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Imperfect justice to Tagore

Though flawed, Four Chapters needs to be commended for displaying a measure of scholarly ambition, says SWAPAN CHAKRAVORTY.

RABINDRANATH TAGORE wrote Char Adhyay in 1934 during a stay in Sri Lanka. He was 73 years old, and this was to be the last of his 13 major novels. Yet Tagore had an almost youthful faith that the work would be seen as a beginning of sorts. In this story of two lovers trapped in the murk of revolutionary violence, Tagore gathered his maturest reflections on imperial terror and the politics of armed resistance. It was the only novel that he did not publish in serial form, possibly to trump nationalist protests and government moves for a pre-emptive ban. His views, especially on the chilling manipulation of insurgent idealism by the guerrilla leadership, were calculated to outrage nearly all parties, and a worried Tagore asked the younger poet Amiya Chakravarty to prepare a translation for overseas readers. The eventual publication of the Bengali text, and especially of its preface, led to the predictable flap, and in 1936 Tagore himself, with some assistance from his cousin Surendranath, hurriedly put together an English version for the American journal Asia. This was substantially the translation that Visva Bharati brought out in 1950, a disappointing rendering and the only one around for an unconscionably long time.

A new translation was badly needed, and this book should be welcomed on this count alone. Rimli Bhattacharya provides useful translations of the contentious preface, the narrative prelude discarded in the 1950 English text, and Tagore's terse rejoinder to hostile critics, published in 1935. In addition to the notes, the editorial material includes an informed essay by the translator. It was a good idea to work into this account brief mentions of Sombhu Mitra's celebrated adaptation premiered in 1951 and staged intermittently for over 30 years, and Kumar Shahani's screen version in Hindi shot in the mid-1990s.

Char Adhyay is a difficult novel to translate. Not only has a translator to struggle with long stretches of almost incantatory meditation on a swarm of abstractions, she also needs to be faithful to Tagore's declared aim of transfiguring the prose with "the bewitching touch of poetry". The bijou effect of the original could easily translate into unwitting preciosity, and one appreciates the translator's wariness of plangent excess.

However, the quality of the translation does imperfect justice to such discretion. For a start, there are inexplicable misconstructions of the Bengali original. To take two embarrassing instances, podo chal is translated "burnt rice" when it meant "ruined thatch"(p. 66), and what should have been "public obligation" becomes "government duty" (p. 47). Ungainly academicisms surface with worrying regularity — "critiquing your would be mother-in-law" (p. 43) and "my agon has turned so cruel" (p. 79) being two particularly dismaying samples.

The last phrase brings one to the editorial decision to italicise English words used in Tagore's original. The principle is followed only fitfully, more than half of such words being spared the typographic stress. This proves especially misleading when the translator decides to italicise such disfiguring intrusions as agon (for the Bengali vedana). When italics are used for emphasis, the translator misses the focus ("You here" on p.3 instead of "You here").

Another unfortunate decision was to leave certain keywords untranslated, and then work the gloss into the text in the form of a phrase in apposition (examples: "paurush, his humane manliness", "moh, an illusive attraction"). Since most of these appear in the dialogue, they make the lovers sound like benign pastors explaining Latinisms to the laity.

These blemishes are not nearly as damaging as the overall indecisiveness of pitch and register hard to illustrate in a short review. It does not help that the scholarly apparatus betrays an equally infirm commitment to rigour. A number of notes promised by asterisks fail to show up (for example, dharmayuddha on p.78), glossed names are spelt repeatedly wrong (Mandhatar and Mandhatra for Mandhata, Netrakone for Netrakona, Ardhanareshwar for Ardhanarishwar), and the notes provide no clue to such mysteries as which river is meant by yamakanya (translated "Death Maiden").

The critical afterword survives these glitches, although it could do with a surer grasp of the Tagore corpus. It makes less than sparing use of Tagore's political essays and novels. The discussion of the Gita as "the invisible text of Char Adhyay", for instance, would have gained from a citing of Tagore's sharp criticism of that text in Parasye (In Persia). Likewise, the novel's points of contact with the Arabian Nights would have been better understood in the light of its allusive function in such a popular story as Kshuditapashan (Hungry Stones).

Tagore is finally out of copyright, and more translations of Char Adhyay may soon follow. Four Chapters, although a flawed performance, needs to be commended for displaying a measure of scholarly ambition against which later efforts are sure be judged.

Four Chapters, Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Rimli Bhattacharya, Srishti, 2002, p.xx + 149, Rs. 145.

Swapan Chakravorty teaches at Jadavpur University.

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