Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Remembering Rabindra Nath Tagore

A few leaves from the letters/diaries of
Rabindra Nath Tagore

Nobel Laureate 1913

Translator’s foreword

Literature of Tagore along with his songs is a vast ocean with inexhaustible treasures in it where paramount aesthetics, spirituality, philosophical insight, cosmic perception etc. abound. Very reasonably, this should not be a benchmark to assess Tagore’s letters and diaries behind which there was no creative goal neither these were primarily for the public eye. Yet, the Poet’s sparkling wisdom in scores of these letters/diaries is worth sharing by us even to-day when they have hardly lost their relevance.

So far, about 4200 of the Poet’s letters both in Bengali and English have been classified, besides the numerous others lying in heaps in Visva Bharati. ‘Shayan’ is a bi-annual magazine running for last 8 years. The January-June ’03 issue is a compilation from Tagore’s letters and diaries. Stress has been given on the letters which voice the question, how should we survive in this genocide afflicted world, which process had a great upheaval in early 20th century and is snowballing alarmingly even to-day. No letter has been produced in full. Only their extracts have been presented which have been found serving the purpose of the book.

The editor of the magazine Mr. Pathik Basu has done this hard work with amazing dedication which has made these invaluable documents handy to us. One might opine, these documents, though originally meant for consumption at personal levels, their publication will give opportunity to all and sundry to have a glimpse of the Poet’s brilliant mind, though somewhat less than his creations purely with literary and aesthetic pursuits.

It is my pleasure to translate a few selected passages from Mr. Basu’s 343-page book, at his desire, into English, hoping these will reach worldwide across the narrow Bengali circle. Here follow a few samples.

August, 2003 RAJAT DAS GUPTA (

1) True picture of Europe

My tenure abroad is not yet over, but I am indeed impatient for this already. I am ashamed to confess – I am no more liking to linger on here. This is not a matter of pride, but it is a shortcoming in my nature.

When I look for its excuses, it seems, the image of Europe which glares our mind has evolved from reading her history and literature which is the ideal Europe. It is not obvious unless you have probed into their heart. On our stint here for 3 or 6 months or even 6 years we merely observe the external motions of the European civilization, with its mansions, big factories, various entertainment spots where people are moving around amidst great grandeur. It may be multifarious and even amazing, yet it brings the observer an exhaustion. The excitement of wonder does nor fulfil the heart but fritters the mind.

At last, I cannot help the thought – Well Man! Yours are the big cities, a vast country with unlimited treasures.. But no more evidences are required for that as enough is enough; now, only a return home will rescue me. There (at home) I know and understand all to savour humanity at once breaking through their outer shell. There I can enjoy, think and love easily. If I had a free passage to where the real man is, then even in a foreign country I would have seen my own men and the place would not appear to be alien. But here I see only the British, the foreigners. Whatever novel in their manners and new, strikes my eye, but the eternal remains veiled. That’s why we have mere acquaintance with them, but no camaraderie.

Here comes to my mind a fable. One clever jackal invited a wise crane for a feast. The crane saw at the invitation spot large dishes full of delicious sauces. After initial pleasantries, the jackal requested the crane to start the feast and at once started licking the dish. The crane with his long beak failed to lift anything to his mouth even repeatedly hitting the dish. At last he gave up and with his natural solemnity he sat in meditation by the side of the pond. The jackal once interrupted with his scoff, “Brother, why you are not eating? You have been given unnecessary trouble. My arrangements have not been up to your standard.”. Maybe the crane replied with modesty, “Ah no; your menu has been excellent, But due to my indisposition I have no appetite to-day.” Next day, on the crane’s invitation the jackal went to his place to find again arrangement of delicious foods but inside a long jar. It was tempting, but the jackal could not thrust his mouth inside the jar. The crane at once dipped his beak into it and engaged in eating. The jackal licked the outside of the pot and some waste straying here and there.

In our national feast the foreigners are similarly placed. The food is equally delicious for both, but the containers are different. If the British are the jackal, the pudding on their wide stretched bright silver dish are merely for our eye and we must return hungry. And if we are the meditative crane, the jackal cannot even see well what is there in our deep container. From far they have merely to smell its fragrance and go back.

Every nation’s past history and external manners are to their convenience, but is hindrance for other nations. So, though the English are apparently overt, but at our eye’s corner we merely glimpse an infinitesimal fraction of them, but it does not meet our appetite. International feast is possible only in case of literature. There neither the long beaked nor the long-tongued are deprived.

Be the logic obvious or not, I am tired of how-do-you-doing with the people here and also of my amazement while wandering the roads, visiting the theatres, shops, factories and even looking at the beautiful faces.

So I have determined to return home.

(From ‘Europe Tourist’s Diary’ – 6 Oct. 1890)

2) From Beauty to Machine

Once upon a time man said – Luxmi (Goddess of Wealth, also implies beauty) lives in trade. At that time the image of Luxmi comprised not merely her wealth, but beauty too. The reason is, at that time trade was not isolated from humanity. There was a harmony of mind of the weaver with his loom, the blacksmith’s with his hammer or any workman’s for that matter with his art. That is why, through trade man could ornate his heart to divulge it beautifully. Else, Luxmi would not get her seat on the lotus. When machine became the medium of trade, it lost its beauty. Comparison of old Venice with modern Manchester holds out this difference. In the beauty and wealth of Venice man has upheld himself in all respects. At Manchester man has dwarfed himself on the contrary to highlight his machine. That is why, wherever this machine based trade has gone it is spreading the epidemic of its own blight of ugliness, cruelty and greed around the world. So this endless rivalry and slaughter; so its untruth is staining the soil of this earth, muddying it with bloodshed.
[On board ss Tosamaru, on way to Japan – 1916 May]

3) Facts and Truth

If you look at the world, you will see, though ages are flowing over it, yet it is not decrepit – bright is the light in the sky, its azure immaculate, the earth has no penury, its greenery is un-blighted. Yet, when my observation is in fragments, I find flowers drooping, leaves drying and the twigs dying. The assault of senility and death is continuous all around; yet, the youth of the world is perennial. On facts I find wear and tear and death, but eternal life and youth on Truth. The very moment the treasures of the wood appear bankrupt in winter, the massive grandeur of spring floods the wilderness. If I try to hold on to weariness and mortality, they shed off their disguise to hold high the banner of life. What appears as senility from the rear, I find that as youth from the front. Had it not been so, this primordial world would infirm to its every bit and would collapse wherever I would step on.

This re-incarnation in every spring of the ever old as ever new in earthly Nature plays within human nature too. It is the vigour of life that perceives itself repeatedly through death. You lose perception of that eternal unless you miss it at intervals to get it anew.
[Written to Manoranjan Bandopadhaya, from Selaidah, 3 Febtuary, 1916]

4) East and West

Judicious people repeatedly forget that accomplishment lies in abundance of Sadhana (=Dedication). This milieu of Asadha (the first rainy month synchronizing with mid June-July period) sent this message. I want crop to fill my tummy. This small expectation shapes up as soon as green treasure from the rain drenched soil far overflows my trivial need. But even a fistful of alms is not available if the generosity of this treasure will not overflow this fist. In the trade of animation, this surplus is the object, however excessive. The austere cries down this excess with which, again, is the festivity of the poets. An assurance of surplus emboldens one to spend and that is why we aspire for a profit which is not to meet our excess consumption, but to embolden us for Anandam (=heavenly joy). More man’s chest measures, more is his accomplishment.

In the present age only in Europe I find this profit of animation is on the rise. That is why she had the world lit up with so much grandeur. In that light she is express in all directions. With paltry oil a single lamp serves domestic needs. But the full man remains obscure. This obscurity is external miserliness – to live less. This is fatigue of the human truth. In the animal world men are like the stars; the other animals simply live, without their existence illuminating. But, man is there not only for self-defence but for self-expression also, for which is needed a glowing soul. From abundance of our existence and its treasures, this glow evolves. At present, only Europe is radiating its glow in all directions. So, there, man is not merely living, but is existing much beyond that. With enough, you can defend yourself, with affluence you can open up your heart, In Europe, life is there in plenty.

I don’t regret this as wherever and whenever man accomplishes, it is a gratification for all anywhere for all time. Europe has reached the world over to-day with her affluence of life, knocking at the doors of all in slumber. Her influence is by her affluence.

Based on which truth Europe has reached all space and time.? Her science is that truth. Her science which has captured all areas of knowledge and come out victorious in all spheres of activities, is an enormous force. Here her demands have no end, neither their satiation. Last year, when returning from Europe, I got acquainted with a German young man coming to visit India with his young wife. Their object is to live for 2 years amidst some almost unknown tribes in Central India to study their life meticulously. For that they would even stake their lives. Man should know more about man and that knowledge does not halt at the threshold of the barbarous races. To compile thus all worth knowing with dedication with an unbiased mind has made man how much great, one knows on visit to Europe. With this force Europe has built up this Earth as man’s. The vigour Europe has applied to remove all impediments for man, would overwhelm us with its enormity had we been able to visualise it before us.

Just here, where Europe’s revelation is great, which may be the pride of mankind, she has another façade which is blind. Upanishada says, those saints who have achieved salvation (te sarbagam sarbato prapya dhira yuktatmnah sarbamebabshanti) gain the all pervasive Truth from all directions to integrate with their soul to have access in everything. Because Truth is all pervasive, it gives man such access. Science is opening up passages to Nature; but in to-day’s Europe there is a deficit of this Truth which blocks the way to mutual human souls. Europe has emerged as a peril for mankind worldwide with evasion of this soul. It is her own peril too.

In this very ship I met a French writer. He told me that after the war an obsession has overtaken the youth of Europe that there was a leakage in their ideal through which disaster has made its way in. In other words, they had slip from Truth which has been brought home at last.

Man’s world is heaven with the treasure of Truth which is not locked in space and time. Ceaselessly man is building this immortal world which is rooted at his intrepid aspirations. But as soon as smallness of man starts pilfering the elements to build the great, the calamity befalls. When the boundless power of human aspiration is channeled into narrow passages , the shores disintegrate and inundation of calamity is rampant. That is, when man’s boundless aspiration aims at his small selfish interest, all turmoil starts. Where his dedication is for all, there man’s aspiration is fulfilled. Gita calls this dedication as Yagna, which is the protection for the populace. The principle of this Yagna is selfless work, which will be neither feeble nor dwarf, but must not be expectation of fruit for self.

The pure dedication that Science has ushered in is for all country, all time and all men; so it has imbibed in man the power of God, to drive out all woe, penury and ailment from human family with its weaponry. The Viswakarma (God of Engineering) for creation of heaven for man is this Science. But when this very Science laboured to shape up man’s desire for fruit to an enormity , it became the Yama (God of Death). If man on this earth will annihilate, it will be for this reason – he knew Truth but not its use. He achieved divine power, but not divinity. In modern time that divine power is manifest in Europe. But has it been so for genocide? In the last war this very question has emerged stark. Europe has become a terror outside her boundaries, as evidenced throughout Asia and Africa. Europe has not come to us with her Science, but with her greed. So the blockade for manifestation of Europe within the heart of Asia. With impertinence of her Science, hubris of her power and her greed for wealth, for long Europe has cultivated this hassling of man all over the earth. When it boomeranged at her home she is anxious. She put others’ pasture on fire which has now caught on her wood. She is now wondering where to stop. Is it by halting her machinery? I don’t say so. But they have to halt their greed. Will it be achieved by religious sermons? That won’t be enough. Science also must complement it. The dedication which controls greed inwardly is of religion, but that which removes the external causes of it is of Science. These two combined, accomplish their dedications. Wisdom of science to-day awaits union with religion’s.

But why all these debates are labouring my head on my way to Java? The reason is, India’s erudition once went abroad. But those aliens had regarded it favourably. Tibet, Mongolia, Malayas, wherever India had preached her wisdom, had been through genuine human relations. To-day my pilgrimage is to witness those historical evidences of man’s holy access everywhere. Also to note is, that India of yore did not preach some cut and dried sermons, but inaugurated the inner treasure of man through architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature, stamps of which remain in the deserts, woods, rocks, isles, rugged terrain and difficult resolves. It was not the mendicant’s psalm that bankrupts man to nudity, cripples his youth and dwarfs his instincts variously. It was not the message of the senile, but was full of life, vigour and youth.
[Java diary, July, 1927]

5) Wisdom above Science

I think, what deserves special attention in the book of Wells is not its esoteric, but the bent of his mind. It seems, they have woken up to a great shock – what to their complacence they took as infallible support, it does not take the load, they discover. This psychology of theirs is for us to ponder. In fact, in the religious history of man, more than the configuration of his religion, its ethos counts which leads to the path of truth. In the book of Wells, I peer that path through the garbage of Science piled up for a long time. It may be seen, man cannot be confined only in Science; through its refuses he makes an escape route. Is this not the greatest highlight of Religion as I find this endeavour of man in his various historical milieus?
(To Pramatha Chowdhury; Santiniketan: October, 1917)

6) My dedication in a genocide afflicted world


Man’s world is fast going topsy-turvy. I had great confidence in the Western civilization overlooking that meaning of civilization is increasingly becoming amazing skill in use of matter. We were ill at ease with our inhibition and apprehension about the deadly instinct behind it. This vampire is sitting right behind the pulpit in the college campuses and all eschatological, scientific, sociological and economical discourses, but their myriad babels just fail to touch this evil which is deepening its foundation. There seems to be no way out of its onslaughts without an end in sight. The impact of the despair it causes makes me think that a personal life has its own distinction, around which I may build up an aesthetic pattern where I may dominate, the helping agents will be the greenery around and frolic of the seasons. Will you call this self-centric? It is not exactly so; its centre is within that enormous, which remaining within all pollution, complexity and blights, transcends those for an omnipresence. You may call it mystic.
[To: Amiya Chakraborty- poet: 18 Sept. 1939]

7) Pleasure of Leisure

When I am in my community, I am afraid of leisure. Because, the community is a compact body. Any gap therein is a loophole. To fill that up we must have drinks, cards, chess and throw our weight about, else the time does not pass. That is, we don’t want the time but want to expel it.

But leisure is the throne of the Great. The Universe situates in endless leisure. Where Great exists, leisure is not porous there, but is packed fully and is deeply beauteous. Wherever the Great is missing, leisure is vacuous. The inhibition an unclad feels, so does one with leisure, that it is a vacuum, which we call inert laze. But for a true austere there is no scope for inhibition as his leisure is entirety, where there is no nudity.

It may be explained by an analogy of an essay and a song. In the former, wherever you pause you face vacuum. But in a song the pauses are full of music. In fact, more the music elongates, more leisurely are the words. The satiety of a singer lies in the gaps between his words, and that of a writer in swarming those.

We men of the society now on a voyage, for sometime have been able to turn our face towards the Universe. From the façade of Creation where there is scramble of many we have turned to the seat of One, to feel that this enormous leisure of the blue sky and sea is a pitcher of condensed Amritam (Immortality), which is full akin to the white light, a culmination of the myriad hues, so is this nectar of Immortality culminating many a mundane delicacy. So, to understand the truth of these multiples you have to understand that of Unity. Man has to bear the burden of the branch cut off a tree, but that remaining in the tree can itself take care of man. The ‘many’ severed from One are man’s burden, but those integral with One can give full shelter to man.

On one side this world is crowded with utilities and on the other with superfluity. The burden of the former we must bear and no dissent there stands, just as we must have the walls of our room. But all is not wall, there are windows here and there with which we maintain our intimacy with the sky. But, I find people among us who cannot stand those windows even. To seal those up they create non-issues like trash work, letters, meetings, lectures, exasperation et al. And this trash mushrooms. At home and outside, in our religiosity or amusements this trash dominates, whose function is to seal the windows.

But it was not supposed to be so, as you cannot get the Complete except through these gaps through which pass light and air. But light, air and sky are not creations of man so he is averse to accommodating those within society. So, whatever leisure is left after providing the utilities, he fills up with trash. Thus, man is solidifying his days and would similarly treat his nights too so far as he can. It is like the laws of the Calcutta Municipality under which all the ponds must be filled up with rubbish. Even attempts are there to choke the Ganges with jetties, bridges and ships. I remember my childhood Calcutta. The ponds were the companions of the sky. In those spots the heaven could step on the Earth to be hosted by those ponds on their seats of water.

The advantage of a utility is that it has a limit and cannot go astray. It permits 10 to 4 duty hour with festival holidays and Sundays; does not laugh out the night with electric light. Whatever it gives while our longevity runs down, has to be paid for in lucre, extravagance of which cannot be afforded.

But superfluity is devoid of a sense of balance. It dispels timeliness. It knocks at your door any time, during your leave hours and even to wake you up at night . Because it has no business, it is more busy than a workaholic (it seems the Poet here refers to the untimely fits of inspirations even at the dead of night which he used to pen down instantly before they will elude, but for which his superb creations would not be so enormous and varied).

Utilities can be quantified, the superfluities cannot. So this devil must occupy his immeasurable seat. It is difficult to push him out from there and we pine for a vagrancy.

Anyway, as soon as I have been out, I realized that there is no credit in frantically denying that with this vast world our relation is of Anandam (heavenly joy). Here there is no scramble neither chock-a-bloc, yet everything is full to the brim, that mirrors my image. The words ‘I am here’ get fragmented and deformed amidst our lanes and buildings. When I spread these words in the sky above, I realize its true implication. Then I transcend the utilities and the superfluities to find their reception in the domain of Anandam and clearly perceive why men were addressed as ‘The sons of the Immortal’.
(On way to Japan 1916)


Received from Rajat Das Gupta, Calcutta

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