One of Rabindranath Tagore’s widely discussed novels, Gora, is set in Kolkata some three decades prior to the date of its publication, 1904, and narrates the interactions, intimacies, incompatibilities and introspections within a community of Hindu and Brahmo educated elite of that period. It is steeped in its contemporary political ambience but also imbued with the nationalist spirit of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which provides the basis for and sways the tenor of most intellectual exchanges among the leisured class that its dramatis personae belong to. Although nationalism had not yet opened up to the debate of moderation versus extremism that Tagore expounded on at length in Ghare Baire and Char Adhyay, the discussion and rethinking in Gora focuses on concerns that can be subsumed within the umbrella of an embryonic nationalist awareness.
The history of English translations of Gora prior to this one follows a trajectory that has Surendranath Tagore’s translation (1924) at one end, followed by Sujit Mukherjee’s Sahitya Akademi translation in 1997, almost three quarters of a century later. Vishwabharati’s monopoly over the patent to all of Tagore’s works till 2001, strangely, is not entirely accountable for this gap.Mukherjee’s Gora is manifestly not one among the embarrassing overabundance of translations across publishing houses that flooded the market after the unleashing of the copyright and made Tagore’s works accessible beyond the brahminical precincts of Vishwabharati, Shantiniketan and Kolkata. Mukherjee’s turn of the century version of Gora is authenticated in the introduction as a volume that might elicit from its non-Bangla readers ‘the theoretical and ideological perspectives of their own generation . . . opening out the old text to further new readings.’ If such postcolonial effort to retranslate is part of what Tejaswini Nirajana calls the desire to ‘rewrite history’, the rewriting has already been done once by Sujit Mukherjee. But translation is a perpetually ongoing process, so even with this literary backdrop, RadhaChakravarty’s Penguin translation, a mere twelve years later, is worthwhile and justifiable. To use her own words, she is ‘seeking to offer a lucid, readable version of this massive, complex novel to twenty-first century readers.’ (Italics mine)
The inner dynamics of the formative nationalist upsurge in Bengal that is working out and reconsidering the viability of various templates of reform and rebellion within the larger canvas of colonial domination and oppression uncovers the history of this resistance in its initial phase. It is articulated mainly through the political views of Gora.Gora’s polemics is exceedingly weighted against a secular nationalist creed and he fosters instead a nationalist theory sustained by orthodox Hinduism. Gora’s comprehensive Hindu vision incorporates all of Bharat. His rhetoric and practice of this all-embracing Hinduism reveals more complex layers than the exemplars documented by historians. It does not just skim the surface but penetrates the coexisting pluralities as well as the contradictions inscribed within Hinduism. Gora travels all over Bengal outside the rich and affluent segments of Kolkata society, offering succour to the underprivileged and exploited. He includes within his area of work the harassed third class passenger stranded in the rain, the low caste people of his neighbourhood and even a poor Muslim who he enjoins not to tolerate the injustice of being cynically knocked down by a rich man’s carriage. The last act, however, does not enable him to come to terms with himself on learning that he was not born a Hindu.
I quote just one sentence spoken by Gora apropos the Hindu-Christian problematic from Mukherjee’s as well as Chakravarty’s text to show how she has tried to be more sensitive to the finer distinctions between Bangla and English in what Meenakshi Mukherjee would call ‘negotiating semantic and cultural hurdles to achieve equivalence of meaning.’ Until we can shake off the coils of Christian teaching from our minds, we shall not recognize the true nature of Hinduism and thus not inherit its glories. (Mukherjee) Unless our minds break free of the fetters of Khristani learning, we cannot claim the glory of understanding the true nature of the Hindu dharma. (Chakravarty)
As explained in her introduction,Chakravarty uses a different term ‘Khristani’ when the Christian faith is pejoratively talked about unlike ‘Christian’ that she uses for other more neutral references. The Bangla text has the phrase gauraber adhikari to connote the claimant of such glory that comes from understanding the Hindu faith, which is what Chakravarty has understood and conveyed through her translation. In Mukherjee’s rendition, what he interprets as inheriting the glories of Hinduism, therefore, is inadequate Although Mukherjee’s sentence is somewhat neater than Chakravarty’s loaded sentence, his use of the word ‘Hinduism’ is concurrently somewhat jarring. Since the Bangla original does not use a single word for ‘Hinduism’ and ‘dharma’ is a globally accepted word, ‘the Hindu dharma’ is retained as it is in Chakravarty’s more delicately honed translation.
Ingrained within Gora’s all-encompassing Hindu nationalist perception is his alternative masculinity that ironically elides women. His conservative ideological position on women renders him critical of Sucharita’s violation of male-female segregation and her participation in intellectual debates between men. He believes that as icons of grace, beauty, chastity and maternal selflessness, women are legitimately circumscribed by the realm of the household. But he is chastized and corrected by the reasoning of Sucharita as well as Binoy. Binoy confronts him by suggesting that women are individuals, not fixed and unqualified emblems of culture. The two eventually make him realize his flawed though zealous notion of Bharatvarsha. Gora, like Ghare Baire, critiques both the deification as well as the marginalization of women. Yet another strand of the novel examines the inconsistencies and dogmatism within the newly established doctrines of the Brahmo Samaj. The theory and praxis of Hinduism as well as the Brahmo Samaj developed in Gora demonstrates that their construal as absolute and impermeable faiths is reductive and does not probe the discrepancies within them.
There is evidently every reason for the postcolonial reader/ academic/ critic to want to engage with the issues in Gora anew, even if it is as frequently as every ten years or so. Both translations are attempts to adequately communicate in the target language and to the receiving culture all the nuances of the source language and culture. A translation like this one, salvaging from the novel questions like the cultural identity of Bharatvarsha, the status of women within it and the paradoxical beliefs of both upper caste Hindus and Brahmos, is part of the postcolonial endeavour to recuperate texts written within the colonial context. The translated text is thus validated in crossing the threshold of the mimetic to play an interpretive role.