Rabindranath Tagore’s androgynous imagination finds fulsome expression in the two books under review. How he extended his understanding to the mysterious secrets of women silenced by patriarchy remains a conjecture. Periodic translations open up the question in various social contexts, so today we might find a new perspective to Tagore’s ‘solutions’ for women’s issues and look for the gift of ‘agency’. A translator’s responsibility, to my mind, is to render the early texts into a language and thought-pattern that appeal to the contemporary reader; otherwise there may not be much justification for attempting fresh translations as the decades roll by. Bhattacharjee’s work reads easily without losing the flavour of Tagore’s time and it preserves the distinct quality of the voices of the men and women in the novellas without allowing standard English to flatten out the individualism.
The first book, Chaturanga, (1916) suitably titled Quartet by the translator, suggests an allusion to TS Eliot, and it transpires that the theme of competing centres of consciousness is common to Eliot and Tagore. Not only that, Eliot’s reference to the Bhagavad-Gita in Four Quartets creates the bridge between Tagore’s depiction of faith and disbelief debates in early twentieth century Bengal and England to our present-day contestations about religious practices. Tagore, growing up during the reformist era in Bengal, and in a home where the Brahmo Samaj’s ‘rationalism’ held supreme, was privy to the intellectual positions on various paths to salvation. The range from orthodoxy to atheism is covered in the debate and enters fictionalized form in the novella, entirely pertinent to our times as well.