The new translation of Tagore’s childhood memoir tells us much about the man who would later reshape Bengali literature and music (and chastise Mahatma Gandhi), says Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen.
This is an odd book. Boyhood Days is Rabindranath’s own account of his early childhood written by him at a ripe old age, shortly before his death. His recollections are invariably sharp, and yet, as Radha Chakravarty points out in her introduction, not in all cases in line with those factual matters on which other evidence exists. And yet who better than Rabindranath himself to give us a glimpse of his life as a child? In fact, much of the most interesting parts of this autobiography relate to his young mind: what the child Rabindranath thought, what ideas aroused the young boy, what he made of the world around him (his family, his city, his country, his globe), and what the school-age Rabindranath found sad in that world and in need of change—many of those diagnoses would stay with him through his entire life. On these matters there are no competing sources of real knowledge, and indeed the picture that we get from Tagore’s recollections is both gripping in itself and deeply insightful in giving us an understanding of the adult man that would emerge from those boyhood days.
I am delighted, therefore, that a new translation and a fuller edition of this great book is now coming out. Much has already been written about this book, based both on the Bengali original and the earlier translation by Marjorie Sykes (first serialized in Visva Bharati Quarterly and then published as a book in the same year, 1940). Obviously, Tagore’s own account of his childhood days has intrinsic interest of its own, but it also tells us something about the development of the priorities that deeply influenced his later life. Of the many different connections that are of interest, let me select three for brief comments.
First, Rabindranath passionately disliked the schools he encountered, and as a dropout, he was educated at home, with the help of tutors. Already in his childhood he formed some views on what precisely was wrong with the schools he knew in the Kolkata of his day, some, as it happens, with fairly distinguished academic records. When Tagore established his own school, Shantiniketan, (more commonly spelt as Santiniketan, but I shall follow here the translator’s preferred spelling) in 1901, he was determined to make it critically different from the schools he knew. It is not always easy to spot what made his school in Shantiniketan so different (this is in fact even more difficult to identify if you have been mainly schooled there, as I have been), but Boyhood Days tells a great deal about what Tagore was looking for in his vision of a school appropriate for children.
Sometimes a complete outsider can see things more clearly—and can explain more pithily—what is so special about an innovative institution than those engulfed in it can. The special qualities of the Shantiniketan school were caught with much clarity by Joe Marshall, a perceptive American trained at Harvard, who visited Shantiniketan in August 1914. He put it thus:
“The principle of his method of teaching is that the individual must be absolutely free and happy in an environment where all is at peace and where the forces of nature are all in evidence; then there must be art, music, poetry, and learning in all its branches in the persons of the teachers; lessons are regular but not compulsory, the classes are held under the trees with the boys sitting at the feet of the teacher, and each student with his different talents and temperament is naturally drawn to the subjects for which he has aptitude and ability.”1
All the points that caught Marshall’s attention figure, in one way or other, in Boyhood Days—in the descriptions of what Tagore missed most in the schools he knew in his Kolkata.
Some of the things he missed and longed for, he actually did get at his own home, like the presence of music and poetry in everyday life. But he knew he was privileged and exceptionally fortunate, and he wanted to have schools where these facilities should come as standard parts of the system, along with arrangements for academic training. I don’t want to turn this foreword into a “Q & A” program, but I will suggest to the reader that it could be useful as well as fun to look for the connections that are plentifully there in Tagore’s own account of his creative dissatisfaction about early education (not all the connections refer explicitly to schools at all—this is called, I believe, a “hint” in “help books” for students).
At his home Rabindranath was surrounded by people who loved music, varying in taste from austerely classical to more relaxed art forms of song-making and singing.
One particularly important idea to look for is Tagore’s focus on freedom, even for school children, on which Marshall did comment. This, in fact, identifies an aspect of Rabindranath that the standard commentaries on him—from W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound onwards—missed. Yet his yearning for substantive freedom in human life comes through very clearly in Boyhood Days, and it stays throughout his life as a constant thought.2
Let me now turn to a second connection that deserves some attention. At his home Rabindranath was surrounded by people who loved music, varying in taste from austerely classical to more relaxed art forms of song-making and singing. Rabindranath had a fine introduction to classical Indian music, but he resisted the usual long years of formal training of the aspiring specialist. The range of Tagore’s exposure and the choices he made profoundly influenced the development of his own musical genre, the astonishingly influential Rabindra-sangeet, still so very popular in Bangladesh and India.
Kalpana Bardhan has commented on this connection between Rabindra-sangeet and Tagore’s boyhood years in presenting her own translation of songs and commentaries on Tagore’s work:
“…Though he took some lessons, he resisted the systematic formal training his teachers insisted on. He imbibed freely from listening and impressed the grown-ups by rendering what he heard. Surrounded by voice lessons and practice in classical singing, as he stopped going to school and stayed home, he went on constantly listening, humming to himself, nourishing his memory cells and vocal cords. In a way, as he liked to tell in his mature years, his boyhood resistance of a formal training in classical music, while gathering and absorbing it in his own way, freed him from the strictures of the Hindusthani classical music, and later on enabled him to intuitively blend raga melodies into mixed raginis for his songs, and further on to mix folk song tunes with classical melodies. The innovative mixings achieved the uniqueness of melody and lyric carrying each other in his songs, the balance of meaning through music and poetry.”3
As we read through Tagore’s account of his childhood years, we can find many scattered remarks on what would prove to be critically important preparation for the emergence of the wealthy tradition of Rabindra-sangeet.4 Boyhood Days contains many glimpses of Rabindranath’s exposure to the music around him which would ultimately help the birth of a new genre of Bengali music.
The third connection I want to comment on concerns Tagore’s intellectual world, in particular the emergence of Tagore’s rather special priorities in analytical and empirical inquiries and his expectations from them. This is a complex subject and has been much misunderstood. However, since the beginnings of Tagore’s priorities and expectations are clearly noticeable in Boyhood Days, the subject deserves a little exploration here, for a better understanding even of the later Rabindranath.
Tagore’s commitment to reasoning was strong—sometimes fierce—throughout his life. This is well reflected in his arguments, for example, with Mahatma Gandhi (whom he chastized for obscurantism), with religious parochialists (whose reasonless sectarianism upset him greatly), with the British establishment (for their crude treatment of India, in contrast with what he admired greatly in British intellectual life and creativity), with his Japanese admirers (who received, despite Tagore’s general admiration of Japan, his sharply angry critique for their silence—or worse—in the face of Japan’s newly emerging supernationalism, including the Japanese treatment of China), and with the administrative leadership of both British India and the Soviet Union (he compared the Soviet achievements in school education across its Asian and European span very favorably with the gross neglect of school education in British India, while also chastizing the Soviet leadership for its intolerance of criticism and of freedom of expression).5
Tagore’s commitment to a reasoned understanding of the world around us came through also in his wholehearted support for scientific education (his school insisted on every child’s exposure to the new findings emerging anywhere in the world). The same commitment to reason is seen also in Tagore’s cultural evaluations, including his firm mixture of pride in Indian culture and rejection of any claim to the priority of Indian culture over all others. It is also seen in his refusal to see something called “the Indian civilization” in isolation from influences coming from the rest of the world: this remains very relevant today, not just as a critique of what is now called the “Hindutva” approach, but also of the widely popular thesis of the “clash of civilizations,” which is frequently invoked these days as a gross—and rather dangerous—simplification of the complex world in which we live. In every case, Rabindranath’s firm convictions were driven explicitly by critical reasoning which he clearly spelt out.
And yet to many contemporary observers in Europe and America, Rabindranath appeared to be anything but a follower of reason. It was faith he was identified with, and with a penchant for mystification over seeking clarity. While some of Tagore’s admirers (of suitably mystical kind themselves) loved this “redone Tagore,” others found it unattractive, even detestable. A clear formulation of that interpretation of Tagore can be found in two unpublished letters of Bertrand Russell to Nimai Chatterji.6 On February 16, 1963, Earl Russell wrote to Nimai Chatterji:
“I recall the meeting [with Tagore] of which Lowes Dickinson writes only vaguely. There was an earlier occasion, the first upon which I met Tagore, when he was brought to my home by Robert Trevelyan and Lowes Dickinson. I confess that his mystic air did not attract me and I recollect wishing he would be more direct. He had a soft, rather elusive, manner which led one to feel that straightforward exchange or communication [was something] from which he would shy away. His intensity was impaired by his self-asorbtion [sic]. Naturally, his mystic views were by way of dicta and it was not possible to reason about them.”
In a later letter, dated April 26, 1967, Russell was even sharper in his denunciation of what he took to be Tagore’s flight from reason:
“His talk about the infinite is vague nonsense. The sort of language that is admired by many Indians unfortunately does not mean anything at all.”
So what’s going on here? Why would the reason-centered priorities of Tagore appear just the opposite of that to some towering intellectuals in Europe and America whom he met? And, in the present context, what insights can we get from Tagore’s recollections in his Boyhood Days about this dissonance between Tagore’s consistent championing of reason and Russell’s belief that Tagore hated reason with a passion—a passion of the “self-absorptive” kind? For an adequate understanding of what is happening, we have to take out, first, two incidental factors that no doubt had their influence but which could obscure a fuller picture of the contrasting intellectual priorities that lie behind the apparent dissonance.
He also saw some aesthetic beauty in the continuing incompleteness of our answers: this is where, I presume, Russell would have walked away had Tagore not been sitting at Russell’s own home.
The first incidental factor is Tagore’s partial inclination to play the role that was assigned to him by his early admirers in England—W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and others—in which his poetical exposition, particularly in Gitanjali, of what can be seen as extraordinary features of the world overwhelmed his understanding of ordinary but very important things that make up the world and in which Tagore was (as Boyhood Days confirms) deeply interested from his very early days. This would later flower into his interest in science, culture, education, politics, ethics, and epistemology. Russell “knew” what to expect from the man that Lowes Dickinson brought to Russell’s home, and he seemed to have decided that he got plentifully exactly what he expected to get from Rabindranath. Tagore’s admirers in England would not leave much room for any way of contrasting the allegorical poetry of Gitanjali (itself over-mysticized by its English rendering) and Rabindranath’s prosaic beliefs about the ordinary world. As I have discussed elsewhere, Rabindranath was initially happy enough to play this role, even though he was shocked by the over-praise he was getting.7
The second factor is Russell’s propensity to dismiss anything that he did not find to be immediately clear to him. If Rabindranath got the raw end of that perspective in Russell’s reactions to him, he did not fare any worse than Friedrich Nietzsche had in the caricature of him that Russell had produced in his History of Western Philosophy, in the form of a simulated conversation between Nietzsche and Buddha concocted by Russell to bring out the stupidity—as well as some possible nastiness—of Nietzsche’s ideas as interpreted by Russell.8
Despite the importance of these factors, Rabindranath’s understanding of intellectual priorities did, in fact, have some special features which contributed to the misunderstanding that is being examined. One of them was Tagore’s willingness to accept that many questions will remain unresolved and their answers can remain uncompleted. The domain of unfinished accounts would change over time, but not go away, and in this Rabindranath saw not a defeat but a humble—and also beautiful—recognition of our limited understanding of a vast world, even an incomprehensibly large, possibly infinite, universe (the kind of remark that so exasperated Russell). Rather than seeing this as a defeat of reason he clearly saw this as the way reason works in human life, at any point of time.9 He also saw some aesthetic beauty in the continuing incompleteness of our answers: this is where, I presume, Russell would have walked away had Tagore not been sitting at Russell’s own home.
We can glimpse the early beginnings of this celebration of the unresolved and the incomplete in many remarks in Boyhood Days (this is another “hint” to the young reader), but none perhaps more spectacular than the youthful Rabindranath’s retreat from the discipline of tutored knowledge that was being poured into him. He would regain his peace when he could resume his reflection of the vast universe that lay beyond his tutors’s grasp:
“In bed, at last, I found some moments of leisure. There, I listened to the story that never reached its conclusion, ‘The Prince rides across the boundless terrain…’ ”
This is not the occasion to pursue Tagore’s views of knowledge and reason further, and yet I found it striking, as I was rereading Boyhood Days (I had read the book, in Bengali, in my own boyhood days), how many of these connections with Tagore’s epistemic and aesthetic priorities were already beginning to take shape in those early days.
It has been claimed that to say goodbye is “to die a little.” To read the translation of a book one knows in the original is also to die a little, and no translation, no matter how good and accurate, can prevent that. One of the special problems arises in this case from the fact that words in one language, sometimes, do not have exact equivalents in another language. The problem is compounded by the fact that some words have more than one near-equivalent in another language. In fact, the English rendering of Gitanjali, somewhat influenced by Tagore’s early admirers in England, had tended to select the most “mystical” of the near-equivalents, sometimes mercilessly killing the necessary ambiguities in Tagore’s Bengali expressions.
The plurality of near-equivalent English words applies even to the title of this book. Chhelebela in Bengali refers to childhood, even though the word used in that compound expression, to wit chhele, also does mean a boy, in its literal and original use.10 The Bengali language dropped gender about seven hundred years ago (there is not even any equivalent of the English distinction between “he” and “she,” or between “him” and “her”), and it is quite standard for words like “chhele” to be used to cover both sexes, that is, girls as well as boys. So “chhelebela” could be translated as “Childhood Days,” and not specifically as “Boyhood Days.” In this case, this might not matter tremendously, since Rabindranath was indubitably a man and his childhood was clearly his boyhood as well.
There is perhaps more of a problem with Tagore’s preface, which begins with the sentence: “I received a request from Goswamiji to write something for the boys.” There were both boys and girls in the school (indeed my mother herself had been a student there long before me), and no matter what the genderized form of the Bengali expression is, Tagore’s interest in presenting his recollections of his early years would have involved his willingness to cater to the curiosity of both boys and girls in the school (there is internal evidence of this in the text as well of Tagore’s reach across the gender divide). Goswamiji too, whose request, we learn from the preface, started off this entire project, was a marvelous teacher, and as I remember vividly, cared no less for the girls than for the boys. The request for “something for the boys” (taking the genderized form of words in the restrictive sense) must have included the girl students at the school as well. The coverage of many Bengali words, such as chhele, has this plasticity.
These uncertainties are, I suppose, inescapable in moving a book from one language to another. What is altogether remarkable is how much of the basic content of the Bengali original (including the atmosphere, the stories, the fears and the excitements, and Tagore’s early reflections and analyses) have come through vividly and powerfully in this English version. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to introduce this fine translation of a remarkably engaging and stimulating memoir to the English-reading public. There is much to enjoy and learn from in this little book.
1. I am grateful to Megan Marshall, the distinguished author of the wonderful biography of the famous Peabody sisters, who “ignited American romanticism” (The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, Mariner Books, 2006), for letting me see and draw on her grandfather Joe Marshall’s unpublished “Santiniketan Journal.”
2. I discussed this in my essay “Tagore and His India,” New York Review of Books, 44 (June 26, 1997), republished in The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Picador, 2006).
3. Kalpana Bardhan, unpublished manuscript. Earlier published as Of Love, Nature and Devotion: Selected Songs of Rabindranath Tagore (OUP India, 2008).
4. A masterly account of the philosophical underpinnings of the tradition of Rabindra-sangeet can be found in Anisur Rahman’s Bengali book, Ashimer Spando.
5. More discussion of each of these issues can be found in my “Tagore and His India.” See also Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man (London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2009).
6. I am including, with Chatterji’s permission, extracts from Russell’s letter to him. Nimai Chatterji, a literary observer and critic, wrote to a great many people who knew Tagore asking them to comment on what they knew of—and thought of—Rabindranath, and this will form the corpus of a book on Tagore, we hope before very long (Chatterji’s reluctance to publish his writings has been frustrating for his friends like me).
7. On the day after the famous literary evening of the reading of Tagore’s poems in London that W.B. Yeats had arranged on June 27, 1912, he wrote to my grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen (who taught at Shantiniketan and later wrote, among other books, Hinduism, Penguin, 2005): “Last night I dined with one of the poets here, Yeats. He read out the prose translations of some of my poems… People have taken to my work with such excessive enthusiasm that I cannot really accept it. My impression is that when a place from which nothing is expected somehow produces something, even an ordinary thing, people are amazed—that is the state of mind here.”
8. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967.
9. Some features of Tagore’s radical views of epistemology and objectivity played a big role in his much-reported conversation with Albert Einstein, on which see “Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth,” The New York Times Magazine, 10 August 1930. An attempt to understand Tagore’s scientific position in terms of contemporary theories of realism (particularly Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism (Paul Carus Lectures), Open Court, 1987) can be found in my essay, “Tagore and His India.”
10. Bengali sounds can be translated in different ways in English—a problem made more difficult by the fact that some Bengali sounds do not even exist in English! Here I am following the notation that the translator has chosen.
Photograph courtesy Rabindra Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan (India)
**Amartya Sen** is Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University. His books have been translated into more than thirty languages, and include Collective Choice and Social Welfare (1970), On Economic Inequality (1973, 1997), Poverty and Famines (1981), Development as Freedom (1999), Rationality and Freedom (2002), The Argumentative Indian (2005), and Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006), among others. He is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics.
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