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Sahitya Akademi

Short Stories of Tagore Author(s): Somnath Maitra Source: Indian Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1 (October 1957), pp. 15-26 Published by: Sahitya Akademi Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23328606 . Accessed: 07/02/2014 09:09
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Short Stories of Tagore


Somnath
This article

Maitra
was specially Short text in in all written as Stories Introduction to the Sahitya Tagore A special a glossary Akademi's which edition is also are of in

edition being

of 21 Select translated

of Rabindranath Indian languages. script with

the major

the original press.Ed.

Bengali

devanagari

Rabindranath's masters

stories place him among the greatest art in the world, and it would be interesting to examine some of their distinctive aspects. But before doing short of the so it is necessary to remind ourselves that the writing of short stories was not the main business of his life, and that they re present only one of the channels through which his myriad For a proper appreciation featured genius sought expression. be helpful, therefore, to try to form idea of the personality of their author, rough and the nature and range of his achievements. of the stories it may at the outset a Rabindranath Tagore was one of the greatest literary figures the world has seen. It is well known that as a lyric poet he stands unsurpassed in any age or land, but it must not be forgotten that he achieved excellence in most other literary forms as well. Barring the epic, there is not a single mode of literary expression which he has not used with conspicuous success. Supreme as a poet, he is hardly less so in his novels, short stories, plays social and allegorical in prose and verse, in his essays on social, political, philosophical and religious subjects, in his numerous exquisite letters, in his illuminating literary criticism, ii> his delight ful books for children, in his autobiographical memoirs, etc.

So strong and insistent was the creative urge within him that it refused to be exhausted in more than sixty years of ceaseless literary activity. The quantity and variety of his output are amazing; but what is still more remarkable is that much of this The constant practice of his quantity is of very high quality. instead of making it thin and jejune, art throughout a long life, resulted, on the contrary, in new creations of rare beauty. Rabindranath's range and depth as a writer are but one manifestation of his rich and lofty personality, and it is perfectly

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true to say of him that, like the Emperor Shahjahan of his cele brated poem, he is greater even than his own creations. It is to realize the full measure of his greatness and his significance for our times and for the future, unless we relate his multifarious activities to one another and regard his life as one not possible luminous, rounded whole. There was a time in his younger days when in the course of managing the family estates, he had with drawn from the eyes of men to lead a sequestered life in the charm in ing setting of a Bengal village on the bank of the Padma, complete accord with the nature around him, observing witli tender sympathy the quiet flow of life in the homes where poor men live, and filling his days to the brim with every form of literary creation and, in particular, poems and short stories. But for him that phase could not last, for there was that within him which was continually goading him on to ever-new activity, allowing ( him hardly any time to linger on the way. That is why we find him ever moving forward, and never resting satisfied with any
work done or any success achieved. In one of the letters that he

wrote at the time, we find him saying that he was taking up work of many kinds, for he felt that only in work of real magnitude could a man fulfil himself. In his longing to identify himself with the larger world of men and their manifold activities, he turned his back on the sheltered peace and comfort of his life the Padma, and entered the world of toil and conflict. This is only one instance of how, when life was running smoothly along a particular track, he would begin to feel cramped and beside would turn aside to take a new path that led to a larger sphere This happened again and again in his of creative endeavour. life, and he never hesitated to close one chapter and to begin an other that would give him freer scope for the unfolding of some aspect of his personality unrevealed till then. It is an error to think of any one manifestation of Rabin dranath's creativeness as isolated. Through all that he did his work for Visva-Bharati his writings; his song-compositions; and the rural reconstruction centre at Sriniketan; his fight against his part in the injustice and oppression in any shape or form; the East and the national struggle for freedom; his many travels in

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West carrying the message of India to the peoples of the world; his close association, necessitated by his world-position, with men of the highest stature in every land; and countless other note of unity and harmony. an unmistakable activitiesrang Where that central and fundamental note came from we shall see presently. It is a rare phenomenon for a single person to be endowed with such manifold gifts, and rarer still the blended harmony of powers that one saw in him. The different parts of his being seemed fused and integrated to produce a rounded The tasks that he undertook and ac perfection of personality. complished were, as we have been trying to emphasize, numerous, diverse and not seldom of impressive magnitude. But v/hatever he did was done with so little fuss, and with such grace and masterly ease, that any one observing him was deceived into regarding them as perfectly simple, unaware that a lifetime of preparation often lay behind them. It is astonishing to think of the atmosphere of serenity and leisure that seemed to surround this great man even in the midst of incessant work. He dwelt, in spirit, not within the narrow bounds of his personal life, but always in the universe of man, and reacted with extraordinary sensitivity to each signi
ficant movement in human thought and affairs. But his poise

and composure remained unruffled. In a magnificent passage of his Atmaparichaya he has let us into the secret of the faith and ideal which sustained and guided him in life, and lent such a unity to his varied activities. I give a translation of it here: "I have loved this earth, I have bowed in reverence to greatness, I have desired liberationthe liberation that comes from the dedication of self to the Supreme Being. I have believed in the truth of man embodied in Him who ever resides in the hearts of men. my literary labours since my boyhood days, and have gathered together, as I best could, all my work and sacrifice as an offering to the Supreme. If I have met with opposition from outside, I have been rewarded I have come to this sacred place by a deep inner satisfaction. of pilgrimage, this earth; here, at the centre of man's history in every age and land stands his God. It is at the foot of His I have gone beyond the sphere of which I had pursued with intense devotion

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altar that I have sat in silence, engaged, to this day, in the difficult attempt to wash myself clean of egoistic pride and the spirit of separatism." Such was the ideal inspiring Rabindranath Tagore in all that he wrote and in all else that he did. To the people of his country he has left the best that he had to give in the priceless legacy of his writings, and in the example of a life of singular beauty and nobility. His mind was open to the whole world " a mind where the Universe could come together as in a single nest." By the greatness of his achievements and the majesty of his personality he dominated his age, and influenced the people of his race in every sphere of their lives. He strove to rescue them from sloth and self-complacence, and showed them the path to happiness and fulfilment through work, self-reliance and the fearless pursuit of truth. But his heart was given not only to his countrymen but to all humanity. He was a wanderer on life's ways discovering and singing of beauty in the midst of sorrow and ugliness, and preaching the Religion of Man to a world in danger All this must have been in the mind of of growing inhuman. the eminent German philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling, when, in 1931, he paid his noble tribute to Tagore in the Golden Book of Tagore. I quote a few of its memorable words: centuries because "There has been no one like him on our globe for many and many He is the creator of a nation... .1 admire my great

friend Rabindranath

Tagore as I admire no other living man, he is the most universal, the most encompassing, the most complete human being I have known." It is time now to turn to a consideration short stories. of Rabindranath's

It would be labour wasted to try to discover literary sources and influences in their case, for in his short stories Rabin dranath is like no one else. He had no forbears in the art in Bengal, and he owes no debt to any foreign writer. In his stories he is absolutely and superbly himself. They yield only to his poetry in exhibiting the characteristic qualities of his genius his vivid imagination coupled with a penetrating insight into reality, his capacity to seize on essentials, his abomination of

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exaggeration and sentimentalism, his wide humanity, his intoler ance of wrong and injustice, his matchless constructive ability. They are of interest, moreover, as reflecting his surroundings, the ideas and feelings that were dominant and the problems that exercised his mind, at different periods of his life. The three volumes of Galpaguccha in which all but three or four of his stories are collected (I leave out of account the matter of Se and Galpasalpa as too airy, sketchy and inconsequential to four of them. 1891 and come under the category of short stories proper) contain eighty Over half this number were written between 1895 during his first great creative period, usually referred to as the Sadhana period, after the monthly magazine of that name of which Rabindranath was the editor. The rest were written at intervals, sometimes of several years. The biggest later groupof seven in 1914 followed by three in 1917belong to what is generally considered his supreme crea tive period, the Sabuj Paira period, when he was contributing most of its matter every month to the magazine of that name The first eleven stories edited by the late Pramatha Chaudhuri. in the present collection belong to the earlier and largest group, the next six were published at intervals between 1898 and 1911, and the remaining four belong to the Sabuj Patra period, the last, Patra O Patri being published in 1917. I have referred to that springtide of his life when he was managing the family estates and living mostly in the villages Shileida, Patisar, Shajadpur and othersof which he gives us such delightful glimpses in his Chhinna Patra (Torn Letters). It was against the background of this rural Bengal that his earlier stories were written, and we can trace the beginnings of many of them in these wonderful letters. Of all his stories Rabindranath liked these earlier ones best. They have, he often asserted, a fresh ness of feeling and a directness of observation which their setting and the writer's youth gave them, and which, he regretted, gra dually disappeared as he grew older and became burdened with the cares and problems that ever-increasing responsibilities brou ght with them. He felt, as he read these stories in later life, that there had passed away a glory from this earth. In a letter on

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the subject written in 1932 he says: "When I came face to face with nature in the villages of Bengal my days overflowed with happiness. That joy runs through these simple, unadorned stories 1 have now come far away from that loving hospitality of rural Bengal, with the result that my motor-car-riding pen will never again walk along those cool and shady sylvan paths of literature." The nature of these earlier stories can be best realized Rabindranath's own account from of their origin. In a letter from dated 25th June, 1B95, he writes, "As I sit writing bit Shajadpur, by bit a story for Sadhana, the lights and shadows and colours of my surroundings 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, these rain-nourished happy corn-fields to serve as their If I could bring background and to give them life and reality before my readers in the pages of my story the sunlit water of this small stream in front of me on this cloudless day in the rainy season, if I could convey to them in their entirety this river-bank and the shade of these trees and the peace of this village scene, they would fully grasp in a moment the truth of my story." The characters are mostly such as he had come across in and women, the course of his sojourn in the villagesifien station in lifeand the a lowly boys and girls and children, of events are such as are normally to be found in the simple annals of the poor. He had watched the drama of these humble lives with infinite sympathy and understanding, and without departing one whit from reality he has succeeded in investing them with the power to move us to pity or anger, to laughter or tears. Take This orphan village for instance, Ratan in The Postmaster. for her or to call to care no one with of or twelve thirteen, girl The town-bred for the her own, did odd jobs postmaster. postmaster, posted in the remote hamlet of Ulapur, found some relief in her company from the tedium of his life of exile. Then he fell ill, and to the little unlettered girl, Ratan, fell the task of into a woman She developed nursing him back to health. almost overnight, and tended him as a mother does her child, till

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But he had had enough of rustic life, and decided to go away for good. He was by no means hard-hearted; in fact he was quite kind to Ratan in his own way, and even felt a fleeting pang of remorse at having left her behind. But how great was the contrast between his kindly he was able to leave his sick bed. deep attachment and unquestioning dependence pathos of her dumb suffering when he finally resigned his post and left for his home in Calcutta, lightly dis missing as absurd her timid request to take her with him, tugs at indifference and RatanV ? The our hearts and gives this homeless waif a secure place among Rabindranath's characters. The Postmaster is a capital instance of how much can be done by a real artist with a bare minimum There are only two characters neither of whom, in actual life, would be considered worth much attention. The setting is a remote malaria-infested corner of rural Bengal. of materials. Very little happens that could be called picture of Ratan's minds. reason. in the course of the story, nothing surely a 'moving accident.' Yet it grips us, and the hopeless grief becomes imprinted on our

These stories compel our admiration for another important Up to their time, the ordinary man and woman and, more especially, the poor and the lowly, had not secured admis sion into our literature. It was in Rabindranath's stories that they were given their rightful place, for the first time; and it is noteworthy that nowhere in our literature, not only before but also since his day, have they been depicted with greater sympathy or more accurate knowledge. Nothing more than a perusal of these stories is needed to rebut the imbecile charge sometimes brought against Rabindranath that his writings betray his con cern only for the classes and not for the masses. We find jostling together in his pages such diverse characters as the princess of the proud house of Badraon and the Bengali village girls, Giribala and Mrinmayee, scions of the aristocratic families of Nayanjore Rui family, the Kabuliwallah from Afghanistan peddling grapes and dried fruits in the streets of Calcutta and the cotton-toll collector at Barich, and scores of others in every rank and class of society. The truth and Shahniari and members of the low-caste

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is that he was interested in every kind of person, for nothing human was alien to him. But never, we repeat, have humble undisting uished folk been made more welcome in the domain of our literature than in these stories. is undoubtedly the most popular of all his stories; it is also one of his best. This is somewhat unusual, for popularity is seldom a guarantee of quality. The five-year Kabuliwallah old Bengali girl Mini had accepted with charming naturalness this great hulk of a man from far Kabul as her friend. She would call to him as he leisurely passed by her house selling his wares in the street, and he would come in and sit by her as she began to chatter away. They had their own special jokes which did not seem to lose any of their point or grow stale with daily use. And then, one day, the Kabuliwallah stabbed a man who had tried to cheat him and was sent to jailthe 'father-in-law's

house' of their jokes over which Mini and he had so often laughed together. When he came out after several years and went to see 'the little one', as he imagined Mini to be still, it is her wedding day, and her father refuses at first to let her come out to meet him. And then comes that wonderful description of the two contrasted in race, language, culture and social position, being drawn to each other by the bond of a common emotionfor each was a father with a father and the Kabuliwallahso The Kabuliwallah too had daughter whom he dearly loved. a daughter like Mini in his own home, and year after year as he walked the streets of Calcutta, and through the long years in pri son, he carried with him on a small and dirty piece of paper the impression of a little soot-smeared handthe touch of his own little daughter. As he heard this and saw the paper, Mini's father realised that, in spite of every obvious difference, the un lettered Kabuli and the cultured Bengali were one in fundamentals. It is not by any means a tragic story. But Rabindranath's identification in sympathy with the creatures of his imaginationthe charming little Mini, representative of the marvellous darling of every home the world over, with her unceasing babble of talk, her irrepressible curiosity, her natural gift of friendship with all and sundry; the big, rugged pedlar from the hills of menMini's

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Afghanistan with the one soft spot in his nature, his love for his own daughter which underlies his affection for Mini; and Mini's growing father, watching with loving care his beloved child up till she is of age to be married, his heart heavy at the thought of the impending parting with herand the sheer beauty of his delineation of them, make the story a masterpiece which it is diffi cult to read without being deeply moved. Each of the stories in the present collection deserves detailed notice, but considerations of space forbid more than a passing mention of just a few of them. Megh O Raudra, though not a very well-knit whole, has passages of great poetic beauty and incidents of a dramatic It is noteworthy also as exhibiting Rabindranath's character. attitude towards racial arrogance and the insolence of power. Never was there a more vigilant sentinel of the rights of man. At any violation of justice and humanity anywhere, Rabindra nath's voice rang out to expose and denounce it to the world. incidents connected with the three Englishmen of the story were typical of the woeful state of things in India at the time The (1894) and for many subsequent decades. In Samapti Mrinmayee's change from the wild tomboy that she had been to a tender, loving woman is shown with pene

trating psychological insight and delightful humour. Dristidan gives a moving and realistic picture of a blind wife's love for her husband with its tenderness and utter depen falsehood dence on the one hand, and its jealousy and uncanny sensing of and unfaithfulness on the other. In the hands of a

lesser writer the story would almost surely have sunk into the mire of sentimentalism, with the wife dying in the process of a Rabindranath's theatrical self-abnegation. unerring sense of proportion has preserved it from such a maudlin finale. Tarapada in Atithi is one of Rabindranath's unforgettable that a boy of his With every accomplishment creations. years
could

looks into the and good possibly possess, to know but he all who came charmed him; bargain, Tarapada could
never be drawn into permanent relations with any of

them.

Nature

had

made him a wayfarer in life, a

'guest'

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tarrying for a while at any place to which he took a passing fancy, but never destined to settle down for good anywhere. He was truly a child of nature for he had all And her so generosity, he quietly love him in impartiality and indifference; him permanently to a disappeared and completely. a touch able There are three stories in the present collection which have of the supernatural: Kshudita Pashan, Nishithe and The firstis admittedly the finest. It is a remark one affect ion and no power on earth could attach where, before

place or person. knew day no one friendship

could conspire

to hem

Master Mashai. construction

of the imagination. It conjures up, in passages of acutely visualized description and great poetic beauty, a vanished age with its limitless luxuries, its loves and cruelties and unsated ruined The scene of the story is an immense passions. of the Mughal days, whose very ^stones seem palace hungry for living flesh. It is a region of half-lights where the past holds commerce with the presenta colourful, glamorous past with the drab and matter-of-fact present. middle

Chhele, the former being written in 1901 and the latter in 1911. Nashtanir is a powerful study of the birth and growth of a married woman's love for a cousin of her husband's, till it becomes a consuming in its intensity. The unbearable love was un passion, consciously fostered by the unthinking neglect of the unworldly husbanda somewhat thoroughly estimable person though obtuse. The story shocked the squeamish, but the treatment of 'forbidden' in it is so restrained, so delicate, and so free from the faintest suggestion of impurity, that it was hailed as a love masterpiece by the discerning, and has now come to be regarded as a classic. I Rashmanir Chhele, remarkable for the vigour of its style, portrays the pathetic struggle of an impoverished branch of an aristocratic family to make both ends meet, and the poignant tragedy of the death of its only hopethe frail, sensitive yet

Of the stories of what may be called Rabindranath's period, the two greatest are Nashtanir and Rashmanir

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trong-willed

Kalipada

who took after his

wonderful

mother,

the iron-willed

yet loving Rashmani.

In the magnificent stories of the Sabuj Paira period, the characters were no longer village folk, and their background no longer the landscape of rural Bengal. Their temper too had changed; problems now engaged Rabindranath's mind, and social wrongs cried out for redress. Especially did the plight of woman in Bengal in middle-class brilliance. homes distress him, and provoke him to ruthless exposure of their wrongs, in language of a dazzling Strir Tatra, published in 1914, voices his feelings at the time, admirably. Fifteen years of torment and frustration as a wife had helped Mrinal to realize that a woman's fulfilment does not lie in wifehood alone. The ugly atmosphere of self ishness, falsehood and unspeakable meanness which the men of the family had created in their home, and which they compla cently expected their womenfolk to accept as natural, was suffo cating to a woman like Mrinal with a spirit that survived all efforts to crush it. At last, when she got the chance to escape from that

prison of domesticity she found, to her unutterable joy and relief, that she still had a soul to call her own. Her letter to her husbandfor that is the form this story takes ending with the announcement of her resolve never to return to him, is a trenchant indictment of a whole history of male injustice, meanness and callousness which passed unchallenged as tradition and was sanctified by custom. There are variations of this theme in most of the other stories of this time, for the position of women and the disabilities under which they laboured had always been for him matters of deep concern, and occupied his thoughts almost constantly at this very incomplete survey of which demand ampler space

loathsome

this period. It is time now to conclude for their full discussion.

the short stories of Rabindranath

But then, his stories really need no can I have introduction; they very well speak for themselves. no doubt that even in translation something of their unfading beauty will touch the reader's heart with gladness and that, sincc

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everywhere, readers in the different parts of India will see in these characters sons and the familiar lineaments of their daughers of Bengal's soil own kinsfolk. human nature is much the same

IN

PRESS

EKOTTARSATI

One

hundred

and

one

poems

of

Rabindranath literation devanagari Prepared of

Tagore, the Notes

with trans original in

and under

in Hindi. of

the auspices

the Sahitya Akademi Tiwari, niketan Hindi

by Rampujan Shanti

Bhawan,

and published Akademi.

by Sahitya

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