Book review / India's great soul

RABINDRANATH TAGORE: An Anthology Picador pounds 20 SELECTED LETTERS OF RABINDRANATH TAGORE Cambridge pounds 60 both edited by Krishna Dutta, Andrew Robinson
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The Independent Culture
Long before Salman Rushdie, Ravi Shankar, or even Jiddu Krishnamurti, Rabindranath Tagore was the original gold-standard Indian celebrity, the first of his countrymen to find himself caught in the treacherously munificent 15-minute crossfire of international flashbulbs. Kerfuffle invariably accompanied his peripatetic life - which loped several times across Europe, the Americas, Japan and China - yet he managed to affect an enviable physical poise. In every photograph, he appears an almost parodic image of eastern serenity, "an ancient oriental wizard" as his fellow Nobel Prize winner Yasanuri Kawabata described him. The reputation itself, though, was always mercurial, rising and falling to the fevers of others. Reputation was indeed Tagore's great curse, as he himself recognised: awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913, he complained that it was "almost as bad as tying a tin can at a dog's tail". Yet the fine ambivalence of that "almost" tells; for Tagore himself actively, even obsessively, plumped up his fame.

The editors of these two collections have worked hard to restore that reputation. Two years ago they published a biography of Tagore - good on the intrinsically fascinating life itself, it rather skirted the issue of his standing as a writer. These two new books, each aimed at very different readerships - one popular, the other more academic - do help with this question. For those unfamiliar with Tagore's creative range, An Anthology trails drama, memoirs and travel writings, paintings, essays, short stories, poems, songs, and extracts from his great novel, The Home and the World. Those who do know his work will find the Selected Letters a weighty and serious aid in reassessing Tagore.

At different times and places, translated fragments from the Bengali of Tagore's extravagant gifts have impassioned and infuriated people. Ludwig Wittgenstein would wind up the circle of earnest Teutonic positivists that gathered round on Monday evenings in 1920s Vienna to admire his rationalist mind by turning his back on them, and reading aloud from volumes of Tagore's poetry (I imagine clenched empiricist teeth, as they felt Bertrand Russell's verdict on Tagore - "The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not, in fact, mean anything at all" - burn itself into their brains.) The Indian state sanctifies him as the National Poet: composer of the national anthem, first expounder of the much abused creed of India's "unity in diversity". To others abroad, Tagore is a mystic sage, and copies of Gitanjali are shelved next to Khalil Gibran's The Prophet. Perhaps most famous of all was Tagore's fate as a buoy in the turbulent sea of W B Yeats's enthusiasms. It is only the Bengalis who have all of him to enjoy and argue over.

Tagore's life, like his writing, has a deceptively translucent quality. In fact, he was a product of a historical moment when divergent cultural worlds - themselves internally unsettled - were freely colliding, with spectacular new effects. He was constantly slipping between traditions, wrapping himself in cultural borrowings. He came from one of the most remarkable and prestigious families of colonial Bengal: owners of vast zamindari estates in East Bengal, as well as cavernous marble mansions in Calcutta, the capital of India in the 19th century. His grandfather, Dwarkanath, was a hyperactive businessman and philanthropist; the "Oriental Croesus" as Dickens once described him after they had dined together, a man who called on Sir Robert Peel while visiting London and sat beside Queen Victoria to review her troops. Tagore's father, Debendranath, inherited this energy; he broke away from caste Hindu society, and became champion of a rationalist social and religious reform movement, the Brahmo Samaj.

Into this aristocratic, culturally promiscuous but also classically formal world, positioned on the cusp of Bengali and English society, Rabindranath was born in 1861. This milieu implanted in him an unshakeable civilisational self-confidence, which exudes from even his earliest letters, written while in England at the age of 17. Here, he turns an Olympian scorn on the anglicised Bengalis, or ingabangas as he called them: "If you happen to use the wrong knife to eat fish, an Englishman would not think much of it; he would put it down to your being a foreigner. But if an ingabanga Bengali saw you, he would probably have to take smelling salts." Later too, these wretched fellows do not escape his wit. "The Raj Seal", a short story included in the Anthology, is a wicked portrayal of devout toadyism to the Raj ("Nabendu Sekhar's head was bobbing up and down tirelessly at the doorsteps of the British, like a pumpkin carried by a swiftly flowing river").

Tagore was never in awe of the British, or the West. Equally, he never resorted to self-protective inwardness, to polishing a stony and culturally exclusive "Indianness". On the contrary, he had a fascination for cultural differences, as well as an ability to gather and make new the cultural debris that he inherited, and that he himself happily accumulated. And he did this always in bravely unconventional ways. His educational experiment at Shantiniketan - which inspired Leonard Elmhirst, and led to the foundation of the school at Dartington Hall - is just one example. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Tagore devised a toolkit with which to fashion a modern Indian self. But while Nehru and Gandhi in different ways used politics, Tagore's means was language. In the creation of Indian nationalism, Tagore's writings are not a poetic side-show; they are central to the making of a larger collective self, an "Indian nation". Just as the idea of an Indian nation required the choice of a collective past, the invention of a common history, so too, as Tagore saw, each individual member of this new nation had to possess his or her own private history - with its own record of choices, actions and personal responsibility.

Many of Tagore's writings revolve around such choices: individuals, often women, forced to decide between hugging the shore of a traditional caste society or giving in to the swell of individual desire. The careers that the British Raj introduced, while restricted, none the less gave some Indians the possibility of living by a modern calculus of choice. But there was no Indian language in which to speak of such a life. Indian literary tradition gave importance to a particular life only if it had an exemplary character; otherwise it was unworthy of literary notice. This inclination towards the representative was used to advantage by Gandhi, who ingeniously turned his individual eccentricity into a series of parables, a story that recounted an exemplary life. But for Tagore, as for Nehru, an individual life - like that of the nation - was an open horizon of possibility and creation, something shaped by worldly choices, not supernatural interventions or caste destiny. Hence Tagore's outraged reaction, expressed in letters to Gandhi, at the helplessness of the latter's description of the Bihar earthquake of 1934 as "divine chastisement sent by God for our sins".

In the Bengali literature, but also in Indian writing more generally, there is certainly a before and after Tagore. By breaking conventions of formal expression and subject-matter, Tagore gave literary expression to the ordinary and everyday. He found a way to write sentences like "In a tin-roofed hut half lit by an oily lantern Ishan Chandra sat bare-chested on a stool, bent over a huge leather-bound account book resting on a small desk", and to convey emotion in shockingly raw ways: "Nabendu's heart sank and began palpitating distractedly like a fragment of tail chopped off a house lizard." Writing in 1921 to his friend Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the polymath physicist who after Indian independence helped to devise Nehru's economic plans, Tagore noted that "I was the first to introduce the land of Bengal to Bengalis as a subject fit for literature." But the result was not simply a mimic European realism with characters possessed of ersatz Western selves. Tagore's wide cultural net ensured that he found something strange and new that playfully joined different Indian traditions, high and low: the Upanishads, Buddhism, the folk traditions of the Bauls. He rewrote India's religious philosophies in an aesthetic register - an immensely enabling move that opened the way for Nehru's conception of a strong Indian selfhood, but one not based exclusively on any one of the subcontinent's many religious and cultural traditions.

The private letter was an arena in which a singular self could be regularly rehearsed and staged. The fact that Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru were all such prolific letter-writers has a deeper explanation than the mere fact that they were often not in the same place as their interlocutors. Amidst the cackling daily sociability of Indian family and domestic life, the letter served at once as a barrier against and a point of contact with friends, relations, the world; a refuge where a continuous self could be maintained, free from the buffeting demands of social and domestic conformity. In so many of his letters, one senses Tagore's reticence over direct physical experience and contacts, a diffidence about being there - whether "there" is Calcutta to be beside his gravely ill daughter, Shantiniketan to receive Gandhi, or travelling once again to see Victoria Ocampo, the striking Argentinian with whom he shared, for a few brief months in 1924, a powerful attachment. It is as if he could only deal with love, death, confrontation, through their memory, not in real time. The letter became a paper cocoon, where deep feelings and thoughts were arranged and given individual stamp. As with all Indians, the family was a vital source for Tagore's imagination; but amidst its distractions and sometimes stifling presence, he successfully created a rare, still centre. As he wrote to William Rothenstein - who, along with Elmhirst and Charles Freer Andrews were the three Englishmen he came to know most intimately - "We in India ... live secluded among a crowd of relations."

Today, Tagore's international literary reputation is at a nadir. But the view from Bengal is very different. Many there would endorse the critic Buddhadeva Bose's claim that "He has done all, all that can be done with the written word." This is not quite true, yet the Anthology carries a sense of what underlies Bose's hyperbole. Tagore's emotional range was restricted, but he possessed a very wide register of tone - perhaps wider than that of any other modern Indian writer, and certainly wider than that of many Indians who write in English today. The Selected Letters contains around 350 examples, some translated from Bengali, some written in English, and it is an indispensable trove for anyone interested in modern India's intellectual and cultural history, beautifully produced and packed with helpful editorial matter - although sometimes the current enthusiasms of the editors seem to get the better of their scholarship.

In June 1940, on the night before Paris fell to the Germans and a little more than a year before Tagore's death, French radio broadcast Tagore's play, The Post Office (Dak Ghar) in a translation by Andre Gide. Somehow Tagore, in a hill station in the shadow of Kanchenchunga, heard the broadcast on a receiver. He will have heard in a strange language the play he wrote in 1911, after the deaths of his youngest son, his daughter and his wife. The Post Office tells the story of Amal, a young boy struck by illness and facing death. From his bedside window he watches the bustle outside a new building - the post office. He becomes convinced that he will receive a letter from the Raja, and he waits, dreaming of building up a collection of letters to read when he grows up. Finally, believing the letter has come, he dies, free in spirit.

8 Sunil Khilnani is the author of 'The Idea of India' (Hamish Hamilton).