Monday, 30th October 2017

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The poet's legacy

India and the world could turn to Rabindranath in these bleak times

By Samantak Das
  • Published 9.08.17
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Rabindranath Tagore in Japan, 1916

Rabindranath Tagore died, aged eighty, on August 7, 1941, Baishey Srabon, the 22nd day of the Bengali month of Shravana. This year, Baishey Srabon was yesterday, observed with due solemnity across West Bengal, Bangladesh, and beyond, but not too many seem to have commented on the fact that gurudev's death was followed almost exactly four years later by the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the former destroyed on August 6, 1945, the latter three days later, on the 9th - so far the only two times nuclear weapons have been used in war.

While debates will continue until the end of time (or nuclear annihilation, whichever comes first) about the necessity or otherwise of having dropped the atom bombs on Japan, and whether or not they were anything more than exercises to demonstrate that the monstrously expensive Manhattan Project had, in fact, borne viable fruit, there cannot be any debate about the fact that the Second World War had horrified Rabindranath, who saw in it the manifestation of an evil he had seen and denounced decades ago.

In his last, magnificent, public address, delivered on April 14, 1941, less than four months before his death, Rabindranath had condemned the ongoing World War thus, "In the meanwhile the demon of barbarity has given up all pretence and has emerged with unconcealed fangs, ready to tear up humanity in an orgy of devastation. From one end of the world to the other the poisonous fumes of hatred darken the atmosphere." ("Crisis in Civilization", 1941.)

Perhaps the most important thing one can learn from Rabindranath is the absolutely vital need to always, always, question oneself. Throughout his life, Rabindranath questioned whatever he put his heart, mind or hand to - whether it was a mode of versification or a belief in an almighty divine power. He was never satisfied with what he had achieved, never asserted that this or that thing was the final word, the eternal, unchanging truth. And so it was with his attitude to the nation and what people did in its name.

He had started out in his early(ish) years, quite enthusiastic about the nation and all that it signified. In two essays, " Nation Ki?" ("What is a Nation?") and "Bharatbarshiya Samaj" ("Indian Society"), both published in 1901, when he was about 40 years of age, Rabindranath described the nation as an ideal towards which it was worth striving, where the selfish interest of the individual gives way to the larger welfare of the nation as a whole. "A nation," he had said in the first essay, "is a vital spirit, a living entity." And in the second, he had written approvingly, "Everyone in a nation sacrifices his interest to protect the national interest."

Perhaps it was the proposed partition of Bengal in 1905 (which he resisted through the brilliant stratagem of turning Raksha Bandhan into a symbol of interfaith solidarity and mutual respect), and the consequent efflorescence of swadeshi, that made Rabindranath rethink his stance. In his essay " Sadupay" ("The Right Means", 1908), he denounces the way in which the educated, elite leaders of the swadeshi movement forced "brotherhood" down the throats of the unwilling, resentful subalterns in their desire to enforce the boycott of British-made goods. Giving the example of poor Muslims (and low-caste Hindu) peasants who had reverted to using English salt and cloth, even when such goods were more expensive than their indigenously-made counterparts, Rabindranath goes on to lay the blame for such actions squarely at the door of the swadeshi leaders who had never even bothered with such subalterns before they decided to co-opt them into their anti-imperial movement, if necessary through the use of force.

The "impatience" and "anger" of the elites which led them to use force and fear to get the poor peasants to do their will are castigated in no uncertain terms by Rabindranath. "Our misfortune is this," he wrote, "that we want freedom, but we do not really trust freedom from our hearts. We do not have the patience to respect others' opinions; we use threats to mould their intellects to our will."(" Sadupay", 1908.) This is a prefiguration of his later denunciation of "the terrible absurdity of the thing called the Nation", as he put it in perhaps his most political and controversial work, Nationalism, which brings together lectures delivered in the United States of America and Japan in 1916, right in the midst of what would later be christened World War I.

Rabindranath was attacked mercilessly in both Japan and the US for what he had to say about nationalism, he was not spared even in his own country, where a new nationalism was in the ascendant. What amazes me about Nationalism is not just what he said but also how he said it, when he said it and where he said what he did. For a 55-year-old international celebrity, the first non-White to have won the Nobel Prize a mere three years earlier, feted by the good and the great across the world and inarguably the best-known Indian of the time (Gandhiji's fame will come later), such statements were nothing short of committing career suicide. Yet he did not hesitate to take on the enemy, as it were, in his own lair, to denounce nationalism in two nations that were living exemplars of the concept. That took a courage few have ever possessed. Some eight years later, Rabindranath would return to Japan and say, "Whenever the spirit of the Nation has come it has destroyed sympathy and beauty, and driven out the generous obligations of human relationship from the hearts of men." ("International Relations", 1924.) This time, he was given a more patient hearing.

A few days ago, a friend wrote to me, asking, "Would any of the stalwarts of the past century been happy with not only the direction of India but the entire world?...Could Tagore have maintained his optimism, in the age of Terror and Trump?"- which made me think of what we seem to be turning into: narrow, petty, quick to take offence and denounce, and seemingly lacking any desire to understand those who are not like the majoritarian "us". On Hiroshima Day, someone else posted a photograph of a mushroom cloud with a caption suggesting that this is what India should do to Pakistan: is this the direction we want India to move towards? A day after his 76th death anniversary, Rabindranath still offers us hope, not just through the immortal words in his last public lecture - "And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man"- but also through the unfashionable, unselfish, unafraid self-questioning and courage in the face of all odds that he exercised all his life.

As the "demons of barbarity" re-emerge on the national and international stages, this should give us hope, and perhaps more importantly, the strength, to confront them.

The author is professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, and has been working as a volunteer for a rural development NGO for the last 30 years