Tagore and the language of children

“The Hero” by Nandalal Bose

I have long held the opinion that if translation is difficult, translating Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and songs from the original Bangla into English is nearly impossible.  Part of the difficulty is inherent in the language and cannot be circumvented easily by any translator: for example, Bangla, like many other Indic languages has three forms of “you” (aapni, tumi, tui) complete with complementary verbs, but no pronoun or verb form that distinguishes between the male and female “him” or “her”. Not only does Tagore revel in using this ambiguity in Bangla, but the musicality of his rhyming verse and the cultural connotations of the words he uses do not translate well at all.

So, while I appreciate the efforts of the likes of Ketaki Kushari Dyson and William Radice in making him accessible to a wider audience, knowing Bangla myself,  like millions of others, I take refuge in the original works. I’ve particularly been frustrated by Tagore’s own recreations of his work, which can frankly, only nominally be referred to as translations. Any writer is entitled to recreate his work in any manner he chooses, but as readers enthralled by his mastery in his native language, likewise, we are well within our rights to fret when the essential beauty is not fully transferred. Of course, this frustration is entirely subjective.

In the vast body of early translations of Tagore’s work from the 1900s, all of which I might add, are no longer under copyright or redistribution restrictions, there are certain stories, poems, and passages that still enthrall, even after translation. One small aspect of Tagore’s vastly, brilliant oeuvre relates to his understanding of, and love for the emotions of children. These stand out in numerous works even in translation, and I’ve selected a few that include the language of children. The excerpts here are prose-poems from The Crescent Moon (1913) recreated by the poet himself; the short-story “Kabuliwala” in The Hungry Stones and Other Stories (1916) translated by C.F. Andrews; the short-story, “The Postmaster” in Mashi and Other Stories (1918, translator uncredited); and the short-play, The Post-Office (1918), translated by Devabrata Mukherjee. All of the links are to the free, full-text of the books and all excerpts below are unedited with the exception of the excerpt from The Post-Office which needed to be cleaned up and modernized a bit.

Kabuliwala has been made into two films- in Bengali by Tapan Sinha (1957) and in Hindi by Hemen Gupta (1961).  The Postmaster is one of three short films that form Satyajit Ray’s Teen Kanya (1961).

from “The Further Bank”

I long to go over there to the further bank of the river,
Where those boats are tied to the bamboo poles in a line;
Where men cross over in their boats in the morning with ploughs on their shoulders to till their far-away fields;
Where the cowherds make their lowing cattle swim across to the riverside pasture;
Whence they all come back home in the evening, leaving the jackals to howl in the island overgrown with weeds,
Mother, if you don’t mind, I should like to become the boatman of the ferry when I am grown up.

“The Hero”

Mother, let us imagine we are travelling, and passing through a strange and dangerous country.
You are riding in a palanquin and I am trotting by you on a red horse.
It is evening and the sun goes down. The waste of Joradighi; lies wan and grey before us. The land is desolate and barren.
You are frightened and thinking—”I know not where we have come to.”
I say to you, “Mother, do not be afraid.”

The meadow is prickly with spiky grass, and through it runs a narrow broken path.
There are no cattle to be seen in the wide field; they have gone to their village stalls.
It grows dark and dim on the land and sky, and we cannot tell where we are going.
Suddenly you call me and ask me in a whisper, “What light is that near the bank?”
Just then there bursts out a fearful yell, and figures come running towards us.
You sit crouched in your palanquin and repeat the names of the gods in prayer.
The bearers, shaking in terror, hide themselves in the thorny bush.
I shout to you, “Don’t be afraid, mother. I am here.”

With long sticks in their hands and hair all wild about their heads, they come nearer and nearer.
I shout, “Have a care! you villains! One step more and you are dead men.”
They give another terrible yell and rush forward.
You clutch my hand and say, “Dear boy, for heaven’s sake, keep away from them.”
I say, “Mother, just you watch me.”

Then I spur my horse for a wild gallop, and my sword and buckler clash against each other.
The fight becomes so fearful, mother, that it would give you a cold shudder could you see it from your palanquin.
Many of them fly, and a great number are cut to pieces.
I know you are thinking, sitting all by yourself, that your boy must be dead by this time.
But I come to you all stained with blood, and say, “Mother, the fight is over now.”

You come out and kiss me, pressing me to your heart, and you say to yourself,
“I don’t know what I should do if I hadn’t my boy to escort me.”

A thousand useless things happen day after day, and why couldn’t such a thing come true by chance?
It would be like a story in a book.
My brother would say, “Is it possible? I always thought he was so delicate!”
Our village people would all say in amazement, “Was it not lucky that the boy was with his mother?”

“The Champa Flower”

Supposing I became a champa flower, just for fun, and grew on a branch high up that tree, and shook in the wind with laughter and danced upon the newly budded leaves, would you know me, mother?

You would call, “Baby, where are you?” and I should laugh to myself and keep quite quiet.

I should slyly open my petals and watch you at your work.

When after your bath, with wet hair spread on your shoulders, you walked through the shadow of the champa tree to the little court where you say your prayers, you would notice the scent of the flower, but not know that it came from me.

When after the midday meal you sat at the window reading Ramayana, and the tree’s shadow fell over your hair and your lap, I should fling my wee little shadow on to the page of your book, just where you were reading.

But would you guess that it was the tiny shadow of your little child?

When in the evening you went to the cow-shed with the lighted lamp in your hand, I should suddenly drop on to the earth again and be your own baby once more, and beg you to tell me a story.

“Where have you been, you naughty child?”

“I won’t tell you, mother.” That’s what you and I would say then.

From “Kabuliwala”

One morning, however, not many days later, as I was leaving the house, I was startled to find Mini, seated on a bench near the door, laughing and talking, with the great Kabuliwala at her feet. In all her life, it appeared; my small daughter had never found so patient a listener, save her father. And already the corner of her little sari was stuffed with almonds and raisins, the gift of her visitor, “Why did you give her those?” I said, and taking out an eight-anna bit, I handed it to him. The man accepted the money without demur, and slipped it into his pocket.

Alas, on my return an hour later, I found the unfortunate coin had made twice its own worth of trouble! For the Kabuliwala had given it to Mini, and her mother catching sight of the bright round object, had pounced on the child with: “Where did you get that eight-anna bit?”

“The Kabuliwala gave it me,” said Mini cheerfully.

“The Kabuliwala gave it you!” cried her mother. “Oh, Mini! how could you take it from him?”

I, entering at the moment, saved Mini from impending disaster, and proceeded to make my own inquiries.

It was not the first or second time, I found, that the two had met. The Kabuliwala had overcome the child’s first terror by a judicious bribery of nuts and almonds, and the two were now great friends.

They had many quaint jokes, which afforded them much amusement. Seated in front of him, looking down on his gigantic frame in all her tiny dignity, Mini would ripple her face with laughter, and begin: “O Kabuliwala, Kabuliwala, what have you got in your bag?”

And he would reply, in the nasal accent of many a mountaineer: “An elephant!” Not much cause for merriment, perhaps; but how they both enjoyed the witticism! And for me, this child’s talk with a grown-up man had always in it something strangely fascinating.

From “The Postmaster”

It seemed as though the showers of the season would never end. Canals, ditches, and hollows were all overflowing with water. Day and night the patter of rain was heard, and the croaking of frogs. The village roads became impassable, and marketing had to be done in punts.

One heavily clouded morning, the postmaster’s little pupil had been long waiting outside the door for her call, but, not hearing it as usual, she took up her dog-eared book, and slowly entered the room. She found her master stretched out on his pallet, and, thinking he was resting, she was about to retire on tip-toe, when she suddenly heard her name—‘Ratan!’ She turned at once and asked: ‘Were you sleeping, Dada?’ The postmaster in a plaintive voice said: ‘I am not well. Feel my head; is it very hot?’

In the loneliness of his exile, and in the gloom of the rains, his ailing body needed a little tender nursing. He longed to remember the touch on the forehead of soft hands with tinkling bracelets, to imagine the presence of loving womanhood, the nearness of mother and sister. And the exile was not disappointed. Ratan ceased to be a little girl. She at once stepped into the post of mother, called in the village doctor, gave the patient his pills at the proper intervals, sat up all night by his pillow, cooked his gruel for him, and every now and then asked: ‘Are you feeling a little better, Dada?’

It was some time before the postmaster, with weakened body, was able to leave his sick-bed. ‘No more of this,’ said he with decision. ‘I must get a transfer.’ He at once wrote off to Calcutta an application for a transfer, on the ground of the unhealthiness of the place.

Relieved from her duties as nurse, Ratan again took up her old place outside the door. But she no longer heard the same old call. She would sometimes peep inside furtively to find the postmaster sitting on his chair, or stretched on his pallet, and staring absent-mindedly into the air. While Ratan was awaiting her call, the postmaster was awaiting a reply to his application. The girl read her old lessons over and over again—her great fear was lest, when the call came, she might be found wanting in the double consonants. At last, after a week, the call did come one evening. With an overflowing heart Ratan rushed into the room with her—‘Were you calling me, Dada?’

The postmaster said: ‘I am going away tomorrow, Ratan.’

‘Where are you going, Dada?’

‘I am going home.’

‘When will you come back?’

‘I am not coming back.’

Ratan asked no other question. The postmaster, of his own accord, went on to tell her that his application for a transfer had been rejected, so he had resigned his post, and was going home.

For a long time neither of them spoke another word. The lamp went on dimly burning, and from a leak in one corner of the thatch water dripped steadily into an earthen vessel on the floor beneath it.

After a while Ratan rose, and went off to the kitchen to prepare the meal; but she was not so quick about it as on other days. Many new things to think of had entered her little brain. When the postmaster had finished his supper, the girl suddenly asked him: ‘Dada, will you take me to your home?’

The postmaster laughed. ‘What an idea!’ said he; but he did not think it necessary to explain to the girl wherein lay the absurdity.

That whole night, in her waking and in her dreams, the postmaster’s laughing reply haunted her—‘What an idea!’

On getting up in the morning, the postmaster found his bath ready. He had stuck to his Calcutta habit of bathing in water drawn and kept in pitchers, instead of taking a plunge in the river as was the custom of the village. For some reason or other, the girl could not ask him about the time of his departure, so she had fetched the water from the river long before sunrise, that it should be ready as early as he might want it. After the bath came a call for Ratan. She entered noiselessly, and looked silently into her master’s face for orders. The master said: ‘You need not be anxious about my going away, Ratan; I shall tell my successor to look after you.’ These words were kindly meant, no doubt: but inscrutable are the ways of a woman’s heart!

Ratan had borne many a scolding from her master without complaint, but these kind words she could not bear. She burst out weeping, and said: ‘No, no, you need not tell anybody anything at all about me; I don’t want to stay on here.’

The postmaster was dumbfounded. He had never seen Ratan like this before.

The new incumbent duly arrived, and the postmaster, having given over charge, prepared to depart. Just before starting he called Ratan, and said: ‘Here is something for you; I hope it will keep you for some little time.’ He brought out from his pocket the whole of his month’s salary, retaining only a trifle for his travelling expenses. Then Ratan fell at his feet and cried: ‘Oh, Dada, I pray you, don’t give me anything, don’t in any way trouble about me,’ and then she ran away out of sight.

The postmaster heaved a sigh, took up his carpet bag, put his umbrella over his shoulder, and, accompanied by a man carrying his many-coloured tin trunk, he slowly made for the boat.

From “The Post-Office”

Dairyman: Curds, curds, good nice curds.
Amal: Curdseller, I say, Curdseller.
Dairyman: Why do you call me? Will you buy some curds?
Amal: How can I buy from you? I have no money.
Dairyman. What a boy! Why call out then? Ugh! What a waste of time.
Amal: I would go with you if I could.
Dairyman: With me?
Amal: Yes, I seem to feel homesick when I hear you call from far down the road.
Dairyman: [Lowering his yoke-pole] What are you doing here, my child?
Amal: The doctor says I can’t go out, so I sit here all day long.
Dairyman: My poor child, whatever has happened to you?
Amal: I don’t know. You see I am not learned, so I don’t know what the matter with me is. Say, Dairyman, where do you come from?
Dairyman: From our village.
Amal. Your village? Is it far away?
Dairyman: Our village lies on the river Shamli at the foot of the Panchmura hills.
Amal: Panchmura hills! Shamli river! I wonder. I may have seen your village. I can’t think when though!
Dairyman: Have you seen it? Been to the foot of those hills?
Amal: Never. But I seem to remember having seen it. Your village is under some very old big trees, just by the side of the red road, isn’t it?
Dairyman: That’s right, my child.
Amal: And on the slope of the hill, cattle graze?
Dairyman: How wonderful! Are there cattle grazing in our village? Indeed, there are.
Amal: And your women with red sarees, fill their pitchers from the river and carry them on their heads?
Dairyman: Indeed, that’s right. Women from our dairy village do come and draw their water from the river; but then it isn’t everyone who has a red saree to put on. But, my dear child, surely you must have been there for a walk some time?
Amal: Really, I have never been there at all. But the first day the doctor lets me go out, will you take me to your village?
Dairyman: I will, my child, with pleasure.
Amal: And you’ll teach me to cry ‘curds’ and shoulder the yoke like you and walk the long, long road?
Dairyman: My oh my, but why dear? Why should you sell curds? No, you will read big books and be learned.
Amal:  No, I never want to be learned – I’ll be like you and take my curds from the village by the red road near the old banyan tree, and I will hawk it from cottage to cottage. Oh, how you shout–“Curds, curds, good curds!” Teach me the tune, will you?
Dairyman: My dear, teach you the tune? What an idea!
Amal: Please do. I love to hear it. I can’t tell you how strange I feel when I hear you cry out from the bend of that road, through the line of those trees. Do you know I feel like that when I hear the shrill cry of birds from almost the end of the sky?
Dairyman: Dear child, will you have some curds? Yes, please have some.
Amal: But I have no money.
Dairyman: No, no, no, don’t talk of money! You’ll make me happy if you have some curds from me.
Amal: Say, have I kept you here too long?
Dairyman: Not a bit; it has been no loss to me at all; you have taught me how to be happy selling curds. [Exit]


3 thoughts on “Tagore and the language of children

  1. All said and done, Anirban, RNT’s own transcreations, though reflecting his intentions, are not as readable as those of Ketakidi and Radice, and Kshitish Roy long before them.

    1. Agreed, though for me (and for you and others I suspect, as well) the quality of Dyson’s, or Radice’s, or Roy’s improvement from Tagore’s hyper-lyrical psalm-like recreations is only a question of degrees. Tagore’s translations in English often read like Gibran’s primary works in English, though the Bangla is vastly different.

      On a related note, I constantly have to correct those who mention that Tagore won his Nobel Prize for the Gitanjali in Bengali. No, he won it for his English translations, which do not carry even an ounce of the depth of feeling conveyed in the Bengali.

      From the award citation-
      “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1913 was awarded to Rabindranath Tagore “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

      There have been no Nobel Prizes in Bengali or Hindi or Urdu or Tamil or any of the other languages of the subcontinent with rich and varied literature. I am not overstating the worth of a foreign prize, just pointing out its obvious Eurocentric slant. Over a billion people speak, read, and breathe in languages that seem to not be worthy of attention, unless they are translated and made a part of the literature of the West.

      For a number of reasons, I see the value of translation, but when someone like Salman Rushdie pontificates on the state of Indian literature and creates an anthology based primarily on the scant works available in English via translators, it reminds me of another example of how Indian film has become synonymous with Bollywood, despite the abundance of other higher quality offerings in the other languages of India.

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