A 100 years ago, Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for poetry. But his novels are more enduring.
The year 1913 was important for Rabindranath Tagore. It was the year four important works (including Gitanjali) were published in translation. His output during this period — innovative works in diverse genres (poetry, drama, novel, essays) — invites reflection, as does his contribution to the shaping of the modern Indian literary tradition. Tagore’s poetry has become the dominant lens through which we remember him. The Nobel citation spoke of “his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse”, and acknowledged the “consummate skill (by which) he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”
This is why he was appreciated by modernist poets such as Yeats and Pound. But many of these poets eventually grew disillusioned with him. Often, they diplomatically blamed the translations. Perhaps it was always a little odd that some of these modernist poets lauded a poet writing in an openly spiritual register in the old lyric mode. Even if the beauty of some of these spiritual ideas could not be denied, this alone does not make great poetry. In poetry, there needs to be a closer marriage of the sound of words and the ideas they carry. The problem is compounded when poems travel between languages.
His prose, however, poses no such problem. And though there were extraordinary achievements in many prose forms (letters, memoir, essays, drama), Tagore’s most comprehensive achievement was, perhaps, his novels.
Tagore wrote around 12 novels, ranging from large, sweeping works such as Gora (1910) to miniature novellas such as Chaturanga (1916, translated as Quartet) and Dui Bon (1933, translated as Two Sisters). His novels span the period of the coming of age of the Indian novelistic tradition, which had its earliest beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, and reached maturity in the first half of the 20th in almost all the major Indian languages.
The influence of Tagore’s novels is evident in the oeuvre of writers not only in Bengali, but also in languages such as Hindi. Premchand’s correspondence with Jainendra, another great Hindi novelist, is full of admiration (and some competitive envy) for Tagore’s imagination of the feminine voice. The novels are arguably Tagore’s greater legacy. They have too often been sidelined by the immediate beauty of his poems and songs. However, the novels travel further, unencumbered by Tagore’s brand of 19th century Advaitic spiritualism, which is not always intelligible or accessible to contemporary readers
In a postgraduate literature class I taught recently, the students and I waded through Char Adhyay (Four Chapters), published in 1934. It is among Tagore’s last novels, and the story is that of the love between two young revolutionaries. Yet the political context is minimal. What is striking and contemporary about the novel is the sense of stasis in both plot and dramatic mood. The revolutionaries will die — if not immediately, then, soon enough. No argument about the righteousness of their cause against the State needs be made — the reader will simply step into that assumption. With this, there is an alignment of the reader’s empathy with the characters’ destiny.
Initially, admittedly, many students couldn’t get past the verbosity and the repetition of philosophical ideas, which is central to Tagore’s style. But after much wrestling and retrospection, they understood the more sublime Tagorean qualities — the facile creation and shifts of mood, the light touch with which he paints a world, the kaleidoscopic quality of his novelistic architecture. It is the best of Tagore, and yet anchored in the more relatable world of romantic love (as opposed to the “spiritual” plane of his poems), political revolution, and with recognisable historical figures such as Gandhi and Bhagat Singh.
In other novels such as Dui Bon (Two Sisters), Tagore takes delight in the twists and turns of plot, the unpredictability of how characters mutate with circumstance. In Malancha (The Garden, 1934), he exquisitely evokes the sense of loss in an invalid wife, as she imagines her husband romance a female relative in the very garden that she had earlier carefully tended with him. Tagore’s observations on the pain of marital discontent between ill-matched partners make him profoundly contemporary. He was one of the pioneers in introducing this theme and, arguably, developed it more than any of his contemporaries or predecessors. In Tagore’s novels, there are several concurrent experiments in form and in a multiplicity of voices (of gender, of age, of station). The register is less exalted than much of his poetry, and this makes it easier to absorb him today. This type of writing is something that many of Tagore’s contemporaries, such as the poet Aurobindo (whose language always sounds as if it is on stilts) did not possess. This is the reason Aurobindo’s impact on Indian literary sensibility today is meagre.
May one conclude, then, that Tagore’s more enduring and pervasive legacy was, and will continue to be, his prose rather than his songs or poetry? Breaking free of the shackles of lyric spirituality, Tagore emerges a more lithe-limbed, incense-free contemporary novelist, with more concrete, more useful, more modest, and thus ultimately more powerful things to say to us today.