Alien Homage: Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore 
by E.P. Thompson.
Oxford, 175 pp., £8.95, June 1993, 0 19 563011 4
Show More
Show More

Two Englishmen spring to mind in connection with Tagore: C.F. Andrews and W.W. Pearson. Andrews, with his further association with Gandhi, looms now and then in Indian history books and national folklore as a ‘friend of India’, and, strange as it may sound, nothing more. The adoration and idealising passion with which Andrews engaged with India make us engage with him as a sincere but rather bland generality, an ideal Englishman, and rarely as a person. We see him walking with Tagore and Gandhi, part disciple and part companion, with little apparent contact with ordinary people, till he becomes, in our minds, one of the great stereotypes of that era, to figure occasionally in fairy tales such as Attenborough’s Gandhi. E.J., or Edward, Thompson, seldom remembered these days, and always uneasy in his role as ‘friend of India’, was, on the other hand, involved with the country of his long domicile (from 1910-23) in a way that was often uncomfortable but always intimate; he reappears now in a short book written by his son, E.P. Thompson.

Although Alien Homage is about his relations with Tagore, it is in E.J. Thompson’s incarnation as clergyman and teacher in a small Bengali town called Bankura (now known mainly for its clay horses), and in his daily contact, as a teacher, with the common people of that town, that he is today interesting and even unique. E.P. Thompson believes that the subject of his book is the ‘interface between two cultures’, and that this is primarily exemplified in his father’s ‘interface’, as translator, biographer, and often misunderstood friend, with Tagore. While this is partly true – the story of Thompson’s uneasy relations with Tagore might be an important one, especially to Tagore scholars – a far richer ‘interface’ might have been found, one suspects, in Thompson’s affectionate attachment to the local people of Bankura, an affection that quickens portions of his now forgotten novels and what little we know of his personality. In this intimacy with ordinary people – schoolboys, anxious parents, teachers – Thompson was perhaps one of the most humane of the Englishmen in colonial India, and his sense of what is comic in ordinary lives comes from closeness rather than, as it did sometimes with Forster, from an outsider’s detachment. As the narrative of Thompson’s life as a teacher in Bankura is scattered through writings in letters, autobiographical novels, essays and plays, a whole new book would be required to do it justice; in this one, the first chapter – certainly the funniest and liveliest in the book – freely quotes from Thompson and provides a background before we go on to weightier matters concerning him and Tagore.

E.P. Thompson informs us that his father, in the passages of colonial history and the world of Indo-Anglian relations, ‘was a marginal man, a courier between cultures who wore the authorised livery of neither’. Moreover, though ‘he developed a wide circle of Bengali friendships,’ these were ‘always beset with misrecognitions’. It is not as a representative of official English policy or spokesman for the Church that Thompson makes his presence felt, but as a transgressive, playful individual who loved cricket, poetry and Indians. As vice-principal of a college in an obscure Bengali village, and as a teacher of English literature at the high school, with ‘seven Indian professors (of mathematics, logic, history, chemistry, physics, economics and Sanskrit) and a Sanskrit pundit’, he was certainly at the centre of what has been identified as the sovereign colonial battleground by post-colonial theorists – education. For the teaching of English literature and the imparting of British education, we now know, was inextricably, implicitly and endemically involved with the exercise of colonial power and domination. Life on the battleground, however, could often be, unsurprisingly, quite different from the picture the theorists have drawn for us. ‘Far more devotion,’ says E.P. Thompson, ‘went into teaching the heathen football and cricket (in which Thompson excelled) than into Bible-studies.’ ‘Yesterday, in quite bitter tones, one of my B.A. students was remonstrating with me for having taught things about Milton that are not in the syllabus,’ E.J. Thompson wrote in a letter. ‘The truth is, I have never troubled my head about the syllabus, even to look at it.’

His writings on his teaching experiences are exceptionally funny, demonstrating, with a caricaturist’s gift for exaggeration and a realist’s eye and ear for the true and human, that even the smallest town can contain within it the colonial influences and confusions that exist in the rest of the country:

Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, the Headmaster and I move from class to class. Those who have given us no excuse for complaint we promote with reluctant silence. But those who have done badly in some subject we hold over the mouth of Hell for what seems to the trembler before us an awful space. ‘It is my wish to promote, certainly,’ I say: ‘But acting how can I do so?’ We groan and my colleague covers his face with his hands. ‘Forgive me, sir, forgive me,’ begs the culprit. ‘Always forgiving is not good,’ we reply: ‘From time to time punishment bears fruit. Your work is matter of great shame. Near us such work shall not walk.’ By this, my Bengali and my seriousness are about exhausted together. ‘Tell this wallah, Purna Babu,’ I say in English, ‘that by a colossal and unparalleled exercise of doia (Mercy) we promote him. Tell him, doia is the realm in which our spirits move most freely, joyful as young birds when they first float on the wind.’ Purna Babu grins; then, with a voice of such ferocity as almost to deceive me, translates or, rather, paraphrases. Of the non-promotees the less said the better. Days of woe and weeping befall them, with much trudging to and fro of grief-smit parents. In the end, some of them are saved, but so as by fire.

Preferring to write about Indians over India, about the travails and comedies of contemporary colonial give-and-take over the mysteries of India’s ancient heritage, about the small over the big, Thompson differs from other English writers on India. He lacks both their adoring certainties and their condescension, is at once more befuddled and receptive than they, and is also a true, and unread, precursor of a line of Indian writing in English that begins with R.K. Narayan – writing which explores, in small and forgotten localities, tiny, ridiculous colonial ironies.

Thompson’s first meeting with Tagore took place at the latter’s school in Santiniketan, in 1913, ‘on the very night that the news first came through of Tagore’s Nobel Prize’. Thompson’s account of that occasion, published in this book in an appendix, first appeared, courtesy of E.P. Thompson, in a ‘slightly abbreviated version’ in the London Review (22 May 1986). So completely has Thompson passed from India’s popular memory of its colonial figures that the piece in the LRB was the first time I came across anything to do with him, although I had heard of his son and his book, The Making of the English Working Class. E.J. Thompson’s piece was about Tagore, but it is the quirky, easily-moved Englishman’s personality, awkward but receptive, that comes through. It was a fateful day, and Thompson’s leisurely, vivid description of it records the long drift of conversation, the short tenure of a Bengali winter’s day, and then the news of the Nobel Prize, which changed not only Tagore’s career as a poet but also Bengal’s history. Thompson found himself, astonished, in the midst of all this, rejoicing in the Bengali poet’s glory – a vicarious joy, but a genuine epiphany nevertheless, never to be regained in later life.

Tagore and Thompson had begun their conversation at about midday; they had talked, among other things, of Annie Besant, Sister Nivedita, Yeats’s introductory essay to the Gitanjali, and the Bengali poet D.L. Roy. At 4.30 Tagore excused himself, and Thompson played cricket with the boys and masters of Tagore’s school, showing them ‘how to bowl off-breaks’, and then actually knocking out a teacher’s off-stump. ‘The crowd was tremendously impressed; had I been wise, I should have bowled no more.’ However, he did bowl ‘a few overpitched balls, which a master moved to considerable distances. The boys began to think that the sahib was very small beer as a bowler, so seeing the prestige of my race at stake, I took my coat off and whopped down a few fast ones which soon levelled all the haughty fellow’s sticks’.

Later, the students asked him to make a small speech.

So they brought their strips of matting and sat on the big treeless plain behind, in the moonlight ... Then I began: ‘Prio chhatrogon’ [‘Dear pupils’]. The small boys all collapsed with laughter. However, I spoke for about ten minutes in Bengali, and about fifteen in English. They all assured me afterwards that my Bengali was excellent and that I had made no mistake either in idiom or pronunciation.

At half-past seven, he went to dine.

Presently, a hubbub arose, the masters rushed up with a sheaf of telegrams. ‘We have great news,’ they cried. ‘Mr Tagore has won the Nobel prize.’ A minute later, Rabi himself entered. I went up to him. ‘Rabi Babu, you must let me have the honour of being the first Englishman to congratulate you.’ ‘Thank you, you are very kind.’ We shook hands. I was nearly dancing with joy. I would not have swapped being the one outsider there on this night of madness for anything. ‘Earth has nothing more for you now Rabi Babu. You must commit suicide this night,’ I told him ...

  The boys went mad. They didn’t know what the Nobel prize was, but they understood that the gurudeb they adored had done something wonderful, as indeed he was always doing. They formed ranks and marched round the ashram singing their school-song ‘Amader Santiniketan’ (Our Santiniketan) ... Then a frenzy of worship seized them and they, one after another, threw themselves down and touched his feet. That saint of a man stood deprecating, with his hands to his face, palms together, begging pardon. When his superintendent came, he tried to stop him from homage. But all, masters, boys, servants, did homage. I could have done it myself almost; but I am an Englishman, and have a stern contempt for the fools who pretend they are easterners.

As a memoir, and a record of an encounter between two cultures, this is a classic, with the colonising country represented by a nervous 27-year-old clergyman, and the subject-nation represented by the kindly but overwhelming presence of the 52-year-old Bengali poet. For Forster, Fielding and Aziz, his two creations, were eventually kept from friendship by being separated by their mythical ‘Englishness’ and ‘Indianness’ respectively; but the value of Thompson’s insights into everyday Indian culture is related precisely to their being defined by his Englishness, which in his case is not something abstract and official, but a certain humane and individual quality. Thus, his ‘stern contempt for the fools that pretend they are easterners’ is his way of acknowledging the ‘difference’ that both limits and enriches cultural relationships; it also undercuts ‘universalist’ ideas of ‘human nature’ which both Englishmen and Indians, Tagore included, were at that time so keen to believe in.

In spite of the very positive nature of that first meeting, Thompson and Tagore’s friendship was not to flourish. Tagore never again showed Thompson the enthusiasm and generosity he had on that first occasion, and was known to be unhappy with a study the latter had made of his poetry. He never visited Bankura, as he had promised he would; his correspondence with Thompson was a matter of misunderstandings and reconciliations, with Tagore, now a busy man, a magus and oriental ambassador, having constantly to postpone projects and with Thompson fuming and being tactless, and doing translations of Tagore’s works that were never properly acknowledged by publishers. All this will be of use to Tagore scholarship, but Thompson is interesting to us today by being perhaps the first Englishman to realise that Tagore was now orientalising and exoticising his translations from his own work ‘to suit Western taste’. When Thompson informed Tagore of his plan to edit a selection of Bengali short stories (he believed ‘there is no greater short story writer in the world’s literature than [Tagore]’), Tagore replied: ‘I wonder whether they will be appreciated by English readers. The associations of Indian life are so foreign to them that these are likely to tax their imagination too much for a perfectly comfortable reading.’ Thompson’s son, however, writes that ‘what Thompson valued in the stories was their “intimacy of knowledge of the common people”, and this could not always make for “perfectly comfortable reading”.’ In fact, Thompson had written on 16 August 1941, only a week after Tagore’s death:

More and more he toned down or omitted whatever seemed to him characteristically Indian, which very often was what was gripping and powerful. He despaired too much of ever persuading our people to be interested in what was strange to them. His work will one day have to be retranslated and properly edited. I am sure that there will be a revival of his reputation.

The first two sentences express Thompson’s clearest insight into Tagore’s work, and give what is still, among Tagore’s non-Bengali admirers, amazingly, a minority opinion. Perhaps it was Thompson’s own nervous individuality, his marginal status in his own culture, that made him value in Tagore not what was ‘universal’, as many of his contemporaries did, but what was individual and Bengali and ‘different’. The whole idea, propagated by the poet’s Indian and Western admirers alike, of Tagore as a ‘world poet’, was a harmful falsification, symptomatic of a time when Western humanism presumed the translatability of all cultures into one another’s terms, and the existence of a generalised ‘human’ sensibility; in short, it required the Tagore it invented. Thompson, ambiguous about authority, a clergyman who played cricket, saw that Tagore, if he was to be read, would have to be redeemed from being a ‘world poet’ to being a Bengali poet with an ‘intimacy of knowledge of the common people’, something that Thompson, as a teacher at Bankura, possessed himself.

Among the English translations available of Tagore’s poetry, Ketaki Kushari Dyson’s selection I Won’t Let You Go* perhaps captures more successfully than any other the sensuous Bengaliness of Tagore’s works, and the particularity of the weather, both inner and outer, in which the poems exist. Tragically, the popular estimation of Tagore in the West was based on the poet’s pseudo-Biblical and, frankly, bad translations of a tiny, unrepresentative sample of his own work, a book of songs called the Gitanjali. But when the West lost interest in the platonic, ‘universal’ message of the Gitanjali, no attempt was made to discover the Tagore who was provincial, Bengali, and whose poetry contains some of the most striking records of the details of Bengali life ever written. Tagore was a national poet of international standing, increasingly busy with ambassadorial duties; his poetry is written by a man who exists on the margins of his official life and the poems are full of off-duty moments, in which the story of Tagore’s other life is told: his love of the Bengali landscape and its light, woven into which is the perpetual haunting of the dead – his wife, or his sister-in-law Kadambari, or his daughter.

The impact of colonialism on Tagore’s India is comparable to that of the Industrial Revolution on England; by the end of the 19th century, what it meant to live in India and be an ‘Indian’ changed forever. For Tagore, being in India at that moment must have been something like what it was like for the Romantics in England after the Industrial Revolution. The creation of the railways, for instance, connecting one remote part of India to another, brought about, for the first time, the commingling of different communities, with their different features and styles of attire, which we take so much for granted as being part of the ‘Indian’ experience. Though it is commonly supposed that Tagore, while advocating science and reason, eventually rejected industrialisation and turned towards nature and a transcendental truth, in his poems we find him partaking of the new life after colonisation. It is here that we discover what Thompson most loved in the poet’s work: the ‘intimacy of knowledge of the common people’. ‘A Person’, a poem that describes an ‘oldish man from India’s North’, wearing a ‘dhoti in wrestler style’, and ‘shoes with turned up toes’ is comparable to ‘Resolution and Independence’ in that it records, without the latter’s Romanticism, the disquieting and dream-like effect of encountering a person from a different, perhaps almost extinct, walk of life, and from a little-known world.

The wayfarer appeared
on the outermost line of my universe,
where insubstantial shadow-pictures move.
I just knew him to be a person.
He had no name, no identity, no pain ...

Moreover, Tagore’s poems provide an alternative map and history of Bengal, with its ferrymen, its tribal Santhal women with their ‘laughter-rich sweet speech,’ and the nameless girl working with a group of nomadic bricklaying labourers ‘from the West country’, who runs ‘a hundred times a day’ to the riverside to wash utensils: ‘Such scrubbing and scouring/of pots and pans and dishes!’

Dyson has allowed her instinct and her intimacy with Bengali to direct her to translate the best and the most unusual, rather than necessarily the most popular, of Tagore’s poems. Indeed, many of the poems here are not to be found even in the standard Bengali anthology of Tagore’s poetry, the Sanchayita. It is her poet’s devotion to the concrete and specific that recreates for us in English those immeasurably valuable experiences and sensations.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences