Tagore and translation has had a tenacious relationship over the years. While an English translation of his own work won him the Nobel, some of Tagore’s English writer friends turned against him for trying too hard to cater to English tastes. ‘Damn Tagore’ wrote W.B. Yeats in a letter in 1935, for according to him, Tagore, ‘because he thought it more important to know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English’. However, Tagore today commands a towering stature, almost sacrosanct, in the cultural vista of South Asia, often being referred to as Gurudev. At the same time, his works and personality have never entirely escaped scrutiny and debates on correct interpretations, some of which get carried over to the translations by various translators. Shesher Kobita, which was first serialized in a Bengali magazine called Probashi in 1928 has also followed the same trajectory. The original novella is credited as one of the finest of Rabindranath’s fictions, playfully intertwining prose and poetry and hardly refraining from light- hearted self-reflexive witticisms.
The first ever translation of Shesher Kobita appears to be the one by Krishna Kripalani, which, however, I have not seen. There now exists three published English translations from the original, the earlier two being The Last Poem translated by Anindita Mukhopadhyay and Farewell Song translated by Radha Chakravarty. The Last Poem translated by Dilip Basu was brought out on the occasion of Tagore’s hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary celebrated with much fanfare. The unique selling point of this book are the sketches and paintings of Dinkar Kowshik (1918-2011) used to illustrate various episodes in the narrative. Not only do they punctuate the narrative in a most comely manner, but promise interpretations themselves infusing a lyrical grace into the novella. Little is known of the man who spent his entire life devoted to art. Having graduated from the University of Bombay, he joined Santiniketan as a student of fine arts in Kala Bhawan when Tagore was still alive. Here, he was greatly influenced by the stalwarts of art and sculpture who dominated the cultural scene at that time, such as Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, Binod Behari Mukherjee and Somnath Hore. His contemporaries at Santiniketan were noted personalities like Satyajit Ray and Sankho Ghosh who were to make an indelible mark in the field of art and cinema. Dinkar himself later returned to his alma mater at Santiniketan to head Kala Bhawan, after having held faculty positions at notable art institutes in the country such as College of Arts in Delhi and College of Arts in Lucknow. Most of his sketches and water colours included in this book appear to have been completed in 2011, and that makes these the very final works, or rather, the swan song (which could also be another transliteral interpretation of the title Shesher Kobita), of the artist before he breathed his last. In fact in his epilogue, the translator, Dilip Basu, states that it was the beauty of Dinkar’s paintings included in this version, which actually inspired him to undertake the project of translating Shesher Kobita. These paintings capture the scenic allure of Shillong’s landscape, which comes alive as a character in this classic masterpiece of Bangla literature.
The strength of the novella is its unique treatment of love and conjugality. The baffling ending to the passionate love affair and the grand poetic closure are the hallmarks of this novella. The unusual decisions that the couple make reveals Rabindranath’s deep understanding of love and man-woman relationship in general. Amit and Lavanya’s passionate romance end with Lavanya choosing a different suitor, Shobhanlal, to the man she loves. Amit marries a woman, Ketaki, who expresses a nature quite contrary to his liking. In a remarkable quotation in the end Amit describes the two women, and his attachment to both: ‘What binds me to Ketaki is love, but this love is like water in a vessel. I’ll draw it, and use it every day. My love for Lavanya is like a lake, which can’t be brought home in a vessel. My mind will swim in it’ (p. 148).
Elsewhere, in his other novels, Tagore has demonstrated a central preoccupation with conjugal relationships assessing women’s location within it. In novels like Nashtaneer (The Broken Home, 1901) or Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), the foundations of marriage had already been questioned and shaken by their transgressive female protagonists, Charulata and Bimala. Nashtaneer is said to have borne autobiographical references to Rabindranath’s own relationship with his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, who committed suicide four months after Tagore’s marriage. In fact, Amitrasudan Bhattacharya is of the opinion that Shesher Kobita carries autobiographical traits. According to him, the hero of Shesher Kobita, Amit, is none other than Rabindranath himself and the story here is really about the mutual affectionate relationship he shared with a young lady Ranu Adhikari, with whom he was seen to take daily evening walks during his stay in Shillong, and to whom he had written numerous letters till she married the noted industrialist Sir Birendranath Mukherjee and became known as Ranu Mukherjee. The truth of this is, of course, debatable for we do not have evidence to suggest that their mutual affection blossomed into a romantic relationship. However, the novella seems to throw light on Tagore’s own philosophy on romantic relationships, about which he wrote numerous songs and poems.
Talking of poetry, the easiest thing not to miss in this novella, is the self critical Rabindranath, who emerges as a character in the novella, receiving severe admonitions at the hands of the central protagonist, Amit, trained at Oxford University, but one who retained his Bengali ways with an orthodox rigour. It is hard to miss the self-reflexive sarcasm and to repress a smile when Amit comments: ‘The poets who are past sixty or seventy and are still shamelessly turning in their shoddy products only add to their cheapness. Self-plagiarism soon leads to mediocrity. For this reason, it is incumbent on the readers not to let these old imbeciles live any longer—I mean poetically, not physically’ (pp. 15-6). And earlier, he states: ‘It needs a little push to prove that its sentimental followers have delayed giving it a fitful(sic) burial for fear of acknowledging its legitimate new successor. I have vowed to expose this shameful conspiracy of the Tagorites’ (p. 14).
In this, Tagore can be said to anticipate a counter-discourse to his kind of poetry voiced by the Krittibash group or the Hungryalist movement by later generations in the 1950s and 60s. Just as Amit champions the poetry of Nivaran Chakravarti as a future incarnation of Bengali literature and successor to Tagore, was Tagore himself looking forward to reinventing his own poetic voice, shedding his earlier poetic idiom? For, who else could be Nivaran Chakravarti if not Amit himself, and who could be Amit, if not Tagore himself? In his last letter to Lavanya, Amit wrote: ‘That day, when we stood at the end of the road, I ended our journey with a poem. It cannot be expressed in words. Poor Nivaran died the day he was caught, like a most delicate fish. Since there is thus no choice, I turn to our favourite poet Tagore to speak to you for me’ (p. 149). Remarkably, the novella ends in a passionate response in female voice: Grieve not on my account, Wide is the world with many tasks. My cup is not discarded Shall fill again— Let this sustain me forever.
Nilanjana Mukherjee is with the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.