Galpaguchha means a ‘Bunch of Stories’. And that’s the offering we have in hand here—a varied bouquet of short stories selected from Rabindranath Tagore’s distinguished collection, translated by Dipavali. Some of the flowers of this bunch are fragrant with an all-pervasive sweetness, while others border on the wild and even macabre. But all are thought-provoking portraits of life, tinged with the wisdom of human observation.
There are 84 stories in all in the 3-volume collection of short stories which young Rabindranath wrote early in life. Many are not even complete stories but simply reflections on the existence of ordinary people. Tagore beheld the lives of the poor and common while managing the family’s vast landholdings in Bengal and village life is portrayed in these stories with heartwarming charm and candour. This collection remains among the most popular fictional works in Bengali literature and has furnished subject matter for numerous successful films and theatrical plays. Indeed, its continuing influence on Bengali art and culture cannot be overstated.
Tagore had great empathy with the personal growth of women, and many of the stories are women-centric. Apurva’s fascination for the village tomboy Mrimoyee in ‘Samapti’ or ‘The Completion’ and his subsequent marriage to her, to his mother’s horror has an unexpected outcome. Even as he allows her personal freedom and growth, he leaves for the city to study law. In his absence, Mrimoyee matures into a loving and responsible individual. This charming story was part of the famous Bengali film, Teen Kanya, directed by Satyajit Ray (1961), and also inspired the Hindi film, Abodh, directed by Hiren Nag (1984).
In ‘Chitrakar’ or ‘The Painter’, Chuni’s uncle tries to suppress his artistic talents and train him to become a money-making merchant like himself. His mother rebels despite being a helpless young widow, and daringly takes her child away to find his dreams.
‘The Postmaster’ is about a young man from Kolkata who is posted to a village. Here he teaches Ratan, a small orphan girl to read and write in his spare time. She looks after him conscientiously, and feels abandoned when he is transferred. Still she lives on with the hope that he will return. This moving story also forms a part of Ray’s film, Teen Kanya.
Tagore always urged the necessity for educating the girl child to improve her lot in life. The deprivation of the girl child is the theme of ‘Khata’ or ‘The Exercise Book’. Uma, the bright young protagonist is keen to study and writes rudimentary poetry on the walls at home, much to her brother’s displeasure. She is married off early like all village girls, and this brings a sad end to any academic aspirations she may have dared to harbour.
Some stories depict beautiful pictures of human frailties that lead to tragedy, and sense prevails only too late. The macabre consequences of excessive attachment to worldly possessions are depicted in ‘Monihara’ or ‘Robbed of the Gem’. This is the sobering story of Monimalika who will not part with her jewellery at any cost.
Tagore revelled in the portrayal of maverick characters, and many of the stories have unexpected endings. In ‘Aapad’ or ‘The Trouble’ the unpredictable young Neelakantha is one such character who can never settle down. Tarapada in ‘Atithi’ or ‘The Guest’ is another who cannot be fettered by bonds of love and domesticity, and disappears on the eve of his wedding.
Tagore writes with great empathy of the lonely and misunderstood. Balai is the child of nature in ‘A Boy and a Plant’, who identifies himself with all living plants. Subha in ‘Eloquent’ is the speech-impaired bride. Nobody else understands these loners, although they also have their dreams and aspirations.
Human dignity exists even in the poorest. And as many characters show, human feelings are eventually the same everywhere, in the highest and the lowest. ‘Kabuliwala’ or ‘The Vendor from Kabul’, one of Tagore’s great masterpieces is a depiction of faith in the universal character of humanity. This endearing story of the fruit seller from Kabul who has an affinity for little Mini and brings her small gifts, was made into a film both in Bengali and Hindi.
Quirks of destiny can make and unmake lives, as many of the stories depict. ‘Chhuti’ or ‘Holidays’ is all about the high-spirited village lad Phatik, who is sent to the city with his uncle for a better education which his widowed mother cannot afford. However, homesickness for the village and his hostile urban surroundings bring his life to a sad and untimely end.
Moving stories of dedication and loss like ‘Pan-raksha’ or ‘Keeping a Promise’, and ‘Pratyavartan’ or ‘The Young Master’s Return’ are both heart-rending tales of personal sacrifice in a materialistic and ambitious world where personal loyalty is an anachronism. Unexpected facets of human nature emerge in these snippets from the game of life.
This selection of 17 thought-provoking stories from Tagore’s Galpaguchha collection is a cross section of his portrayals, done with the engaging ease of one familiar with both English and Bengali. Dipavali Sen is a Professor of Economics in the University of Delhi and an accomplished children’s writer, with many books, literary articles and short stories to her credit. She has done much research and published works on Tagore in magazines as well as a British Council collection.
Although it is well-nigh impossible for translations into another language to capture the nuances and beauty of expression of the original, they serve a valuable purpose. It is only through them that the rich treasury of Bengali literature has been made accessible to readers all over the world. Otherwise these gems of literature would have remained hidden forever.
For this we owe the publishers of this collection our thanks. One only wishes that they could have paid better attention to the editing of the volume.
Nita Berry writes short stories, picture and activity books, historical biographies and full length non-fiction for children of all ages.