suddenly
realised that there were no gangs of wits among them, nor did
they cackle over what constituted good taste.
All I could think of was sending a rejoinder to the Ahir paper.
One problem with decorum is that there are places where
people dont understand what it is all about. These people were
relatively better acquainted with the language of slander. unable
to swallow defeat, I now contemplated writing something in the
kind of language that they understood best. Just when I was
thinking of all these things, I heard the very familiar voice of a
little girl and felt a warm but tender touch under my palm. But
I was so preoccupied with vindictive thoughts and so distracted
that though the voice and the touch seemed familiar I couldnt
fgure out whose they were.
In a moment, my ears slowly responded to her voice. Her
gentle touch rejuvenated my fngers. The girl had come to
me and whispered in a faint voice, Father. When I failed to
respond, she took my right hand and touched her forehead with
it lightly and then went back into the house.
Prabha hadnt called me Father so affectionately or shown
her love for me of her own accord for a long time. That is why
her touch stirred my heart and left it eager for more of her love.
After a while, I went inside the house and found Prabha lying
in bed. She looked worn out. Her eyelids were half shut. She
was lying there like a fower shed at the end of the day.
I touched her forehead and found it very hot. Her breath too
was warm, and the veins on her forehead were throbbing.
I realised then that, distraught from a high fever, the girl
had come to her father with a heart parched of love, seeking
comfort and reassurance but he had been too preoccupied with
his spiteful thoughts to have time for her.
I sat down beside her. Quietly, she took my hand into her
feverish hands and put them over her forehead.
THE EDITOR 65
I made a bonfre with all the Zahir and Ahir papers. I gave
up the idea of replying to any criticism. I had never felt as
happy as I did accepting defeat from this time onwards. After
the girls mother had died, I took her up to my bosom. Now
that I buried the stepmother who had distanced me from her
during the interim, I took my daughter into my lap once more
and stepped into the house.
..
1
W
hen the two brothers Dukhiram Rui and Chhidam Rui
went out in the morning with their choppers in hand
to work as day labourers, their wives were already
engaged in shouting and hurling abuses at each other. But the
people in the neighbourhood had grown accustomed to the
brawl and uproar, like the many other customary clamours of
nature. The moment they heard their shrill voices, they would
say to one another, There, theyve started again. That is, these
events were only to be expected and there was no variation in
natures routine, not even today. Like when the sun rises in the
east at dawn, no one asks why; similarly, when a hue and cry
broke out between the two sisters-in-law in the Kuri house,
2
no
one felt the slightest curiosity to determine the reason.
No doubt, this brawl and agitation affected the two husbands
more than their neighbours, but they didnt take it as an
inconvenience of any kind. It was as if the two brothers were
travelling the protracted road of life together in a one-horse
carriage drawn on two wheels, and they had come to accept the
non-stop rattling and screeching of the springless wheels on its
two sides as part of a natural law of the journey of life.
Rather, on days when there was no noise in the house at all,
when everything was eerily silent, there would grow a suspicion
1
Bengali title: Shasti. First published in Sadhana, Shravan 1300 (July-
August 1893).
2
Kuris are often considered as weavers or confectioners by caste and
traditionally considered a depressed community.
PuNISHMENT 67
in their minds of some imminent unnatural trouble, and no one
could tell what could happen on that day or when.
On the day the events of our narrative began, when the two
brothers returned home just before dusk, tired from their days
work, they found the house in a state of dead silence.
It was extremely sultry outside. There was a short, intense
spell of rain at midday, and the sky was still covered with clouds.
There was not even the faintest trace of wind. The weeds and
bush around the house had grown exceedingly in the monsoon
rain, and a stench of wet shrubs from there and from the nearby
submerged jute-felds stood like a fxed wall on all sides. Frogs
croaked from the pond behind the cowshed, and the sounds of
crickets flled the silent evening sky.
Close by, the river Padma, swollen with rain water, had
assumed a steady, stern look under the newly-gathered clouds.
Having swallowed much of the paddy-felds, the river had
reached close to the village. The extent of its erosion had
even exposed the roots of some mango and jackfruit trees, as
if the stretched fngers of their hapless clenched hands were
desperately trying to clutch at some last support in empty space.
Dukhiram and Chhidam had gone for work at the zamindars
estate offce that day. On the shoal on the other side of the river,
the marsh-paddy had ripened. All the poor men in the village
were busy harvesting the paddy before the shoals got washed
away by food water, working either in their own felds or those
of others; only the two brothers were taken away coercively by
the zamindars steward from the estate offce. The offce roof
was leaking at several places; they had worked the whole day
to fx those and to install a few hanging lids. They could not
come home for lunch, and had some light refreshment at the
estate offce. From time to time they had to get wet in the rain,
and had not received their right wages, but instead had to listen
to such unjust and abusive language which was far exceeding
of their wages.
When the two brothers returned home wading through mud
and water in the evening, they found the younger sister-in-law,
Chandara, lying silently on the stretched out end of her sari on
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 68
the ground; like the cloudy day, she too had shed many tears at
noon, and now in the evening, having ceased crying, she was
in a sultry mood. And the elder sister-in-law, Radha, was sitting
at the veranda, making a huge face. Her one-and-half year old
son had been crying; when the two brothers walked in, they
saw the naked infant sleeping fat on his back, at one end of
the compound.
The hungry Dukhiram said, without wasting any time, Give
me food.
Like a spark on a sack of gun-powder, the elder wife exploded
in an instant and shrieked out, raising her voice to the highest
pitch, Where is the food to serve? Did you buy me any rice? Am
I to earn the money myself?
After the days fatigue and insult, afame with hunger in the
dark, cheerless and foodless house, his wifes sarcastic words,
especially the ugly insinuation at the end, suddenly seemed
utterly unbearable to Dukhiram. Like an incensed tiger, he
roared in a piercing voice, What did you say? In the same
instant, without thinking, he took up his chopper and thrust it
onto his wifes head. Radha collapsed near her sister-in-laws lap
and died almost immediately.
Her sari soaked with blood, Chandara yelled, What have you
done! Chhidam held her mouth tight. Dukhiram dropped the
chopper, covered his face with his hands and fell to the ground,
thunderstruck. The boy woke up and started wailing in fear.
It was perfectly peaceful outside. The herdsmen were
returning home with their cows. Those who had gone to harvest
the newly ripened paddy on the shoal across the river had
returned in small boats of fve to seven in each, and, with a few
sheaves of paddy on their heads as reward for the days work,
most of them had returned home.
uncle Ramlochan of the Chakrabarti household had returned
home after dropping a letter at the village post offce and was
smoking his tobacco pipe calmly and silently. Suddenly he
remembered that his subtenant Dukhiram owed him a large
sum in unpaid rent, and had promised to settle part of it today.
PuNISHMENT 69
Determining that the two brothers must have returned home
by now, he put his shawl over his shoulder, picked up the
umbrella, and stepped out.
Entering the Kuri house, he experienced an uncanny feeling.
He noticed that no lamps had yet been lit. In the dark veranda,
murky shades of a few human forms could be seen. From one
end of the veranda, a muffed cry was breaking out intermittently,
and the more the little boy tried to cry for his mother, Chhidam
pressed his hand tightly over his mouth.
With a tremor in his voice, Ramlochan asked, Dukhi, are you
home?
Dukhi had been sitting all this while motionless like a stone
statue; on hearing his name uttered, he began howling like a
foolish boy.
Chhidam hurriedly came down from the veranda into the
yard and stood beside Chakrabarti. Chakrabarti asked, Have
the two bitches been in a brawl again? I heard them yelling the
whole day.
Chhidam was all this while at a loss to determine what to
do. All kinds of absurd ideas were hovering in his mind. He
had decided for the time being that when the night was late he
would dispose of the body. He had not fgured that Chakrabarti
would come meanwhile. He couldnt come up with an answer
on the spur, and burst out, yes, there has been a terrible
squabble today.
Taking a step towards the veranda, Chakrabarti asked, But
why is Dukhi crying like that?
Chhidam realised he could hide no more, and said on
impulse, In their quarrel, Chhotobau has struck Barabau
3
on
the head with a chopper.
It is not easy to think that there could be perils other than
the present one. At that moment, Chhidams concern was how
to escape the terrible truth. He could not comprehend that a lie
3
Reference to the two wives: the elder brothers wife as Barabau (liter-
ally, elder wife) and the younger brothers wife as Chhotobau (literally,
younger wife).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 70
could be more menacing than the truth. An answer occurred in
his mind the moment he heard Ramlochans question and he
immediately blurted it out.
Ramlochan panicked and said, What! What are you saying?
Is she dead?
Chhidam replied, yes, she is dead, and fell at Chakrabartis
feet.
Chakrabarti couldnt fnd a way out of the situation. He
thought, Phew! What a quagmire I have stepped into this
evening! Ill die of giving witness at court. Chhidam refused
to let go of his feet. He asked, Dadathakur,
4
how do I save my
wife now?
Ramlochan was the chief advisor in the village in matters of
lawsuits. Refecting for a while, he said, Look, there is one way
out. you run immediately to the police station and say that your
elder brother Dukhi returned home in the evening and asked
for food, and when he saw that the food was not ready, he
plunged the chopper into his wifes head. I am saying to you for
certain, if you tell this, the girl will be spared.
Chhidams throat became dry. He stood up and said, Sir, if
I lose my wife Ill get another, but if my brother is hanged Ill
never get another. yet when he had put the blame on his wife,
he had not thought of all this. He had done something in haste;
now unnoticed, his mind was gathering for itself reason and
solace for the act.
Chakrabarti also found the statement logical. He said, Okay
then, go and report the incident as it happened; it is impossible
to defend everyone.
Saying that, Ramlochan left the place, and soon it became
known in the entire village that in the Kuri household, Chandara,
in a burst of fury, had struck her elder sister-in-laws head with
a chopper.
Like the water that rushes into the village when a dam breaks,
police descended on the scene fast. The guilty and the innocent
alike became extremely nervous.
4
A Brahmin as addressed by a non-Brahmin.
PuNISHMENT 71
II
Chhidam thought, he must stay on the track he had constructed
himself. He had personally made a statement to Chakrabarti,
and it had spread all around the village; if now some other
secret came out, who knew what might lead to what he
himself found no answer to it. He felt, there was no other way
to save his wife than to stick to the statement and bolster it with
few other stories.
Chhidam urged his wife Chandara to take the onus on herself.
She was aghast. Chhidam reassured her, saying, Do what I say,
you have nothing to worry about, well save you.
He comforted her no doubt, but his throat became dry and
face became pale.
Chandara was not much more than seventeen or eighteen.
Her face was round and plump, not very tall, ft and trim, there
was such a beauty and grace in her powerful limbs that all
her movements seemed instinctive and natural. She was like a
newly-made boat; petite and shapely, moved easily, and not a
loose joint anywhere. She had a humour and curiosity about
everything in the world; she loved to visit the neighbours for
chitchat; and as she went and returned from the river stairs,
carrying a pitcher on her hip, she would remove the sari-end
from over her forehead with two fngers just a little to observe
everything worthwhile on the way with her bright, busy, dark
as a cloud eyes.
The elder sister-in-law was the opposite; dishevelled, sloppy
and disorderly. Her head-covering, infant child, household work
she could manage none of these. She didnt have much work
at hand and yet she could never fnd time for rest. The younger
sister-in-law avoided saying much to her, except for occasional
jibes in a soft voice, at which she would instantly fare up,
become furious and bawl and scream endlessly, agitating the
whole neighbourhood.
There was also a strange affnity of properties between these
two married couples. Dukhiram was physically a giant; his
bones were wide but the nose was small; his eyes gazed at the
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 72
world as if they couldnt understand it properly but didnt want
to ask any questions either. Such an innocent but awesome,
strong but helpless human being was extremely rare.
Chhidam, on the other hand, was like a fnely carved statute
from a bright black stone. There was not the slightest excess, not
a dent anywhere. His every limb seemed ideal in its combination
of strength and fnesse. Whether jumping off the high bank of
a river, or propelling a boat with a punt-pole, or climbing a
bamboo to choose and cut its young twigs, in his every action
there was a measure and orderliness, and showed an absence
of strain. He oiled his long black hair and combed it with much
care from his forehead to fall over his shoulders he took extra
efforts in his dress and appearance.
Although he was not indifferent towards the beauty of the
other women in the village and was keen to make himself
attractive in their eyes, yet Chhidam had a special affection
for his young wife. They both fought and made peace again,
for neither could defeat the other. There was another reason
for their bond to be tenacious. Chhidam believed a woman as
nimble and restless as Chandara could not be fully trusted; and
Chandara thought her husbands eyes roved everywhere, if he
was not put on a tight leash, he might slip out of her hands
someday.
A little before the present incidents in the story, a row had
been brewing between husband and wife. Chandara had noticed
that her husband went away to distant places in the name of
work and even stayed over for a day or two, and yet he returned
home with no extra income. Taking this as a bad sign, she also
began to overstep the limit. She started going to the river stairs
for collecting water every now and then, and after touring the
whole neighbourhood she would return home and give detailed
descriptions of Kashi Majumders second son.
It appeared as though someone had poisoned Chhidams
days and nights. Wherever he went, for work or leisure, he
couldnt fnd a moments peace. One day he came and scolded
his brothers wife, putting the blame on her. She waved her
hands and said angrily, invoking her father, That girl runs faster
PuNISHMENT 73
than the storm. How can I restrain her? I know shell bring ruin
on us someday.
Chandara walked out of the adjacent room and said calmly,
Why sister, why do you worry so much? Instantly a serious
strife broke out between the two sisters-in-law.
Chhidam frowned at his wife and said, If I hear again that
you have gone to the river alone, Ill crush your bones to pieces.
Chandara said, Then my bones would fnd peace, and made
as if she was immediately going out.
Chhidam grabbed her by the hair in one leap, dragged her
back into the room and shut the door from outside.
When he returned from work in the evening, he found the
door open and the room empty. Chandara had fed to her
maternal uncles house three villages away.
Chhidam brought her back home after much efforts and
repeated pleas, but this time he had to accept defeat. He realised
that it was as impossible to frmly clasp his tiny wife as it was to
clench a handful of mercury she appeared to slip through the
gaps of his fngers.
He didnt apply force on her any more, but his life became
very unhappy. His jealous love for his restless young wife
tormented him like a sharp, throbbing pain. From time to time,
he even thought, If she died, I would be relieved and fnd a
measure of peace. Men tend to be less envious of death than
they are of each other.
It was around this time the misfortune occurred in the house.
When Chandaras husband advised her to plead guilty to
murder, she stared at him fabbergasted; her two dark eyes
continued to bore into him in silence like black fre. It was as
if she began to shrink in body and soul to escape the clutches
of her demonic husband. Her inward spirit became utterly
indifferent to everything.
Chhidam assured her, youve nothing to be afraid of. Then
he taught her repeatedly what she was to say to the police and
the magistrate. Chandara did not pay attention to any of the
details and sat there like a wooden statue.
Dukhiram was solely dependent on Chhidam in everything.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 74
When Chhidam asked him to put the blame on Chandara, Dukhi
inquired, Whatll become of younger sister-in-law then?
Chhidam replied, Ill save her. The bulky Dukhiram felt
relieved.
III
Chhidam had tutored his wife to say: Elder sister-in-law attacked
me with a cleaver, and as I tried to fend her off with a chopper,
it suddenly, somehow, struck her. It was all Ramlochans
invention. He had coached Chhidam in great details about the
evidences and embellishments required to support the story.
The police came and began their investigation. That Chandara
had killed her elder sister-in-law had become frmly rooted in
the mind of all the villagers. The witnesses confrmed as much.
When the police interrogated Chandara, she said, yes, I killed
her.
Why did you kill her?
I couldnt stand the sight of her.
Was there a brawl?
No.
Did she attack you frst?
No.
Did she mistreat you in any way?
No.
Everyone was shocked at hearing these answers.
Chhidam became tense. He said, She isnt telling the truth.
The elder wife frst.
The inspector stopped him with a sharp rebuke. At length,
subjecting Chandara to a formal investigation, he received the
same answer over and again. She refused to admit that her elder
sister-in-law had shown any aggression.
Such a headstrong girl was hard to fnd. She was inclined
towards the gallows with such might and mien that it was
impossible to hold her back. What a terrible haughtiness!
Chandara seemed to be saying to her husband in her thoughts,
PuNISHMENT 75
I am leaving you to surrender my fowering youth to the gallows
my last tie in this worldly life will be with it.
Chandara was arrested, and this small, innocent, excitable,
playful rural wife left home forever for police custody through
the familiar roads of the village past the chariot of Juggernaut,
through the marketplace, past the edge of the river stairs, the
front of the Majumdars house, past the post offce and the
schoolhouse, before the eyes of all the people she knew with
the mark of disgrace upon her. A drove of boys followed her,
and women of the village, her friends and companions some
peering through their veils, some from the edge of the door,
some from behind trees watched her being led away by police,
and trembled in shame, contempt and fear.
Chandara confessed her crime to the Deputy Magistrate as
well. And there was no suggestion in her statement that her
elder sister-in-law had mistreated her in any way.
But that day, stepping on to the witness-box, Chhidam said,
bursting into tears and folding his hands in supplication, I
entreat you, your Honour, my wife has committed no crime.
The magistrate reined in his outburst with a sharp reprimand and
began to interrogate him. Chhidam revealed the true incidents
one by one.
The magistrate did not believe his words. Because the main
trustworthy respectable witness, Ramlochan, said, I arrived at
the scene soon after the murder. The witness Chhidam asked,
confessing everything to me and clinging onto my feet, Give me
some ideas how to save my wife. I said to him nothing good or
bad. The witness again asked, If I say, my elder brother asked
for food and when he didnt get it he got furious and struck on
his wifes head, will that spare my wife? I said, Beware, you
scoundrel, dont say a syllable of lie in court theres no greater
crime than that.
Ramlochan had at the beginning come up with many stories
with the intention of saving Chandara but when he saw Chandara
herself was averse to it, he thought, O my God! I might be
accused of perjury in the end! Its better to say what I know. So
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 76
Ramlochan said what he knew, and didnt spare to say even a
bit more than what he knew.
The Deputy Magistrate sent up the accused for trial at the
Sessions Court.
Meanwhile all the routine activities of the world tilling and
mowing, buying and selling, smiles and tears went on, and
like in previous years, monsoon rain poured non-stop on fresh
crops in the paddy-felds.
The police brought the accused and the witnesses to court.
In the subordinate civil court opposite, many people were
waiting for their cases to be heard. A lawyer had come from
Kolkata to argue a case regarding the apportioning of a pond
behind someones kitchen, and on the plaintiffs side thirty-nine
witnesses had presented themselves on the occasion. Hundreds
of people had come anxiously for a hair-splitting decision on
their negligible claims, certain that nothing was more important
in the world for the moment. Chhidam was gazing at this
bustling quotidian world from the window; it all appeared to
him like a dream. A cuckoo was singing melodiously from the
huge banyan tree in the courtyard; they had no laws or court
of justice.
Chandara said to the judge, your Honour, how many times
do I say the same thing over and again?
The judge explained to her, Do you know the punishment
for the crime you confess?
Chandara replied, No.
The judge said, The sentence is death by hanging.
Chandara said, I beg you, your Honour, give me that
sentence. Do what you want, but I cant take this anymore.
When Chhidam was presented at court, Chandara turned her
face away. The judge said, Look at the witness and say what
he is to you.
Chandara covered her face with both hands and said, He is
my husband.
Question: Doesnt he love you?
Answer: yes, dreadfully.
Question: Dont you love him?
PuNISHMENT 77
Answer: yes, extremely.
When Chhidam was questioned, he said, I committed the
murder.
Question: Why?
Chhidam: I asked for food; elder sister-in-law didnt give it.
When Dukhiram came to give evidence, he fainted. As soon
as he returned to his senses, he said, your Honour, I am the
murderer.
Why?
I asked for food, she didnt give it.
After extensive interrogation and cross-examination of the
other witnesses, the judge understood clearly that the two
brothers were taking the blame on themselves to save a woman
of the house from the shame of being hanged. But Chandara had
said the same thing every time from the police to the sessions
court; she had not gone back on her words in the slightest bit.
Two lawyers had voluntarily tried everything to save her from
the death sentence, but in the end they too had accepted defeat
to her.
When at a tender age, a dark brown, tiny girl had come to her
in-laws house from her fathers home, with her plump round
face, leaving behind her dolls, who could have thought of this
day on that auspicious night of union. Her father, at the time of
his death, had said with relief, Whatever happens, I have made
proper arrangements for my daughters future.
In jail, before putting her on the gallows, the kind civil
surgeon asked Chandara, Do you wish to see anyone?
Chandara replied, Id like to see my mother once.
The doctor said, your husband wants to see you. Should I
call him?
Chandara said, Shame!
.,.
1
I
had an unusual infuence in college among my fellow-
students. Everyone used to consider me an expert in every
feld.
The main reason was, right or wrong, I always had an
opinion. Most people cant say yes or no frmly, but I had no
such problem. I was always outspoken and confdent.
Not only was I opinionated, I was also a writer. I gave
speeches, composed poetry, offered criticism and became the
object of awe and envy of all my classmates in every regard.
I could have come out of college revelling in that glory to the
end. But, meanwhile, a planet adverse to my prospects of fame
appeared in college in the guise of a professor.
That young professor of our college is now a celebrity, so
even if I suppress his name in this narrative, it wont affect his
reputation. Considering his attitude towards me, we might call
him Bamacharan Babu
2
in the story.
He was not much older than us. In fact, he had come out
1
Bengali title: Adhyapak. First published in Bharati, Bhadra 1305
(August-September 1898).
2
Bamacharan Babu: Bamacharan is a compound of two words, bama
meaning a beautiful woman and charan meaning foot. So fguratively the
name stands for one who has power over beautiful women. But since the
word bam also means left, the name may have reference to the phrase
have two left feet, meaning one who is very clumsy; and it is probably in
this sense the narrator calls the young professor, whom he deems his rival,
Bamacharan, without being aware of the ironic pun in it. Babu is a title
affxed to the name of a gentleman in Hindu Bengal (cp. Mr).
THE PROFESSOR 79
of university very recently with a frst class in Masters and
strong recommendations from Toni Sahib. But because he was
a Brahmo,
3
he seemed remote and different from us. He didnt
look like one of our contemporaries nor did he look like our
age. We fashionable Hindus used to call him a Brahmin-demon
among ourselves.
We had a debating society. I was both King Vikramaditya
4
and
his courtiers in that society. We were thirty-six members, and
even if all thirty-fve of them were left out it wouldnt make a
difference because they all shared my opinion on every subject.
On the occasion of the annual meeting of the society, I
prepared a strong essay criticising Carlyle. I was confdent that
any audience would be impressed by the uniqueness of the
essay, and there was every reason to be. I had condemned
Carlyle in it top to bottom.
Bamacharan Babu was the chair at the meeting. When I ended
my speech, my devoted fellow-students were speechless with
awe at the audacity of my views and the sheer brilliance of my
English. Seeing that no one had anything to say, Bamacharan
Babu got up and without wasting any time made it clear in a
calm, serious voice that the part of my essay that was plagiarised
from the classic American writer Lowell was excellent, but the
part that was my own should have better been left out.
Had he said that there was a striking similarity of ideas
and even language between Lowell and this young writer, his
statement would have been true and yet not unpleasant.
After this incident, a breach occurred in the undivided loyalty
I enjoyed among my classmates. Only in my dedicated devotee,
the most faithful follower, Amulyacharan, the incident created
no shadow of doubt. He kept on saying to me over and over,
3
A follower of the Brahmo Samaj movement in Hinduism of which
Tagores father was one of the founders.
4
Vikramaditya, literally means, the sun of heroism. It is a familiar name
in Indian stories and literary traditions, and though the title was assumed
by many Indian kings, historians agree that Chandragupta II, who ruled
India from 375 A.D. to 413 A.D. and had strong literary inclinations like his
father, the poet prince Samudragupta, has the strongest claim to this title.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 80
Read your play Vidyapati to the Brahmin-demon and well see
what the villifer would have to say.
The poet Vidyapati
5
loved King Siva Simhas
6
wife, Lakhima
Devi,
7
and couldnt write poetry without having her before his
eyes. Adopting this theme, I wrote a supreme, sublime poetic
tragedy. Those among my audience, who wished not to violate
antiquity, would argue that nothing like that had happened in
history. I said that it was bad luck for history, for had it happened,
history would havebeen far richer and more realistic.
I have already said that the play was of high quality but
Amulya thought it was of the very highest. He used to think
much more highly of methan I thought of myself. Therefore, I
could never fully comprehend the monumental dimensions of
the image of me that he nurtured in his mind.
The advice of reading the play to Bamacharan Babu didnt
sound bad to me, because I was confdent that the play was
fawless and beyond criticism. So a special meeting of the
debating society was called another day, and I read my play
in front of my fellow-students, and Bamacharan Babu gave his
criticism.
I dont have the appetite to relate that criticism in full. In
brief, it wasnt quite favourable towards me. In Bamacharan
Babus view, the characters of the play and their feelings
werent suffciently developed or detailed. There were many
generalised lofty statements, but they were vague, like vapour;
they hadntcome to life, acquiring form and spirit in the heart
of the playwright.
The scorpions sting is in its rear; the deadliest venom in
5
Vidyapati Thakur, a friend and court poet of king Siva Simha. He was
born in 1352 A.D. in Bispai, a village on the eastern side of Bihar. Known
for his sensuous love songs, he wrote them in Maithili dialect and ad-
dressed many of them to king Siva Simha.
6
The king of Mithila, India, 1402-1406.
7
One of the many wives of king Siva Simha. She is invoked most
frequently in the songs of Vidyapati. Here is an example, Says the poet
Vidyapati: In this universe of three worlds, there is none like him. Raja Siva
Simha, god-like in form, is the husband of Lakhima Devi.
THE PROFESSOR 81
Bamacharan Babus criticism also came towards the end. Before
taking his seat, he announced that many of the scenes in the
play as well its central theme were adopted, and even at several
places translated, from Goethes Tasso.
There was a suitable answer to this. I could have said, yes
it was copied but thats not a point of criticism. In the literary
world, appropriation is the highest art, even if it gets noticed.
All the illustrious fgures in literature have done it, including
Shakespeare. In literature, only he who is the most original
dares to imitate, because he knows how to transform others
ideas into his own.
There were many other such nice ideas, but they werent
articulated that day. Modesty was not the reason. In fact, none
of those ideas had occurred to me that day. After about fve to
seven days, one by one they started arising in my mind like
Brahmas
8
deadly missiles. But because the enemy wasnt there
before me, these infallible instruments became a source of my
own affiction. I thought I should at least share my ideas with my
fellow students. But for my moronic classmates, the arguments
were far too subtle. They knew that copying was copying. If
they couldnt differentiate between my copying and of others,
then there wouldnt be much difference between me and them.
I sat for the B.A. examination and was confdent I would be
successful. But there was no peace at heart. Those few words
from Bamacharan brought my soaring temple of fame and self-
confdence to ruins. Only the oafsh Amulyas respect for me
could not be diminished. In the morning, when the sun of my
glory was blazing bright, that respect was under my feet like
an elongated shadow; in the evening too, when the sun was
setting, that respect, stretching itself, continued to remain at my
heels. But there was no joy in that admiration; it was a mere
shadow, a fanatical obsession of an ignorant devotee, having no
spark of sense or reason in it.
8
The Hindu god of creation and one of the Trimurti or divine trinity, the
others being Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 82
II
My father summoned me home to get married. I asked him for
some time.
Bamacharan Babus criticism created an internal strife in
me; a feeling of mutiny emerged within. The critic in me was
secretly tormenting my writer self, while the writer proclaimed,
Ill avenge this; Ill write again and prove that I am greater than
my critic.
I decided privately that espousing the themes of universal
love, self-sacrifce and forgiveness, Ill write something sublime
either in prose or verse, and provide a spectacular feast for the
indulgence of Bengali critics.
I resolved to accomplish this crowning feat of my career
sitting in a beautiful, secluded place. I promised not to see
anyone for at least a month.
I called Amulya and explained my plans to him. He was struck
dumb with amazement, as if he could instantly see the purple
glow of a not-too-distant nationwide glory in my forehead.
Gravely pressing my hand and fxing his wide-eyed gaze on
my face, he said in a whisper, Go brother, go and achieve your
immortal deed and earn eternal glory for yourself.
A thrill ran up and down my whole body. I felt as if Amulya
was saying those words to me as an emissary of the overwhelmed
worshippers of Bengal, basking in the pride of imminent glory.
Amulya too made no small sacrifce. For the greater good of
the country, he gave up all hopes of my companionship for an
entire month. With a deep, protracted sigh, my friend climbed
the tram and returned to his house on Cornwallis Street, while I
retreated to the forests of Farashdangha beside the river Ganges,
to attain my immortal achievement and enduring glory.
On the bank of the Ganges, lying on my back in a lonely
house and thinking of universal love, I used to fall into deep
sleep at noon and get up at fve in the afternoon. After that my
body and mind felt somewhat exhausted. Somehow, to amuse
myself, and to spend time, I went to the back of the forest and
sat on a wooden seat by the highway and watched passing
THE PROFESSOR 83
bullock-carts and people, inertly. When it became downright
unbearable, I went and sat at the station. The telegraph pointers
ticked away, the bell sounded from the booking offce, people
focked, the red-eyed many-legged iron reptile arrived hissing
and growling, then went away with a hideous scream. There
wasa great deal of shoving and jostling among the crowds of
people for a while I was entertained. Returning home, for lack
of company, I went to bed almost immediately, and because I
had no reason to get up early in the morning, I would stay in
bed till eight or nine.
My health was ruined, and I found no trace of universal love
either. Never used to solitary living, this reclusive life on the
edge of the Ganges felt like a cheerless desert. Amulya too was
such a fool that he chose not to break his pledge even once.
Back in Kolkata I used to think, I shall sit with legs
outstretched in the enormous shadow of a banyan tree. The
river will fow freely at my feet warbling sweetly. There will be
the dream-enshrouded poet in the middle, enclosed from all
sides by his imaginary world and exquisite nature fowers in
the grove, birds in the boughs, stars in the sky, universal love at
heart, and innumerable ideas fowing tirelessly from the pen like
streams in a variegated tune. But where is nature and where is
the poet of nature? Where is universe and where is the universal
lover? I have never once been out in the grove. Forest blossoms
bloomed in the forest, stars duly appeared in the frmament,
banyan-tree shadows fell beneath the banyan trees, and I too
remained where I was.
unable to prove my divine grace, my grudge against
Bamacharan continued to grow.
During that time, child-marriage was a contentious issue
among the educated class in Bengal. Bamacharan was on the
side of those who were opposed to it. But there was a recurring
rumour that he was in love with a young woman and was
hoping to marry her soon.
This sounded utterly funny to me. Since the epic on universal
love didnt emerge, I wrote an acrid farce putting Bamacharan in
the role of the hero and a fctitious female character, Kadambakoli
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 84
Majumdar, in the role of heroine. After accomplishing this
extraordinary task, I started my preparations for returning to
Kolkata. At this time my plans were disrupted.
III
One afternoon, instead of going to the station, I was idly
inspecting the different rooms in the garden house. Since it
wasnt necessary, I hadnt stepped into most of the rooms so
far. I had no curiosity or interest whatsoever in material things.
That day, just to pass time, I was running all over, like a fallen
leaf foating in the air.
Just as I opened the door of the room on the northern side,
I found myself on a small veranda. In front of the veranda,
adjoining the wall of the northern boundary, there were two
huge jambu trees,
9
facing one another. Through the space
between the two trees, a small part of a row of bakul trees
10

from another garden was visible.
But all those I came to see later. I didnt have the leisure to
see anything else then. All I saw was a sixteen year old girl,
walking with a book in hand, reading it with her head slightly
tilted.
I didnt have the spirit to discuss any theory at that time. After
a few days I thought, Dushyanta
11
came to the forest on a hunt
riding a chariot, brandishing huge bows and arrows. But while
he killed no deer, what he accidentally saw and heard for ten
minutes hiding behind a tree, became the supreme experience
of his life. I too came armed with pen and pencil to hunt for the
9
A tree of the rose family widely distributed in temperate regions and
bearing small, juicy, dark edible fruits with seeds in them.
10
A large evergreen fower-tree or its small, white or light yellow,
sweet-scented fower.
11
King of India, the story of whose love with Shakuntala is the subject-
matter of Kalidasas dramatic masterpiece Shakuntala. The greatest of the
dramatists in the Sanskrit language, Kalidasa, is placed by scholars differ-
ently from the frst to the ffth century of the present era.
THE PROFESSOR 85
Muse of poetry, but while poor universal love managed to elude
me, I saw what I could from behind two trees; such a sight can
be seen but once in a lifetime.
There are many things in this world that I have never seen. I
have never boarded a ship, fown in a balloon, or entered a coal
mine. But that I was utterly clueless and ignorant about my dream
woman was something I had never realised before stepping onto
the veranda on the northern side. I was about to cross twenty-
one; I couldnt say that my heart hadnt conceived its own image
of a beautiful woman in the meantime. I had decked that woman
in many dresses, put her in many circumstances, but never had I
in a distant dream hoped or wished to see her in shoes, blouse
and with a book in hand. But one afternoon, towards the end
of Phalgoon (eleventh month of the Bengali calendar), in the
woodlands, with long shadows from dense trembling leaves of
ageing trees, striated with light, my Lakshmi,
12
wearing shoes,
and blouse, with a book in hand, suddenly appeared through
the two trees. And I was left speechless.
I couldnt see her for more than two minutes. I tried to catch
another glimpse of her through various gaps, but to no avail.
That day, for the frst time, I sat before sunset under the banyan
tree with legs outstretched before my eyes, the evening star
climbed above the trees on the other side of the bank, with
calm, gentle smile, and in an instant, the twilight, opening the
doors of her vast solitary bridal chamber, stood there silently
without her lord.
The book that I saw in the womans hand became a new
source of mystery for me. I wondered what book it might be.
Was it a novel or a collection of poetry? What emotions did the
book delineate? The page that was open and that witnessed
the light and shade of the afternoon, and the rustling noise
of leaves from the bakul bower, and on which those pair of
curious eyes was gazing constantly, what part of the story did it
contain? What sentiments of the poem did it transmit? Moreover,
12
The Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. The word is frequently
used to address the beloved or ones mistress.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 86
I wondered what varied emotions were forming themselves
inside that tender forehead, covered with dark free-fowing
hair? What beautiful worlds was the ever new magic of poetry
spinning in her secret solitary virgin soul? For half the night,
I thought so many other similar thoughts that it is diffcult to
recount them precisely.
But who told me that she was a virgin? It was the very same
one who had assured my ancient forebear Dushyanta about
Shakuntala
13
even before he had met her. It is the hearts longing
that is responsible for many hopes and illusions in the human
mind, some of which come true, and some of which dont. In
the case of Dushyanta and me, they happened to come true.
Whether my unknown neighbour was married or a virgin, a
Brahmin
14
or a Shudra,
15
it wasnt diffcult for me to fnd out. But
I didnt try that. Instead, like a silent chakor
16
from millions of
yojanas
17
away, I only craned my neck to embrace the luminous
moon with my gaze. The next day, I hired a small boat at noon
and went drifting downstream, peering at the shore. I told the
boatmen not to row.
The hermitage of my Shakuntala was also on the bank of the
Ganges. It wasnt exactly like Kanwas
18
; the steps of the ghat
19

went up from the Ganges to the veranda of a large house, and
the veranda was shaded with a sloping wooden roof.
When my boat foated soundlesslyup to the ghat, I saw my
modern-day Shakuntala sitting on the foor of the veranda. A
wooden cot behind her; a few books scattered on the cot; her
loose hair spread over those books. Leaning against the cot, she
13
Daughter of the sage Viswamitra and the nymph Menaka, foster-child
of the hermit Kanwa in Kalidasaa Shakuntala.
14
First of the four classical Hindu castes or varnas; the priestly caste
in Hindu religion.
15
The lowest of the Hindu castes; traditionally labourers, cultivators,
fshermen and servants.
16
A legendary bird said to thirst for the moon.
17
A measure of distance, usually about fve miles.
18
Chief of the hermits and foster-father of Shakuntala in Kalidasaa
Shakuntala.
19
A landing-stage as of a river or pond.
THE PROFESSOR 87
was gazing upwards, resting her head on her raised left hand.
From the boat her face was invisible; only the delicate curve of
her graceful neck was in view. Her bare feet outstretched, one
on the top step of the landing and the other on the step below;
the black border of her sari encircling those feet. One of the
books had dropped from her lax, unmindful right hand and was
lying on the ground. It seemed she was the embodiment of the
midday deity, a motionless elegant icon of rest in the midst of a
strenuous day. The Ganges beneath, the horizons beyond, the
torrid sun on top, all were watching in intense hushed eagerness
the darling of their soul those bare feet, that loosely placed left
hand, that upward curve of the neck.
I watched her for as long as I could. My eyes, awash with
tears, seemed to drench those lotus-like feet again and again.
At last, when the boat moved away and a tree on the shore
obstructed my view, I suddenly made a show of remembering
something. With a start I said to the boatmen, Well, today I
dont think I can go to Hoogly after all. Please turn and go
back home from here. But while returning, they had to row
upstream. This sound made me cringe. The noise made by the
rudder seemed to assault something that was animated, tender,
beautiful, infnite and omniscient, and yet timid as a fawn. When
the boat approached the ghat, my neighbour frst raised her
head, glancing curiously at my boat. In an instant, catching sight
of my eager, excited gaze, she started, and ran into the house.
I felt as though I had struck her, that she was hurt, somehow.
As she got up hastily, a half-ripe, half-eaten guava fell from
her lap and rolled down to the bottom step of the landing. My
whole heart yearned for that fruit, bearing marks of her teeth
and thetouch of her lips; but constrained by the presence of the
boatswains, I merely gazed at it from a distance as we passed.
I noticed that the rising water of the tide, stricken with extreme
greed, was trying to seize the fruit with its watery tongue,
making a hungry, sloshing sound. Oppressed by the unpleasant
thought that its impudent desire would be gratifed in half an
hour, we arrived at my ghat.
under the banyan tree, sitting with legs outstretched, I spent
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 88
the whole day dreaming of Nature lying prostrate beneath those
dainty delicate feet the sky radiant, the earth ecstatic, the wind
impatient. In the midst of it all, those barefeet, motionless, still
and beautiful; they were not even aware that, intoxicated by the
atoms of dust that they bore, the earth was blossoming into a
new season of spring, infused with the heady spirit of youth.
Before this, I had found nature dispersed and fragmented;
river, forest, sky were all separate. The presence of a beautiful
female form in its midst gave that vast, colossal chaos a clear
shape. Today I found nature organic and exquisite, soliciting me
in silence ceaselessly, I am voiceless, you verbalise thoughts;
the hymn that lies unsung in my heart resonating constantly,
you dress that in human language, giving it melody.
That unpronounced appeal from nature set the strings of my
heart vibrating. Over and over I heard this one song alone,
Oh! the peerless one, the enchantress, the worlds empress, the
fame of nature, oh! eternal life, ever sweet death. I could never
sing the whole song, never hold fast to it; never could I give it
a full form, never render it in music. I thought an indescribable
power was accumulating in me like the rising water in a tide.
I still could not grasp it fully; when that happened, my voice
would break out in a celestial song and my brow would acquire
a supernatural radiance.
A boat came in at this time from Nouhat station across the
river and touched my garden ghat. With a folded shawl on his
shoulders, and an umbrella under his arm, Amulya came down
from it smiling. The kind of emotion that arose in my heart
when I suddenly saw my friend is something I hope nobody
would feel even for their enemies. Seeing me sitting in a frenzied
state in the shade of the banyan tree at two in the afternoon, a
grand hope took shape in Amulyas mind. Lest a segment of the
would-be most acclaimed poem of Bengal fy straight into the
water like a wild swan startled by his footsteps, he approached
cautiously and slowly. This made me even more indignant. I
said, somewhat annoyed, Hey, Amulya, what is the matter with
you? Cant you walk? Amulya thought I was saying something
outrageously funny. He came laughing towards me, wiped the
THE PROFESSOR 89
space beneath the tree with the plaited loose end of his dhoti,
spread a handkerchief from his pocket, and sat down carefully.
He said, The farce that you sent, I found it irresistibly funny.
So saying, he started reciting sections of it from memory, and
choked with mirth. I was feeling so mad that even if I uprooted
the entire tree, from which the pen I wrote the farce with was
made, and burnt the work to ashes in a huge bonfre made from
it, still my rage wouldnt abate.
Amulya asked me hesitantly, How far are you with your
poem? I felt even more vexed by this. I said to myself, My
poem has matured about as much as your brain has. To him I
said, Well, we will discuss that later Amulya. Dont excite me
now unnecessarily.
Amulya was basically a curious person. He couldnt avoid
exploring everything around him. From this anxiety, I shut the
door of the northern side of my house. He queried, What is
there on that side? I said, Nothing. Never before in my life
have I lied like that.
After pestering me, tormenting me in various ways for two
days, Amulya left by the evening train on the third day. For
the last two days, I had never been to the northern side of
my yard, never even once looked at it. Like a miser hiding his
treasure, I was guarding the northern side of my compound
all the time. The instant Amulya left, I scurried to the door,
opened it, and stepped onto the northern veranda of the frst
foor of my residence. The faint moonlight of a dusky night
in the canopy above, a silent gloomy evening with a gleam
of light shaded by a network of branches below, the rustling
noise of leaves, the heavy fragrance of fallen bakul-fowers
beneath the trees, and the subdued surprised silence of the
evening that brought them all to fullness; in the midst of this,
my young, beautiful neighbour was walking lightly, holding the
right hand of her ageing father and saying something to him.
The old man was listening to her in silence, affectionately but
with respect, his head slightly bowed. There was nothing to
interrupt that wholesome, intimate conversation. The occasional
sound of rowing in the calm river in the evening was fading in
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 90
the distance; and in the numerous nests among the branches of
trees, some birds sporadically broke into a gentle chirping. I felt
as though my heart would rend either in sorrow or happiness. I
felt my presence stretching to that place of light and shade and
merging with it. I started feeling those slow footsteps inside my
heart, as if integrating with those trees and leaves I could hear
a sweet humming sound close to my ear. The agony of a vast
voiceless nature started resounding in my very bones, as though
I could understand how anguished the earth felt about lying
beneath those feet yet being unable to grasp them; how the
bent trees, with their branches and leaves, longed to break out
in lamentation and a breathless wail, because they could hear
everything but still not comprehend anything. I too continued
to feel that footfall with all my soul and self, hear that parley,
but because I couldnt hold her in my arms, I began to shed my
spirit like a shower of falling leaves.
The next day I couldnt wait any more. I went to see my
neighbour in the morning. Bhabanath Babu, wearing his
spectacles, a big bowl of tea beside him, was busy reading
an ancient copy of a book by Hamilton, underlined in blue
pencil. When I stepped into the room, he looked at me for
a while unmindfully through the upper part of his spectacles;
he couldnt withdraw his attention from the book immediately.
Then suddenly with a start, he began preparations to entertain
me hurriedly. I briefy introduced myself. He was in such haste
that he couldnt even fnd his spectacle case. He asked me
randomly, Would you like to have a cup of tea? Although I
wasnt used to drinking tea, I still said, Okay. Bhabanath Babu
anxiously started calling out, Kiron, Kiron. I heard a sweet voice
from behind the door saying, yes, father, what is it? Turning
back, I saw the woman of my dreams. Seeing me unexpectedly,
she was about to fee like a frightened doe. Bhabanath Babu
called her back. Introducing me, he said, This is our neighbour
Mahendra Kumar Babu. To me, he said, This is my daughter
Kironbala. I was nonplussed and didnt know what to do. In
the meantime, Kiron greeted me with a gentle, graceful bow. I
quickly controlled myself and returned her greeting. Bhabanath
THE PROFESSOR 91
Babu said, youll have to bring a cup of tea for Mahendra
Babu, my daughter. I became very self-conscious about this,
but before I could say anything, Kiron left the room. I thought
the ancient Bholanath
20
in Kailasa
21
was entreating his daughter
Lakshmi herself to bring a cup of tea for the guest; surely that
would be pure nectar for him, but wasnt there some Nandi or
Bhringi standing beside him?
IV
I became a regular guest at Bhabanath Babus house. Previously
I used to dread tea, but now, drinking it morning and afternoon,
I developed an addiction to it.
I had recently read the history of modern philosophy by a
German scholar in preparation for my B.A. examination. For a
few days, I pretended that I came only to discuss philosophy
with Bhabanath Babu. Seeing him reading dated and fallacious
books by Hamilton and others, I used to consider him an object
of pity and never hesitated to parade my up-to-date knowledge
of the subject to him. Bhabanath Babu was such an amiable
person, such was his modesty, that he used to acknowledge
everything that even a youngster like me had to say. The
slightest protest made him restive; he was apprehensive lest I
be offended by something. Kiron used to walk out in the middle
of our metaphysical discourse on some pretext. This used to
agitate me, but also made me feel equally proud. The rare
scholarship involved in our discussion was far too diffcult for
Kiron; who knew how high she had to look when she sought a
mental measure of my mountain of knowledge.
When I used to behold Kiron from a distance, she was like
Shakuntala and Damayanti
22
to me. Now, inside the house, she
20
Another name for Shiva, one of the three principal Hindu gods (who
is primarily entrusted with the task of destruction); also means an utterly
forgetful person.
21
The mountain where Shiva dwells with his consort Parvati.
22
Famous star-crossed lover in mythology whose relationship with Nala
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 92
became Kiron. She was now no longer the shadow of the
many heroines of the world, but simply Kiron. Stepping down
from the poetic realm of many centuries, and abandoning the
paradise that exists in the heart of eternal youth, she took on the
identity of an unwed daughter in a particular Bengali house. She
spoke to me in my own mother tongue about familiar matters
of everyday life, laughed artlessly at the slightest thing, wore a
pair of gold bangles on her wrists like any ordinary woman. Her
necklace was simple but elegant. The end of her sari sometimes
covered the upper part of her chignon, but sometimes from
lack of practice at her fathers house it slipped off, much to my
delight. That she was real, she was true, she was Kiron, nothing
but that and nothing more than that, and although she was
not mine, yet ours, for that my heart used to constantly fll in
passionate gratitude towards her.
One day I was babbling fervently on the subject of relativity
of knowledge with Bhabanath Babu. Kiron left before we had
scarcely made any progress in the discussion, and after a while
returning with a portable stove and cooking utensils to the front
veranda said, teasing Bhabanath Babu, Father, why do you
make Mahendra Babu prattle on such a serious matter? Come,
Mahendra Babu, it will be more useful if you help me with my
cooking. Bhabanath Babu wasnt to blame for this, and Kiron
was well aware of that. But looking guilty, Bhabanath Babu said
regretfully, with a faint smile, Thats true. Okay well resolve
it another day. Saying this, he returned to his routine reading
calmly.
Again, another afternoon, introducing a serious topic, as I
was about to unnerve Bhabanath Babu, Kiron intervened and
said, Mahendra Babu, youll have to help the helpless. I am
trying to put a creeper on the wall, but cant reach so high.
youll have to drive these nails in for me. I went out happily;
Bhabanath Babu also returned to his book contented.
is narrated in the Mahabharata. It is believed that when Nala, king of
Nishada, frst heard of Damayantis beauty, he sent a swan (whose life he
had once saved) to search her out.
THE PROFESSOR 93
Like this, every time I tried to get into a weighty discussion
with Bhabanath Babu, Kiron, on one excuse or another, would
break in. I used to feel enthused by this. I knew Kiron had caught
me out. Somehow, she had realised that discussing theories with
Bhabanath Babu wasnt the highest pleasure in my life.
When we had descended halfway into the depths of an
impassable, mysterious netherworld in an attempt to determine
the relationship between matter and the human mind, Kiron
came in and said, Mahendra Babu, come, let me show you my
brinjal patch.
To think the sky infnite is merely our speculation, and to
have a limit for it in some form beyond our imagination and
experience is not out of the question. When I was prattling on
like that, Kiron emerged and said, Mahendra Babu, I see two
ripe mangoes, youll have to pull the branch down for me.
What release, what liberty! In a moment I found a safe haven
in a boundless sea. No matter how impenetrable the mystery
of the world and sky might be, there was nothing abstruse or
uncertain about Kirons brinjal farm and mango trees. They
werent worth alluding to in fction or poetry, but in life they
were as beautiful as the island engirded by sea. He who has
foated long in water knows how pleasurable it is to touch
the ground. I didnt know how I would keep afoat forever
in the ocean of love that I had envisaged for myself if it had
been real. There, the sky was infnite and so was the ocean.
No trace of the limited experiences of daily life existed in there,
not a touch of banality, only sentiments expressed in music
and melody and a boundless depth. When Kiron yanked this
drowning wretch from the water by a fstful of his hair and
brought him to her brinjal farm and mango forest, I found relief
with my feet touching the earth. I realised that an extraordinary
happiness could be attained by helping cook khichri
23
on the
veranda, climbing a ladder to fx nails on the wall, or spotting
lemons in the thick green foliage of lime trees. And for such
23
A food prepared by boiling rice and pigeon-pea with spices and oil;
hotchpotch.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 94
happiness, no perseverance was required; the words that came
to my lips unbidden, the laughter that emerged spontaneously,
the light that emanated from the sky, the shadows that spread
from trees, were enough. Moreover, I had with me a magic
wand, my frst fush of youth; my love, a touchstone; and my
unwavering self-confdence, an immortal wishing tree. I was the
victor; I was Indra
24
; there was nothing to stand in the way of my
uchchaisrava.
25
Kiron was my Kiron, I had no doubt about that.
So far I havent stated this unequivocally, but rending my heart
like intermittent fashes of lightning, the knowledge pulsated
through my entire being. Kiron, my Kiron!
I had never mingled with a woman outside my family before.
I wasnt familiar with the manners and customs of those modern
educated women who have stepped out of purdah.
26
Therefore,
I didnt know in the least where ended their sense of propriety
and where began their claims of love. But I also couldnt
understand why they should not love me. In what way was I
inferior?
When Kiron brought me a cup of tea, I accepted it
together with a bowl brimming with her love. When I drank
the tea, I thought my receiving and Kirons giving were both
consummated. If Kiron simply said, Mahendra Babu, arent
you coming tomorrow? The words rang in my ears in a poetic
measure: Friend, what magic do you know/you certainly excel
in charming women. I answered plainly, Ill come tomorrow by
eight. Didnt Kiron hear in that, Idol of my soul, my precious
one/you are my sole riches in the whole world.
My whole day and night became suffused with nectar. My
thoughts, spreading new branches every instant, kept on coiling
around Kiron like a vine. My mind was absorbed in fantasies of
what I would say to Kiron, teach her, inform her, show her when
that moment of much awaited rest came. I even decided that I
24
The king of the gods and one of the most prodigious demon slayers
in Hindu mythology.
25
The mythical horse owned by Indra.
26
The system of veiling women from the sight of strangers, traditionally
practiced among Muslims as well as Hindus.
THE PROFESSOR 95
must guide her so that she developed an interest in the history
of modern philosophy by the German scholar; otherwise, she
would fail to understand me fully. I would steer her through
the splendid world of English poetry. Inwardly amused, I said,
Kiron, your mango grove and brinjal patch are a new world
to me. Never in a dream did I think that besides brinjal and
storm-tossed mangoes, rare delicious fruits could also be found
there and so easily. But when time comes, I too will take you
to a world where brinjals dont grow and yet the absence of
brinjals was never felt. That is the orbit of knowledge, sphere
of imagination.
As the pale stars at sunset get brighter with approaching
nightfall, so did Kiron get lovelier every day with a growing
inner grace, vivaciousness and blossoming womanhood. It
seemed as if, ascending to the zenith above her home and her
world, she radiated a blissful, benefcent light all around. A glow
of sanctity fell from that light on the hoary hair of her father,
and on every ripple of my undulating heart it branded a bright
insignia of Kirons irresistible name.
My vacation in the meantime was coming to an end. My fathers
affectionate pleas to go home and get married were gradually
turning into an order. Amulya too was becoming impatient. The
anxiety when he might abruptly step into my lily garden like a
wild elephant with its four huge legs was becoming stronger
every day. How, baring my heart immediately, could I unite
with her? This became my singular obsession.
V
One afternoon I went to Bhabanath Babus house and saw him
sleeping in the scorching heat of summer reclining against a
wooden cot, and facing him in the secluded veranda by the
river Ganges, Kiron was sitting on the landing stair and reading
a book. Walking up silently behind her, I saw it was a new
collection of poetry. On the page that was open, there was
an extract from Shelley, and next to it there was a line clearly
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 96
drawn in red. Reading that poem, Kiron heaved a sigh and
looked up into the distant horizon with a pair of dreamy eyes.
It seemed she had read the single poem ten times in the last
hour and with one animated sigh had lifted her spiritual vessel
into the infnite sky, to the remote stellar region. I have no
idea for whom Shelley wrote the poem. Surely it was not for a
Bengali youth called Mahendra Kumar. But today no one except
me had claims to the hymn, I could vouch for that. Kiron had
drawn a radiant roseate line alongside the poem with the quill
of her innermost heart. Secured by that magic spell, today the
poem was hers and also mine. Arresting my excitement, I asked
plainly, What are you reading? The boat in full sail seemed
suddenly stuck in a shoal. Taken by surprise, Kiron shut the
book quickly and hid it completely within the folds of her sari.
Smiling, I asked, Can I have a look at the book, please? Kiron
panicked and replied in a nervous tone, No, no, please, not
this book.
Sitting close by, and a step below her, I started a discussion
on English poetry. I began it so tactfully that Kiron might get
a lesson in literature and I might also express my feelings
in the words of English poets. In the heat and silence of the
surroundings, the little indistinct noises from land and water
came foating like mothers lullabies, soft and gentle.
Kiron seemed impatient. She said, Father is sitting alone,
arent you going to fnish your debate on the infnite sky? I
thought, The sky will always remain and the debate on it will
also never stop, but life is brief and pleasurable moments are rare
and transient. Side-stepping Kirons question, I said, I have a
few poems, I shall read them to you. Kiron replied, Tomorrow.
So saying, she got up, and looking towards the house cried
out, Father, Mahendra Babu is here. Bhabanath Babu, suddenly
aroused from sleep, opened his innocent eyes and grew agitated,
like alittle boy. I felt as if I had been suddenly struck a severe
blow somewhere inside. Going to Bhabanath Babus room, I
began arguing about the infnite sky. Kiron went upstairs with
her book, perhaps to read it in her bedroom uninterrupted.
The next day a copy of the Statesman marked in red pencil
THE PROFESSOR 97
came in the mail. The results of the B.A. examination were
published in it. In the frst-class column on top I came across
a name Kironbala Bandyopadhyay. My name I couldnt fnd in
any of the columns:frst, second or third.
Together with the anguish of failing in the examination, I was
seared as if by a fash of lightning at the thought that Kironbala
Bandyopadhyay might be our own Kironbala. Although she
had never told me that she went to college or had taken the
examination, the suspicion started growing stronger. Because,
on refection, I realised that the old man and his daughter had
never discussed a word with me about themselves. I too was so
busy bragging about myself, brandishing my own knowledge,
that I never had asked anything about them properly.
I started recallingthe arguments about the history of modern
philosophy by the German scholar I had read recently, and I
remembered that one day I had told Kiron that if I got the
opportunity to teach her some books for a few days, I might be
able to develop in her a clear awareness of English poetry.
Kironbala had obtained honours in philosophy and frst class
marks in literature. What if it was the same Kiron!
At last, rekindling the embers of my pride with asharp prod,
I proclaimed, I dont care, my works are my pillars of triumph.
So saying, with pen and paper in hand, and my head held higher
than before, I strode into Bhabanath Babus yard.
There was no one in the house then. I started carefully
looking through the books of the old man. I saw a copy of the
history of modern philosophy by the German scholar lying in
a corner. Opening it, I found that its margins were flled with
notes scribbled in Bhabanath Babus own hands. The old man
had tutored his daughter himself. I was left in no doubt about
that.
Bhabanath Babu entered the house with a face more radiant
than other days. It seemed that he had just fnished his morning
ablution in a mountain-spring of good news. All at once, with
pride and an arrogant smile on my face, I said, Bhabanath Babu,
I funked the examination. I felt I had now joined the ranks of
those great people whofailed their school examinationand yet
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 98
attained the highest honours in life.To succeed in examinations,
business, trade and vocation was a sign of mediocrity; only
people of lower and higher calibre had that rare privilege
of not faring well in them. Bhabanath Babus face expressed
affectionate sympathy. He could no longer give the news of
his daughters achievement in the examination, but observing
my inconsistently insolent joy, he was somewhat baffed. In his
simple judgement he couldnt understand the cause of my pride.
Just then, Kiron stepped into the house with our young
college professor Bamacharan Babu, her expression bashful,
intense and radiant, glistening like a rain-washed vine. I was left
in no doubt about the truth. Returning home that night, I set my
works on fre, went back to my village, and got married.
The epic that I was supposed to write by the side of the
Ganges was never written, but I attained it in the circumstances
of my own life.
..,
1
B
ipin Kishore was born in a well-to-do family, so he knew
twice as much about how to squander his wealth than
how to acquire it. As a result, he could not continue to
live in the house where he was born.
He was a handsome, delicate young man, adept in music,
but unskilled in practical work. So he was not of much use for
society. Like Juggernauts antiquated chariot, he was incapable
of making his own living, and of late, he had been unable to
keep up with his grand lifestyle.
Fortunately, Chitta Ranjan, a zamindar with the honorifc title
of Raja, had acquired some property through a court settlement
and was thinking of setting up an amateur theatre company.
Fascinated by Bipin Kishores good looks and his capacity for
singing and composing songs, he warmly admitted him into his
entourage.
Chitta Ranjan had a bachelors degree. He had no unruly
aspect in his behaviour. Although he belonged to a wealthy
family, he ate and slept at fxed hours and even at fxed places
routinely. Suddenly his fondness for Bipin Kishore developed
into an obsession. Often his meals went cold and nights grew
old while he listened to Bipin and discussed the merits of his
1
Bengali title: Sadar O Andar. First published in Pradip, Asharh
1307 (June-July 1900). Sadar O Andar literally means, inner and outer
apartment. But the phrase Sadar o andar nai, fguratively means lack
of privacy. My translated title is based on this fgurative meaning of the
phrase.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 100
operatic compositions. His secretary began to comment that the
only blemish in his masters otherwise composed character was
his excessive affection for Bipin Kishore.
Basanta Kumari, with the honorifc title of Rani, shouted at
her husband in rage, Why are you wasting your health on a
miserable ape? I would fnd relief only if I could get rid of
him. Chitta Ranjan felt somewhat delighted and amused
by the jealousy of his young wife. He thought that women-
folks imaginations are limited to only one man on earth him
whom they love. That there could be many other virtuous men
deserving of honour in society is not inscribed in their sacred
books. All the love and praise of a woman is heaved on the
man who sings marriage incantations into her ears. She agonises
over her husbands slightest delay in his dining time, but doesnt
care in the least if her husbands dependents have not a morsel
to eat. This selfsh bias of the fairer sex might seem disgraceful
to some, but Chitta Ranjan didnt fnd it unpleasant. Therefore,
every now and then, he would tease his wife with extravagant
eulogies of Bipin in her presence and divert himself.
But this firting between the rich couple did not bode well
for the luckless Bipin. The apathy of the lady of the house only
added to his problems. Servants of a rich household are, as
a rule, hostile to the sheltered guests; reassured by the Ranis
malice, they showed their secret contempt for Bipin in different
ways.
One day the Rani scolded the servant Punteh, you are never
around for any work. What do you do the whole day?
He replied that he spends the whole day serving Bipin Babu
as per the masters order.
At this the Rani quipped, For Gods sake, it seems your Bipin
Babu has become a real Nawab.
2
That was enough of a hint for Punteh not to touch Bipins
uneaten food from the next day. Sometimes he even left his
food uncovered. Bipin began to clean his own dishes with his
2
A term used for Muslim rulers in Bengal during the Mughal and British
periods; ruler of a territory or governor of a district.
PRIVACy 101
unpractised hands, and from time to time went without any
food at all. But it was beneath him to complain about it to the
master. He didnt want to disgrace himself by getting into a
brawl with the servants. In this way, his love from the master
continued to increase, while his scorn from the mistress of the
house became endless.
The opera Subhadraharan
3
was fnally ready after rehearsals.
The stage was ftted at the zamindars regal courtyard. The Raja
himself played the role of Krishna and Bipin acted the part of
Arjun. Ah, what a voice, and what looks of Arjun! The audience
was full of adulation for him.
At night, withdrawing to their bedroom, the Raja asked the
Rani, How did you like the acting?
The Rani replied, Bipin acted the role of Arjun brilliantly. He
has the looks of a noble man, and his voice is celestial.
The Raja moaned, Perhaps my looks are ordinary and my
voice is gruff.
Oh, yours are a different matter, the Rani said, and again fell
to glorifying Bipin Kishores theatrical skills.
The Raja had expressed fulsome praises of Bipin to the Rani in
a far exalted language in the past, but today this little adulation
from the Rani made him think that unreasonable people often
amplify Bipins abilities far beyond his actual talent. What was
so great about his appearance or his voice? Just a while ago the
Raja himself was one of those unreasonable people, but in a
sudden and mysterious way he developed symptoms of reason.
The next day, every good arrangement was made for Bipins
meals. The Rani told the Raja, It is obviously wrong to lodge
Bipin with the clerical staff in the estate house. After all, he was
once a wealthy person.
The Raja curtly dismissed the comment saying, yes.
The Rani appealed, Lets have the theatre again on the
occasion of our sons rice ceremony. The Raja refused to pay
any heed.
3
The title of the play is ironic because it literally means abduction of a
woman and leads to the Ranis change of heart and her fgurative abduc-
tion by Bipin Kishore.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 102
One day when the Raja scolded servant Punteh for not
properly folding his dhoti into a tuck, the latter replied, What to
do, sir? The day is passed waiting on Bipin Babu and washing
his dishes, at madams behest.
The Raja became angry at this and yelled, For Gods sake, it
seems Bipin Babu has become a real Nawab. Cant he wash his
own plates?
Bipins circumstances reverted again to his former miserable
state.
One day, the Rani pleaded to the Raja that being fond of Bipins
voice she would like to listen to their evening practice from
behind the screen in an adjoining room. Not long afterwards,
the Raja returned to his old habit of dining and sleeping at
regular hours and the evening musical sessions were cancelled.
The Raja used to attend to offce work at noon. One day,
returning home early, he entered the inner apartment and saw
the Rani reading something. The Raja asked her, What are you
reading?
The Rani was initially embarrassed by it and said, I am trying
to memorise a few verses from one of Bipin Babus song-books,
now that you have lost your interest in music and we can no
longer hear him sing. She forgot that she herself had tried earlier
in several ways to root out the interest from her husbands mind.
The next day the Raja sent Bipin packing; not once did he
consider where and how the poor fellow would fnd a morsel
to eat from tomorrow.
But that was not Bipins only regret. He had in the meantime
developed a genuine friendly affection for the Raja; he found
his love much more valuable than the wages he received. Even
after much careful thinking, Bipin couldnt fgure out why the
Raja had suddenly turned cold on him; so heaving a sigh, he
put his old guitar into the case and stepped out into the wider
world, where he had not a person to call his friend. On his
way out, he gave his only savings of two rupees as tip to the
zamindars servant, Punteh.
..
1
G
ouri was a beautiful girl from a traditionally wealthy
family, brought up with extravagant love. Her husband,
Paresh, had recently improved his impoverished lot a
little with his own income. As long as he was in poverty, his in-
laws, fearing their daughters hardship, did not allow her to go
and live with him. So Gouri had come to her husbands home
when she was relatively grown up.
Perhaps because of this, Paresh never felt that his young
beautiful wife fully belonged to him, and possibly, suspicion
was a part of his mental condition.
Paresh practised law in a small town in the north. Since he
had no close relatives at home, he was always concerned about
his lonely wife. Some days he would return home from court
at unexpected hours. At frst Gouri was at a loss to understand
why he would arrive suddenly.
At times, Paresh would dismiss the servants one after another
without any reason. None of them suited him for long anymore.
In particular, if Gouri would express the desire to keep any of
the servants fearing the inconvenience of losing him, Paresh
would be sure to get rid of him immediately. The more the
exuberant Gouri resented it, the more the husbands behaviour
became impatient and strange.
In the end, when Paresh, unable to control himself anymore,
began to covertly interrogate the maid about his wife, asking
1
Bengali title: uddhar. First published in Bharati, Shravan 1307 (July-
August 1900).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 104
her all kinds of dubious questions, it eventually reached Gouris
ears. A proud reserved woman, she became furious like a
wounded lioness at these insults, and coming between them
like a destroyers sword, this mad suspicion tore the couple
apart.
Once his intense jealousy became apparent to Gouri, Paresh
was no longer discreet about it, and he began to quarrel with
his wife at every step, expressing his suspicions openly, and the
more Gouri bruised him with her silent scorns and her oblique
looks, the more his mistrust mounted.
Thus deprived of conjugal bliss, the childless young woman
turned her mind to religion. She sent for Paramananda Swami,
the young unmarried priest from the nearby temple, and
formally accepting him as her guru, began to take lessons on
the Bhagavad Gita. All the wasted love and affection of her
womans heart morphing into devotion were bestowed at the
feet of her spiritual teacher.
No one had any doubts about the veracity of Paramanandas
character. Everyone idolised him. But because Paresh could
not openly express his misgivings about the priest, his jealousy
continued to eat into his heart like a secret wound.
One day the poison erupted because of a trifing reason.
Condemning Paramananda to his wife as a wicked fraud,
he asked, Can you swear that you are not in love with that
hypocritical priest?
Gouri sprang up like a snake that had been trampled on, and
feigning arrogance to spite her husband, said in a choked voice,
yes I love him. Do what you can! Paresh immediately bolted
the doors, locked her inside, and left for the Court-house.
In an insufferable rage, Gouri opened the door somehow and
instantly left the house.
Paramananda was reciting the scripture in his lonely house in
the silence of noon. All at once, like a streak of lightning out of
a clear sky, Gouri broke in upon his reading.
What happened?, the Guru asked.
Deliver me from the humiliations of domestic life, divine
master, the devotee replied. I wish to dedicate my life to the
sacred task of serving you.
DELIVERANCE 105
Paramanada sent Gouri back home with a stern scolding. But,
alas, Gurudev, the snapped thread of the readings of that day
could not be picked up and restrung ever again!
Paresh, fnding the door open on his return home, asked,
Who was here?
No one!, his wife replied. I went to visit the priest.
Paresh grew pale for a moment and then, turning crimson,
asked, Why?
Gouri answered, I wanted to.
From that day, Paresh detained his wife in the house with a
guard at the door, and began to behave so absurdly that it soon
became a scandal in town.
The news of Gouris dreadful humiliation and oppression
drove away Paramanandas devotional thoughts. He felt it
appropriate for him to leave the town at once. But he could not
go away without taking the tormented woman along. Who but
God knew how the poor saint spent his days and nights during
that period!
Finally one day, the imprisoned Gouri received a letter. My
child, it read, on deliberation I have come to realise that many
chaste, virtuous women had renounced society for the love of
Sri Krishna. If the tyranny of family life distracts you from the
worship of the lord, then, if you are willing and with Gods help,
I will make every effort to rescue his devotee and dedicate her at
the feet of the holy master. Meet me by the pool in your garden
on Wednesday, 26 Phalgoon,
2
at 2 oclock in the afternoon.
Gouri hid the letter in the folds of her hair. On the appointed
day, when she undid her hair at noon for bathing, she discovered
that the letter was not there. She wondered if the letter had
dropped onto the bed and got into her husbands hands. At frst
she felt ecstatic at the thought that it would trigger his jealousy
and consume him, but then she could not bear to think that the
letter, worn as a jewel in her crown, was being defled by the
touch of cruel hands. So she went to her husbands room at full
speed.
She found her husband on the foor groaning; his mouth
2
The eleventh month of the Bengali calendar.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 106
foaming, and his eyes rolled back. Grabbing the letter from his
clenched right hand, she quickly sent for a doctor.
The doctor came and said it was a case of apoplexy. The
patient had died before his arrival.
As it happened, Paresh was supposed to attend an urgent
lawsuit at the countryside that day. Paramanada had stooped
so low that he had found it out and had decided to meet Gouri
accordingly.
The moment the newly widowed Gouri caught sight of
the saint stealing like a thief to the side of the pool from her
window, she lowered her eyes as if suddenly dazzled by a fash
of lightning. In the illumination of that fash, it became instantly
obvious to her how vulgar her spiritual master had become
compared to the time she frst met him.
The Guru called, Gouri.
Gouri replied, I am coming, Gurudev.
When Pareshs friends heard the news of his death and came
to help with the funeral rites, they found Gouris dead body
lying next to that of her husband. She had poisoned herself.
Everyone was lost in praise of Gouris rare wifely virtue and her
example of suttee in this modern age.
.,..
1
I
had to vacate my ancestral home. Ill not tell you in detail
how it happened, but only give hints.
I was a rural doctor in a village, and my house was just
opposite the police station. My allegiance to the Inspector
was no less than to King yama, the lord of death; therefore,
I was intimately aware of all the ways in which man and god
could cause harm to human beings. Like a gem and a bracelet
that mutually add splendour to one another, the Inspector
and I continued to grow in fortune through our give-and-take
negotiations.
For such personal reasons, I had a special friendship with
Inspector Lalit Chakrabarty, a worldly-wise man. By inviting me
to marry one of his young female relatives from time to time, he
was almost about to lure me. But my only daughter Shashi, is a
motherless child, and I couldnt bring myself to put her in the
charge of a stepmother. year after year, the auspicious wedding
dates in the new almanac went by without avail. So many
worthy and unworthy grooms climbed the palanquin before my
eyes, but I only took part at the wedding feasts with the brides
men in the outer rooms and returned home with a sigh.
Shashi was about to cross twelve and become thirteen. I was
given some hope that if I could raise enough money for dowry,
I could marry her into a wealthy, prominent family. Once I
1
Bengali title: Durbuddhi. First published in Bharati, Bhadra 1307
(August-September 1900).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 108
could fulfl that duty, I could concentrate on another ceremony
my own marriage.
One day, as I was absorbed in thoughts about this urgently
needed sum of money, Harinath Majumdar from Tulsi village
came pleading to me most helplessly. This is what had happened.
His widowed daughter had passed away suddenly in the night
and his enemies had sent an anonymous letter to the Police
Inspector, falsely alleging that the girl had died in an abortion.
Now the police was after the corpse for an autopsy.
This staggering insult, on top of the grief for his daughters
death, became unbearable for the old man. I was a doctor and
a friend of the Inspector; I must save him from this torment
somehow.
When Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, wishes to bless,
she appears thus unexpectedly, through the front or the back
door. I shook my head vigorously and said, The matter is very
serious. I gave one or two false examples of being deceived
before, and the trembling old Harinath began whimpering like
a child.
It is needless to say everything; suffce it to say that Harinath
went bankrupt to give his daughter proper funeral rites.
My daughter Shashi came and asked me piteously, Father,
why was that old man crying at your feet like that?
I scolded her, I want no more of your nonsense! Why do you
have to know all these?
Now the way was clear for my daughters marriage to a
worthy groom. The wedding-date was set. Being the nuptial
rite of my only daughter, I arranged for an extravagant feast.
In the absence of my wife, the neighbours came graciously to
help. Harinath, utterly ruined but grateful, worked endlessly at
the occasion.
On the eve of the ritual ceremony of daubing the bride and
groom with turmeric paste, which precedes the wedding, Shashi
was suddenly stricken with cholera at three in the morning. Her
situation continued to deteriorate rapidly. After all my efforts had
failed, I threw the bottles of worthless medicine to the ground,
ran to Harinath and fell on his feet. Forgive me, brother, forgive
this brute, I said, I have only one daughter, I have no one else.
IMPRuDENCE 109
Harinath panicked at this and replied, Sir, sir, what are you
doing? I am forever indebted to you. Please dont touch my feet.
I ruined you for no fault of yours, I responded. My daughter
is now paying for my sin with her life.
Having said that, I screamed before everyone, Listen, all of
you, I ruined this old man and I accept the punishment of that
sin on myself. May God spare my Shashi!
Then I grabbed Harinaths slippers and began to hit myself
on the head with them. The perturbed old man snatched the
slippers away from me in a hurry.
At ten oclock next morning, with the yellow marks of the
turmeric ceremony still on her, Shashi bid her eternal farewell
to this world.
The very next day, the Inspector came up to me and said,
Hello! Why delay anymore? Get married now. you need
someone to look after you.
Such brutal disregard for ones deepest sorrow was unseemly
even for the devil. But in my dealings with the Inspector, I had
shown such an ignoble side of my character that I didnt have
the guts to answer his words. His friendship insulted me that
day like the stroke of a whip.
However afficted the heart is, the cycle of events keeps
moving. Again, one has to turn ones full energy to look for
food to meet the hunger, the clothes to wear, and even collect
wood for the stove and fnd laces for the shoes.
At intervals between work, when I sat all alone in the house,
I heard from time to time that piteous question echoing in my
ear, Father, why was that old man crying at your feet like that?
I got the thatch of poor Harinaths dilapidated hut repaired with
my own money, gave him my dairy cow, and redeemed all his
leased property from the creditors.
For some time, stricken with the unbearable pain of recent
loss, in the lonely evenings and sleepless nights, I frequently felt
that my tender-hearted daughter, even after having fnished her
mortal life, could fnd no peace in the other world because of
her fathers heartless, heinous deeds. As if perturbed, she kept
asking me, Father, why did you do that?
For a while I could not ask for fees from my poor patients
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 110
after their treatment. If a little girl fell sick, I thought my own
Shashi was suffering among all the sickly girls in the village.
It was the monsoon season and the whole village was awash
in torrential rain. One had to travel through the paddy-felds and
the neighbourhood by boat. It had begun to rain before dawn
and still there was no sign of easing.
I was called up by the zamindars estate offce. The steersman
of the zamindars small boat, unable to accept any delay, was
becoming rude.
Previously, when I had to go out in such foul weather, there
had been someone to open my worn-out umbrella and check
for any holes in it, and an eager voice to caution me repeatedly
to protect myself carefully from the gale-winds and splashes of
rain. Today as I looked for my own umbrella in the empty, silent
house, I procrastinated a bit recalling her loving, tender face.
Looking at her closed bedroom, I thought, why should God
provide for so much of affection at home for one who had the
least concern for others sufferings? Immersed in such thoughts
as I came to the door of the empty room, I felt an aching void in
my heart. But hearing the angry voice of the zamindars servant
shouting for me, I hastily contained my sorrow and stepped out.
As I climbed into the boat, I saw a little canoe tied to the
landing steps of the police station, and a peasant sitting in it
wearing only a loincloth, dripping wet with rain. I asked him,
Whats the matter? He said, his daughter had been bitten by
a poisonous snake last night, and his misfortune had dragged
him all the way from his far-off village to report it to the police.
I noticed that the man had taken off his only upper garment
to cover his daughters dead body. Meanwhile, the zamindars
impatient boatman set off the boat.
When I returned home at one oclock in the afternoon, I
saw the man still waiting there, huddled up and sopping wet in
rain. He was yet to see the Inspector. I sent him a share of my
prepared meal, but he refused to touch it.
I hastily fnished my midday meal and set out again to visit
the patient at the zamindars estate offce. When I returned in
the evening, I saw the man still sitting there in a bewildered
IMPRuDENCE 111
state. When I asked him questions, he couldnt answer any of
them, but just stared at me blankly. To him this river, this village,
this police station, this overcast, wet and muddy world was now
like a dream. By repeated questioning I learnt that a constable
had come out once to ask him if he had any money tucked
in the folds of his loincloth at the waist. He had replied, he
was totally impoverished and had nothing. The constable had
reprimanded, Wait then, you wretch, you sit and rot!
I had witnessed similar incidents many times in the past, but
I had never felt anything about them. Today I found it utterly
unbearable. My Shashis indistinct, plaintive voice choked with
emotion, seemed to echo all over the rainy sky. The unbound
sorrow of that daughterless, dumbfounded peasant seemed to
push through my ribcage.
The Inspector was sitting on a cane stool, smoking a tobacco
pipe in a relaxed mood. His uncle the one with the marriageable
daughter, who had come recently with me in mind was sitting
on a mat and chatting. I burst into the room like a storm and
shouted out, Are you humans or beasts? Then I fung my whole
days income in front of them saying, If you want money, have
this; take it with you when you die, but give that man a break,
let him cremate his daughter.
The love between the Inspector and the doctor that had
been fourishing, moistened by the tears of so many persecuted
people, was razed to the ground in that storm.
Shortly after that I begged the Inspector at his feet; sang
many praises of his generosity and cursed myself over and again
for my lack of judgement; but in the end, I had to vacate my
ancestral property.
..,.. ,
1
K
anti Chandra was a young man, and yet after his wifes
death he devoted his mind to hunting birds and beasts
rather than looking for a second wife. He had a tall,
lean, frm and light body, sharp eyesight and an infallible aim.
His outft was Western. His companions included the wrestler
Hari Singh Chhakkanlal, musicians Khan Sahib, Mian Sahib, and
many others. He had no lack of idle followers.
Towards the middle of the month of Agrahayan,
2
Kanti
Chandra had gone out hunting near the marshy area of Noidighi
with his fellow huntsmen. They were stationed in two large
boats, and there were many servants in two or three more, all
occupying the landing area of the river. The village women
found it almost impossible to bathe there or to collect water for
home. The land and water in the area vibrated with gunshots all
day long, and at night loud musical practices kept the villagers
awake.
One morning, Kanti Chandra was attentively cleaning the
barrel of his gun, sitting in his boat. He was startled by the
sudden cackling sound of ducks, and as he looked up, he saw
a young woman standing by the rivers edge with two ducklings
pressed to her chest. The stream was narrow, almost stagnant,
and full of weeds. The girl put the birds into the water and
kept an anxious eye on them so that they wouldnt swim out of
1
Bengali title: Shubhadrishti. First published in Pradip, Ashwin 1307
(September-October 1900).
2
The eighth month of the Bengali calendar.
THE AuSPICIOuS SIGHT 113
reach. It was clear that on other days she would leave the birds
there and go home, but it was diffcult for her to do the same
now because of the presence of the fowlers.
The girls beauty had a rare freshness to it, as though the
creator had just formed her with his own hands. It was diffcult
to determine her age. Her fgure was like a womans but her
face looked so childlike that it had clearly not been corrupted
by societys touch. She herself didnt seem aware that she had
arrived at womanhood.
Kanti Chandra became unmindful in his work for a moment.
He was dazed. He had never expected to see such a face in
this place. yet her beauty suited this spot better than a palace.
A fower looks more agreeable in a bush than in a gold vase.
The blossoming reeds by the riverbank were glistening that
day in the autumn dew and morning sun, and the sight of that
young, childlike face in its midst painted a joyous picture of the
coming festive season in Kantis entranced eyes. The adolescent
Durga
3
also came to the bank of the mythical Ganges carrying
ducklings in her bosom from time to time, but the poet Kalidasa
4

has forgotten to recount that in his work.
As he stared, the girl panicked and instantly began to walk
away from the place with tearful eyes and an indistinct piteous
cry, taking the two ducklings with her. Kanti stepped out of the
boat to fgure out why the girl looked so terror-stricken and saw
one of his gallant companions jestingly pointing an unloaded
gun at the ducks to frighten the girl. Kanti at once went up to
the man, snatched the gun from behind, and landed a mighty
slap on his face. The mans joke ended there as he fell onto the
ground. Kanti returned to the boat and resumed cleaning the
gun.
3
Durga is the incarnation of Devi or the Mother Goddess. She is the
supremely radiant goddess, and is considered an embodiment of creative
feminine force (Shakti).
4
A renowned classical Sanskrit writer, widely regarded as the greatest
poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language. Most scholars believe he lived
during the reign of Chandra Gupta II (reigned c. 380-c. 415).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 114
That afternoon, Kanti and his men were walking through the
densely shaded village roads towards a cornfeld. One of them
suddenly fred a gun, and a bird came spiralling down and fell
into a nearby bamboo-clump.
Kanti pushed through the bushes to look for the bird and
arrived at the yard of a well-to-do householder. There was a row
of granaries at one end of the yard. He saw a plum tree beside
a neat, large cowshed, and the girl from the morning sitting
underneath it and sobbing, holding a wounded dove close to
her body. She was trying to wring little drops of water into the
yellow beaks of the dove from the wet end of her sari soaked
from a bowl placed nearby. Her pet cat was eagerly looking
up at the dove, resting its fore-paws on the girls knee, and
every now and then, when it came too close to the bird, the girl
seemed to caution it by gently touching the tip of its nose with
her index fnger.
This piteous sight on a quiet afternoon, in the compound of
an affuent and peaceful household, created a lasting impression
on Kantis sensitive mind. The shade of the tree and the light
coming through its sparse leaves played on the girls lap; nearby,
a satisfed, well-nourished cow was lazily keeping off fies with
slow movements of its head and tail; the northern wind was
making intermittent whispering sounds. The girl, who looked
like the beauty of the forest by the riverside in the morning,
appeared as the embodiment of goddess Lakshmi
5
in the silence
of noon beside that cowshed.
Suddenly in the presence of the distressed girl and with his
gun in hand, Kanti recoiled for a moment. He felt like a thief
caught red-handed. He longed to explain that it was not he
who had wounded the dove, and as he was thinking of the
best way to do so, he heard the call of Sudha from the house.
The girl looked alert. Sudha, the voice came again, and the girl
hurriedly got up with her dove and walked into the house. Kanti
thought, Sudha nectar. What a beftting name!
5
Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity and fortune.
THE AuSPICIOuS SIGHT 115
Kanti then handed the gun to one of his companions and
walked up to the front door of the house. He saw a clean-
shaven, calm-looking elderly Brahmin sitting by the door,
muttering a devotional song, and noticed a semblance between
the serene, thoughtful appearance of this man and the kindness
in the face of the maiden.
With an obeisance, Kanti asked the man, May I have a glass
of water, sir? I am very thirsty.
The Brahmin warmly greeted him and, offering him a seat,
instantly went inside and returned with a brass bowl of molasses,
wafers and a bell-metal pot flled with water.
After Kanti drank the water, the Brahmin asked him who he
was. Kanti introduced himself and said to the old man, Sir, I
would be very fortunate if I could do you any favour.
I need no favour, my son, Nabin Mukherjee replied, But I
have a daughter, Sudha, who has grown up. If I could fnd her
a worthy groom then I would be relieved. I dont see anyone
suitable nearby, and also cant go far to look for one. I have
never travelled away from home.
If you come to my boat, sir, well discuss the possibility of
your daughters marriage, Kanti said.
Meanwhile Kantis men inquired after Sudha from as many
villagers as they could. They all spoke highly of her.
The next day when Nabin came to the boat, Kanti greeted
him by touching his feet and declared that he himself was
willing to marry the Brahmins daughter. The old man was so
overcome by this unexpected good news as Kanti was a well-
educated and wealthy man that he could not speak out for a
moment. Then thinking that there must have been a mix up, he
volunteered, you intend to marry my daughter?
Kanti said, I am ready, if you would agree.
Nabin asked yet again, you mean Sudha?
yes, Kanti replied.
Nabin asked in a composed voice, Wouldnt you like to frst
see and speak to her?
Pretending that he had not seen the girl already, Kanti said,
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 116
That we can save for the moment of our Auspicious Sight.
6
Indeed! My Sudha is a virtuous girl, Nabin declared in a
voice choked with emotion. She is well-skilled in household
work. The way you have accepted to marry her on trust, may
she also make you happy and never cause you the slightest
regret. This is my blessing!
Kanti did not want to delay the wedding and a suitable date
was found in the month of Magh.
7

The neighbouring Majumdars old brick-mansion was hired
for the wedding ceremony. The groom arrived on time, riding
on an elephants back, followed by musicians and a torchlight
procession.
When the moment of the solemn rite of Auspicious Sight
came, the groom looked up at the bride. But her face coy and
cast downwards, decorated with sandal paste and the head
covered with the wedding coronet, Kanti could hardly recognise
the village girl of his desire. In the midst of excitement and
emotional effusion, he felt confused.
After the wedding ceremony, when everyone gathered
at the bridal chamber, one of the elderly women from the
neighbourhood insisted that Kanti himself remove his wifes
bridal veil and, as he did, he looked utterly shocked.
Alas, it was not the same girl! He suddenly felt shot by
lightning and the whole bridal chamber plunged into darkness.
That blackness of the room also left a stain on the brides face.
Kanti Chandra had resolved not to marry a second time. He
never thought that fate would destroy that resolve in a strange
mockery with the snap of a fnger. He had ignored proposals
from so many respectable families, and disregarded the appeals
6
Reference to the solemn rite of the bride and bridegroom looking
at each other in an Indian wedding (practiced among both Hindus and
Muslims). Customarily, after engagement, the bride and groom are not
supposed to see each other again until this moment of the ceremony. The
bridal couple are covered with a red piece of cloth over their head and
they are required to recognise one another in a mirror placed before them,
in the presence of all the guests at the occasion.
7
The tenth month of the Bengali calendar.
THE AuSPICIOuS SIGHT 117
from friends and relatives. After resisting the temptations of
social power through matrimonial alliance, money, beauty and
all else, how could he get so easily deceived by a poor family in
an unknown village in the middle of a swamp? How would he
ever show his face to the society again?
At frst he felt furious with his father-in-law. The fraud had
shown him one daughter and married him to another! But on
refection, he realised that Nabin had indeed never refused to
show him the girl, that it was he who was unwilling. Accepting
the whole incident as a foolish mistake from his own reckless
behaviour, he considered it best to keep the matter to himself.
He swallowed the pill but lost all appetite. He could no longer
relish the fun and humour of the festive occasion, and fumed
with anger at himself and everyone else.
Suddenly his wife, seated next to him, drew back with an
indistinct sound of shock as a leveret ran into the room and
brushed past her body. Soon after, that girl from the other day
came running in, caught the leveret, and began to caress it in
her arms. Everyone in the room murmured, Oh, the crazy girl
is here, and began to gesture at her to leave the place. Ignoring
it completely, she came and sat in front of the married couple
and looked into their faces with a childish curiosity. When a
maidservant came and tried to drag her by the hand out of the
room, Kanti hurriedly interposed and said, Let her be.
He then asked the girl, Whats your name?
Without giving an answer, she began to rock gently.
All the women in the room giggled at this.
Kanti asked her another question, How big are your ducklings
now?
The girl stared at him as nonchalantly as before.
The confused Kanti ventured yet again, How is the condition
of the dove? But to no avail. The women in the room began to
laugh seeing the whole thing a gag.
Finally, Kanti inquired and found out that the girl was deaf
and mute, and a friend of all the birds and animals in the
neighbourhood. It was just a coincidence that she had gone
into the house the other day at the same time Sudha had been
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 118
called. The attribution of the name had been only Kantis guess,
with no valid reason behind it.
Kanti was now shocked a second time. The loss of the very
woman which made this world a bitter place for Kanti, now the
riddance of her in a stroke of luck made him feel blessed. He
refected, What if I had gone to the father of this girl and he had
conspired to dump her on me!
As long as he was absorbed and excited with the girl of his
imagination, he remained insensitive to his own wife. He didnt
even care to look for the prospects of solace elsewhere. The
moment he heard the girl was deaf and mute, a black veil lifted
from the world around him. Banishing all far-fetched thoughts,
he found things nearby more visible. With a deep sigh of
relief, he stole a look at his wifes demure face. The moment
of auspicious sight fnally came, and all the barriers from his
minds eye suddenly disappeared. The light from his heart as
well as the lamps in the room radiated and converged on a soft,
beautiful face. Kanti saw that it was a tender face, shrouded
in peace and grace, and realised that Nabins blessings would
indeed be fulflled.
.. .
1
I
dont even smoke. I have only one towering addiction, and
all others have dried up from the roots under its shadow. It
is my infatuation with books. The motto of my life has been,
Borrow in order to read books as long as you live, or even if
you have to die for it.
As people who love travelling but cant afford it for lack
of money spend their time reading railway timetables, I too
in my poverty-stricken childhood used to read a lot of book
catalogues. An uncle-in-law of my elder brother had the habit
of buying Bengali books indiscriminately upon publication, and
his main pride was that he had never lost a single book from his
collection. Perhaps no one else in Bengal is as lucky. Because of
all the things capable of getting lost whether material wealth,
human life, or even an umbrella of a forgetful person Bengali
books occupy the highest place. This would suggest that even
my brothers uncle-in-laws wife didnt have access to the keys of
his bookshelves. In childhood, whenever I went to my brothers
in-laws house like a pauper accompanying an emperor I
used to spend a lot of time staring at his locked bookshelves.
My eyes felt ever so hungry at the sight. Suffce it to say that
since childhood I was so obsessed with reading sundry things
that I could never pass my examinations. I never had time for
the scanty reading of textbooks required for passing.
My one advantage, as a failed student, is that I do not
1
Bengali title: Paila Nambar. First published in Sabujpatra, Ashar 1324
(June-July 1917).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 120
bathe from the bucket water of university knowledge but am
immersed in a free-fowing stream. Many B.A.s and M.A.s
come to visit me now, but no matter how up-to-date they are,
they still remain trapped in the Victorian age. Like Ptolemys
earth, their sphere of knowledge seems tightly screwed to the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Students of Bengal will
perhaps continue to revolve around that outmoded knowledge
for generations. The chariots of their minds, laboriously crossing
Mill and Bentham, lie in a state of collapse at the feet of Ruskin
and Carlyle. They never venture beyond the stale advice of their
instructors, into open spaces.
But the literature of the country to which our minds are tied,
as if to a peg from which they are left to graze, is never static.
It continues to move forward, keeping pace with life. I may
not have that spirit in me as such, but I have tried to imitate
that motion. I have learnt French, German and Italian of my
own accord, and lately I have started to learn Russian as well.
I have boarded the express train of modernity which moves
at a ferocious pace. Thats why I have not stopped at Huxley
and Darwin, and show no fear in criticising Tennyson. I even
cringe at the thought of getting on the boat carrying Ibsen and
Maeterlinck for the sake of secure trade in easy fame among our
monthly literary magazines.
That one day a group of people would search me out was
quite beyond my expectation. I notice that in Bengal there are
a few such students who, surprisingly, despite their college
education, feel passionately drawn to the world outside by
Saraswatis
2
music. It is these students who gradually, one by
one, began gathering at my house.
Thus began my second indulgence prating. In learned
parlance it might be called discussion. The ideas I come across
in the various literary magazines from all parts of the country
are, on the one hand, so puerile and, on the other, so archaic,
that from time to time I feel like breaking that tiresome, fusty
2
The Hindu goddess of learning, speech and wisdom. It is believed that
she plays the music to inspire people to knowledge and learning.
NuMBER ONE 121
spell of stuffness with the fresh air of liberal thought. But I am
too lazy to write. Therefore, whenever I come into contact with
people who listen attentively, I sigh with relief.
My retinue continued to grow. I lived in the number two
house in our lane and my name is Advaitacharan. Therefore,
my followers came to be known as the dvaitdvaita society. No
one in our group had any sense of time. Someone would come
in the morning with a newly published English book in hand
and a punched tram ticket used as bookmark our morning
would turn into afternoon while we engaged in debate, and yet
our discussion wouldnt cease. Another would come carrying
a fresh college notebook in the afternoon, and would show
no sign of leaving even at two oclock in the morning. Often
I asked them to have meals with me, because I knew that like
their minds, the palates of literary enthusiasts have great powers
to taste and savour. But I always ignored the inconvenience
of the person on whom I depended to invite these people to
meals at my whim. How could someone so absorbed in the
movements of that mighty potters wheel of knowledge and
sentiment, baking, shaping human civilisation, sometimes into
collapse, fnd time to worry about a housewife and her chores?
I have read in poetry that Bhava
3
always understands the
frowns of Bhavani. But Bhava has three eyes, while I have only
two, which have grown feeble from tireless reading. Therefore,
I could never see the frowns on my wifes forehead whenever
I asked her to cook at odd times. Gradually she became aware
that in my house irregularity and untimeliness were the rule.
My house and family were in a total mess. Whatever money
or resources I had were being tossed into an open drain my
reckless habit of buying books. Only my wife knew the mystery
of how the other exigencies of the family, like a lanky dog living
by munching and sniffng at the leftovers from the huge appetite
of a purebred English dog, were met with the money left over
from my addiction.
3
Reference to Shiva and his wife Parvati. Shiva is the third of the Hindu
triad, and is believed to have a third eye as the eye of knowledge.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 122
It is important for a person like me to parley on different
subjects of knowledge. This is not to show off or to help
anyone else, but because it is a way of thinking aloud, a kind
of mental exercise for digesting knowledge. If I were a writer
or a professor, then this prating would be unnecessary. Those
who have a regular job and an active life do not need to look
for ways to digest their food, but those who are idle and do
nothing for a living have to at least take a vigorous stroll on the
roof. Such is my case. When my community had not yet formed,
my wife was my only companion. For a long time she accepted
in silence the noisy digestive process of my mind. Although
she wore a cheap sari and knick-knack jewellery, she knew
that there was nothing tacky about her husbands opinions,
whether they were on eugenics, astrology or mathematics. After
my community was formed, she was deprived of this invaluable
conversation, but I have never heard her complain about it.
My wifes name is Anila. I have no idea what the word
means; not that my father-in-law knew either when he gave her
the name.
4
But it has a sweet sound, and now and then I feel
it has a meaning too. Whatever it means in the dictionary, its
real meaning is that my wife is a cherished child of her father.
When my mother-in-law died, leaving behind a two-and-a-half-
year old son, my father-in-law married again to give a mother
to his tiny boy. How far that objective was realised will be clear
from this incident two days before his death, my father-in-
law took my wifes hand and explained with a heavy heart, It
is time for me to go, my daughter. From now on there will be
no one to think about Saroj except you. I have no idea what
arrangements he had made for his second wife and her children,
but he secretly gave seven and a half thousand rupees from his
savings to Anila and said, Spend this money on Saroj and his
education. There is no need to invest it for proft.
4
Although Anil means air, wind or breeze, and is used as the frst
component of male Bengali names, the feminine Anila has no meaning.
Indian names are expected to have meaning. A name without any meaning
generally attracts the social censure of surprise or ridicule in Indian culture,
and Anila is not spared by her husband.
NuMBER ONE 123
I was a bit surprised by this incident. My father-in-law was
not only intelligent but also shrewd. He never acted on whim
but planned carefully. So I thought, if he had to leave his son in
the care of someone who could guide him to a successful life,
that would have to be me, and I had no doubt about that. How
he came to believe that his daughter was more competent than
his son-in-law is simply beyond me. If, however, he couldnt
trust me with money, it should have been unthinkable for him
to leave so much cash with my wife. I concluded that he was a
Victorian era philistine who couldnt fully appreciate me.
I was so offended by the decision that I frst chose not to
say anything about it, and did ignore it successfully for a while.
I was confdent that Anila would have to bring up the issue
frst; she would have no choice but to seek my advice. But
when Anila didnt ask for counsel, I thought maybe she lacked
the courage. So, fnally, one day I asked her by and by, What
have you done about Sarojs education? Anila replied, I have
found a tutor for him and, besides, he is going to school. I
dropped a hint that I was willing to take the responsibility for
Sarojs education myself. I even explained to her some of the
modern methods of teaching that were introduced of late. Anila
remained silent. For the frst time, after all these years, I came
to question whether Anila had enough respect for me. Perhaps
because I held no college degree, she thought I didnt have the
right or ability to advise her on education. Obviously she had
failed to grasp the value of everything I had said to her so far
on eugenics, animal evolution and radio transmission. Probably
she thought even a student of class two knew more than that
because their lessons were frmly embedded in their mind by
the countless twisting of their ears by their teachers. Hurt by
this, I said to myself that one whose only asset is knowledge
should never try to impress a woman.
Most of the major incidents in lifes drama develop behind
the scenes; the curtain rises only in the fnal act. When I was
chomping Bergsons philosophy or Ibsens psychology with the
members of my coterie, I thought no fame of knowledge had
yet been lit at the altar of Anilas heart. But now as I look back to
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 124
those old days, I clearly see that the God of creation who forges
life scorching it in fre and pounding it with a hammer was very
much alive in Anilas soul from the beginning. Many battles of
love and anguish were fought out there every day centring on
her younger brother, her stepmother and herself. The mythical
world held up on the head of the snake-king Vasuki is stationary,
but the woman who has to shoulder the sorrows of life, her
world is buffeted every moment by new strokes of suffering. If
the same woman, in the midst of all her affictions, has to mind
the duties of a household as well, with all its minute details,
who but God would fully understand the state of her mind. At
least I had no inkling. I hadnt the slightest clue that so much
anxious love, humiliated anguish and agitation arising from the
deepest of affections were churning beneath the calm faade
of someone so close to me. I thought preparing meals for the
members of my community on appointed days was her main
task. Now I realise that in her wretched life, her younger brother
became the closest object of her affection. However, because
she failed to ask for my advice or help in Sarojs upbringing and
considered the matter utterly unnecessary, I also stayed aloof
from it. I never even enquired how he was doing.
Meanwhile, a new tenant arrived at house number one
in our lane. The house had been built by a rich and famous
moneylender, uddhab Baral. Over the next two generations the
clan had lost all its wealth and male successors, and was now
survived by a handful of widows. Since they refused to live
there, the house remained abandoned. Occasionally people
would rent it for some wedding or festivity, but because of
its huge size it was diffcult to attract a long term occupant.
Now a new boarder moved in; lets assume his name is Raja
Shetankshumauli
5
and he is the zamindar of Narauttampura.
6
5
Shetankshumauli: A compound word, Shetankshu (noun) means the
moon, and mauli (noun), means crown, diadem, top or head. Again the
name sums up the essential qualities of the character.
6
Narauttampura: Narauttam (noun) means the best among men or a
great man, and pura (noun), means a place. Therefore, the word means,
the land of great men.
NuMBER ONE 125
Perhaps I would have never known about this sudden and
notable appearance in the adjacent house, because, like Karna,
7

who was born with a protective armour, I too was blessed
with a protective talisman: my habitual absentmindedness. This
shielding armour was very thick and strong. As a result, I was
not easily affected by the hustle and bustle of daily life, or the
clamour and abuse that goes on around us every day.
However, modern-day rich people are no ordinary nuisance;
they are a source of unusual annoyance. Creatures that have
two hands, two legs and a head are called humans, but those
who have suddenly grown extra heads and limbs are demons.
They often stride about with noisy steps, crossing their natural
boundaries, and make both heaven and earth unbearable for
others with their excesses. It is impossible not to take notice of
them. Such people, who are not worth noticing but cannot be
ignored either, are the most obnoxious elements on earth; even
Indra
8
himself is fearful of them.
I realised that Shetankshumauli belonged to this latter
category. I never knew before that one person could indulge
in so much excess. Always surrounded by coaches, horses and
attendants, he acted like a superhuman creature. Tormented by
him, my divine walls of erudition started to crumble.
My frst encounter with him was at the corner of our lane. The
chief advantage of this lane was that even someone as careless
as I could walk through it safely, without having to worry about
traffc coming sideways, back or front. One could even ruminate
on the stories of Meredith, the poetry of Browning or works of
some modern Bengali poets while walking through this lane and
yet avoid death by accident. But that day, hearing a loud shout
at my back, I turned around and saw two giant red stallions of
7
Karna is one of the most fascinating and tragic characters of Maha-
bharata, who is known for his generosity and his invincibility as a warrior.
He was born with an impenetrable body armour as a gift of his father, the
Sun god. The reference here is ironic as the protagonist has to pay dearly
for his armour of indifference.
8
The king of the gods and one of the most prodigious demon slayers
in Hindu mythology.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 126
an open brougham carriage were about to knock me down. The
owner of the carriage was driving himself and the coachman
was sitting next to him. The proprietor was pulling the reins
with both hands most vigorously. That day I saved my life in
that narrow alley by clutching onto the prop of a cigarette shop
at the edge of the sidewalk. I noticed that the gentleman was
furious with me because a careless driver can never forgive
an unmindful pedestrian, the reason for which I have explained
already. The pedestrian is bipedal, he is a normal human being;
but the person who travels on a coach drawn by two horses
has eight legs and is a demon. He causes turmoil on earth with
his excess. The god of the bipedal race was never ready for this
freaky, many-legged creature.
I would have forgotten both the horse-drawn chariot and its
driver in due course, as part of a salutary law of habit. They
are not worth remembering in this supremely wonderful world.
But some people always exceed their human quota for creating
noise. Therefore, although it was perfectly easy for me to forget
my neighbour in house number three for days and months
whenever I wanted, it was not the same with my neighbour in
house number one, whom I couldnt erase from my mind even
for a moment. The persistent noise created by his eight to ten
horses stamping on the wooden foor of the stable caused my
sleep to suffer dents all over and fall fat on its face. And in the
morning, I could barely retain my composure when the grooms
began to scrub the horses with much rumpus. In addition, his
henchmen from Bhojpur and Orissa, as well as his fat, crooked
security guards, were all loud and brazen. Thats why I said,
the man was alone but his accessories for making noise were
many. This was the symptom of a demon. It may not have
been a source of unhappiness for him personally, because
when Ravana
9
snored with all his twenty nostrils in his sleep,
it probably did not affect him, but think of what might have
9
The demon-king with ten heads was the ruler of Lanka (modern Sri
Lanka) and was the arch-villain in the ancient Indian epic, Ramayana.
There are numerous jokes on Ravanas inconvenience for having ten
heads. Tagore creates his own here.
NuMBER ONE 127
happened to his neighbours. The main attribute of heaven is
harmony, but the devil that once trespassed into the Garden
of Eden is known for his extravagance. The same immoderate
demon has now intruded into human society with a stack of
money. Even if I try to avoid him, he harasses me with his
horse-driven chariot from behind, and then glares at me as well.
My followers had not yet arrived that afternoon. I was
absorbed in a book on the theory of the tides, when all of a
sudden a memento from my neighbour came shooting across
the fence and hit my windowpane with a thud. It was a tennis
ball. In a moment, forgetting everything about the gravitational
pull of the moon, the innate pulsation of the world, the inherent
music in epic poetry, all I could think of was the unavoidable
presence of my neighbour so useless and yet so inescapable.
The next moment I saw my old servant from Ayodhya arriving
at the scene running and panting. He is my only servant. He
is never available when I need him and never responds to my
loud calls. If I ask him why he is never around, he says he has
too much work for one person. But today I saw him collecting
the ball from the ground and returning it to the neighbour
unprompted. I came to know that he was given four paisas
10
in
reward for returning the ball every time.
I realised that my neighbour was not only after my peace
and windowpanes, but also my followers and servants. It was
not such a surprise to see my old servants scorn towards my
worthlessness increasing by the day, but the leader of my group,
Kanailal himself also became inquisitive about the next house.
I always took his loyalty to me as something rooted in emotion
and not material gain, but one day I saw him outrunning my old
servant to the next house with a tennis ball in hand. Obviously,
this was an excuse for him to meet the neighbour; he was
not a Brahma-worshipping Maitreyi,
11
capable of surviving on
heavenly ambrosia alone.
10
The smallest Indian coin.
11
Wife of the sage yagnavalkya, who refused to accept her share of
wealth from her husband because it couldnt give her immortality.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 128
I became sarcastic about the foppery of Number One. I
would say scathingly, the attempt to cover an empty mind with
accessories is like trying to cover the sky with variegated clouds;
the moment the wind blows the cloud away, it exposes the
hollow sky. One day Kanailal protested, The man is not totally
empty-headed; he has a bachelors degree. Kanailal himself has
a B.A. degree, so I couldnt say anything about the degree itself.
The main accomplishments of my neighbour were all based
on noise. He could play three different instruments cornet,
esraj
12
and cello, and we could hear them played every now and
then. I am not an expert in music but in my opinion music is not
a higher form of knowledge. It evolved when mankind was still
at a barbaric state; because they couldnt think, so they used to
scream and stutter to communicate. Even now, people living in
a primitive state love to produce noise unnecessarily. However,
I discovered that at least four members of my coterie failed to
concentrate even on the latest developments in mathematical
logic whenever the cello was being played next door.
One day, when many members of my group were thus tilting
towards Number One, Anila suggested, We have a pest next
door. Lets move to a new house.
I was overjoyed by this, and told my followers, See how
women have a gift of intuition. Thats why they are not so good
with logic, but when it comes to matters of the heart they are
extremely perceptive.
Kanailal laughed and added, For example, ghouls, demonic
ghosts, charm in the dust of a Brahmins feet, religious merit in
worshipping ones husband, etc., etc.
I said, No, you see how we have all been awed by the
famboyance of Number One, but Anila is not tricked a bit by
his ostentation.
Anila asked me to move to a different house two or three
more times. I also wanted to but I didnt have the will to look for
a house through the byways of Kolkata. One afternoon, I saw
12
A kind of stringed musical instrument having fve principal strings and
played with a bow.
NuMBER ONE 129
Kanailal and Satish playing tennis at Number One. I also came
to know through word of mouth that Joti and Haren respectively
played harmonium and tabla
13
at the musical sessions at Number
One, and Arun had made a name for himself in the genre of
comic song. I had known these people for fve or six years
but never suspected they had such talents. Particularly, I knew
Aruns chief interest was in comparative religion; how would I
know he also excelled in comic songs?
Honestly, no matter how much I scorned Number One
publicly, in private I was always envious of him. I can think
and judge; grasp the inner meaning of things, and solve the
most complicated problems in mental resources it was
impossible to imagine Shetankshumauli my equal. And yet I
was envious of him. If I confessed why, people would laugh
at me. In the morning, Shetankshumauli would ride out on a
spirited horse. Oh, the way he controlled the animal, plying the
reins with admirable skill! I used to watch the sight every day
and tell myself, If only I could ride a horse with such ease!
I had a great secret desire for dexterity in physical matters. I
dont understand music very well, but how many times have I
surreptitiously watched from my window Shetankshu playing
the esraj his elegant, unimpeded mastery over the instrument
seemed enchanting to me. The esraj appeared to love him,
and like an amorous woman willingly yielded all its music
to him. Shetankshus natural command over all animate and
inanimate objects around him made everything look so much
more graceful. It was something impossible to put into words,
and I couldnt help but admire it as something unique. I felt,
there was no need for this person to ask for anything in life,
everything came to him naturally; wherever he sat became the
seat of honour.
So when many of my followers began to play tennis and
musical instruments at Number One, I had no other choice
but to leave the house to save their greedy souls. The agent
13
A set of two small drums, played with two hands, whose pitch can
be varied.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 130
came and informed me of a suitable property that was available
somewhere near Boranagar and Kashipur. I agreed to this, and
at around nine thirty in the morning I went to ask my wife
to start packing. But I couldnt fnd her in the storeroom or
the kitchen. She was sitting quietly in the bedroom, with her
head resting on the window grill. The moment she saw me, she
stood up. I said, We can move to a new house the day after
tomorrow.
She replied, Lets wait for a couple of weeks.
I asked, Why?
Anila replied, Sarojs exam results will be published soon
and I feel very anxious. I am not in the mood to move now.
Saroj is one of the many topics I never discuss with my
wife, so the idea of moving house had to be postponed. In the
meantime, I came to know that Shetankshu was going for a tour
of South India soon. This would lift the ominous shadow over
my house.
The fnale of the invisible play suddenly came to light. My
wife went to her parental home yesterday. Today, returning
from there, she was sitting behind locked doors. She knew that
today was the day of our groups monthly feast. I knocked on
the door to ask her about it. At frst there was no response. So I
called out, Anu. She opened the door after a pause.
I asked, Is everything ready for tonights feast?
She nodded yes, without saying a word.
I said, Dont forget how they like your fsh cake and English
hog-plum chutney.
With that I walked out and saw Kanailal sitting in the corridor.
I said, Kanai, come a little early tonight.
Kanai replied bewildered, What are you saying? Is the feast
still on tonight?
I retorted, Why not? Everything is ready! Maxim Gorkys new
collection of short stories, Russells criticism on Bergson, fsh
cake and hog-plum chutney!
Kanai kept staring at me in shock, and after a while said,
Advaita Babu, I think we should cancel the feast tonight.
On making some inquiries with Kanai, I found out that
NuMBER ONE 131
my brother-in-law Saroj had committed suicide the previous
afternoon. He hadnt passed the examination, and not being
able to withstand the insults from his stepmother, he had chosen
to hang himself with his shawl.
I asked, Where did you hear all this?
He replied, From Number One.
From Number One! The account went like this When the
news came to Anila in the evening, she had rushed to the street,
taking our servant along, and without waiting for a transport to
come and pick her up, hailed a vehicle herself in the street and
had gone to her fathers house. Hearing this from our servant,
Shetankshumauli had gone there in haste, persuaded the police
that there was no foul play in the matter, and stayed on to
personally supervise the rituals at the crematorium.
I scurried inside, expecting to fnd Anila still in the locked
bedroom. But I found her busy preparing hog-plum chutney
sitting on the foor of the storeroom veranda. I looked at her
face intently and saw that her life had been turned upside down
in one night. I asked her accusingly, Why didnt you tell me
anything?
She looked up at me with her large eyes but said nothing. I
shrank into something minuscule in shame. If Anila had replied,
What is the point of telling you?, I would have no answer to
that. How would I know how to respond to lifes upheavals, or
to its many sorrows and sufferings!
I said, Anila, leave all these. Well have no meeting tonight.
Keeping her gaze fxed on peeling the hog-plums, she said,
Why not? We must. I have made all the arrangements with such
effort. I cant let it go to waste.
I replied, Its impossible to have the meeting tonight.
She answered, If thats the case, then Ill invite everyone?
I felt a little comforted by this. I thought Anilas grief was not
that intense. Perhaps all the lofty philosophy I had discussed with
her in the past had helped her to become stoical. Although she
didnt have enough education or ability to understand everything,
still wasnt there something called personal magnetism!
A few members of my coterie failed to turn up in the evening.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 132
Kanai didnt come at all, and those who played tennis at
Number One were also absent. I came to know that Shetankshu
was leaving for his trip by the morning train, so they had all
gathered at his house for a farewell dinner. Anila too had made
more arrangements for tonights feast than ever before. Its
extravagance made even someone as improvident as me think
that the spending was too much.
By the time the party ended that night, it was past midnight.
I went to bed right away being tired, and asked Anila, Arent
you coming?
She replied, Ill do the dishes frst.
I got up next morning at about eight. On the teapoy in
the bedroom, where I usually kept my reading glasses before
bedtime, I found a little piece of paper, pressed down with the
spectacles. On it was written in Anilas own hand, I am leaving.
Do not try to look for me. you wont fnd me even if you do.
I was utterly fabbergasted by this. There was a tin chest
on the teapoy. I opened it and found all of Anilas jewellery
there, including her bangles everything except the conch shell
bracelets and her iron bangle which symbolised her married
state. In one of the folds of the chest was a bunch of keys. In
another, wrapped in a piece of paper, were some banknotes and
coins. Anila had left behind the last cent of her savings from the
monthly budget. In an exercise book was a list of all household
utensils and an account of clothes sent for laundry. Accounts
with the milkman and the corner shop were also there, only she
had not left behind her address.
I realised Anila was gone from my life for good. I searched
through the whole house and inquired at my in-laws but
found no trace of her anywhere. I never knew how to act in
an emergency. I felt devastated. Quickly turning to Number
One I saw its doors and windows all shut. The gatekeeper was
smoking a tobacco pipe sitting on the front porch. The master
of the house had left at daybreak. My heart suddenly sank. It
occurred to me that while I was absorbed in discussing the issues
of modern justice, a primeval injustice was spreading its net in
my own house. Whenever I had read of similar incidents in the
NuMBER ONE 133
works of such great writers as Flaubert, Tolstoy and Turgenev,
I had minutely analysed them and hair-splittingly explored their
larger signifcance with a great deal of joy. But never had I
thought even in my wildest imagination that such an incident
could occur in my own house.
After absorbing the initial shock, appropriately, like a wise
philosopher, I tried to make light of the whole situation. I smiled
a wry smile remembering my wedding day. I thought how human
beings waste so much of hope, emotions and preparations. For
many days, weeks and years, there was no worry in my life.
I always took my wife for granted and remained oblivious to
everything. But now, suddenly I realised the bubble had burst.
Of course, it didnt matter much that she was gone; it didnt
reduce life to an empty shell. Hadnt I learnt to appreciate the
things that have survived for generations, withstanding the laws
of life and death!
But to my surprise, I saw that my modern erudite self was
stupefed by the sudden shock and a primordial creature was
waking inside me and wailing in deprivation. After pacing
about the vacant house for days, fnally, one day I went to
the bedroom where I had seen my wife sitting quietly by the
window so many times, and ransacked the room in total rage.
I opened the drawer of Anilas dressing table in the heat of the
moment and found a bundle of letters there tied with a silk
tape. The letters had come from Number One. My heart went
up in fames. First I thought I should burn the letters, but when
the pain is intense, the curiosity is also utmost. I couldnt rest
without reading the billets.
I have since read the letters innumerable times. The frst
missive was torn in several pieces. It seemed that the reader
had ripped the letter into pieces instantly after reading it and
then carefully glued them together on a piece of paper. This is
what was written on it:
I wont be sorry even if you rend this letter before reading it. I write
only what I must.
I have seen you. I have been wandering through the world all
my life but this is the frst time in thirty-two years that I have come
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 134
across something priceless. I was fast asleep, you have broken the
slumber with your magic wand I saw you today through a renewed
consciousness, that ineffable you that is your creators prized jewel.
I have attained what I wanted and long for nothing more; all I want
now is to sing to you hymns of praise. If I were a poet I wouldnt
have to limn this hymn in a letter; I would put it in a song for
the world to sing forever. I know youll not reply to this letter, but
please do not misunderstand me. Accept my love in silence, without
suspecting for once that I could do you any harm. God will bless
you if you can appreciate my admiration for you. There is no need
to mention who I am, because surely youll know it in your heart.
I found twenty-fve similar letters but no sign anywhere that
Anila had responded to any of them. If she did, perhaps chaos
would have erupted or the charm would have broken and so
the hymn would have come to an end.
But how astounding! I came to see the woman, who was my
wife for eight years, for the frst time through these letters of
Shetankshu who had known her only briefy. The lids on my
slumbering eyes must have been very thick. I had married Anila
but I never made any sacrifce for her to make myself a worthy
husband. I have always valued my own craze for knowledge
and the members of my group more than her. So if someone
could win her over she whom I never treasured, nor paid any
heed through true love and devotion, how could I complain
about that?
This is what I found in the last letter:
I know not enough about you as a person, but in my heart I
have seen your suffering. That is why my test is so agonisingly
diffcult. My virile arms refuse to rest without an effort. I feel
that tearing up all the edicts of heaven and earth, I should
go and retrieve you from your futile life. But I also feel that
your sorrow is the seat of divinity in you and I have no right
to deprive you of that. I shall wait till tomorrow morning and
hope that some divine intervention will resolve my dilemma
by then. The tempest of desire often smothers our guiding
light. So I shall keep my mind calm and affectionately pray
for your well being.
It seems that hesitation had been overcome their separate
paths had converged. Meanwhile, Shetankshus letters became
NuMBER ONE 135
my own. Many years went by and I no longer enjoyed reading
books. My heart ached constantly to catch a glimpse of Anila
and it made me restless. With some inquires, I found out that
Shetankshu was living at the Mussouri hills.
I have spied Shetankshu many times during my visits there
but have never seen Anila with him. I wondered if he had
abandoned her to humiliation. Not being able to restrain myself
anymore, one day I dropped by at Shetankshus house. There is
no need to go into the details of that conversation. Shetankshu
said in a discreet way, I have received only one letter from
her in life and here it is. With that he brought out a small gold
enamelled card-case from his pocket, opened it, and gave me a
tiny piece of paper. There it was written, I am leaving. Dont try
to look for me. you wont fnd me even if you do.
The same words, the same handwriting, the same date, and
the same blue piece of paper; half of it was with me and here
was the other half.
..,.
1
Chitragupta, the secretary of the god of death yama,
2
records
many sins in bold letters in his ledger which are unknown even
to the perpetrators. But there are other sins which are known
only to those who have committed them. The one I am about
to relate here belongs to the second type. A confession, before
I have to account for my action to Chitragupta, will, with some
luck, make the sin lighter.
The incident occurred yesterday, a Saturday. The Jains in the
locality were having a feast, and I was passing by in a car with
my wife Kalika. We were invited for tea at the home of our
friend, Nayan Mohan.
My wifes name is Kalika, which literally means a bud. It was
given to her by my father-in-law, not me. Her name does not ft
her behaviour, as her ideas are more like fully bloomed fowers.
When recently she picketed against the selling of British cloth at
Barabazar, she did it with such fervour that her followers proudly
1
Bengali title: Shangskar. First published in Prabasi, Asharh 1335
(June-July 1928).
2
Chitragupta is a Hindu god assigned with the task of keeping a record
of the actions of human beings on earth, and on deciding whether they
should be sent to heaven or hell upon death. yama, on the other hand, is
the lord of death in Hindu tradition. yama is also the lord of justice and is
sometimes referred to as Dharma, with reference to his unwavering devo-
tion to maintaining order and allegiance to harmony.
PuRIFICATION 137
dubbed her Dhruba Brata or she of unwavering conviction.
My name is Girindra, which means, the king of the mountains.
Not that her devotees care much about the signifcance of my
name; they know me as her husband. But I too have a bit of
signifcance by Gods grace, owing to the virtue of my inherited
wealth, and the members of her political party cast an eye on it
when it is time for collecting donations.
Absence of similarity between a husband and wife makes a
marriage more harmonious, like that between a piece of dry
earth and a stream. I have a relaxed personality and take things
easily. My wifes temperament, on the contrary, is extremely
rigid; she clings to whatever occurs in her mind. This disparity
is what keeps peace in our family.
But we have not found accord only in one area of difference.
Kalika believes that I do not love the country. She is so fxed in
her view that no matter how much evidence I produce of my
love for the country, she refuses to accept it because it fails to
match her partys symbols of patriotism.
I have been a book enthusiast since childhood; every time I
hear of a new book I go and buy it. Even my enemies would
acknowledge that I read the books I purchase, and my friends
know very well that I not only read but also like to discuss them.
My passion for arguments has, in fact, driven all my friends away,
except one, Bon Bihari, with whom I have lively sessions every
Sunday. His name means roving in forests, but because of his
unsocial nature, I call him Kon Bihari, or room-rambler. Some
nights we sit and chat on the roof till two oclock in the morning.
The present time is of course not the best time for book lovers.
On the one hand, the sight of a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in
any house is a conclusive evidence of sedition for the police;
on the other, the nationalists see the possession of the cut pages
of a British published book as a mark of treason. They consider
me a brown coloured, white island-born renegade. These days,
the nationalists even refuse to worship the goddess Saraswati,
the goddess of learning and eloquence, because of her white
complexion. They have raised an outcry that the water of her
divine lake in which the white lotus blooms, far from abating
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 138
the wretched condition of our motherland is only faring it up.
I dont wear homespun khaddar in spite of the good example
set by my wife and her continuous nagging. This has nothing to
do with the pros and cons of khaddar or that I am fussy about
clothing. It is rather the opposite. I may be accused of many
lapses in my patriotic nationalistic intentions and activities but
being dapper is not one of them. I wear simple and shabby
clothes and dress in a dishevelled way out of habit. Before
Kalikas recent political transformation, I used to wear broad-
toed shoes bought from the local China market, which I often
forgot to polish and keep clean. Moreover, I found putting on
socks irritating, and wearing loose kurtas more comfortable than
proper shirts, and cared the least if those kurtas lacked a button
or two. Such habits, indeed, threatened to destroy our marriage
at one point.
Kalika would warn me, Look, I feel embarrassed to go out
with you in public.
I would reply, There is no need to be an obedient wife. Feel
free to go out on your own.
Now the time has changed but my fate is still the same. Kalika
still says she is ashamed to go out with me. I couldnt accept
the costume of her band members then, and cant accept the
uniform of her party members now. Thus, my wifes shame in
me has remained unchanged. The fault lies with my personality.
Whatever may be the ideology of a group, I feel shy to dress in
sectarian attire. I have not been able to overcome this feeling, and
Kalika failed to accept my difference of opinion as fnal. Like a
mountain stream pushing a big rock fercely but meaninglessly,
Kalika cant help ceaselessly jostling with opinions different
from her own. Any contact with views contrary to her own
makes her restless, creating an irresistible itch in her to respond.
yesterday, as we were getting ready to go out for a tea
invitation, Kalika brought up the matter of my non-khaddar
outft for the millionth time, and in a tone that was anything
but polite. I couldnt help rebutting her insults because of my
intellectual pride an innate tendency in humans that inspires
PuRIFICATION 139
them to such futile efforts. So in an equally acerbic tone I said to
her, for the countless time, Women like to cover their god given
power of sight by pulling the end of a thick black bordered sari
over their eyes and tie their mind to custom. They fnd it easier
to obey than to think. In every important aspect of life, if they
can avoid having to think and decide for themselves and confne
their life, instead, to the zenana of social conventions, they are
happy. Women are so excited about khaddar because in our
custom-riddled country it is turning into a virtuous convention
and, like wearing garlands and the sandal paste mark on a
Vaishnava mendicants forehead, is seen as a sign of religiosity.
Kalika began fuming in anger. She screamed so loudly that the
maidservant in the next room must have thought that the mistress
was scolding the master for tricking her with some jewellery not
made of pure gold. She said, Look, the day wearing khaddar
becomes a natural part of our culture, like bathing in the holy
water of the Ganges, this country will be saved. When a code
becomes one with habit, it turns into a custom. Thought, when
it fnds a clear shape, brings purifcation. People then work with
full conviction, without having to think twice.
Clearly those were Professor Nayan Mohans words, only the
quotation marks had disappeared. Kalika now considered them
her own.
A silent person has no enemy whoever came up with
that aphorism must have been unmarried. When I chose not to
respond, she became jittery, and yelled, you only talk about
caste discrimination but practically do nothing to redress it. But
we are trying to paint a colour of unity over that disunity with
our khaddar uniform, and replace caste disharmony with the
fellowship of all.
I was about to say, Indeed, I overcame caste distinction with
my mouth frst, the day I tasted the chicken curry prepared
by a Muslim cook. So my conversion is not merely verbal but
also in action, which comes from the soul. To dress up caste
differences in a new garb is superfcial; it only conceals but
doesnt obliterate. But having thought of those words, I didnt
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 140
have the courage to express them. I am naturally a timid man, so
I kept silent. For I know from experience that Kalika carries the
altercations we spontaneously have at home to her friends, like
laundry washing where they are violently thrashed and twisted.
Returning armed with counter-arguments from her visits to the
Philosophy professor Nayan Mohans house, she fres them off
at me and stares in a savage, silent way that seems to say, Now
tackle that if you can.
I was not interested a bit to attend Nayan Mohans tea
invitation that evening. I was sure that a hair-splitting discussion
on the comparative role of tradition and novelty, the logical and
illogical in Hindu culture, and why our country is superior to
all the other countries in this regard, over cups of steaming tea
would create an oppressive atmosphere, through the blending
of mists from tea cups, hot air, and foggy ideas. Besides, I had
some new books which had just arrived from the bookseller,
waiting expectantly by my dumpy bolster, in their gold-blocked
covers and uncut pages. I had a glance at them while still in
their brown wraps, but hadnt fully unpacked them yet, and
as we were about to leave the house I felt an incipient urge to
unwrap them. yet I had no choice but to go, because I knew
that any impediment to Dhruba Bratas will-force would, either
in words or through silence, create a huge commotion which
would be detrimental to my health.
We had just travelled a short distance from the house in our
car. Coming past the tube-well and reaching close to the back of
the temple, where a pot-bellied confectioner from Central India
made all kinds of deep fried unsavoury items, we came upon a
terrible uproar. I saw some of our neighbours from the Marwari
3

community walking in a procession towards the temple, with
expensive offerings for the gods in hand. Their journey also had
come to a halt here. We could hear people yelling and sounds of
beating. I thought some pickpocket was being punished.
3
The word has a geographical connotation and refers to people from
Marwar and Rajasthan who came to Kolkata for business and trade. Mar-
waris are predominantly Hindus and Jains, and speak the Rajasthani lan-
guage, one of the Western groups of Indo-Aryan languages.
PuRIFICATION 141
Moving slowly past the agitated people in our motor car,
after repeated honking of the horn, we came to the centre of
the ruckus and saw our old municipal sweeper being brutally
smacked by everyone. He had just taken his bath at the tube-
well, put on fresh clothes, and set out on the street with a
bucket of water in the right hand and a broom under his arm.
Dressed in a chequered, loose-sleeved jacket, his wet hair
neatly combed, he was walking with his eight or nine year old
grandson holding his left hand, both well-built and handsome
in appearance. During the hustle on the street, they must
have accidentally touched someone, resulting in this merciless
beating. His grandson was crying and pleading to everyone,
Please dont beat my grandfather. The old man was repeatedly
appealing with folded hands, I didnt notice, I didnt realise,
its my fault, please forgive me. The more he was saying it, the
more the devotees of non-violence became infamed. Tears ran
down the old mans frightened eyes, and his beard was daubed
in blood.
It was an unbearable sight. To get into a fght with the violent
mob was beneath me. I decided to take the old sweeper into
my car and show that I couldnt support their sense of religion.
Kalika saw my uneasiness and immediately knew what was
in my mind. She held my arm with all her strength and said,
What are you planning? He is a sweeper.
I said, So what if he is a sweeper? So theyll unjustly beat
him?
Kalika said, Its his fault. Why did he have to walk in the
middle of the road like that? Would it have hurt his pride to stay
at the side?
I dont care about that, I said. I am determined to get him
inside the car.
Kalika replied, In that case, Ill step out right here. I wont
ride with a sweeper; if he was a fsherman or an undertaker, I
would have considered, but a sweeper!
I said, Look, hes just had a shower and is wearing washed
clothes. He is much cleaner than most people in that crowd.
So what? He is a sweeper.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 142
She then told the driver, Drive off, quick, Ganga Din.
I was defeated. I am a coward. At tea, Nayan Mohan tried to
explain the situation with profound sociological theories, but I
didnt pay any heed. Nor did I care to answer.
...
1
T
here is a saying that human life is the culmination of
the various stages of animal evolution. We see traces of
animal characteristics among people in society. In fact,
what we call human is the synthesis of all the animal attributes
in us; it holds the cow and the tiger in one pinfold, and the snake
and the mongoose in the same pen. To put it differently, we
call that classical music which brings together all notes to form
a single tune, so that they can no longer break into cacophony.
But in music every pitch, being different from others, becomes
unique; in some it is the major fourth of the C-scale, in others
it is the subdued scale, and yet in others it is the major ffth of
the C-scale.
In my nephew Balai, the strains of the vegetable world
are somehow predominant. Ever since childhood his wont
has been to sit quietly and observe, and not to hustle and
bustle. Clouds gather in the eastern sky silently and his mind
thickens with dense air bearing the aroma of Shravan
2
forest;
raindrops patter and it is as if his whole body registers the
sound. In the evening, the sun starts to set and he moves
to the roof baring his body; it seems that he wants to glean
something from the infnite horizon. At the end of Magh,
3
the
budding mango trees excite his blood as from an unspeakable
1
Bengali title: Balai. First published in Prabasi, Agrahayan 1335
(November-December 1928).
2
The fourth month of the Bengali calendar (July-August).
3
The tenth month of the Bengali calendar (January-February).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 144
remembrance. In Phalgoon,
4
his mind is like a fowering
wood; the world of nature stretching out everywhere, and
taking on a rich hue. At this time he likes to be alone and
speak to himself remembering the many stories he had
heard before, about a pair of ancient tattler birds living in the
hollow of a primitive banyan tree or other imaginary birds
mentioned in folk-tales. This wide-eyed, ever observant boy
cant speak much, thats why he always has to refect. Once I
took him to the highlands, and he felt deeply enthralled at the
sight of verdant grass covering the entire mountain slope in
front of the guesthouse. He didnt take the bed of grass as an
inanimate object but as partner in a rolling game, undulating
continually. Often he would glide down the slope, his whole
body becoming one with the grass. As he tumbled, he felt
tickled by the tips of grass touching his neck and he laughed.
Following a rainy night, resplendent rays of the sun fall on
deodar trees at daybreak from across the mountains opposite,
and he goes there quietly without informing anyone and stands
alone under the silent shadows of the trees in wonderment.
An eerie sensation flls his body. He seems to sense the innate
human qualities of those huge trees; they dont say anything,
but seem to know everything. They are like his brothers from a
distant time, from the days of the fairy-tale kings.
His dreamy eyes are not always cast upwards. I have seen him
many times wandering in the garden searching for something
in the ground. To see little sprouts with their little spiral heads
spreading into light made him wonder. Stooping forward, he
seemed to ask them endless questions. They also provided him
with their never-ending answers. He is at a loss for words to
express his intimate bond with the delicate new green leaves.
They are also equally eager to communicate with him. Perhaps
they ask, What is your name? Or perhaps, Where is your
mother? Wordlessly, Balai replies, I dont have a mother.
He feels upset if anyone plucks a fower. But he knows
that his anguish at such acts means little to others, thats why
4
The eleventh month of the Bengali calendar (February-March).
BALAI 145
he tries to hide the pain. Boys of his age cast stones to bring
down myrobalan from trees, he cant tell them anything and
so he turns his face away and leaves the place. To tease him,
his companions stride through forests striking trees on both
sides with sticks or breaking branches of bakul
5
trees in an
instant, but Balai is too shy to cry, lest someone thinks it
madness. The worst day for him is the day the grass cutters
come to mow the lawn. This is because as he peers through
the grass everyday he sees very tiny creepers; purple-yellow
nameless fowers, microscopic in size; occasionally prickly
nightshade trees; the azure of fowers with little golden blobs
in the centre; close to the fence somewhere a kalomegh
6

herb, and somewhere an anata
7
root; miniature plants formed
from bird-pecked seeds of margosa fruits, how beautiful their
leaves they will all get uprooted with that unsparing blade
of the mower! They arent fancy plants in the garden, so no
one heeds their complaints!
On some days, he sits on his aunts lap and appeals to her,
clasping her neck, Please tell the mower not to weed those
plants.
His aunt replies, Balai, what unreasonable things you say!
Those are weeds, how can we not get rid of them!
Balai had come to understand a long time ago that there were
certain kinds of pain that were only his own, and no one else
would care to know them.
The real age of this boy goes back millions of years to that day
when, in the tiers of clay freshly emerged from the bed of the
sea, the woodlands of the world uttered their frst birth cry no
animals yet, no birds, no warble of living creatures, only stones
and silt and water on every side. The tree, the frst creation of
time, pledged to the sun on that day with folded hands, I shall
live, I shall survive, I am the perpetual wanderer, dying I shall
5
A large ever-green fowering tree or its small, white, sweet-scented
fowers.
6
A bitter medicinal plant.
7
A medicinal plant.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 146
move onward in sun and rain, darkness and light, to manifest
in death the deathless quality of life. That outcry of the tree still
resounds through forests, hills and meadows; in their boughs
and foliage they continue to whisper, We shall live, we shall
survive. This mute minister of the universal soul, the tree, has
for centuries gathered light, energy and glory for the ambrosial
coffer of the world, drawing succour from the realms of heaven,
and incessantly voiced the souls eager utterance to the sky, I
shall exist. That cry of the universal soul, Balai somehow came
to hear in his innermost self. We used to tease him about it a
great deal.
One morning as I was reading the newspaper Balai came and
took me to the garden. Drawing my attention to a sapling, he
asked, uncle, what plant is this?
It was a silk-cotton plant which had come up right in the
middle of the cobble-stoned garden lane.
Alas, Balai had made a mistake in calling me! When the
sprout was still so tiny, it drew his attention like the incoherent
babble of an infant. After that, he watered the plant himself
and watched its growth eagerly every day. Though cotton
plants grow quickly, yet it was still unable to compete with
Balais yearning. When it was about waist high, he watched
the splendid growth of its foliage and felt bemused by it, like
a mother wonderstruck at the frst signs of intelligence in her
child. Balai had thought that this plant would surely amaze me.
I said, Ill inform the gardener, hell take it out.
Balai was startled. What a cruel thing to say! He pleaded,
Please, uncle, I beg you, dont do that.
I said, It makes no sense. Its right in the middle of the lane.
When it grows up itll scatter cotton all around and drive us
crazy.
When he failed to persuade me, the motherless child went to
his aunt. Climbing into her lap and embracing her, he sobbed,
Aunt, ask uncle not to uproot the tree.
He had hit on the right strategy. His aunt called me out and
said, Listen, dearest! Let the tree remain.
I let it remain. If Balai hadnt shown me the plant in the frst
BALAI 147
place, I would probably have ignored it. But now I noticed it
every day. In a year or so the tree grew insolently large. Balai
was so impressed by it that he made the cotton tree his main
object of love.
More and more, the tree became an irritant. It stood tall and
upright at an inappropriate place without any regard for anyone.
Whoever saw it wondered why it was there. I pronounced its
death-sentence a few more times. I tried to soften up Balai by
telling him I would get him a few rose saplings instead.
I told him, Well, if cotton tree is what you want, Ill get you
another sapling and plant it next to the fence, and it will look
beautiful.
But every time I talked of felling the tree he looked upset and
his aunt moaned, Ah! It doesnt look that bad!
My sister-in-law had passed away when Balai was still an
infant. Probably that shock sent my brother to England to study
engineering. The boy grew up in my childless home, in the
care of his aunt. Returning after almost ten years, my brother
frst took Balai to Simla to educate him, British style. He was
planning to take him to England afterwards.
Balai left us with a heavy heart, leaving our home desolate.
Two years had passed. Balais aunt would cry in private
and visit Balais empty bedroom to gaze upon his torn pair of
shoes, fat rubber ball and illustrated books of animal stories.
She wondered how big Balai had grown, leaving behind these
mementos of childhood.
One day I decided that the wretched cotton tree had grown
beyond all limits. It looked so intrusive that I determined I
would indulge it no more. Finally I cut it down.
Around this time Balai sent a letter from Simla to his aunt,
Aunt, send me a photograph of the cotton tree.
He was supposed to visit us before going to England, but that
was no longer possible. So he wanted to carry a picture of his
friend with him.
His aunt called out to me and said, Go, get a photographer
dear.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 148
I asked, Why?
She showed me Balais letter, written in his inexpert hand.
I said, That tree has been hacked down.
Balais aunt went without food for two days and refused to
talk to me for many more. First Balais father had taken the boy
away from her and now his uncle had removed Balais treasured
tree for good the pain was just too much for her to bear.
The tree was to her an insignia of Balai, his soul mate.
.-
1
A
fter graduating from Mymensingh High School, our very
own Govinda came to Kolkata. His widowed mother
had a little savings, but his main stock was in his own
unwavering resolve. He vowed, Ill dedicate my life to making
pice. He always referred to wealth as pice, which is to say,
he constantly had a tangible object in mind, worthy of sight,
touch and smell. He had no fascination for fame as such, but
what moved his mind was a paltry pice, a worn-out unclean
pice circulating from shop to shop and hand to hand, a copper-
smelling pice, the indigenous incarnation of Kuvera, the god
of wealth, that by assuming various forms in silver, gold, and
paper, has been tempting the human mind in many ways.
After travelling many zigzag roads and becoming defled in
the flth of many, Govinda had now reached the paved landing
of his majestically fowing money-stream. He was frmly placed
as the head clerk of a rich gunnysack monger, Macdugal.
Everyone called him Macdulal or Macdugals darling.
When Govindas elder brother Mukunda gave up legal practice
and breathed his last, he entered the next world leaving behind
his bereaving wife, a four year old son, a house in Kolkata, and
some money as savings. But in addition to his assets, he had
some debts. The maintenance of his family, therefore, depended
on modest spending. As a result, the circumstances in which his
1
Bengali title Chitrakar. First published in Prabasi, Kartik 1336 (Octo-
ber-November 1929).
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 150
son, Chunilal, was brought up were much inferior compared to
those of his neighbours.
As per elder brother Mukundas will, the responsibility of the
family, after his demise, fell on Govindas shoulders. Govinda
started to drill into the nephews mind his motto Make pice.
The main resistance to the boys indoctrination came from
his mother, Satyabati. She didnt say anything openly, but her
opposition was expressed in her actions. From childhood, she
had a knack for artistic creation. Her enthusiasms in making
spectacular but unnecessary things with fowers and fruit leaves,
with food items, by slicing paper, piercing cloth, with clay,
four, jumbo juice, berry juice, hibiscus juice, and sheuli leaf
stalk juice were limitless. She had to endure a lot of suffering
because of this. The impetus for instinctive and spontaneous
things comes like the fash food of monsoon; its fow is rapid
but not necessarily useful in steering the boat of necessity. It
had happened from time to time that on being invited to a
relatives house, Satyabati would forget all about it and spend
the whole day cooped up in her bedroom, kneading a clod
of clay. Relatives thought she was too proud, and it proved
diffcult to appease them. Mukunda knew, through his academic
knowledge, that people could be judgemental even in such
matters. He was thrilled by the grandeur of the word art, but
hardly knew that his wifes handiwork had some association
with it. There was no prickliness in his character. The sight of
his wife wasting time whimsically brought a smile to his face,
one that was infused with love. If anyone made snide remarks
about it, he would immediately protest. Mukundas nature had
a strange contradiction in it; as a lawyer he was wise, but his
acumen in household matters was limited. A lot of money rolled
through his hands at work but they never got tangled in his
soul. Thats why his mind was free, and he could never impose
his will on those dependent on him. He lived a simple life, and
claimed no undue attention or devotion from the members of
his family. Whenever people made comments about Satyabatis
negligence in work, he would instantly silence them. Now
and then, while returning from the court, he would buy some
THE PAINTER 151
paint, coloured silk and colouring pencils from Radhabazar, and
put them neatly on the wooden chest in the bedroom without
Satyabatis knowledge. On some days he took up a portrait by
his wife and said, Oh, its so beautiful! One day he took up what
was a portraiture of a human being and held it upside down,
and thinking of the legs as the head of a bird he exclaimed,
Satu, we have to frame this one; what a superb portrait of a
crane! Equal to the pleasure Mukunda derived from perceiving
his wifes interest in art as childish, was the pleasure Satyabati
derived from her husbands ignorance of art. Satyabati knew for
sure in her mind that she could never expect so much patience
and indulgence from any other family in Bengal; no other home
would allow her irresistible adoration for art to grow with such
affection. So whenever her husband made strangely extravagant
comments about her paintings she couldnt hold back her tears.
One day Satyabati lost the rare fortune that was her husband.
Before his death, Mukunda knew one thing for sure, that he had
to entrust his debt-ridden estate to a person who had the skill
to steer even a leaking boat across a lake. That is how Satyabati
and her son ended up in Govindas hands, and Govinda made
it clear from the frst day that his supreme concern was pice.
There was something so deeply offensive in Govindas view of
life that Satyabati would recoil in shame.
yet the dedicated pursuit of money continued in the family
in many ways. There would be no harm if this could be carried
out with some fnesse and without talking about it so freely.
Satyabati knew that this preoccupation with money was harmful
to her sons moral growth but she had no choice but to suffer
in silence. She knew that a delicate mind with a profound sense
of dignity was the most vulnerable, and for a vulgar person, to
vex or assail that mind was easy.
One needs all sorts of accessories to practice art. Satyabati
hadnt had to agonise about materials thus far; she got them
without asking. But now to hand over a list of such inessential
items as part of her familys needs shamed her. So she bought
those accessories secretly with the money saved from her
groceries, and whatever she painted she did it privately, with the
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 152
door shut. She did this not from the fear of being criticised, but
loathing exposure to crude eyes. Only Chuni was a witness and
judge of her paintings. He too gradually developed a fascination
for them which grew into an obsession. This blemish of the
boy could not be concealed, as it went beyond the pages of his
exercise book and ended up on the walls. On his hands, face,
sleeves, the marks of disgrace were evident. The God of gods,
Indra, didnt hesitate to instigate the child against the adoration
for money. The boy was to suffer much at his uncles hands.
The more the uncle tried to discipline the child, the more
the mother became an accomplice in his misdemeanour.
Govinda was occasionally called upon to accompany his boss
to an outstation, and the mother and son were euphoric during
this time. The two would indulge in downright childishness;
the animals they drew, alas, God hadnt created them yet!
Their portrait of a cat looked similar to that of a dog, and the
distinctions between fsh and birds were hard to trace. There
was no way to preserve these fanciful creations as their marks
had to be erased before the head of the household returned
home. In their work of genius, only Brahma, the creator, and
Rudra, the destroyer, were present; Vishnu, the preserver, hadnt
emerged between the two yet.
The artistic genes were dominant in Satyabatis family. As if
to prove their talent in art, Rangalal, one of Satyabatis nephews,
who was older than her, suddenly became famous. That is,
seeing the peculiarity of his work, the countrys art critics started
an uproar; they became contemptuous of his work because of
his radical difference from the mainstream. Ironically, the more
they rejected and ridiculed him, the more famous he became.
Artists who emulated him the most tried the hardest to prove
that as a painter he was phoney, and that there was even a
clear faw in his technique. This most villifed painter came to
visit his aunt one day in the absence of Govinda. Pushing the
door open, when he stepped into the house, he saw there was
no space on the foor to step on. Immediately he grasped the
situation and said to Satyabati, After many years, I see the work
of a genius that has come straight from his soul. It is so fawless.
THE PAINTER 153
He is as old as the god who creates beauty. Bring out all his
works and show them to me.
But where were they to be found! They have gone to the
same place where the universal creator who depicts such
beautiful pictures in the sky in variegated colours, shade and
light, puts away his mysterious, elusive portraits bountifully.
Swearing to God, Rangalal said to his aunt, From now on, Ill
collect whatever you two produce.
It was a rainy day, and the guardian of the house hadnt
returned from work yet. The sky was overcast in Shravan
2

clouds, and the downpour had begun since morning. The sun
hadnt kept track of time, nor did it wish to. The little Chuni
concentrated on drawing a boat drifting in water. The waves
of the river were like mythical sea monsters, as if trying to
swallow up the boat with a gaping mouth; the foating clouds
also seemed to spur them on from above with a futtering scarf.
But these sea monsters were no ordinary ones, and to describe
the clouds as an orderly assemblage of the fve basic elements
of the world would be no exaggeration. However, it should
be acknowledged for the sake of truth that if such a boat were
actually built, no insurance company would be willing to cover
it for indemnity! The creation went on; the lofty painter in the
sky did whatever it wished and the boy in the house with his
huge open eyes did likewise.
Mother and son had failed to notice that the door was open.
Govinda suddenly walked in and, seeing what the boy was
doing, yelled out, What is going on!
The boy trembled in fear and his face went pale. It became
obvious to the uncle why Chunilal was making mistakes with
the dates in his history examinations. The boys frantic attempt to
hide the picture under his shirt made the offence more glaring.
What Govinda saw by snatching the painting away from the boy
shocked him even more what exactly was this! Forgetting the
important historical dates was much better than this! He tore the
2
The fourth month of the Bengali calendar (July-August), and one of
the two months consisting the rainy season in Bengal.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 154
picture into pieces. Chunilal started howling.
Satyabati usually spent ekadashi days, the eleventh day of
the lunar fortnight, in the prayer room. She came out running,
hearing the boy scream. The torn pieces of the painting were
lying scattered on the foor, and Chunilal was shrieking with
rage. Govinda, in the meantime, was trying to understand why
Chunilal couldnt cope with his history lessons, so as to fnd a
solution to it.
So far Satyabati hadnt said a word about the way Govinda
treated them. Her husband had trusted him to look after them;
remembering that, she had endured everything in silence. But
that day, with eyes wet and a voice wavering in anger, she
asked, Why did you tear the picture?
Govinda replied, He never studies. What will his future be?
Satyabati remarked, Even if he becomes a street beggar it
wouldnt matter. May he never become like you. What God has
given him will hopefully bring him more honour and glory than
the money that you boast of. That is my prayer for him as his
mother.
I cant shirk my responsibility, and I wont let this happen. Ill
defnitely send him to a boarding school tomorrow, otherwise
you will ruin him, Govinda said in rage.
As usual, Govinda went to offce the next day. A torrential
downpour began, surging the roads with rainwater.
Satyabati took the boy by the hand and said, Come, my son!
Chuni asked, Where to, mother?
Lets leave this place.
There was knee-deep water in front of Rangalals house.
Satyabati stepped in with Chunilal and said to her nephew, you
take charge of the boy from now on, Rangalal, and save him
from vulgar worship of money.
.. ..
1
..,
2
I
t was a time when agents of anarchy were vexing the state
machinery, and days and nights were swayed by strokes of
unforeseen tyranny. Everyday life was enmeshed in a web
of nightmares; householders prayed to gods all the time, and
people were terrorised by imaginary fear of evil deities. It was
hard to trust anyone, man or god. One had to often cry for help
or mercy. The boundary between the consequences of good
and evil deeds was virtually nonexistent. People stumbled into
adversity at every step.
In such a situation, having a beautiful daughter at home was
like a scourge of providence. If such a girl was born, family
members would say, The sooner were rid of the wretched girl
the better. A similar misfortune showed up in the house of a
rich landlord, Bangshi Badan.
It was the beautiful Kamala,
3
whose parents had passed
away. Her other relatives would have been relieved if she too
1
Bengali title: Musalmanir Galpa. First published in Ritupatra, Ashar
1362 (June-July 1955).
2
This story was left behind by Tagore in draft form. It was dictated on
24-25 June, 1941, a few weeks before his death, and published fourteen
years later, without any changes to the manuscript. The story is important
as it was the writers last attempt at a short story.
3
Kamala is an appellation of goddess Lakshmi.
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 156
had died. But she did not, and her uncle, Bangshi, had ever
since brought her up with utmost love and care.
But her aunt would often tell the neighbours, Think of the
injustice of it! Her parents are gone, leaving behind the danger
on our shoulders. After all, we have our own children, and she
is like a burning torch of destruction in their midst. She attracts
the attention of all kinds of wicked people. Someday, well be
ruined just because of her. This anxiety keeps me awake whole
night.
Still, somehow, time was passing. Then came a marriage
proposal and, in the midst of such pageantry, it was no longer
possible to keep the girl hidden from the public eye. Her uncle
would say, Thats why I am looking for a groom in a family
capable of protecting the girl.
The boy he found was the second son of Param Ananda Seth
of Mochakhali. He was sitting on a mountain of wealth which
would likely disappear soon after his fathers demise. He was
given to excessive luxury and showed off his wealth proudly by
engaging in wasteful activities falconry, gambling, bird fghts.
The boy was vain about his fortune, and he was blessed with
quite a bit of it. He had stout wrestlers from Bhojpur, Bihar, for
bodyguards, all skilful fghters with clubs. He would openly
brag that there was no one in the area who could lay hands
on him. The boy had some fancy for women; married once, he
was looking for a young girl to make his second wife. He came
to know about Kamalas beauty. The Seths were extremely rich
and powerful, and they resolved to bring the girl home as their
bride.
Kamala begged tearfully, uncle, must you send me to hellfre
in this way?
you know, my child, if I had the power to protect you I
would have held you in my heart all my life, the uncle replied.
After the marriage negotiations were complete, the groom
came to the wedding in a majestic style, with plenty of musicians
and fanfare accompanying him. The uncle said pleadingly, My
son, such pomp and pageantry may not be appropriate. These
are bad times.
A WOMANS CONVERSION TO ISLAM 157
At this, the groom uttered a profanity and added, Well see
who has the guts to come near me.
The uncle said, The girl was ours until the completion of the
wedding ceremony, now she is yours. you take the responsibility
of escorting her home safely. We cant do it, we are weak.
The groom declared proudly, No worries.
His bodyguards from Bhojpur gathered behind him holding
their clubs and twirling their moustaches.
The groom set out on his journey with the bride through
the infamous Taltari felds. Modhu Mollah was the leader of
a gang of armed robbers. At about midnight, he and his men
attacked the caravan, hollering and fourishing torches. Most
of the Bhojpuris vanished immediately. Modhu Mollah was a
notorious brigand; no one could escape from his hands.
Kamala was about to step out of her palanquin in fear and
hide in a nearby bush, when old Habir Khan came and stood
behind her. Everyone used to revere him almost like a prophet.
Habir stood there frmly and said, Leave the place, my sons. I
am Habir Khan.
The robbers said, Khan Sahib, there is no way we could defy
you, but why are you ruining our business?
However, they had to fee.
Habir came to Kamala and said, you are like a daughter
to me. you have no reason to be worried. Lets escape this
dangerous place and go to my house.
Kamala shrank at this. Habir said, I understand. you are a
Hindu Brahmins daughter reluctant to go to a Muslims home.
But remember this, true Muslims are also respectful of pious
Brahmins. you can live in my home like the daughter of a Hindu
family. I am Habir Khan. I live nearby. Come, Ill keep you safe.
Kamala was a Brahmins daughter. She found it diffcult to
overcome her hesitation. Habir noticed this and said, No one in
the neighbourhood will dare to insult your religion as long as I
am alive. Come with me; dont be afraid.
Habir Khan brought Kamala to his residence. Surprisingly, in
one of the eight self-contained portions of this Muslims mansion
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 158
there was a Shiva temple and all the facilities for Hindu worship.
An elderly Hindu priest appeared and advised Kamala, you
consider this place like a Hindu home, my daughter; you wont
lose your caste here.
Kamala broke into tears and said, Please send word for my
uncle. Hell take me home.
Habir replied, you are mistaken, my child. your people will
not accept you anymore. They will desert you on the street.
Well, you could test it for yourself if you wish.
Habir Khan took Kamala up to the backdoor of her uncles
house and said, Ill be waiting here.
Kamala went into the house, hugged her uncle, and pleaded,
uncle, please dont abandon me.
Her uncles eyes streamed with tears.
Her aunt came, saw her and yelled out, Drive her out, drive
out this evil creature. you ruinous girl, you have come back
after entering a pariahs home. Have you no shame?
Her uncle said, I am helpless, my child. This is a Hindu
home; no one will accept you back here. If we do, well also
lose our caste.
Kamala stood there for a while hanging her head down in
shame and then slowly walked out of her uncles home and left
with Habir Khan. The doors of her uncles house shut behind
her forever.
Habir Khan made all arrangements for Kamala to practice her
Hindu religion, and said to her, My sons will never step into
your portion of the house. you can continue to practice your
customs and rituals with the help of this old Brahmin.
This house had some history. People used to call the Hindu
portion of the house The Rajputanis Quarter. A Nawab had
once brought home a Rajputs daughter but to save her caste
and religion allowed her to live separately.
4
She used to worship
4
Perhaps this is a reference to the Mughal emperor Akbars Rajput
Hindu wife, Jodhabai, who was accommodated in exactly the same way in
his imperial palace at Fatehpur Sikri.
A WOMANS CONVERSION TO ISLAM 159
Shiva and sometimes even went on pilgrimage. Aristocratic
Muslims in those days had respect for virtuous Hindus. This
Rajput woman lived there and provided shelter to all the
Hindu women married to Muslims to protect their customs and
traditions. It is believed that Habir Khan is the son of the Rajput
woman. Although he did not take up his mothers religion, he
worshipped his mother at heart. Now his mother was no more,
but he had taken a vow to especially shelter and protect the
oppressed and ostracised Hindu women to keep her memory
alive.
Kamala found a better life in her new shelter than she had in
her own home. Her aunt always treated her with contempt; often
she would hear that she was ill-fated, accursed, a source of ruin,
and the family would fnd relief only if she died. Occasionally,
her uncle would buy her some clothes and accessories in secret,
but she had to hide them in fear of her aunt. In the home of the
Rajput woman, she found herself like a queen. There was no
end to love and honour for her here. She was surrounded by
maids and servants, all from Hindu families.
At last, her body was touched by the impulse of youth. One
of Habir Khans sons started frequenting Kamala in her room
secretly, and she got emotionally entangled with him.
Then, one day, she told Habir Khan, Father, I have no
religion. My religion is the man I love. The religion that has
deprived me of all love, scorned me like a piece of trash, I could
never fnd the benevolence of God in that religion. That God
has humiliated me at every step and I cant still forget that. The
frst time I tasted love, Father, was in your home. I realised that
even a wretched girls life has value. The God who has given me
shelter, in the midst of love and honour for him, he is the one I
worship, and he is my God he is neither Hindu nor Muslim. I
love your second son Karim, I have taken him in my heart my
religion is now bound with him. you can convert me into Islam,
I have no objection in that; maybe Ill keep both the faiths.
They continued to live their lives in that way, cutting off all
their ties with the other family. Habir Khan also helped Kamala
RABINDRANATH TAGORE 160
to erase their memories from her heart and remove all thoughts
that she was part of them, so he renamed her Meherjan.
Meanwhile, the time came for Saralas wedding, her uncles
second daughter. Arrangements were made as before, and the
same misfortune occurred. The same band of robbers attacked
them on the way with a thunderous cry. Deprived of their prey
once, they were determined to avenge it this time.
But another bellowing cry came from behind them, Beware!
Gosh, Habir Khans followers are back to ruin everything!
When the brides men were about to fee, leaving the bride in
the palanquin, a spear with Habir Khans fag drawn with a half-
crescent in it appeared in their midst. It was a woman standing
fearlessly with the spear in hand.
She said to Sarala, Dont worry, sister. I have the protection
for you of one who protects everyone. He doesnt differentiate
on the basis of caste or religion.
Kamala took Sarala back to her uncles house and said,
Obeisance to you, uncle. Dont worry! I wont actually touch
your feet. Now take Sarala back. She has not been defled by
any touch. Tell Aunt that I was brought up by her food and
clothes given reluctantly, and I never thought I could return
that favour in this way. I have brought this red silk sari for her,
take it, and this brocade cushion. If my sister is ever in distress,
remember, she has a Muslim elder sister to protect her.