Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book 97, Bangladesh: "Selected Short Stories" by Rabindranath Tagore

As you know, Tagore was an amazing poet: made the Europeans swoon with his Gitanjali. (Left me a bit ho-hum, to tell the truth: I am not a truly mystical soul.)

I'm here to report that he was also a master of the short story form. These pieces are some of the first literary short stories ever written in Bengali, composed while he was looking after his ancestral states in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in the 1890s, reflecting on the nature of Indian village life which he'd seldom encountered in Calcutta and Sussex. The intro says that he was only driven to write these 'cos the magazine editors wanted 'em - a lot of critics back then didn't like 'em, in fact; said they were unrealistic, overwrought.

The way I see it, they're wonderful admixtures of poetry, realism and fantasy - and, yes, fantasy: he has Poe-like horror pieces like The Hungry Stones and Skeleton; fables like Wishes Granted in which a fictional Goddess of Desires descends to make a boy and his father swap places. Even in the social realist pieces, there's that wonderful sense of destiny and fate and spirituality looming over everything - the heartbreaking reappearances of vanished sons in Little Master Returns, Wealth Surrendered, Son-sacrifice, and the curse averted in The Gift of Sight...

Oh and I should warn you that Tagore is prepared to do horrible things to his characters. No Dickensian jolly opportunities for reform here; instead the Catherine Lim-esque ironies bounce back on these folks and ruin the very purpose of their lives. This is the Kaliyuga, after all: the age of the fallen. But speaking of ages, it's incredible to think these are tales from two centuries ago: the concerns are identical to those of South Asia today: religious divides, caste, bride prices, oppression of women, a culturally denatured generation of middle-class intellectuals. It's only when they mention that they're riding horse carriages rather than Tata Nanos that you realise how ancient this is.

Interesting thing about my earlier concerns about whether this is a Bangladeshi text, since the characters aren't Muslim. There are indeed Muslims, but they're marginal, sometimes exotic figures - an ancient Mughal princess in False Hope, a murderous but kindly sweetmeat seller in Kabuliwallah, a secret mistress of a Brahmin land-owner in A Problem Solved

What makes this Bangladeshi for me is the call of the river Padma: the flooding waters that strand lovers on islands and swallow up firstborn sons. Floods are very Bangladeshi indeed.

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Representative Quote: from Guest.

 Early monsoon clouds formed in the sky. The village-river had been dried up for weeks; there was water only in holes here and there; small boats lay stuck in these pools of muddy water, and the dry river-bed was rutted with bullock-cart tracks. But now, like Parvati returning to her parents' home, gurgling waters returned to the empty arms of the village; naked children danced and shouted on the river-bank, jumped into the water with voracious joy as if trying to embrace the river; the villagers gazed at the river like a dear friend; a huge wave of life and delight rolled through the parched village. There were boats big and small with cargoes from far and wide; in the evening the ghat resounded with the songs of foreign boatmen. The villages along the river had spent the year confined to their own small worlds: now, with the rains, the vast outside world had come in its earth-coloured watery chariot, carrying wondrous gifts to the villages, as if on a visit to its daughters. Rustic smallness was temporarily subsumed by pride of contact with the world; everything became more active; the bustle of distant cities came to this sleepy region, and the whole sky sang.

  Next book: Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa.

1 comment:

A_N_Nanda said...

I've read Tagore's stories and they're undoubtedly heart-rending. Anyway, I myself had written a story, "Two Visitors" which I published in my book. Reading that people say that it has the same pathos as felt in Tagore's "Little Master Returns". I don't think so. You might have a different idea.
A N Nanda