Rabindranath Tagore.

Glimpses of Bengal : selected from the letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, 1885 to 1895 online

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RABIN DRANATH TAGORE



LETTERS



MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED

LONDON BOMBAY CALCUTTA MADRAS
MELBOURNE

THE MACMILLAN COMPANY



NEW YORK BOSTON CHICAGO
DALLAS SAN FRANCISCO

THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, LTD.

TORONTO




GLIMPSES OF BENGAL

SELECTED FROM
THE

LETTERS

OF

SIR RABINDRANATH TAGORE

1885 TO 1895



MACMILLAN AND CO., LIMITED

ST. MARTIN'S STREET, LONDON

192 i



COPYRIGHT



INTRODUCTION

THE letters translated in this book
span the most productive period of my
literary life, when, owing to great good
fortune, I was young and less known.

Youth being exuberant and leisure
ample, I felt the writing of letters other
than business ones to be a delightful
necessity. This is a form of literary
extravagance only possible when a sur-
plus of thought and emotion accumu-
lates. Other forms of literature remain
the author's and are made public for
his good ; letters that have been given
to private individuals once for all, are

V



vi LETTERS

therefore characterised by the more
generous abandonment.

It so happened that selected extracts
from a large number of such letters
found their way back to me years after
they had been written. It had been
rightly conjectured that they would
delight me by bringing to mind the
memory of days when, under the shelter
of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest
freedom my life has ever known.

Since these letters synchronise with
a considerable part of my published
writings, I thought their parallel course
would broaden my readers' understand-
ing of my poems as a track is widened
by retreading the same ground. Such
was my justification for publishing them
in a book for my countrymen. Hoping
that the descriptions of village scenes



LETTERS vii

in Bengal contained in these letters
would also be of interest to English
readers, the translation of a selection
of that selection has been entrusted
to one who, among all those whom
I know, was best fitted to carry it out.

RABINDRANATH TAGORE.

20tk June 1920.



BANDORA, BY THE SEA,
October 1885.

THE unsheltered sea heaves and heaves
and blanches into foam. It sets me
thinking of some tied - up monster
straining at its bonds, in front of whose
gaping jaws we build our homes on
the shore and watch it lashing its tail.
What immense strength, with waves
swelling like the muscles of a giant !

From the beginning of creation there
has been this feud between land and
water : the dry earth slowly and silently
adding to its domain and spreading
a broader and broader lap for its chil-
dren ; the ocean receding step by step,
heaving and sobbing and beating its
breast in despair. Remember the sea
was once sole monarch, utterly free.



2 LETTERS

Land rose from its womb, usurped its
throne, and ever since the maddened
old creature, with hoary crest of foam,
wails and laments continually, like
King Lear exposed to the fury of the
elements.

July 1887.

I am in my twenty-seventh year.
This event keeps thrusting itself before
my mind nothing else seems to have
happened of late.

But to reach twenty-seven is that
a trifling thing ? to pass the meridian
of the twenties on one's progress
towards thirty .? thirty that is to say
maturity the age at which people
expect fruit rather than fresh foliage.
But, alas, where is the promise of fruit ?
As I shake my head, it stiU feels
brimful of luscious frivolity, with not
a trace of philosophy.

Folk are beginning to complain :



LETTERS 3

" Where is that which we expected of
you that in hope of which we admired
the soft green of the shoot ? Are we
to put up with immaturity for ever ?
It is high time for us to know what
we shall gain from you. We want an
estimate of the proportion of oil which
the blindfold, mill-turning, unbiassed
critic can squeeze out of you."

It has ceased to be possible to delude
these people into waiting expectantly
any longer. While I was under age
they trustfully gave me credit ; it is
sad to disappoint them now that I am
on the verge of thirty. But what am
I to do ? Words of wisdom will not
come ! I am utterly incompetent to
provide things that may profit the
multitude. Beyond a snatch of song,
some tittle-tattle, a little merry fooling,
I have been unable to advance. And
as the result, those who held high
hopes will turn their wrath on me ; but



4 LETTERS

did any one ever beg them to nurse
these expectations ?

Such are the thoughts which assail
me since one fine Bysakh morning I
awoke amidst fresh breeze and light,
new leaf and flower, to find that I had
stepped into my twenty-seventh year.

SHELIDAH, 1888.

Our house-boat is moored to a sand-
bank on the farther side of the river.
A vast expanse of sand stretches away
out of sight on every side, with here
and there a streak, as of water, running
across, though sometimes what gleams
like water is only sand.

Not a village, not a human being,
not a tree, not a blade of grass the
only breaks in the monotonous white-
ness are gaping cracks which in places
show the layer of moist, black clay
underneath.

Looking towards the East, there is



LETTERS 5

endless blue above, endless white
beneath. Sky empty, earth empty too
the emptiness below hard and barren,
that overhead arched and ethereal
one could hardly find elsewhere such
a picture of stark desolation.

But on turning to the West, there
is water, the currentless bend of the
river, fringed with its high bank, up to
which spread the village groves with
cottages peeping through all like an
enchanting dream in the evening light.
I say " the evening light," because in
the evening we wander out, and so
that aspect is impressed on my mind.

SHAZADPUR, 1890.

The magistrate was sitting in the
verandah of his tent dispensing justice
to the crowd awaiting their turns
under the shade of a tree. They
set my palanquin down right under
his nose, and the young Englishman



6 LETTERS

received me courteously. He had
very light hair, with darker patches
here and there, and a moustache just
beginning to show. One might have
taken him for a white-haired old man
but for his extremely youthful face.
I asked him over to dinner, but he
said he was due elsewhere to arrange
for a pig-sticking party.

As I returned home, great black
clouds came up and there was a terrific
storm with torrents of rain. I could
not touch a book, it was impossible to
write, so in the I-know-not-what mood
I wandered about from room to room.
It had become quite dark, the thunder
was continually pealing, the lightning
gleaming flash after flash, and every
now and then sudden gusts of wind
would get hold of the big lichi tree
by the neck and give its shaggy top
a thorough shaking. The hollow in
front of the house soon filled with



LETTERS 7

water, and as I paced about, it
suddenly struck me that I ought to
offer the shelter of the house to the
magistrate.

I sent off an invitation ; then after
investigation I found the only spare
room encumbered with a platform of
planks hanging from the beams, piled
with dirty old quilts and bolsters.
Servants' belongings, an excessively
grimy mat, hubble - bubble pipes,
tobacco, tinder, and two wooden chests
littered the floor, besides sundry pack-
ing-cases full of useless odds and ends,
such as a rusty kettle lid, a bottomless
iron stove, a discoloured old nickel
teapot, a soup-plate full of treacle
blackened with dust. In a corner was
a tub for washing dishes, and from
nails in the wall hung moist dish-clouts
and the cook's livery and skull - cap.
The only piece of furniture was a
rickety dressing-table with water stains,



8 LETTERS

oil stains, milk stains, black, brown, and
white stains, and all kinds of mixed
stains. The mirror, detached from it,
rested against another wall, and the
drawers were receptacles for a miscel-
laneous assortment of articles from
soiled napkins down to bottle wires
and dust.

For a moment I was overwhelmed
with dismay ; then it was a case of
send for the manager, send for the
storekeeper, call up all the servants,
get hold of extra men, fetch water, put
up ladders, unfasten ropes, pull down
planks, take away bedding, pick up
broken glass bit by bit, wrench nails
from the wall one by one. The
chandelier falls and its pieces strew the
floor ; pick them up again piece by
piece. I myself whisk the dirty mat
off the floor and out of the window,
dislodging a horde of cockroaches,
messmates, who dine off my bread,



LETTERS 9

my (treacle, and the polish on my
shoes.

The magistrate's reply is brought
back ; his tent is in an awful state
and he is coming at once. Hurry up !
Hurry up ! Presently comes the
shout : " The sahib has arrived." All
in a flurry I brush the dust off hair,
beard, and the rest of myself, and as
I go to receive him in the drawing-
room, I try to look as respectable as
if I had been reposing there comfort-
ably all the afternoon.

I went through the shaking of hands
and conversed with the magistrate out-
wardly serene ; still, misgivings about
his accommodation would now and
then well up within. When at length
I had to show my guest to his room,
I found it passable, and if the home-
less cockroaches do not tickle the soles
of his feet, he may manage to get a
night's rest.



10 LETTERS

KALIGRAM, 1891-

I am feeling listlessly comfortable
and delightfully irresponsible.

This is the prevailing mood all round
here. There is a river but it has no
current to speak of, and, lying snugly
tucked up in its coverlet of floating
weeds, seems to think " Since it is
possible to get on without getting
along, why should I bestir myself to
stir?" So the sedge which lines the
banks knows hardly any disturbance
until the fishermen come with their nets.

Four or five large -sized boats are
moored near by, alongside each other.
On the upper deck of one the boatman
is fast asleep, rolled up in a sheet from
head to foot. On another, the boatman
also basking in the sun leisurely
twists some yarn into rope. On the
lower deck in a third, an oldish-looking,
bare-bodied fellow is leaning over an
oar, staring vacantly at our boat.



LETTERS 11

Along the bank there are various
other people, but why they come or go,
with the slowest of idle steps, or remain
seated on their haunches embracing their
knees, or keep on gazing at nothing in
particular, no one can guess.

The only signs of activity are to be
seen amongst the ducks, who, quacking
clamorously, thrust their heads under
and bob up again to shake off the water
with equal energy, as if they repeatedly
tried to explore the mysteries below the
surface, and every time, shaking their
heads, had to report, " Nothing there !
Nothing there ! "

The days here drowse all their twelve
hours in the sun, and silently sleep away
the other twelve, wrapped in the mantle
of darkness. The only thing you want
to do in a place like this is to gaze and
gaze on the landscape, swinging your
fancies to and fro, alternately humming
a tune and nodding dreamily, as the



12 LETTERS

mother on a winter's noonday, her back
to the sun, rocks and croons her baby
to sleep.

KALIGRAM, 1891.

Yesterday, while I was giving audi-
ence to my tenants, five or six boys
made their appearance and stood in a
primly proper row before me. Before
1 could put any question their spokes-
man, in the choicest of high-flown
language, started : " Sire 1 the grace of
the Almighty and the good fortune of
your benighted children have once more
brought about your lordship's auspicious
arrival into this locality." He went on
in this strain for nearly half an hour.
Here and there he would get his lesson
wrong, pause, look up at the sky, correct
himself, and then go on again. I
gathered that their school was short of
benches and stools. " For want of these
wood-built seats," as he put it, "we



LETTERS 13

know not where to sit ourselves, where
to seat our revered teachers, or what to
offer our most respected inspector when
he comes on a visit."

I could hardly repress a smile at this
torrent of eloquence gushing from such
a bit of a fellow, which sounded speci-
ally out of place here, where the ryots
are given to stating their profoundly
vital wants in plain and direct verna-
cular, of which even the more un-
usual words get sadly twisted out of
shape. The clerks and ryots, however,
seemed duly impressed, and likewise
envious, as though deploring their
parents' omission to endow them with
so splendid a means of appealing to the
Zamindar.

I interrupted the young orator before
he had done, promising to arrange for
the necessary number of benches and
stools. Nothing daunted, he allowed
me to have my say, then took up his



14 LETTERS

discourse where he had left it, finished
it to the last word, saluted me pro-
foundly, and marched off his contingent.
He probably would not have minded
had I refused to supply the seats, but
after all his trouble in getting it by
heart he would have resented bitterly
being robbed of any part of his speech.
So, though it kept more important
business waiting, I had to hear him out.

NEARING SHAZADPUR,
January 1891.

We left the little river of Kaligram,
sluggish as the circulation in a dying
man, and dropped down the current of
a briskly flowing stream which led to a
region where land and water seemed to
merge in each other, river and bank
without distinction of garb, like brother
and sister in infancy.

The river lost its coating of slimi-
ness, scattered its current in many



LETTERS 15

directions, and spread out, finally, into
a beel (marsh), with here a patch of
grassy land and there a stretch of trans-
parent water, reminding me of the youth
of this globe when through the limitless
waters land had just begun to raise its
head, the separate provinces of solid and
fluid as yet undefined.

Round about where we have moored,
the bamboo poles of fishermen are
planted. Kites hover ready to snatch
up fish from the nets. On the ooze
at the water's edge stand the saintly-
looking paddy birds in meditation. All
kinds of waterfowl abound. Patches
of weeds float on the water. Here and
there rice-fields, untilled, untended, 1 rise
from the moist, clay soil. Mosquitoes
swarm over the still waters. . . .

We start again at dawn this morning
and pass through Kachikata, where the

1 On the rich river-side silt, rice seed is simply
scattered and the harvest reaped when ripe ; nothing
else has to he done.



16 LETTERS

waters of the beel find an outlet in a
winding channel only six or seven yards
wide, through which they rush swiftly.
To get our unwieldy house-boat through
is indeed an adventure. The current
hurries it along at lightning speed, keep-
ing the crew busy using their oars as
poles to prevent the boat being dashed
against the banks. We thus come out
again into the open river.

The sky had been heavily clouded,
a damp wind blowing, with occasional
showers of rain. The crew were all
shivering with cold. Such wet and
gloomy days in the cold weather are
eminently disagreeable, and I have spent
a wretched lifeless morning. At two
in the afternoon the sun came out, and
since then it has been delightful. The
banks are now high and covered with
peaceful groves and the dwellings of
men, secluded and full of beauty.

The river winds in and out, an un-



LETTERS 17

known little stream in the inmost zenana
of Bengal, neither lazy nor fussy ; lavish-
ing the wealth of her affection on both
sides, she prattles about common joys
and sorrows and the household news of
the village girls, who come for water,
and sit by her side, assiduously rubbing
their bodies to a glowing freshness with
their moistened towels.

This evening we have moored our
boat in a lonely bend. The sky is clear.
The moon is at its full. Not another
boat is to be seen. The moonlight
glimmers on the ripples. Solitude
reigns on the banks. The distant vil-
lage sleeps, nestling within a thick fringe
of trees. The shrill, sustained chirp of
the cicadas is the only sound.

SHAZADPUR,
February 1891.

Just in front of my window, on the
other side of the stream, a band of gypsies

c



18 LETTERS

have ensconced themselves, putting up
bamboo frameworks covered over with
split-bamboo mats and pieces of cloth.
There are only three of these little struc-
tures, so low that you cannot stand up-
right inside. Their life is lived in the open,
and they only creep under these shelters
at night, to sleep huddled together.

That is always the gypsies' way : no
home anywhere, no landlord to pay rent
to, wandering about as it pleases them
with their children, their pigs, and a dog
or two ; and on them the police keep a
vigilant eye.

I frequently watch the doings of the
family nearest me. They are dark but
good-looking, with fine, strongly-built
bodies, like north-west country folk.
Their women are handsome, and have
tall, slim, well-knit figures ; and with
their free and easy movements, and
natural independent airs, they look to
me like swarthy Englishwomen.



LETTERS 19

The man has just put the cooking-pot
on the fire, and is now splitting bamboos
and weaving baskets. The woman first
holds up a little mirror to her face, then
puts a deal of pains into wiping and
rubbing it, over and over again, with
a moist piece of cloth ; and then, the
folds of her upper garment adjusted and
tidied, she goes, all spick and span, up
to her man and sits beside him, helping
him now and then in his work.

These are truly children of the soil,
born on it somewhere, bred by the way-
side, here, there, and everywhere, dying
anywhere. Night and day under the
open sky, in the open air, on the bare
ground, they lead a unique kind of life ;
and yet work, love, children, and house-
hold duties everything is there.

They are not idle for a moment, but
always doing something. Her own
particular task over, one woman plumps
herself down behind another, unties the



20 LETTERS

knot of her hair and cleans and arranges
it for her ; and whether at the same
time they fall to talking over the
domestic affairs of the three little mat-
covered households I cannot say for
certain from this distance, but shrewdly
suspect it.

This morning a great disturbance
invaded the peaceful gypsy settlement.
It was about half-past eight or nine.
They were spreading out over the mat
roofs tattered quilts and sundry other
rags, which serve them for beds, in order
to sun and air them. The pigs with
their litters, lying in a hollow all of a
heap and looking like a dab of mud,
had been routed out by the two canine
members of the family, who fell upon
them and sent them roaming in search
of their breakfasts, squealing their an-
noyance at being interrupted in enjoy-
ment of the sun after the cold night.
1 was writing my letter and absently



LETTERS 21

looking out now and then when the
hubbub suddenly commenced.

I rose and went to the window, and
found a crowd gathered round the gypsy
hermitage. A superior-looking person-
age was flourishing a stick and indulging
in the strongest language. The head-
man of the gypsies, cowed and nervous,
was apparently trying to offer explana-
tions. I gathered that some suspicious
happenings in the locality had led to
this visitation by a police officer.

The woman, so far, had remained
sitting, busily scraping lengths of split
bamboo as serenely as if she had been
alone and no sort of row going on.
Suddenly, however, she sprang to her
feet, advanced on the police officer,
gesticulated violently with her arms
right in his face, and gave him, in strident
tones, a piece of her mind. In the
twinkling of an eye three-quarters of
the officer's excitement had subsided ;



22 LETTERS

he tried to put in a word or two of mild
protest but did not get a chance, and
so departed crestfallen, a different man.

After he had retreated to a safe
distance, he turned and shouted back :
"All I say is, you'll have to clear out
from here ! "

I thought my neighbours opposite
would forthwith pack up their mats and
bamboos and move away with their
bundles, pigs, and children. But there
is no sign of it yet. They are still non-
chalantly engaged in splitting bamboos,
cooking food, or completing a toilet.

SHAZADPUR,
February 1891.

Tne post office is in a part of our
estate office building, this is very con-
venient, for we get our letters as soon
as they arrive. Some evenings the post-
master comes up to have a chat with
me. I enjoy listening to his yarns.



LETTERS 23

He talks of the most impossible things
in the gravest possible manner.

Yesterday he was telling me in what
great reverence people of this locality
hold the sacred river Ganges. If one
of their relatives dies, he said, and they
have not the means of taking the ashes
to the Ganges, they powder a piece of
bone from his funeral pyre and keep it
till they come across some one who,
some time or other, has drunk of the
Ganges. To him they administer some
of this powder, hidden in the usual
offering of pan, 1 and thus are content to
imagine that a portion of the remains
of their deceased relative has gained
purifying contact with the sacred water.

I smiled as I remarked : " This surely
must be an invention."

He pondered deeply before he
admitted after a pause : " Yes, it
may be."

1 Spices wrapped in betel leaf.



fc4 LETTERS

ON THE WAY,
February 1891.

We have got past the big rivers and
just turned into a little one.

The village women are standing in
the water, bathing or washing clothes ;
and some, in their dripping saris, with
veils pulled well over their faces, move
homeward with their water vessels
filled and clasped against the left flank,
the right arm swinging free. Children,
covered all over with clay, are sporting
boisterously, splashing water on each
other, while one of them shouts a song,
regardless of the tune.

Over the high banks, the cottage
roofs and the tops of the bamboo clumps
are visible. The sky has cleared and
the sun is shining. Remnants of clouds
cling to the horizon like fluffs of cotton
wool. The breeze is warmer.

There are not many boats in this little
river ; only a few dinghies, laden with



LETTERS 25

dry branches and twigs, are moving
leisurely along to the tired plash ! plash !
of their oars. At the river's edge the
fishermen's nets are hung out to dry
between bamboo poles. And work
everywhere seems to be over for the
day.

CHUHALI,
June 1891.

I had been sitting out on the deck
for more than a quarter of an hour
when heavy clouds rose in the west.
They came up, black, tumbled, and
tattered, with streaks of lurid light
showing through here and there. The
little boats scurried off into the smaller
arm of the river and clung with their
anchors safely to its banks. The reapers
took up the cut sheaves on their heads
and hied homewards ; the cows followed,
and behind them frisked the calves
waving their tails.

Then came an angry roar. Torn-off



26 LETTERS

scraps of cloud hurried up from the
west, like panting messengers of evil
tidings. Finally, lightning and thunder,
rain and storm, came on altogether and
executed a mad dervish dance. The
bamboo clumps seemed to howl as the
raging wind swept the ground with
them, now to the east, now to the
west. Over all, the storm droned like
a giant snake-charmer's pipe, and to its
rhythm swayed hundreds and thousands
of crested waves, like so many hooded
snakes. The thunder was incessant, as
though a whole world was being pounded
to pieces away there behind the clouds.
With my chin resting on the ledge
of an open window facing away from
the wind, I allowed my thoughts to
take part in this terrible revelry ; they
leapt into the open like a pack of school-
boys suddenly set free. When, how-
ever, I got a thorough drenching from
the spray of the rain, I had to shut up



LETTERS 27

the window and my poetising, and
retire quietly into the darkness inside,
like a caged bird.

SHAZADPUR,
June 1891.

From the bank to which the boat is
tied a kind of scent rises out of the
grass, and the heat of the ground, given
off in gasps, actually touches my body.
I feel that the warm, living Earth is
breathing upon me, and that she, also,
must feel my breath.

The young shoots of rice are waving
in the breeze, and the ducks are in turn
thrusting their heads beneath the water
and preening their feathers. There is
no sound save the faint, mournful
creaking of the gangway against the
boat, as she imperceptibly swings to
and fro in the current.

Not far off there is a ferry. A motley
crowd has assembled under the banyan



28 LETTERS


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