If you don’t know who Rabindranath Tagore is, you should. He was a Bengali writer, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature. It was awarded primarily for his book “Gitanjali”, a collection of poetry. Besides poetry, though, he wrote plays, novels, songs, non-fiction ranging from travelogues to history to essays, and, of course, short stories.
When he began to write his short stories in the late 1800s there was little literary precedence in Bengali; he claims he had to invent language for the form as he composed. At the time he had gone off into the countryside to manage some estates for his family. He lived on a houseboat on the Padma River, and daily was in contact with the common folk who comprise the characters in his tales. His affinity with and love for them is evident in the empathy he displays for them all: he writes of families torn asunder by contention and jealousy, of arranged marriages, of child brides, of wandering mendicants, of devotees of Hindu gods, of the rich destroyed by their riches and the poor by their poverty, of teachers and their students, of servants and their masters, of parents and their children; he even writes a few about ghosts and haunted palaces. All of them are set in the milieu of the time: the Hindu- and Bengali-speaking northeast of India during the British Raj. The British, however, are mentioned only peripherally; the stories are about Indians and India. Though the customs and beliefs are very different from what we are used to in the modern West, Tagore’s talent is great enough to get us into the minds of his characters so that they become familiar to us and we can see them as beset with humanity as we ourselves are.
Tagore is an artist. Apart from the believable characters there are beautiful descriptions of the Bengali countryside: sunshine and storms, droughts and floods, plains and rivers, trees and flowers, as well as the scents and sounds and feel of the country villages.
This book is of particular interest to me because I lived for several years in Bangladesh and in West Bengal, India. I studied elementary Bengali at Dhaka University. I lived for a few months in Santiniketan, where Tagore lived and founded an ashram. I can still read Bengali, but alas, I have forgotten most of the vocabulary. I would like to read Tagore in the original. Someday, perhaps.
In the meantime, this is an excellent translation. Sometimes when I have read translated works, for instance of Shusaku Endo’s “Deep River”, I have been disappointed; while the quality of the original cannot help but shine through, it is evident that something has been lost in the transition from the author’s language to English. I can’t say that this is the case here. The translation (by William Radice) is very smooth, very elegant.
Would I recommend this book? Unequivocally. Anyone who loves short stories should read this book, or you are missing out on a master of the craft. Some of the stories are stronger than others, it’s true, but that is true of any short story collection. Some of my particular favorites are: “Taraprasanna’s Fame”, “Wealth Surrendered”, “Kabuliwallah”, “A Problem Solved”, “Thakurda”, “The Hungry Stones”, and “The Gift of Sight”. The stories are all quite short and can be read in a sitting, which is good because many of them are best appreciated as whole entities.
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