Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Tagore's Short Stories

I recently finished reading a collection of Tagore's short stories. Knowing my affinity for literature, some family member of mine gifted it to me after returning from a trip to India, almost as a way of introducing me to the literature of the subcontinent. It turns out that was a really appropriate move: If you were to single out the single literary giant of India's modern history, you would pick the Nobel-prize-winning, early 20th century, Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tagore, a quick biography: Rabindranath, the youngest of 14 children, was born to Debendranath Tagore, a zamindar1 and prominent figure in Bengali politics and elite society.2 Naturally, then, Rabindranath's education consisted of private tutoring, multiple trips to Europe, and close interaction with the leading intellectuals of the day. The stories contained in the anthology I read were all written during the 1890s, when Rabindranath was called away from his home in the Bengali capital of Calcutta to manage the family estate in the countryside. This experience—though somewhat lonely and isolating for him, as he confesses in his letters—proves a fertile source of inspiration for his stories, which often focus on rural life, both for the common folk and for the zamindars.

Although Tagore's stories take place so long ago, they still feel relevant and familiar to contemporary Indian society. Of course, some social mores have changed drastically since then (making, for example, awkward reading during many of Tagore's stories about child marriage), but others haven't. Child marriage may be outdated, but marriage itself is still central in Indian culture. Like many contemporary Indians, all of Tagore's characters seem to regard marriage as the most important event in life and the most important social institution. In fact, Tagore himself seems to believe this as well, for he often places a marriage scene at the most critical point of the story.

Nowhere does he do this more prominently than in his story "Kabuliwallah." In it, he describes the affectionate relationship that forms between a traveling salesman (a kabuliwallah)3 and a little girl named Mini. Rahamat and Mini shared an amusing, inside joke where he would ask her if she was going away to her father-in-law's house, and she would roundly reply, "Are you going to your father-in-law's house?" Rahamat visits her frequently and thus they develop a strong bond, until one day Rahamat is sent to jail for committing assault and the two don't see each other again for many years. The day after he is let out of prison, Rahamat goes to visit Mini. This day, it turns out, happends to be Mini's wedding day, so when he arrives at the house, he finds it all decorated for the occasion. Rahamat asks Mini's father for permission to meet Mini, but he, hesitant and afraid, tries to turn him away, saying that there is some event in the house and everyone is too busy. Crestfallen, Rahamat then walks up to Mini's father and says, "I have brought this box of grapes and nuts and raisins for the little one. Please give them to her." Mini's father is about to pay him for the box, but Rahamat stops his hand and tells him:
"Please, don't give me any money—I shall always be grateful, Babu. Just as you have a daughter, so do I have one, in my own country. It is with her in mind that I came with a few raisins for your daughter: I didn't come to trade with you."
With that, Mini's father instantly connects with this fellow father's longing, and ignoring all objections, all worry that this murderer would tarnish this most auspicious day, all concern for propriety and social class (since he was, after all, a Babu), he brings Mini, decked in her full bridal sari, out to see him. At first Rahamat is shocked to see Mini all grown up, but then he smiles and asks, "Little one, are you going to your father-in-law's house?"

Though the narrative is simple, and the events are simple, the emotions in this story are suprisingly powerful. The poignancy of Rahamat's final question and the suprising boldness of Mini's father make your heart both ache and rejoice at the same time. Often, you don't know what to feel, or you feel a strange mix of both at the same time. Many of Tagore's stories are like this. They put you through complex emotional situations, where you find yourself stuck between multiple characters and perspectives.

The "Kabuliwallah" story also highlights another salient feature of Tagore's stories: they always have something to teach us. In "Kabuliwallah," Tagore brings out a moment when we're at our best, holding both Rahamat and Mini's father as an example of both generosity and simple love. Alternatively, Tagore also shows us when we're at our worst—lusting for wealth, valuing social custom over people, forgetting our duties. In both these cases, we find teachable moments, and not because Tagore moralizes, but because he shows us what we are capable of—both for good and for ill. After that, we're free to make conclusions as we will.

I have come to view Tagore's stories as a sort of guide to life. They do not pretend to offer any advice, of course, and supply no moral strictures; but I feel I always come away more humble, more appreciative of the complexities of life. That, for me, is guidance enough.

1. A zamindar is essentially an aristocratic landlord, an Indian squire of sorts.
2. His name, Tagore, is itself is an Anglicization of the Bengali/Hindi word Thakur [ठाकुर], meaning "lord."
3. Traveling traders in those days were known as kabuliwallahs (the ones from Kabul) because they often came from Afghanistan.

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