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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Two elephants, Beethoven and a young poet

The side on which I have tied my boat is very desolate ' no village, no dwellings, only ploughed land stretching endlessly; along the riverbank there are some patches of dry grass, which are being torn out by a few buffaloes as they graze about. And we have two elephants that also come here to graze. Watching them is quite a bit of fun. Lifting a leg, they give a few light kicks at the base of the grass; then, with just a tug of their trunks, large clumps of grass come out together with the earth. They keep swinging these clumps about with their trunks and shaking them, so that the earth falls out in showers, and then they put them in their mouths and eat them up. Sometimes, on a whim, they take some dust into their trunks and blow it out in a gust on their own backs and bellies and everywhere else ' such is the elephant's toilette. Huge body, immense strength, graceless bulk, and exceedingly harmless ' I quite like looking at this huge creature. As if it were precisely for his hugeness and ugliness that a special kind of affection is aroused ' from the awkwardness in his entire person, I think he is like an enormous baby [' one is moved to a little more compassion for these animals than for the cat, dog and horse.] Besides, the creature is ever so open-hearted by nature, like Shib Bhola- nath ' when he goes wild he goes really wild, when he cools down there is profound calm. [I was even thinking, at times, that these tenderness-bedewed feelings of mine for the elephant are perhaps a lot like what women feel towards the race of men.] A certain lack of grace that comes with being big does not make one inwardly turn away from it, rather it draws one to itself. That picture of Beethoven in my room ' compared with many pretty faces, it might not be thought worth looking at, but when I turn my gaze towards him, he compels me to go with him ' inside that dishevelled head, how immense a soundless universe of sound! And what an immeasurable pain, like a storm shut in, whirled around inside that man. [When I look at B__, too, something like that revering pity is awakened ' in every instance of his slovenly abstractedness, an unquiet, unfinished genius, full of suffering, is revealed. All men are not Beethoven or B__, or it is not even that women love Beethoven and B__ ' but I can see in both a great beauty. Usually, men's strength is mixed with an awkward helplessness, and their intelligence with a great deal of imbecility, and this is why they arouse in women just a small measure of respect, with a large measure of mother-love. I feel that women cannot manage to awaken as much mother-love as men can. Anyway, much of all this talk is conjecture ' from whatever little hint I get from the womanly part of my own nature.]'


It was actually a Monday. But being on the river in early spring for several days does something to the human sense of time. Writing to his niece, Indira Debi, on a day in Phalgun, Rabin- dranath does not stop to think before putting down the wrong day. He does this quite often in the Chhinnapatrabali letters. And a sense of infinite leisure ' which these letters celebrate as well as ironize ' must have made those days on the boat feel quite out of time. But never entirely so. For the river itself, with its endless flow and with the myriad forms of human and animal life along its banks, becomes a living symbol of the passing of time. It runs alongside that other living flow, the poet's consciousness: the drift of his mind, his empathy, his memory, his gaze, his reading, his prose and his verse. There was also his work on the family estates ' the tenants, farmers, villagers and boatmen. It was that jamidari, after all, which gave him the excuse to be away for days. His father was still alive; his fourth child, Meera, was born just a little more than a month ago. And around this burgeoning yet death-haunted, aristocratic, feudal-modern home, there was always the nation, a fin-de-si'cle Empire, and the world.

Rabindranath was going to be 33 when he wrote this letter to Indira, then an accomplished and sophisticated 21-year-old. Her 'simple love of truth' made her the ideal recipient of his letters in which were some of the writer's most candid and profound moments of self-revelation. Bankimchandra was in his deathbed in February, 1894, and Rabindranath already well into his early fame as a poet, dramatist, essayist, novelist and writer of short stories. This fame and his own sense of vocation as a writer, together with the demands of domesticity perhaps, were placing before him an increasingly difficult imperative ' the need for solitude and time. A deeply private inner space had to be created and watched over for the 'work' of inwardness, in which even indolence, at its most delicious, becomes a kind of diligence. Yet this inwardness could never afford to lose its critical connection with the world, its vital, restless, brilliantly playful and tangential empathy with everything that is not itself. Moreover, this is a private self that is already keenly aware of its public destiny, of the imminent unfurling of its genius within a republic of letters. This waiting, and lingering, in the wings of greatness is the stuff of these letters to Indira Debi.

Written between 1887-95, most of them were copied out by Indira into two bound volumes, leaving out the more personal and domestic bits. She then presented these volumes to Rabindranath, who used a few of them, duly worked over, for some of his early autobiographical non-fiction. Then, around 1911, he started preparing a selection from Indira's volumes ' this time, worked over more extensively ' as a companion volume to Jibansmriti. This selection became Chhinnapatra, published in 1912, leather-bound and with Nandalal Bose's drawing, on the title-page, of a lotus that has only one of its petals left. This was just after the public celebration of his 50th birthday at the Town Hall in Calcutta ' Tagore had definitely come out of the wings. Gitanjali had been published, and his lecture-tours to England and America would follow soon after. Then the Nobel in 1913.

Almost five decades later, Kanai Samanta went back to Indira's volumes and re-edited her selection, adding more than a hundred to the Chinnapatra letters, and giving fuller versions of Tagore's extracts. Thus Chhinnapatra became Chhinnapatrabali in 1963, and the latter provides the text of my translation. I have put box-brackets around the sections left out by Rabindranath in 1912, and restored by Samanta in 1963. However, I have not been able to check either version against Indira Debi's text.

The forging of an inward and private self, and then going back, at a later stage, to a record of this process in order to construct a self-consciously public image ' this story informs the textual history of Tagore's letters to Indira, its many editorial layers. This is as much a question of the author's self-fashioning as one of posth- umous myth-making. What is allowed to remain and what is edited out, what left behind and what returned to, are part of the transformation of a private man into a great writer, and then into an icon. In this, the writer himself and his subsequent keepers collaborate, with shar- ed as well as conflicting intentions.

I chose this letter for translation because of its extraordinary movements and expanse of sympathy and reflection. What Rabindranath left out when preparing it for Chhinnapatra is also fascinating, and this is true for many of the other letters. (Did Indira leave anything out while copying it') Its drift from elephants to Bholanath to women to men to Beethoven to B__ (who is he') to his own elusive androgyny, from the grotesque to the comic to the tragic ' by means of apparently arbitrary, but delicately controlled, associations ' makes it a close kin to some of Keats's letters and verse-epistles. And it pulls in so many diverse directions, towards a range of sensibilities that is perhaps irrecoverable today in this particular combination. It is difficult to convey in English the depths and paradoxes in Tagore's description of Beethoven's musical universe ' 'shabdaheen shabdajagat' ' because shabda is both 'sound' and 'word'. He is referring not only to Beethoven's deafness, but also to the relationship between language and music, writer and composer. The soundless universe of sound is also a wordless world of words.

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