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Since 1st March, 1999
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- Tagore and the 'boom and bust' cycle

Part of the immediate legacy bestowed on Tagore by his father Debendranath was that of the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist sect within Hinduism founded by Rammohun Roy. The sect developed a curious but compelling mixture of Protestant high-mindedness and Hindu metaphysics; its prayers and meetings were conducted in a 'church'; its central text was the Upanishads. In rejecting the idolatrous practices and the deities of ordinary Hinduism and replacing them with the niraakar (formless) One of the Upanishads, Brahmoism supplied Tagore not so much with a religion ' he was never entirely convinced by, or interested in, its claims to being one ' as an aesthetic. It was an aesthetic that corresponds closely with the Flaubertian dictum that would define a substantial part of the modernist enterprise: 'The author, like God in the universe, is everywhere present but nowhere visible in his works.' This is a notion of god, and his relationship to creation, that goes to the heart of Brahmoism's vision of the world. Indeed, you have to wonder if Flaubert had been reading Anquetil-Duperron, and had aestheticized an Upanishadic idea. Certainly, Tagore did perform that aestheticization in his own work, introducing to Bengali literature a new sort of self-reflexivity as he did so; seldom referring to god in his writings, but speaking of the 'kabi' or 'poet' while referring to both author and divinity, and punning on the word 'rachana', or 'composition', to mean both text and creation.

Tagore's education was an unusual one. Admitted to the Normal School at a 'tender age', he was deeply unhappy there, and was mainly educated at home by tutors. His least favourite lesson was English, and he pokes fun at the language in Jiban Smriti, his memoirs: 'Providence, out of pity of mankind, has instilled a soporific charm into all tedious things. No sooner did our English lessons begin than our heads began to nod.' Later, in 1878, when his first book of songs appeared, he would go to England to study law, attend lectures for a few months at University College London, travel through the country and observe English culture (his remarks on Western music are particularly interesting) with a mixture of empathy and resistance, and finally return to Calcutta in 1880, without a degree. Tagore, like Kipling, his younger contemporary, was secretly traumatized by what Foucault called the 'disciplinarian' society: the cluster of institutions comprising schools, universities, hospitals, prisons. The trauma, strangely, ended up making Kipling an official spokesman for the disciplinarian society; but Tagore always remained ill-at-ease in it. Not just his opposition to imperial England, but his suspicion of nationalism and the nation-state seem to derive from it; as does his fanciful experiment in a more open and relaxed form of learning in a place he wistfully chose to name 'Shantiniketan'. From childhood onward, Tagore had been looking out of windows and partitions; the word 'khancha', or 'cage', recurs in the songs and poems, as do the possibilities and avenues of egress that victims of a disciplinarian society fantasize about ' 'batayan' or window; 'kholo dwar', the exhortation to open doors; the famous speculation at the end of a poem about the flight of wild geese, 'hethha noi, hethha noi, onno kotha, onno kotha, onno konkhane!', 'not here, not here, but elsewhere'.

When Tagore published his first book of songs at the age of 16, he was praised by the foremost writer of the time, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. But his relationship with Bengali literary culture was by no means easy. Although he was probably Bengal's foremost poet by the end of the 19th century, he had several vociferous detractors (among them contemporaries like the poet D.L. Roy), whose comments on his work ranged from the snidely witty to the piously outraged. Even after the Nobel, which he got in 1913, the passages in which Tagore had begun to write a new colloquial Bengali prose were included by Calcutta University in the MA paper in Bengali as specimens to be rendered by examinees into 'chaste Bengali'. The Nobel itself was the climax of a series of meetings and accidents. On board a ship to England in 1912, Tagore had completed his translations of the metrically strict but delicately agile Bengali songs of his Gitanjali into loose English prose-poems with a hint of Biblical sonority: 'The pages of a small exercise-book came gradually to be filled, and with it in my pocket I boarded the ship.' Once in London, Tagore lost the attach' case in which he was carrying the manuscripts on the Underground, but rediscovered it in the Left Luggage Office: a tribute to British civic sense, and possibly a reminder that the case contained nothing that would be of use to anyone. He gave the translations to the painter William Rothenstein, a friend of his nephew Abanindranath's, who had met Tagore in the winter of 1910-11 in the house in Jorasanko, Calcutta. Rothenstein had then been intrigued by both Tagore's presence and his silence during conversations; not knowing of his reputation as a writer, his curiosity grew when he happened to read a story by Tagore in Calcutta's Modern Review. Rothenstein was astonished and immensely moved by the translations in the Gitanjali (the English Gitanjali doesn't quite correspond to its Bengali counterpart, but also contains a selection from two other books of songs); he showed them to Yeats. The Irish poet seems to have responded to them as business executives are reported to respond to Paul Coelho: 'I have carried the manuscripts of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me.'

Why Tagore translated the songs into a language he'd once found so tedious, and which he used with a degree of insecurity ('That I cannot write English is such a patent fact that I never had even the vanity to feel ashamed of it,' he confessed to his niece Indira), is mysterious. Also mysterious is how they excited and even instructed, albeit for a relatively short while, the most exacting figures of literary London, Ezra Pound included. The English Gitanjali is a shadowy approximation of the marvellous original; if it continues to be of interest, it's for cultural and even psychological, not literary, reasons ' and the same is true, as it happens, of the 'Orient'. The writers who'd once promoted Tagore went off him not long after he got the Nobel in 1913; in 1917, Pound wrote in a letter: 'Tagore got the Nobel Prize because, after the cleverest boom of our times, after the fiat of the omnipotent literati of distinction, he lapsed into religion and was boomed by the pious non-conformists.' The word 'boom' is striking; the economist Amartya Sen, in his recent book The Argumentative Indian, seems to pick up that word and both recall and refute Pound when, speaking of Tagore's reputation, he places it within the logic of capital and the free market by saying it was a victim of the 'boom and bust' cycle that most Oriental enthusiasms constitute in the West. Tagore's star waned irrevocably in the Occident; or at least the Oriental Tagore's did ' the humanist Tagore's star had never appeared in that firmament.

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