Holy cows?

For every true blooded Bengali, whether by birth, adoption or naturalization, there is a holy trinity of Bengali literature – Bankim, Sarat and Rabindra : the Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar of the literary pantheon. It is, therefore, by definition sacrilegious to criticize any work by the triumvirate, and an immediate fatwa is declared on any ordinary mortal who presumes to do so. This has been discovered by numerous contemporary lesser litterateurs, and has recurred over various generations. Buddhadev Basu and Sunil Ganguly and other enfant terribles over the ages have suffered this fate.

This fatwa extends to any research into their personal lives as well, unless it is to establish and they were abstemious saints with impeccable conduct which would not cause a Victorian matron to frown. Any evidence to the contrary is a work of the devil incarnate.

Given such a healthy atmosphere of debate, it is no wonder that most criticism is largely emphasizing their greatness in life and literature, finding new evidence to corroborate the existing thesis, and sometimes, in less skilled hands, amounting to hagiography.

So when a cursory reading of Bankim by today’s youth gives the impression that it is a series of historical romances for the young adult, although no doubt a pioneer in the genre as far as Bengali is concerned, but already well established in Europe, and not finding much value other than archival, he keeps it to himself and looks for new ways to discover genius.

A similar perusal of Saratchandra will no doubt indicate a goldmine of plots for Bollywood and tollywood tear jerkers, as they have spawned more screen adaptations than any other body of work, A vast output of soaps on the small screen have the same inspiration. Now, no one has accused soaps or pot-boilers of literary genius, but the prime inspiration is the holiest of holies.

Attempts by a few brave souls to re-interpret the themes to today’s values have been met with war cries by the purists. Although the likes of Buz Luhrmann and his ilk has re-interpreted Shakespeare beyond recognition and our own Vishal Bhardwaj amongst others have undertaken similar projects with great success, even mild digressions of the plotlines of our holy trinity to match today’s sensibilities results in calling for blood from the upholders of our cultural heritage.

This results in condemnation without contemplation of celluloid gems like Dev D or Rituparna’s Choker Bali. Ray, being a modern day saint of the Bengali cultural pantheon, escapes the worst harangues for his occasional re-interpretations as in Ghare Baire or Teen Kanya.

So today, if a perusal of Bankimbabu or Saratchandra leaves the lay reader cold, we blame it on the lack of our intellectual depth, rather than the possibility that although they were pathbreaking works in their time, their value or relevance may have dimmed with age.

Tagore, however, is a different ballgame altogether. The genius of his poetry, music, stories, drama, political though and art have become far more evident in retrospection than was suspected in his lifetime, the Nobel prize notwithstanding.

Even so, in order to understand him and his work in today’s perspective, freedom to criticize is a pre-condition. Tagore himself recognized this and the only contemporary critic who called Robibabu dated was Tagore himself, in the persona of Amit of Shesher Kobita. Here Amit suggests that contemporary poetry – remember, this was Tagore’s own lifetime – should be like that of ‘Nibaran’, who also was a creation of Tagore. Thus he himself showed alternative styles of poetry under this pseudonym and encouraged his diffident contemporaries to think beyond Tagore.

Despite this clear carte blanche, till today, it takes a brave soul to be publicly critical of Tagore, a la Amit of Shesher Kobita.

I was, therefore, surprised to hear during a book reading event by the crossword prize winner Neel Mukherjee, who had done an inter-textual interpretation of Ghare Baire from Miss Gilby’s point of view, that he did not consider Tagore a novelist.

This was a view I had secretly held and did not dare to air till, supported by a published author, I will attempt this now.

Tagore’s short stories were brilliant in the classic mould of the short story, but the novels were a different matter.

The traditional concept of the novel, where the interplay of an array of finely etched characters bring out the nuances of their personalities, a drama unfolds, conflict arises and is resolved. Dickens, Hardy, Hugo, Zola, Flaubert, Thackeray, Scott, Collins, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Eliot were the role models and Bankim, Sarat, Bibhuti bhushan, Premchand were our classic models.

Tagore’s novels, with the exception of Chokher Bali, do not fit in.

Ghare Baire is a brilliant debate on the morality of nationalism and end versus means, and way ahead of its time, a major critique of narrow nationalism, the Congress and Gandhi’s methodology.

Char Adhyay is a debate on violence versus non-violence, extremism versus moderation.

Gora is about insularity, prejudice and tolerance, tradition versus reason, validity of ethnicity and race.

The masterpiece was Shesher Kobita – an enquiry into the nature of aesthetics and romance.

However, every character in these books was Tagore himself, with his erudition and his eloquence. This is not an inter-play of emotions but Tagore debating with Tagore, in the absence of contemporary intellects to do so. The result is a timeless tract, great literature, but not the classic novel.

Bur then again, what is the definition of the novel? Given the wide permutation the novel has achieved post war, and Tagore’s notoriety for being ahead of time, they can be happily accommodated today. But this still does not take away our right to view him critically.

A foolhardy, but apparently mediocre filmmaker recently attempted a narrative based on Tagore’s relationship. Faced with the ire of the Rabindrik moral police, the film did not see light of day. This is something Rabindranath himself would not have condoned.

Let there be irreverence. From debate reverence would arise if deserved. Respect cannot be obtained through coercion.

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  1. O I agree completely, Tagore is not a novelist. I enjoy his stories, poems and essays most of all. I took a great liking for Bankim Babu a few years ago and read much of his work, though have still to complete his essays on Hinduism and a few other topics. I spent so much time reading his works that I was even inspired enough to write a paper on his first novel, the only one he wrote in English. Perhaps you might be interested in reading it…. https://matriwords.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/notes-on-the-first-indian-novel-in-english/

    Interesting post! Thanks for writing this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Read the novel. Reading your notes 😊 thanks. Read bankim as a teenager when I really enjoyed them. Not so much later. But Tagores strictly for adults except for his children’s literature. I learned to appreciate Tagores work only when approaching senior citizenship 😊


  2. A thought provoking write up on a daring topic. It’s good that now after the copyright has been taken off, new experiments are possible with his songs and poems. Though , they are still under the microscope of the so called gurdians of Tagore’s work. Totally agree with your viewpoint on his he novels.

    Liked by 1 person

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