Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Rabindranath Tagore's 150th Birth Anniversary - 13: Short Stories

Tagore Short Stories on film:
Khudito Pashan, Teen Kanya, Ghare Baire, Kabuliwala and Char Adhyay

In this post Padmanabha sets forth his personal appreciation of the style and content of Rabindranath's short stories.

N.K. Sidhanta recalls that when Rabindranath started writing, the short story form had not taken root in India yet.
But there was something in the form, in its conciseness and compression, that appealed to Rabindrnath. He explained in a letter to a friend that he was repelled by the elaborate convolutions in a long novel, by the laborious analysis of static situations and of events that had little significance. Through its brevity the short story subjected the writer to a discipline, and for a period Rabindranath welcomed this discipline for his objective writing.” (Rabindranath Tagore, A Centenary Volume, Sahitya Akademi, 1961)

Syed Mujtaba Ali, the Bengali poet and writer who studied at Santiniketan with Rabindranath, has used superlatives to describe his reaction to Tagore's short stories. Padmanabha starts off with Ali's comment and covers a slew of stories to see whether the praise was indeed justified. At a minimum, this will impel readers to drink at the source, if not in Bengali, then in English translations, of which several have been released.

The six DVDs of the set can be purchased for Rs 339 from:

Read Padmanabha's full account below.

Readers of Rabindranath generally agree that Galpaguchha is one of his major literary works. With my extremely limited knowledge, I am not competent to comment on Syed Mujtaba Ali’s claim that Rabindranath’s short stories are among the finest in world literature. However, for me, reading Galpaguchha is always an enriching experience. Each of my favorite pieces is remarkable, as much for the story it tells, as for the manner in which it is told; as much for the form, as for the content. Rarely have I come across such superb examples of the art of story-telling illustrating the inseparability of form and content. The combination of subtle humor clothed in polished wit, and profound pathos expressed in exquisite prose, makes these short stories truly extraordinary. 

Noshtoneer is a story about a married woman falling in love with a person who is not her husband. Thousands of short stories on this theme must have been written in every language of the world. What makes Noshtoneer outstanding is the manner in which Rabindranath brings out the pangs and sufferings of a woman in love who initially does not even realize what her heart is aching for. Finally, on realizing it, and realizing it fully only after she has lost the person she loves, she gives away everything in the world and desperately holds on to the pain alone, which she feels is the precious gift her love has given her.

The way Rabindranath leads his readers through this is unbelievable. Talking of Noshtoneer, one is naturally tempted to mention Satyajit Ray’s Charulata which is one of the finest movies made by Ray. But Charulata is not Noshtoneer. The medium of film is different from the medium of literature. Again the inseparability of form and content comes to my mind. Shakespeare in print is not the same as Shakespeare on stage. Charulata is wonderful. Noshtoneer is dazzling.

Streer Patra is Tagore’s reaction to the typical heartlessness with which traditional Bengali middle class families of a certain era used to handle cases of unfortunate girls like Bindu. To voice his protest, he has created Mrinal, a woman with the courage to stand up against injustice by demanding a more dignified treatment of women; this is the courage Tagore would like to see in every person in society. The words of bitterness and anger that we read in Mrinal’s letter are rather unusual for Tagore. It is not one of his best stories perhaps, but it does reflect the intensity of his hatred toward male chauvinism and injustice against women.

Generations of readers have been mesmerized by the extraordinary tale told in Kshudhita Pashan in which a person is brought by circumstances to a house where he partially loses himself and almost starts living out his fantasy of a long bygone era. The prose style in the story told in the first person narrative is magical, a product of great craftsmanship. It must be ranked as one of the Tagore’s best. 

The two stories Konkal and Monihara also serve to illustrate how good Tagore is in telling tales that have a touch of supernatural elements, a bit comic in the first one and eerie in the latter. Both are extremely enjoyable.

Postmaster is a landmark in the history of Bengali literature, as it ushered in the age of modern short stories. In a tale told in a rather simple style, the author explores the heart of a young girl, a child really, serving with devotion the village Postmaster, whose name the readers do not get to know, and do not need to know either, because he exists in the story just to help the author explore the feelings of the girl as they evolve.

When the Postmaster drops the news of his departure, he drops, albeit unknowingly, a ton of bricks on the head of the poor child who shows no emotion on receiving it, and gives the world no clue to the tumult inside her. The kind words uttered by the Postmaster while leaving are all that is needed to make the girl break down inconsolably, and thus the author discovers a woman in love in this young child. The economy and simplicity of style with which the story is told leave me breathless and, while reflecting on Postmaster, all I can do is to recall Wallace Stevens’ saying: “A poem of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice” (Of Modern Poetry). 

Ginni tells the story of a little boy who suffers on account of the thoughtlessness and insensitivity of his teacher, and friends who ridicule him for the ‘grave crime’ of playing with his sister on a holiday. In Denapawna we read the pathetic story of a father unable to meet the demand for dowry by his daughter’s father–in-law. In a typical satire, Tagore ends the story with people proudly reporting to the devastated father the grandeur of the cremation of his daughter. The insensitivity of the world to the pain suffered silently by an individual is a theme that recurs in many of the stories of Galpaguchha.

Taraprasanner Kirti is the simple story of a husband devoid of worldly wisdom but pampered by a wife whose life she feels has been wasted by giving birth to daughters only!

Muktir Upay and Prayashchitta entertain the readers with crisp humor and comic endings.

Some of Tagore’s short stories remind me of O Henry, and others of Edgar Allan Poe. Anadhikar Prabesh belongs to the first category. I have met characters like Jaykali in real life. But the ending of the story is as unexpected as it is pleasing. On the other hand, I like to think that Poe would fancy the plots of Konkal and Sampatti Samarpan, if he could have read these stories. However, Rabindranath’s inimitable style of writing is exactly what leaves such a powerful impression on the readers of these stories. Both make wonderful reading, one for its humor and the other for its sadness. 

Atithi and Kabuliwala are likewise two great short stories written by Tagore. Tarapada in Atithi easily becomes the object of strong affection for anybody coming in contact with him, but he slips away from the bonds that people try to bind him with. The only thing that he consistently does in life is to move on. Finally, when he senses love entering his life, a love that he may no longer be able to resist, he simply disappears into the great impersonal universe from which he will never return. This is an astounding story of the eternal journey of a human soul resting in a wayside resort for a while and taking to the road at the next opportunity – which is a favorite thought of Rabindranath regarding life and death. 

There is nothing extraordinary about a little girl in the city reminding a Kabuliwala of his daughter whom he has left back in his distant homeland, and who becomes the only source of comfort for him in his otherwise unhappy city life. But the way Rabindranath makes such an unforgettable short story out of this theme is something that never ceases to amaze me. Again, the inseparability of form and content becomes the relevant issue, an issue which is relevant to the entire Galpaguchha.

Every time I read them, I feel that stories like Postmaster, Kabuliwala, Noshtoneer and Kshudita Pashan do lend solid support to Mujtaba Ali’s claim.

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