My readers may laugh at my foolishness, but my heart was full of adoration. I offered my worship to the pure joy of living, which is God’s own life.
Up until recently, the only piece by Rabindranath Tagore I knew was the lovely ghost-story/fairy tale “The Hungry Stones”. Ever since I first read it, I’d wanted to read more, yet for whatever reason never got around to it.
Then the other week while wandering the stacks of the San Francisco Main Library, I tripped over the Oxford Press collection Selected Short Stories, edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri. This was a great place to start; the translations seem excellent (of course, I can’t read the original Bengali to compare), and the volume has an great introduction, with enough information about Tagore’s life and history to give his stories context. All the stories have extensive footnotes, to explain details that would be obvious to a South Asian reader, but not necessarily to a western one: points of Indian culture and history, literary and folkloric references.
I binge-read the whole thing. Then I found other collections on Project Gutenberg, and read more.
There’s all kinds of nerdy pseudo-intellectual things I could say about these stories. I could talk about how I love the way Tagore weaves Indian folklore and mythology through his stories (right down to the choice of characters’ names). Or about his criticism of contemporary Hindu society, with its caste-system and problematic attitude towards women (the editor has a great quote: “a society that cannot protect its women but is inhumanly insistent on their purity”). About the gentle, even sympathetic way he presents his flawed, weak characters — without ever leaving a doubt that, yes, some of them are very flawed indeed.
All of these things are true, and they’re points that I admire. But none of that really describes how I feel. I loved these stories. Some of them made me cry. But to say that isn’t enough. I’m an analytical person by profession, and I have a concrete viewpoint by nature. I often have a hard time describing something as abstract as my reaction to something that I’ve read and loved. So I’ll just quote this, from “The Victory:”
[The poet] took his seat. His hearers trembled with the sadness of an indefinable delight, immense and vague, and they forgot to applaud him.
That’s kind of how I feel about these stories. Often so sad, always so beautiful. Just read them.
Here are some of my favorites (that I could find online):
- The Kabuliwala: I love this story.
- The Hungry Stones: Of course.
- The Renunciation: Pointed attack on the caste-system. Also one of the few instances I can think of in Tagore’s short stories where the heroine’s male ally stands up to society and supports the heroine.
- The Wife’s Letter: A biting picture of woman’s position in the Hindu society of Tagore’s time. It’s a powerful story, though I like the translation in Selected Short Stories better.
Image: Rabindranath Tagore, painted by his nephew, painter and cartoonist Gaganendranath Tagore.