Mohammad A. Quayum :
It is universally acknowledged that Rabindranath's reputation as a writer lies primarily in his poetry. He was dubbed 'Gurudev' (Master Teacher), 'Kabiguru' (Master Poet), 'Bishwakabi' (World Poet) for his poetic achievements, and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for a collection of poetry, Gitanjali. Yet Tagore was also the founder of the short story form in Bengali literature. He wrote 95 short stories over a period starting in 1877, when Rabindranath was only 16 years old, till his death in 1941. He has been described as one of the best short story writers in the world, and often has been compared with the best of the European writers, Anton Chekov and Guy de Maupassant. E.J. Thompson, who translated some of Rabindranath's stories into English, once said that there was "no greater short story writer in the world's literature" (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 142) than Tagore. Similarly, comparing Rabindranath to Chekov and Maupassant, a noted Indian sociologist and writer, D.P. Mukherjee concluded, "The Russian classics have a candour of the soul, the French have a candour of the mind, and Tagore's have a candour of feeling. If we are ashamed of feeling, Tagore's stories are not for us. If we have no such obsession, they are among the best in the world." (Kripalani 153).
Interestingly, Tagore himself seemed to have been aware of this comparison with the European writers. In an article in Prabasi, published in May 1941, Tagore responded to a criticism on the poetic nature of his prose in the stories in the following words:
"You speak about my language, and say that even in my prose I am a poet. But if my language sometimes goes beyond what is appropriate in a story, you can't blame me for that, because I had to invent the Bengali prose myself. My language was not there; I had to create it gradually and in stages .... I had to create the prose of my stories as I went along. Foreign writers like Maupassant that you often speak of, inherited an already made language. If they had to create their language as they wrote, I wonder how they would have fared". (Galpaguccha 850-51)
The reference to Maupassant aside, Tagore is being unnecessarily defensive here about the quality of his prose. If there is a poetic flair, a kind of grandiloquence in the language of his narrative, it is' because his native genius was that of a poet, and unlike writers whose talent is confined to fiction mainly, figurative language came to him naturally.
Tagore's first short story, 'Bhikharini' (The Beggar Woman), came out, in 1877, but later he dismissed it, together with much of his early work, as 'vapour-filled bubbles' that 'frothed and eddied round a vortex of lazy fancy'. (Kripalani 68). He continued to write short stories at a slow pace and published four more stories before a radical change occurred in his personal life, when his father unexpectedly appointed him the manager of the family estates in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and Orissa in November 1889, forcing him thereby to experience the rural outback first-hand and the stark reality of common people living in villages. Son of a zamindar, Tagore had mostly lived a sheltered life before this; this sudden exposure to the sufferings of the poor, illiterate tenants on their family estates developed a new social and literary awareness in the young writer. In an interview in 1936, Tagore explained:
"I have different strata of my life, and all my writings can be divided into so many periods. All of us have different incarnations in this very life. We are born again and again in this very life. When we come out of one period, we are as if born again. So we have literary incarnations also". (Galpaguccha 853)
Taking up the zamindari and living all alone on the family boat at Shelidah (now in Kushtia, Bangladesh) or at the estate building at Shahjadpur (in Pabna, Bangladesh) for protracted periods, and then gradually settling to live there for about a decade, obviously resulted in one such literary incarnation for the writer. He now felt an urge to write short stories more seriously, albeit not compromising his interest in poetry and the other literary genres, such as drama and non-fictional prose. Tagore lived in Shelidah, which became the estates headquarters, for a little over ten years (1890-1901), and during this period-also known as the 'Shelidah period' or as Tagore later described to W.B. Yeats, the most 'productive' (Dutta and Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: A Myriad-Minded Man 111) period of his literary career - he wrote as many as fifty-nine short stories. It is perhaps because of this great flurry of output in the form that Rabindranath came to associate the beginning of his short story writing with this stage of his career. In answer to a question by Joytindralal Bandapadhyay, in 1909, for example, Tagore explained:
"At first I wrote poetry only - I didn't write stories. One day Father called me and said, 'I want you to take charge of the family estates.' I was surprised; I am a poet, I write poetry - what do I know about such matters? But he said, 'That won't do; I want you to take this responsibility.' I had no choice. Father's order, so I had to go. This duty brought opportunities for me to mingle with different kinds of people, and this is how I began writing stories". (Galpaguccha 848)
Likewise, in an interview in 1936, asked by his interviewer to explain 'the background of (his) short stories and how they originated,' Tagore reiterated:
"It was when I was quite young that I began to write short stories. Being a landlord I had to go to villages and thus I came in touch 'with the village people and their simple modes of life. I enjoyed the surrounding scenery and the beauty of rural Bengal ... I got glimpses into the life of the people, which appealed to me very much indeed .... My whole heart went out to the simple village people as I came into contact with them. They seemed to belong to quite another world so very different from that of Calcutta. My earlier stories have this background and they describe the contact of mine with the village people." (Galpaguccha 851)
Of course, not all the stories are set in the rural outback and not all of them are about the village people, although the vast majority of them are. 'Kabuliwala,' for example, is set in Kolkata. However, Rabindranath's exposure to life in the country, his direct contact with the soil of his land, the opportunity to see how the deprived and downtrodden masses of his homeland lived their simple, humdrum lives, without any opportunities to improve their lot whatsoever, brought new fuel to his creative energy. He had never liked Kolkata, finding it too mechanical, regimented and ghettoised. About the genesis of the city, he once sarcastically wrote:
"Calcutta is an upstart town with no depth of sentiment in her face and in her manners., it may truly be said about her genesis: In the beginning was the spirit of the shop, which uttered through its megaphone, 'Let there be Office!' and there was Calcutta. She brought with her no dower of distinction, no majesty of noble or romantic origin; she never gathered around her any great historical associations, any annals of brave sufferings, or memory of mighty deeds". (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 22)
Therefore, the beauty and simplicity of his new rustic surrounding moved and inspired him deeply, but at the same time he found the living conditions of the 'peasant folk - our royts - big, helpless children of Providence' (Kripalani 148), appalling and outrageous. It is to express this two fold sentiments of love for nature and the village life, on the one hand, and the necessity to redress the plights of the exploited villagers, on the other, that he turned to writing short stories and, as we'll see later, in a realistic and reformist vein.
In addition to this new development in the writer's personal life, his literary associations and opportunities also encouraged him to take up the short story form more passionately and steadily at this time.
In May 1891, Tagore was appointed the literary editor of a new weekly magazine, Hitabadi. Taking this opportunity, he wrote a new short story for the magazine every week and published six stories in as many weeks. Since copies of the magazine have not survived, it is not possible to tell exactly in which order the stories were published. However, the feedbacks from the readers as well as the editor were not positive, so he decided not to continue with the magazine. In the same year, the Tagore family introduced a new monthly magazine, Sadhana, of which he became the chief contributor and later, editor. The magazine lasted for four years, 1891-95, and this turned out to be the most productive years for his short stories. Inspired by this new opportunity, where he didn't have to worry about the views of the editor, he continued to churn out new stories almost every month, eventually publishing 36 stories within this limited time. Many of Rabindranath's best known stories, such as 'The Path to Salvation' (Muktir Upai), 'Sacrifice' (Tayag), 'Kabuliwala' (Kabuliwala), 'Subha' (Subha), 'Mahamaya' (Mahamaya), 'The Editor' (Sampadak) and 'Punishment' (Shasti), were published during this period.
However, tired of the unshared editorial responsibility, coupled with financial difficulties and attacks from literary opponents, Tagore was eventually forced to close down the magazine.
This brought a pause to his short story writing, until he began to write again for another family magazine, Bharati, of which he acted willy-nilly as editor from May 1898 to April 1899. It is believed that the renowned scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, who became a close friend of Rabindranath after their first meeting in 1897, also had a particular role in Tagore's composition of short stories during this period. He would visit Rabindranath at Shelidah regularly and cajole him to read out a new story every time. 'Every weekend that Jagadish came to Shelidah,' Tagore's son Rathindranath writes, 'he would make father read out to him the short story that he had written the previous week and get a promise from him to have another ready the next weekend. (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 55). Tagore published eleven stories in all in Bharati, including stories such as 'The Professor' (Adhyapak), 'Deliverance' (Uddhar) and 'Imprudence' (Durbuddhi). It appears that while writing for Bharati, Tagore also published two short stories in another magazine, Pradip - 'Privacy' (Sadar O Andar) and 'The Auspicious Sight' (Shubhadrishti) - both of them published in 1900, and could be considered as samples of the author's work during the closing years of the magnificent Shelidah period.
After this productive phase, Rabindranath's interest in short stories became intermittent. That great urgency and resolve of the Shelidah period faded somewhat, but he still continued to publish short stories in journals such as Prabasi and Sabujpatra. Prabasi was edited by Ramananda Chatterjee who shared Tagore's disapproval of Gandhi's Non-cooperation Movement, and Sabujpatra was edited by Pramatha Choudhuri, another renowned Bengali writer and a younger friend of Rabindranath, who later married Tagore's niece Indira Devi. For example, the story 'Number One' (paila Nambar) was published in Sabujpatra, while 'Purification' (Shangskar), 'Balai' (Balai) and 'The Painter' (Chitrakar) were published in Prabasi.
In the interview cited earlier, Tagore expressed his relative dislike for his later stories and comparing them to the ones written during the Shelidah period, he said:
"My later stories have not got that freshness, though they have greater psychological value and they deal with problems. Happily 1 had no social or political problems before my mind when I was quite young. Now there are a number of problems of all kinds and they crop up unconsciously when I write a story. I am very susceptible to environment and until and unless I am in the midst of a certain type of atmosphere I cannot produce any artistic work. During my youth whatever 1 saw appealed to me with pathos quite strong, and therefore, my earlier stories have a greater literary value because of their spontaneity. But now it is different. My stories of a later period have got the necessary technique but I wish I could go back once more to my former life". (Galpaguccha 853)
In spite of this statement by the writer, Tagore's stories essentially deal with the same social, psychological, economic and political issues, whether written during the earlier period or the later period of his career. In an open letter to one of his readers, published in 1918, Tagore claimed that his stories were 'artistic creations,' primarily intended to give 'enjoyment' to his readers and not written with the overt intention of acting as 'a teacher' or giving 'moral lessons.' (Das 737-41). Perhaps in the earlier stories, this artistic element was predominant, while in the later stories there was a greater sense of 'teaching' and 'moralising.' However, as a realistic writer he was never fully detached from his work, never far from a reformist tendency in his fictional writings. As we'll see later, in almost all his stories Tagore shows the same profound understanding of human nature and examines the inherent follies and foibles of the humankind, sometimes with a deep sense of pathos and sometimes with a sympathetic humour, and sometimes intertwining both.
Human relationship with all its complexities, sensitivities and multiple shades preoccupy the author in almost every story, whether it is the relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, father and daughter, brother and sister, Hindus and Muslims, higher caste and lower caste; friends, enemies, or rivals; or just strangers who have been brought together accidentally or by a certain event. Emancipation of women and children, education of the depressed classes, village reconstruction and creating opportunities for village dwellers, eradication of caste hierarchy, healing the religious rivalry between Hindus and Muslims, ruthless greed and money worship leading to oppression and exploitation of the helpless, are some of the concerns that link Tagore's stories, in spite of the period of their composition. And there is also an undercurrent of humour running through many of these stories - warm, tolerant and sympathetic humour, sometimes mixed with witticism or irony as in 'Deliverance' and 'Number One' arising from his extraordinary capacity to perceive the ridiculous, ludicrous and the comic in human beings, and especially in his own personality.
Rabindranath, as I have said, was essentially a realistic writer in his short stories. He shows extraordinary fidelity to his surrounding and truthfulness in the treatment of his material in the stories. If we follow the letters he wrote to Indira Devi during his sojourn at Shelidah and Shahjadpur, we can see how much of the descriptions of nature and society from there were transmuted and incorporated into his narratives. In several of the letters, Tagore has acknowledged this close correspondence between his experience and his fictional representation, or the semblance of art and actuality in the stories. In a letter dated 25 June 1895, for example, he wrote:
"As I sit writing bit by bit a story for the Sadhana, the lights and shadows and colours of my surrounding mingle with my words. The scenes and characters and events that I am now imagining have this sun and rain and river and the reeds on the river bank, this monsoon sky, this shady village, this rain-nourished happy cornfields to serve as their background and to give them life and reality ...." (Chakravarty 45)
In another letter, dated 5 September 1894, Tagore commented:
"Noontime in Shahzadpur is high noon for story writing. It was at this time, at this very table, I recall, that my story, 'The Postmaster' took over my thoughts. The light, the breeze and the movement of leaves on all sides combined and entered my writing. There are few kinds of happiness in the world more filling than the happiness of creating something in which the mind is totally immersed in its surroundings". (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 41)
Despite such repeated affirmations by the writer, many of his critics accused him of writing unrealistic and fantastic stories, far removed from the actualities of life. These critics saw Tagore, the son of an aristocrat and a rich landlord, incapable of genuine sympathy for the poor (Galpaguccha 849). Therefore, they dismissed his depiction of the common, the average, the everyday as a mere figment of his imagination. Tagore responded to such criticisms in a conversation with Buddhadev Bose in 1941, brushing aside his detractors and reaffirming his view that the stories were written in a realistic mode:
"At one time I used to rove down Bengal's rivers, and I observed the wonderful way of life of Bengal's villages .... I would say there is no lack of realism in my stories. I wrote from what I saw, what I felt in my heart - my direct experience .... Those who say that my stories are fanciful are wrong". (Radice 13)
In hindsight, it is amazing to think that Tagore could be accused of unreality or inauthenticity in the portrayal of life and reproduction of natural objects and actions in his stories. Anyone familiar with the life and landscape of Bengal could discover its dust, feel, spirit and smell; its sights and sounds; its lights, shades and myriad colours; its seasons, riverbanks and riverine countryside; its humble people going about their daily business; its women and children living their loving, lovable but pitiable lives, in these stories. As Buddhadev Bose himself has astutely suggested:
"All of Bengal can be found here. Not only facts, but her living soul: we feel her pulse as we turn the pages of Galpaguccha. Her changing seasons, the vital flow of her rivers, her plains, her bamboo-groves, her festival canopies and chariots; her cool, moist, richly fertile fragrance; her mischievous, noisy, lively boys and girls; her kind, skilled, intelligent women ...." (Radice 13) Two things need to be highlighted here with regard to Tagore's realism in the short stories - he was a realist not merely in the ordinary sense of the term but, aware or unaware, he shared certain characteristics with the literary movement of Realism that flourished in Europe and America in the second half of the nineteenth century; and secondly, his realism was tinged by a shade of impressionism - that although he was a realistic writer, he was not interested in photographic details of an incident or the accuracy of the palpable actual but rather in the Aristotelian concept of mimesis in which the allegiance was to an idea, an impression, a mood, an emotion, a character, an action, a seed experience, instead of mere cold, scientific facts.
If we summarise the attributes of literary Realism, we notice that apart from faithful representation of the material, the writers of the movement also shared a strong sense of democracy, in that they were interested in the common man, rather than heroic individuals or in legends and myths. They also believed in the ethical function of literature, that literature should arouse sympathy for the common man, heighten the consciousness of readers about the truths of the human condition, and avoid being a source of moral harm. Moreover, realistic literature was character-driven, and more interested in the psychology of the actors than in the symmetry of the story's plot.
I am sure readers can see these qualities in Tagore's short stories.
Who could deny that Rabindranath wrote with a sense of democracy and deep sympathy for the common man, when we read stories such as 'The Postmaster,' 'Kabuliwala,' 'Punishment,' 'Imprudence' or 'Purification'? In each of these stories, his heart goes out to the poor and the eternally oppressed - a homeless, uneducated, destitute orphan girl, Ratan, in 'The Postmaster'; a humble fruit-peddler from Kabul, walking the streets of Kolkata, away from his loved ones, only to make a living for himself and to sustain his family back home, in 'Kabuliwala'; an impoverished family that succumbs to ruthles violence and a cold, heartless lie that result in the death of two helpless, married women, in 'Punishment'; two vulnerable and defenceless fathers in a remote village who are viciously exploited by corrupt officials only so that they could cremate their dead daughters, in 'Imprudence'; and the merciless humiliation of an old sweeper by the so-called people of piety and patriotism, only because he is a sweeper and an Untouchable, in 'Purification.'
Needless to say that in each of these stories Tagore's concerns are essentially moral and ethical as he is trying to expose the ugly side of society; the devastation that occurs from excessive gluttony and extortionate claims of ambition, or from 'the multiplication of money,' as Tagore said, 'whose motive force is greed' (Das 513). He believed in the equality and fellowship of all human beings. He urged his readers to shun Kuvera, the god of money and 'the genius of property that knows no moral responsibility,' and embrace Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, who is graceful and beautiful because, he argued 'prosperity is for all. Lakshmi dwells in that property which, though belonging to the individual, generously owns its obligation to the community ... she presides over that wealth which means happiness for all men, which is hospitable.' (Das 513). This was Tagore's way of introducing a sense of justice and benevolence into the reader's soul' for in his short stories he recurrently pleaded for social justice, protection of the helpless, education of the illiterate, material well-being of the indigent, and an unfettered dignity for women and children.
Moreover, Tagore's stories are mostly character-driven. Often the focus is on a single character at a moment of crisis, either emotional or spiritual in nature, and his objective is to show how this character resolves the crisis or learns to live with it. In many instances, there is also an interest in the invisible life of the characters, and outer actions are often meant to reflect the interior of the main character - his/her joy, sorrow or anguish. Stories such- as 'The Postmaster,' 'Subha,' 'Mahamaya' and 'Balai' certainly fit this pattern as they have been deliberately named after the main character. In other stories too - such as 'The Professor' and 'Number One' - we notice Tagore following the fate of his protagonist, drawn with a few and highly selective brush strokes, than paying attention to the plot; recounting the motives, circumstances and internal action of the characters seem to preoccupy him more than recording the precise details of an action or developing a symmetrical plot for the story.
In drawing these parallels with the Realist movement, my objective is of course not to place Tagore in the tradition of Western Realism, as that would be utterly inappropriate. There is no evidence to indicate that he consciously sought to adopt the values of the movement; he may not have been even aware of its existence because of his temporal proximity and geographical distance. But the affinities do help to establish the point that he was a realist in his short stories. Moreover, Tagore was too complex a writer to be pigeonholed. He was like a lumpy bag containing myriad assets. Realism grew in Europe as a reaction to Romanticism, but Tagore accommodated the tendencies of both in his sprawling imagination. In his poetry he was lyrical and idealistic, but in his prose, and particularly in his short stories, he was more down-to-earth and realistic. The American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, 'Everything has two handles, there must be both' (Matthieissen 24). On another occasion, he added, 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." (Emerson, 'Self-Reliance' 1164). Likewise, in the final section of his poem 'Song of Myself,' Whitman declared:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then 1 contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.) ('Song of Myself' 2275)
Perhaps no other writer came to embody this philosophy of multilateral consciousness 'or the belief in encompassing 'many in one' educed by the American Renaissance writers, more than Rabindranath Tagore.
Earlier I suggested that Tagore's realism has an impressionist tinge to it, and that he was more interested in the impression that a character, an object or an experience made on his mind than in the cold details surrounding it. The idea was to take that impression and place it in the cauldron of his imagination so that it is enriched through a process of filtering as well as conflation with other experiences and observations, before becoming the subject of his story. This process of filtering and blending would also transmute the particular experience into something larger, saying something about humanity as a whole. Thus in a letter written in 1931, Tagore wrote, 'Remember one thing; a story is not a photograph. Unless whatever I have seen or heard dissolves and becomes part of the aggregate memory, it has no place in a short story.' (Galpaguccha 848). On another occasion, explaining his creative process, he wrote:
"... when I am writing a story, my contemporary experience is woven into its fabric, and also my personal likes and dislikes .... The possibilities that lie deep in human nature are the basis of the plots of all the best stories and dramas in literature .... Events happen in a different manner in different places. They are never the same on two occasions. But man's nature, which is at the root of these events, is the same in all ages; therefore the author keeps his eye fixed on human nature and avoids all exact copying of actual events. (Das 740)
If we study the genesis of some of the stories referred to in his letters and interviews, we find that this is precisely how Tagore composed his stories; his mind would be activated by a certain scene or incident or character and he would weave a story around it by intuitively blending it with an assortment of other experiences as well as with his broad understanding of human nature. 'The Postmaster,' for example, was suggested by a real postmaster who worked at the estate office building at Shahjadpur. There are several references to him in Tagore's letters. The city-bred postmaster didn't like his sluggish life in the village, and this was enough to set the author's imagination working and create a moving story of the relationship between the postmaster and a simple, guileless, orphan girl, Ratan. The real postmaster even saw the story after its publication in Hitabadi and, Tagore recounts in a letter to Indira Devi, 'touched on it (in a conversation with the writer) after a series of bashful smiles' (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 32). However, it should be noted that although the story was born out of a casual contact with an actual postmaster, Tagore's fictional character is very different from the living person narrated in his letters. The actual postmaster himself had some writerly qualities; 'He tells of the most improbable things in the gravest possible fashion.' (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 22), Tagore says in one of his letters. In another, he adds, 'I must say I like the man. He has a fund of anecdotes which I dip into and silently enjoy. He also has a nice sense of humour. That is how he catches and holds one's interest' (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 32). But the fictional postmaster has been reduced to a timid, practical and somber person; and Ratan is of course the creation of his imagination, perhaps based on some village girl that he had come across in Shahjadpur or Shelidah.
The same principle of composition also applies to 'Kabuliwala,' 'Bala' and other stories. 'Kabuliwala' was inspired by a real Afghan man who, Tagore said in an interview, 'came to our house and who became very familiar with us' (Galpaguccha 852). But the story was also inspired by his daughter Bela, his eldest born and his 'favourite child' (Dutta and Robinson, Selected Letters 27). 'Bela was just like Mini. Mini's dialogues are almost entirely taken from Bela' (Galpaguccha 857), Tagore affirmed on one occasion. Therefore, while the story was based on two real people, he had to apply his imagination to bring these two people together and create the story. He had to also imagine, as he pointed out in the same interview, that the Kabuliwala 'too must have a daughter left behind in his motherland to be remembered by him' (Galpaguccha 852). This is where the story became poignant, as it helped to show that fatherly love is the same everywhere despite cultural differences.
'Balai' reflects Rabindranath's life-long love for nature. He was sensitive to nature since childhood. There are many passages in the story which echo Tagore's real-life experiences with nature which have also been narrated in his letters. Here is one that shows his mystical kinship with the earth through its various stages of evolution:
"I feel as of dim, distant memories come to me of the time when I was one with the rest of the earth; when on me grew the green grass, and on me fell the autumn light; when a warm scent of youth would rise from every pore of my vast, soft, green body at the touch of the rays of the mellow sun, and a fresh life, a sweet joy, would be half-consciously secreted and inarticulately poured forth from all the immensity of my being, as it lay dumbly stretched, with its varied countries and seas and mountains, under the bright blue sky." (Kripalani 338)
Here is another, taken from a letter to Tejeshchandra Sen, written in 1926
"My mute friends around my house are raising their hands to the sky, intoxicated with the love of light; their call has entered my heart .... The stirrings of my heart are in the same tree-language, they have no defined meaning, yet many ages hum and throt them". (Ghosh 28)
Thus although the story was suggested by his own childhood experiences of nature, he had to distance himself in the narrative by introducing a fictional child and his unique. Environment. Notwithstanding this, the story is real as Tagore shows a profound, understanding of human nature in his portrayal of Balai's love for nature as well as his family members. There is nothing fanciful about the way Balai interacts with his uncle and aunt; it is obviously drawn from his shrewd observation of life and society around him, whether at Shelidah or at his own family home at Jorasanko.
(Beyond boundaries : Critical essays on Rabindranath Tagore)