Humble life and small miseries | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 17, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 17, 2011

Humble life and small miseries

Naba Bikram Kishore Tripura reflects on Tagore's endless relevance

Mohammad A Quayum, a Bangladeshi, teaches English at the International Islamic University Malaysia and has taught at universities in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States and has published 21 books and numerous research articles. He found his niche in the literary scene of South-East Asia through his works.
Quayum's translation of nineteen of Tagore's selected short stories with a biographical essay on Rabindranath and an insightful introduction is a timely publication when all over the world people are commemorating the 150th year of Tagore's birth. Professor Quayum's book is a welcome addition to his oeuvre and rich legacy. Tagore's collection of translated short stories will lift the readers, I believe, to the ecstasies of literary delight.
Tagore was the first Asian and non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature which was awarded primarily for his book 'Gitanjali', a collection of poetry. Besides poetry he wrote plays, novels, songs, non-fiction ranging from travelogues to history to essays and, of course, short stories. There were few precedents in the genre in Bengali when Tagore began to write short stories in the late 1800s. He had to invent language for the form as he composed. He liberated Bengali literature from the shackles of traditional rules and models based on ancient Sanskrit literature.
Tagore was greatly influenced by his contact with the "humble life and their small miseries" of the village folk he was in contact with while living in relative isolation managing his family estate in Bengal. He concentrated on creating a new form, the short story. Many of his best stories were written during this period having a distinctive poetic lilt, poignantly capturing the elements of rural Bengal, rightly acclaimed as vivid portraits of Bengal's life and landscapes, set in the milieu of the time --- the Bengali speaking region of India during the British colonial era. But the British are mentioned only peripherally; the stories are about the natives. An important point to note is that Tagore's talent is great enough to get western readers into the minds of the characters so that they become familiar to readers, though the customs and beliefs are very different from those of the West.
Tagore is not only a master storyteller, but also an artist and a poet. So in his short stories, apart from believable characters, there are wonderful descriptions of the Bengal countryside, storm and sunshine, floods and droughts, rivers and plains, trees and flowers, as well as the scents and sounds and the feel of quiet villages. The characters of the stories are highlighted by their uniqueness and yet so typical of the period, region, culture and customs, all portrayed brilliantly.
Tagore wrote almost 100 short stories and elevated this serious art form in Bengali literature to a lofty height. He easily intermingled stark realism and poetic idealism, portrayed conflicts or tensions between the new and the old, cruelty and sensitivity, solitude and crowd, male and female in his short stories. At a time when the market and the ideology of consumerism are propagating an ethic based on individual needs, Tagore's short stories, permeated with values based on care, attachment and empathy, strike a deep chord, precisely because this value orientation is fast eroding all over the globalized world. His stories represent a multiplicity of voices; have a timeless ethical relevance in terms of their commitment to social and cultural plurality. Moving representations of the subjectivity of variously marginalized persons signify Tagore's attachment to the cause of social justice that is equated with his love for God, whom he regarded as the profundity of life personified. That is why he is still relevant today.
The scholarly introduction by Professor Quayum provides an excellent overview, background and the context of the stories. The notes at the end of each story provide a key to an understanding of Bengali culture and customs. The most difficult part in any translation is to convey the delicate beauty of the original. Many of Tagore's creations were obscured and partly forgotten for so long mainly due to inadequate translations of his writings. But luckily the short stories have been translated into English for more than a century now. Translation activity in this sphere continues as the ideas and feelings in Tagore's short stories are perennially relevant to a humanitarian society where universal themes transcend regional and cultural barriers.
It is indeed a matter of great pleasure to come across such a high quality of translation as done by Professor Quayum for which he deserves to be congratulated. In any translation it is very difficult to keep intact the sense of each context. Quayum's translation is as close as one can get: clear, contemporary and accessible to a modern English-reading global audience. It is not handicapped by the ignorance of the translator of certain delicate nuances of the Bengali language, especially in the context of intimate household expressions. There is commendable fidelity and honesty in Quayum's translation. It once again opens up the possibility of discovering a relevance of Tagore's creations more than a century after they were composed. The appreciation does not end with reading but endures in the reader's perceptions from then on.
As an example of quality translation, I cannot desist quoting from 'Postmaster': "When he got into the boat and it started moving out of the dock, the rain-inundated river appeared surging like the earth's eyes suffused with tears, and he began to feel anguish in his heart --- the melancholic face of an ordinary village girl seemed to tell the story of an inexplicable tribulation of the entire world. A passionate thought crossed his mind, 'Let me go back and bring that forlorn girl with me.' But the sail had set; the monsoon currents in the river were flowing rapidly. Crossing the village they were already in sight of the crematorium ground, and a notion dawned in the mind of the listless traveler drifting on the stream --- separation and death were a recurrent fact of life. What is the point of going back? Aren't we all solitary on this earth?”
Without hesitation I recommend Professor's Quayum's "Rabindranath Tagore; Selected Short Stories" as an authoritative and readable translation, an essential Tagore for collectors. It should find a place on every discerning reader's shelf.

Naba Bikram Kishore Tripura studied English literature at Dhaka University and is secretary to the government of Bangladesh

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