This ninth of May marks Rabindranath Tagore’s 162nd birthday. It seems a fit occasion to turn to his writings. But which writings? His Bengali works fill 18 large volumes in one edition and 33 in another; the English works, four huge tomes. At least two-thirds is in prose, a good part concerning history, society and politics. These mundane themes are prominent in his poetry as well.
Tagore has two volumes called Gitanjali, in Bengali and English. Their contents overlap only in part. The English volume chiefly contains simple spiritual poems. The Bengali collection is much more varied and robust. One famous poem unfolds Tagore’s vision of Indian history, where wave after wave of people enter the land to settle and mingle: “Come, Aryan and non-Aryan,/ Hindu and Musulman.” Another poem berates the empowered for their immemorial oppression of the downtrodden, and warns of retribution: “You will join them all in their degradation.”
These are two from a large store of such poems. We read them, recite them, yet somehow manage to confine the poet to our comfort zone, to the pieties of textbook morality and ornamental culture. Politicians, artists, teachers, preachers — Tagore is grist to all their mills, grotesquely diluting his true universality. If we gave him his head, he would break all our moulds and confront us with the unrelenting truth of our lives.
This is even truer of his prose works. A week before his anniversary, I re-read his 1917 essay “Chhoto o Baro” (“The Small and the Great”). It spans just twenty pages, less than a thousandth part of his output. With frightening prescience, it strikes at the heart of the Indian condition 106 years later. Every time I read it, I am left shaken.
The essay is an eloquent argument for Home Rule for India — an idea then starting to register on the British. The historical context is obviously outdated. Tagore makes a distinction between ‘great’ and ‘small’ Englishmen that we may discount. What we cannot dismiss is his treatment of Indian society and its political ambience.
On the invasion of politics by religion, for instance: “If religion is no longer a matter of the heart but of scripture and external observance, it can cause greater unrest than anything else.” And on the resulting intolerance: “To slaughter animals ourselves in the name of religion, but to set about human slaughter if others do so in the name of theirs, can only be called tyrannous.” This is the prelude to a connected critique of society.
Tagore deplores the total reliance on government for every need: “The government alone now judges us, protects us, guards us, treats our illnesses; punishes us, honours us; determines in the courts what is Hindu and what is not.” For ‘government’ read politicians, read bureaucrats and magistrates; and with respect to treating illness, read the corporate owners to whom the government might delegate the task. Social life has concomitantly lost its productive functions: “The brahmin collects his dues but does not impart learning; the landlord extorts rent but gives nothing in exchange; the gentry exacts reverence from the common people but does not offer them refuge.” The details may have changed today, but not the self-absorbed alienation of the privileged professional classes.
The real argument follows. The state of governance draws protest and criticism from altruistic people who care for the country beyond their own particular needs. These patriotic and civic-minded citizens become the target of the rulers’ wrath. “The authorities are deeply suspicious of righteous conduct and beneficent enterprise,” writes Tagore. “Under the current secretive mode of governance, the selfish, treacherous, callous and indolent enjoy the securest existence, with advancement and rewards, [while] selfless service to others calls down gruelling interrogation.”
Still more deplorably, the protests are thereby driven underground. Tagore vehemently condemns terrorism. The path of extremism, he says, “is neither civilized nor legitimate nor open... I have emphatically told my own people that this path is utterly reprehensible.” But there follows a balancing contention: “I thus have the right to say as strongly that extremism is equally an offence in government policy. The lawful road is a paved road, so it sometimes takes a roundabout route.” This cannot justify “the extremism of tramping straight across” a nation’s heart.
Without the “filter of legal process,” says Tagore, there is no difference between “the goon’s cudgel and the rod of justice.” On the one hand, the rulers and their pliant media (Tagore mentions pro-British English newspapers) lay claim to ordered governance. Yet when consigning bands of youth to a “sunless realm,” the same people say “the Empire’s laws have admitted defeat; we had to import the lawlessness of gangster rule.” How did Tagore foresee today’s bulldozers and encounter killings?
Hence while utterly condemning terrorism, he defends the cause of rebellious idealistic youths: sometimes momentarily misled, sometimes entirely guiltless. Rightly handled, says Tagore, such youths would be the nation’s greatest assets. Instead, “to disable them for life... trampled down by the police” is “the cruellest waste of human lives.”
So to the last and most basic point. These iniquities are possible because such governance lacks human engagement. The administrators function like “artificial humans”. Nor do they view their subjects as full human beings, but “cut down to size for some specific function.” The coming of the computer has now compounded the problem. Today’s citizens can collect their dues, be treated for illness, even draw their rations only by matching a computer programme. With uncanny prescience, Tagore foresaw even this: the dehumanized mine workers in the play Raktakarabi (Red Oleanders) have no names, only alphanumeric codes.
Was the poet truly a prophet? We need not invoke the supernatural. He was simply a profound observer of humanity. Yet his insight was sadly imperfect. He ascribes all these ills to the fact that India is not independent, that its people do not guide their own destiny. Had he looked through the telescope of time to the seventy-sixth year of Independence, he might have felt a profounder despair.
Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University