One cannot really come to India and not read its literature. And one cannot say one has read its literature without reading Rabindranath Tagore, for that would be like visiting England without seeing a Shakespeare play, without reading Dickens; travelling to Scotland without reading the poetry of Robert Burns, or the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Walter Scott.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, the first Asian author to do so. He was primarily a poet, although he also wrote essays, short stories, novels, plays, musical dramas, and painted. Perhaps his most well known works are Gitanjali / Song Offerings (1910), The Gardener (1913), The Fugitive (1921) and Ghare-Baire / The Home and the World, (1916) which was probably the only one I had ever heard of prior to researching Indian literature. He wrote in Bengali, so I must read him in translation and that, as I understand it, is plagued by lack of correspondence between his Bengali original volumes and the English translations. Infuriating, but that’s the situation. Now his work is readily available on the web, and English translations are available at Project Gutenberg.
So this week I made a start on Tagore. I’d downloaded a few of his works from Project Gutenberg before I came to India but hadn’t really looked at them until now. I sat down on Boxing Day over a cup of tea to peruse them with a view to selecting something to read once I had finished the novel which is currently underway. Wow! Just 30 minutes spent dipping in and I am blown away. Even on reading just a few pages, I am immediately struck by the level of emotion in his work (he writes from the heart) and his incredible use of language ( he is a painter with words) and I am reminded of the work of Pablo Neruda .
Here is the opening poem of his collection The Crescent Moon
I paced alone on the road across the field while the sunset was hiding its last gold like a miser.If I had a set of paint brushes I feel I could paint this scene, it is so real. Have you ever read something as beautiful as ‘the sunset was hiding its last gold like a miser’ ? You can see it can’t you? That colourful ball being squeezed on the horizon, the sky holding onto the last drop of colour before the black of night.
The daylight sank deeper and deeper into the darkness, and the widowed land, whose harvest had been reaped, lay silent.
Suddenly a boy's shrill voice rose into the sky. He traversed the dark unseen, leaving the track of his song across the hush of the evening.
His village home lay there at the end of the waste land, beyond the sugar-cane field, hidden among the shadows of the banana and the slender areca palm, the cocoa-nut and the dark green jack-fruit trees.
I stopped for a moment in my lonely way under the starlight, and saw spread before me the darkened earth surrounding with her arms countless homes furnished with cradles and beds, mothers' hearts and evening lamps, and young lives glad with a gladness that knows nothing of its value for the world.
Or ‘leaving the track of his song across the hush of the evening’ You can hear the boy’s shout shatter the silent solitude of the stroll, stopping him in his tracks to see the ‘countless homes’ of the village ‘beyond the sugar-cane field’