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.’

From time to time I showed him my pencillings. He was very quick to grasp my meaning, though my alterations were mostly so hypercritical that I kept apologising for them. He always agreed. I said: ‘You know, the English of Gitanjali astonished us.’

‘It surprised me. They tell me it was very good, but I did not know it was. You know, Mr Thompson, I am not really at home in English. I can’t tell which is the better rhythm of two.’

‘Well, I’ve only heard you make one real mistake, and that was a thing you couldn’t be expected to know.’

‘What was that?’

‘When we met in Calcutta, you said “cricketeers”. The last syllable should be short.’

He smiled again. I noticed him say ‘undergrowths’ where we should have used the singular.

We talked of D.L. Ray, who died this year – Bengal’s most popular poet. I asked if it was true that D.L. Ray said his Bengali was bad?

‘Oh, yes. He hated my work. We used to be very friendly, but of late years had little intercourse. He complained that my poems were very obscure, said he couldn’t make head or tail of some of them. He lost no opportunity of attacking me.’

‘Why? Was it jealousy?’ (Bengalis have told me that Ray was jealous of Rabi.)

‘Well, he knew I didn’t admire his dramas, and he resented it. I never said a word against them, but he gathered from my silence that I did not think them good. When he knew he was dying, he wrote me a long letter, regretting the past and wanting to put matters straight. There is no doubt the letter was written, for men have seen it. But his family destroyed it and never sent it to me.’ And Rabi’s face worked for a moment.

‘He was a man of genius?’

‘Oh, I think so, certainly.’

Early in our talk I said: ‘I take it you haven’t the least objection to my calling you Rabi Babu? It is the name I have heard you called by, long before you were famous in Europe.’ He replied: ‘Not the slightest. It is only in England that I am Mr Tagore. In fact, I don’t always get the “Babu” here. It’s often just Rabi Thakur.’

Something he said caused me to observe: ‘You know, little things like that show me that there was once a very different Rabi Babu from the one now sitting beside me.’ He seemed, for some reason, deeply impressed, and said very earnestly: ‘No doubt of that. Very different.’

He complained of the way Calcutta University, owing to the influence of its preponderating babu element, had for years kept his books off the list of Bengali textbooks. I happen to know this is so. There has been a dead set against him. He said: ‘When my Nivedita was published some years ago, there was a great outcry in the Bengali papers that I had lost my “magic of style”.’

I asked about his singing, which is famous. He said: ‘I used to have a very strong voice. Years ago, when I was very young, there was a big meeting in the Town Hall. Bankim Babu’ (the great Bengali novelist) ‘was in the chair and all the best speakers were speaking. I had to speak and it strained my voice in that hall. When I had finished, the people insisted I should sing – for in those days I was much better known as a singer than a poet – and I had to. I strained my voice so much that it seems never to have been right again.’

We sat there for over three hours; then, as the sun was sloping to setting, I said: ‘I should like to see your boys.’ It was the boys I had nominally come to see, by the way.

‘Of course,’ he said: ‘Come with me.’ We looked at them, working under the trees; then we walked up and down for another hour, talking of Michael Datta, Bengal’s greatest poet. I mentioned Francis Thompson. Rabi said he couldn’t always understand him. I said: ‘I think sometimes he would have difficulty in understanding himself.’ I remarked that there was much more of a literary tradition out here than in England. ‘Do you think so, Mr Thompson? I can’t agree with you. In England, if a man is recognised as a poet, all parties accept him and he is treated with great respect.’ (Rabi has apparently only been in literary circles in Angleterre.) I said: ‘A poet’s reputation, while he lives, is mostly confined to his clique. But here, in the abstract, at any rate, people have a great reverence for the name of poet.’

We mentioned Yeats’s introductory essay to the Gitanjali. I said that, in my opinion, it was misleading and ill-informed.

‘I quite agree with you. I don’t like the essay myself. Parts of it are quite wrong.’

‘There isn’t the homogeneity of thought here that he so admires, and, if there were, would it be such a good thing?’

‘Of course there isn’t.’

‘Yeats imagines you as applauded by a unanimous populace.’

‘As a matter of fact, I have been an unpopular poet. They say we Tagores are not like other Bengalis but are like a separate nation in the nation. Bengalis always complain that my poems are obscure.’ He seemed to feel his countrymen’s treatment of him and mentioned it more than once.

About 4.30 I had tea. He came in suddenly and said: ‘Mr Thompson, will you excuse me for a few hours? I have to go somewhere.’ I joined his boys. Three groups were playing football. I went to another, who were cricketing. I found they played really well, especially as they were small boys. After a time I said I would show them how to bowl off-breaks. A great crowd gathered, to see the exhibition ball. A master was batting. I tossed down a dolly, which pitched a good foot outside the off-stump. He wiped wildly, the ball broke a foot and knocked the off-stump flat. The crowd was tremendously impressed; had I been wise, I should have bowled no more. I was fool enough to be persuaded later to take the leather in hand again. The pitch was very short, so I sent down a few overpitched balls, which a master mowed to considerable distances. The boys began to think 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.

It was presently dark and the students were very anxious I should address them. Only two other sahibs visit here, Andrews and Pearson, and they are immensely popular. So they brought their strips of matting and sat on the big treeless plain behind, in the moonlight.

Kali Mohan Ghosh, who was in England with Rabi, took the chair and in the simplest possible English told a lot of lies about me. He said I was a tremendous chum of the gurudeb’s, and that I was a close friend of those noble men, Andrews and Pearson, whom they loved so well. (As a matter of fact, I never saw either of them.) Then I began: ‘Prio chhatragon.’ 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 made no mistake either in idiom or pronunciation: but said the boys had only heard one sahib talk Bengali before and the strangeness overcame their risible faculties. They really seemed immensely pleased that I had spoken in Bengali, and we chatted on for a long time, boys, masters, myself, laughing and joking under the moon. I felt more at home than I had yet done in India and we became great friends. Kali Mohan told me afterwards that the boys had exalted me to the hitherto vacant place among ‘the first three’, beside Andrews and Pearson.

At 7.30 I 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: ‘Only first let us settle what you are to do in your next incarnation.’ The boys must have at least a year’s holiday, I told him.

There had been a half-holiday the previous day, by the way, for Nanak. Everyone knows who Nanak was, so I won’t insult you by explaining. I had asked Rabi: ‘Do you only give holidays for religious leaders?’ He said: ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you give a half-holiday for Bernard Shaw?’ He leered at me: ‘No.’

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 asram singing their school song ‘Amader Santiniketan’. Rabi and I were sitting on the sofa, and they went past when they saw that. But they would not go past the second time, but gathered at the door. I went and looked at them. They had gone wild. I called to Rabi: ‘You’d better come.’ He came. Then a frenzy of worship seized on 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. The mob shouted and sang. At last I said: ‘They’ll do this till further orders, Rabi Babu.’ ‘Yes, we’ll go in.’ Then they dispersed and made a huge bonfire, shouting far into the night.

It was now about 8 p.m. Rabi told me that the Nobel award was not altogether unexpected. When in England, he had been asked to send copies of his books and of press-cuttings to the Nobel committee. He said he was not altogether pleased: ‘I shall get no peace now, Mr Thompson. I shall be worried with appeals, all kinds of people will be writing to me. Do you know, Mr Thompson, sometimes I feel as if it were too much for me, as if I could bear it no longer. When I reached Bombay, I saw a lot of people with garlands. I thought they were waiting to garland some official. My heart sank when I found that they were wanting to make a public show of me there.’ He said things like this to me several times during the evening.

I saw it would be well to draw his mind off, so I suggested that I should explain my further corrections. He seemed relieved and drew his chair up to the table. I asked him about his early translations of Shelley. He said they were done when he was about 16. ‘I had a tremendous admiration for Shelley, but I have outgrown it.’ He talked of his great loss of some years back, when his wife, his daughter and his other son all died (in the same year, I believe).

We had some chaff about the respective merits of English and Bengali. I went for Bengali spelling – said it made me incline to the theory of pre-existence: ‘Bengalis must have been very wicked in a last life to suffer such a language in this one.’ He retorted that he could still remember his feelings of pain and rebellion when told that ‘psalm’ was ‘sam’. When I wasn’t certain about the meaning of a phrase in his work, he would begin singing. He said he had a very bad memory for verse. He would sing the whole poem through till he got to the line: then he would ask me my opinion as to its translation and I, modestly and plainly (like Ellwood with Milton), told him. I fell foulest of his epigrams. I told him that, as epigrams depended almost entirely on their edge of language, he must admit a principle of compensation. A literal translation of an epigram was the flattest thing in the world. I cited Goethe’s as examples. I retranslated one or two epigrams for him. To take one of his most successful. ‘True work is the activity of leisure as the waves are that of the stillness of the sea’ I proposed turning into: ‘The sea has waves upon its stillness, and leisure has its waves of labour.’

I showed him the verse renderings I had done from the Bengali of one or two of his poems and he was immensely pleased. I found him disquieted about The Gardener. He said the English reviews were not receiving it well: ‘You see, they’ve labelled me a mystic and when I produce something that isn’t mystical they are offended.’ He said he had some very cordial private letters, especially one from Evelyn Underhill, who is a great pal of his. ‘But you know, Mr Thompson, she’s determined, I think, to read mysticism into everything I write.’

He told me how Government used to harass him. ‘I was No 12 in their books,’ he complained: ‘Every time I went to Calcutta my movements were watched and the police had to keep me under surveillance here. Government put a spy in this school. He came here and offered to work for nothing. We found out he was a spy. I spoke to him frankly and told him everyone suspected him of being a spy and told him he had better go.’ The ‘No 12’ amused me so much that I was helpless with mirth. (He was ‘three-starred’ I have since been told.)

He told me about this when we were under the trees. He admitted he used to have a prejudice against the official Englishman. But there is no doubt he has been deeply touched by his reception in England, and he said so repeatedly. I asked. ‘Have you any prejudice against missionaries?’ He admitted he had: ‘My community, the Brahmos, admire them immensely, but the Bengalis as a whole have not got a high opinion of them. I admit I have a prejudice. The few I have met have not impressed me – they have been so narrow-minded. Then, they preach very high doctrine and our people expect them to live up to it. But don’t you see oppression done often? Then why don’t they protest?’

I said: ‘I’m sorry you have a prejudice against missionaries, for I am one.’

‘You’re not a missionary!’

‘I certainly am. Did you think I was in Government service?’

‘No. I knew you were a professor at the Wesleyan college.’

‘What’s more, I’m a padre.’

‘You are not serious?’

‘I am. You surprise me. They say that when a man’s a padre, it leaves a mark on him and you can spot him anywhere.’

‘There’s no mark on you.’

He complained Yeats made hardly any alterations in the Gitanjali English, and folk had since sent him lists of suggested improvements. The Gitanjali was a selection from an immense mass of manuscripts he gave Yeats.

About 11 he said: ‘I am keeping you out of bed.’ So we went into the moonlight. He said: ‘I do enjoy my nights.’ ‘You sleep well?’ ‘No, I often walk in the moonlight.’ ‘So do I.’ Then we turned in.

Next morning I was up before dawn and saw the sun rise red above the great Birbhum plain. Rabi had another long talk with me, then I went to the station in his son’s motor. So ended one of my most intimate experiences. It is no exaggeration to say that I loved him long before the evening was done. They told me that he misses his English friends and had greatly enjoyed the day. His parting injunctions were that I should pencil as much as I liked.

In Calcutta, Spencer was immensely amused by the bundle of manuscripts under my arm. He and I ran a school form-magazine years ago. He said: ‘I never thought the editor of the Lower Fifth Fortnightly Budget would one day be correcting the English of a Nobel prizeman.’ Stark, an inspector whom I found on the train at Bolpur, found me talking (quite like a journalist) of ‘we mystics’. ‘You’re not a mystic, Thompson,’ he said, ‘though I dare say you’d like to be one. No man in charge of a high school can possibly be a mystic.’ ‘I’m by way of being a mystic in my spare moments,’ I said. ‘From all I can learn, those are precious few,’ said he.