To mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of India’s Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian Nobel Laureate, we have just published The Essential Tagore, the largest single volume of his work available in English. Tagore was as prolific and diverse a writer as the world has known, and this volume presents selections of his work across many genres, with new translations by Tagore scholars and others, including Amitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri. Below, HUP’s Sharmila Sen reflects on Tagore, and on “separation” as a foundational aspect of the modern Indian self.
When my parents and I first came to the United States we could only bring five suitcases with us. In the one suitcase allotted to me, I chose to bring the following: some dresses, my collection of miniature plastic animals, a red View-Master that my father had bought for me during a work trip to Bombay, an old atlas, and a few books in Bangla, my native language. Those are the only things I brought from my Indian childhood to my American life. Everything else was either sold or given away.
One of those Bangla books sits on my desk as I write this. It is a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems titled Shishu (literally, Child). The book, a paperback issued by Viswa Bharati University Press, is lovingly covered with brown paper. On the half-title page I see that the original owner’s name has been carefully erased, probably scraped with a razor blade, from the top right hand corner. At the bottom of the yellowed page is a dedication. Dated exactly two days before I left India for the first time, and addressing me by a name that few people recall these days, it says (I will transliterate here first):
Bidheshe giye amader edesher kobiguruke majhe majhe ei boita pore shoron korish.
The young girl who signed her name underneath these words used a name for herself she rarely uses these days. I have read this line numerous times over the years and still admire the penmanship, its elegance and self-assurance. I am struck by the maturity of the language, which came so easily from the pen of a young girl called Sujata. She and I, a few weeks apart in age, grew up together in Calcutta during the 1970s. In the West, we would be called cousins. But in India, we do not use that word. She is simply my sister. We cannot remember a time when we did not know each other.
When I left India, this was her parting gift to me. For precocious girls who grew up in a bookish family, a volume of poetry is an obvious gift. But Tagore is also a classic gift—almost a clichéd one—that any middle class Bengali girl would give. Indeed, the power of that gift lay not in its singularity, but in its ubiquity. This was my sister’s way of saying goodbye and asking me never to forget our shared language.
Decades later, Jill Breitbarth’s design makes this old Bangla book reappear on the jacket of The Essential Tagore, a ground-breaking new anthology edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty. As I look at Jill’s elegant design, I am reminded of another poem, one not included in Shishu. This poem is called “Jete Nahi Dibo” (“I Won’t Let You Go”) and it appears in a collection called Sonar Tari (literally, The Golden Boat). Here is an excerpt from Fakrul Alam’s crisp translation of the poem:
Someone trying to snatch from darkness
The flame of a dying lamp exclaims
A hundred times, “I won’t let you go!”
It’s the oldest cry resounding from earth to heaven
The solemnest lament, “I won’t let you go!”
And yet, alas, we have to let go; and yet,
Of course, we must go. And this is how it has been,
From time immemorial. Since creation’s currents
Began streaming relentlessly towards extinction’s sea
With burning eyes and outstretched arms
We’ve all been crying out in vain endlessly,
“Won’t let go, won’t let you go!”
Filling earth’s shores with laments
As everything ebbs inexorably away.
The waves up front cry out to the ones in the rear,
“Won’t let go, won’t let you go!”— But no one listens. . . .
Everywhere around me this day I hear
My daughter’s plaintive voice; it keeps ringing
In my ears and piercing the heart of the universe.
Earth resounds with a child’s unreasonable cry.
Forever it loses what it gets and yet it won’t
Slacken its grip; forever it calls us
With unending love like my four-year-old daughter:
“Won’t let you go!” Though sad-faced and in tears,
Its pride shattered at every step,
Love refuses to accept defeat and cries out
In desperation, “Won’t let you go!”
Defeated each time it blurts out,
“Can the one I love stay away?
Can anything in the universe compare
In strength or be as boundless as my desire?”
As I was re-reading Fakrul’s translation of this powerful poem and thinking about the pain of leaving and being left, Ananya Vajpeyi sent me the manuscript of her forthcoming book on the political foundations of modern India. Immediately, I turned to her chapter on Tagore. The entire chapter is an eloquent meditation on viraha (literally, separation), an important trope in classical Indian literature. For Tagore separation from one’s lover becomes separation from History itself. Ananya writes about Tagore’s invention of the modern Indian self against the backdrop of such perceived historical and philosophical rupture. Viraha, in Ananya’s formulation, is the modern Indian self’s longing—a constitutive aspect of the self.
Is the book I have held on to for all these years a sign of my longing during the season of viraha? I had thought the book was given to me by someone who wanted to hold on to me. But I had also held on to it as a way of not letting go of a past, a language, a part of the self. What I didn’t understand is that new pasts, new languages, new selves are being forged through this very longing even now.
What did Sujata write in the half-title page? Here is my rough translation:
When you are abroad, read this book from time to time and remember our country’s great poet.
I marvel at the unabashed anticipatory nostalgia in those girlish lines. All migrants are told not to forget by those they leave behind. All migrants are afraid they will be forgotten by those they have left. I won’t let you go—this is the cry of children, parents, lovers, nations, languages. Jete nahi dibo. I won’t let you go, say two sisters (one in Calcutta and another in Cambridge), two books (one published by Viswa Bharati University Press in 1976 and another published by Harvard University Press in 2011), two languages (Bangla and English) to each other across the distance of decades, within the bounds of a dust jacket.
(Photograph by Jill Breitbarth)