Memories of Tagore

E.P. Thompson introduces his father E.J. Thompson’s account of a stay with the Bengali poet

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the 125th anniversary of whose birth is being celebrated by a series of festival events in London this month, returned to Bengal in September 1913 after a triumphant spell in England. Sir William Rothenstein had introduced him to English literary and artistic circles in the course of the previous year. His own prose versions of some of his poems, entitled Gitanjali, with a prefatory essay by W.B. Yeats, had met with instant acclaim, and Macmillan were hurrying out successor volumes, including The Gardener. Scholars and critics continue to argue how far these ‘translations’ established his reputation or led to misrecognitions. Mary Lago’s Imperfect Encounter (1972) is one gate-of-entry into these problems of mismatch between the expectations of Western Orientalism and of Eastern Occidentalism, both of which Tagore confounded.

Edward John Thompson (1886-1946) was then an educational missionary at the Wesleyan College at Bankura. He had published several volumes of verse, and was approaching proficiency in Bengali. After a brief meeting in Calcutta, Tagore invited him to visit him at his school near Bolpur, Santiniketan (‘Abode of Peace’). The visit took place on 13 and 14 November 1913, and the following account (dated 17 November) was intended as a private record for a few friends.

Sister Nivedita was the name taken by Miss Margaret Noble, when she became a disciple of Vivekananda (Narendranath Datta), the founder of the Ramkrishna Mission. (Tagore had met criticism from Hindu and nationalist opinion when, in 1907, he had suddenly renounced political activity, and retired to pursue his writing and educational work at Santiniketan). C.F. Andrews and W.W. Pearson, both former missionaries, were closely associated for many years with Tagore. The passage in Yeats’s essay which offended Thompson (and perhaps Tagore) was one in which it is suggested that the poet expressed ‘the common mind’ of the Bengali nation – a mind ‘unbroken’ and ‘not, as with us, broken into a dozen minds that know nothing of each other’. On the contrary, Tagore’s poetry divided Bengal literary society into contending parties; and the Bengali version of Gitanjali found little acclaim. Tagore’s use of vernacular had at first offended those with more formal and Sanskritised expectations of verse: at the Wesleyan College, Thompson’s pandits and students shook their heads and complained of the ‘bad Bengali’ – ‘the language does not taste well.’ Michael Datta (Madhusudan Datta, 1824-73), who took the name ‘Michael’ on his conversion to Christianity, was highly regarded as an innovator in Bengali blank verse and for his elevated Miltonic style. But he was never a model for Tagore. It was perhaps on this occasion that he said to Thompson: ‘Michael was nothing of a Bengali scholar. He just got a dictionary and looked out all the sounding Sanskrit words’ (‘The Significance of Gitanjali’, London Quarterly Review, October 1914; see also E.J. Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore, Poet and Dramatist, OUP, 1926).

I reached Bolpur about 11.30 a.m. Rabi’s bullock-gharri was there waiting. I put my hold-all in it and walked on ahead. Some students caught me up; we went together. They told me they were boys at the Santiniketan. We soon left the town behind us and reached the Asram.

A master met me and said: ‘I will take you to Mr Tagore.’ Rabi was in his favourite seat, under thick bushes. He came out and took me into the grove. I saw there were two chairs there, with a small table between. Before we sat down I said: ‘I don’t want to waste your time.’ He replied: ‘I have any amount of time to give you. I have nothing to do.’ On the table were some manuscripts, which he told me were new translations. He was fingering them, so I got the impression that he wished me to look at them. At last I said: ‘May I look at those?’ ‘I want you to,’ he answered. ‘I should be greatly obliged if you would run a pencil over them and improve their diction and rhythm.’ I demurred, but he meant what he said.

The first ones I read seemed to me of exceeding beauty. I made a trifling alteration or two and explained my reasons. ‘I wish I could find some really bad faults,’ I said. He smiled. His manner was simple and modest, and he did not pretend not to be interested in his poems. I remarked on his extraordinary abundance and how unprecedented his achievement seemed to me, of contributing in such a fashion to the literature of another tongue. He seemed pleased.

As I corrected, we talked. I mentioned Sister Nivedita. ‘I didn’t like her,’ he said: ‘She was so violent.’ He added: ‘She had a great hatred for me and my work, especially here, and did all she could against me. She was so confident that I was unpatriotic and truckling to modern thought.’ I asked: ‘Wasn’t she responsible for a lot of the bloodshed in Bengal?’ ‘Yes,’ he said: ‘She used to say most wrong and foolish things.’

‘She had a great influence over Bengali students?’

‘Tremendous.’

‘I was surprised to see you had written an appreciation of her?’

‘Well,’ he said: ‘It was this way, Mr Thompson. She was so full of love ... ’

‘Except for Englishmen.’

He smiled. ‘Except for Englishmen. Well, she was simply full of love for my country, and I have seen her many a time working amid the most dreadful privations, especially for a woman brought up as she was. And she was always so bright and cheerful. So I felt I couldn’t refuse to write about her when they asked me.’

‘Have you met Anna Bhai?’ I asked. (Anna Bhai is the name Mrs Besant gave herself.)

‘Whom?’

‘Mrs Besant.’

He shuddered: ‘No, and I never want to.’

‘She’s never done any good, I think?’

‘No, not a bit.’

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