Just in time for the 150th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, I moved all the way across the country from Kolkata–Tagore’s home–to Ahmedabad, Gujarat. This fits perfectly with my fractured relationship to the great writer.

During my five months in Kolkata, I had several conversations about Tagore’s oppressive grip on the literary heritage and imagination of Bengalis. My bookshelves are littered with translated Tagore volumes that endless aunts and cousins have gifted to me over the years, but I’ve never quite fallen into a Tagore poem (or story, or novel) and had it capture my heart and soul. Tagore has always represented my plight as a second-generation Bengali American. I feel shut out of truly understanding Tagore’s magic because of the elevated Bengali he uses in his poetry, because the translations of Tagore into English are sneered upon by any self-respecting Bengali, and because I lack the intense cultural memory of the 2000-plus Rabindra Sangeet songs that are such markers for most Bengalis.

My connection to Tagore has everything to do with my sense of Bengali-ness though. There is something that melts inside of me when, in the midst of a conversation, an elder looks off into the middle distance and starts reciting some Tagore poem in that deep, dirge-like poetry recitation voice that was in vogue in the 1940s. And though I don’t really know Rabindra Sangeet, I spent my childhood weekends learning the graceful, emotional folk dance that accompanies the music from my mother, who recently brought me to tears when she did an impromptu performance at a gathering of ladies in her hometown. The women sang and clapped and my mother, her own performer’s radiant smile wavering on her face, glided and swerved her way into a timeless moment. When I was 16, I starred as the butch Chitrangada in Tagore’s famous drama about a warrior-princess who is raised as a boy since her father did not have any sons, but then yearns for beauty and female grace when she meets Arjuna one day. It was the pinnacle of my performing arts career and I remember the rush fondly. And just before leaving Kolkata, I was mooning over Kolkata’s Tagore fetish at the Rabindra Sadan Metro Station, which is decorated by drawings and scribbled notes from Tagore’s notebooks. I rushed to copy down this fragment before the train rushed in: “The butterfly does not count years/ but moments / and therefore has enough time.”


This past week, I talked about Tagore to some 50 young people at a three-day summer camp for youth served by Manav Sadhna. I talked about Tagore’s genius, but then also told the classic Tagore ghost-story “The Hungry Stones,” which was inspired by Tagore’s four-month stint in Ahmedabad when he was 17 and staying in a old Mughal mansion not far from where our apartment is. In order to make the activity interactive and connect it to a tabla and nature lesson that Robin was doing — we assigned certain tabla bols for different elements in the story, like the train, the river, ghost footsteps and the wind. After a long day of activities and dinner, some of the younger kids fell asleep

during the story — which had to be translated from English to Gujarati — but what’s better than a ghost story right before bed at summer camp? It was especially scary at the climax of the story when all the elements rise to a crescendo.

I thought I’d do a little wrap-up of the best writing I’ve seen around the web celebrating, debunking and discussing Tagore:

• Here’s a great piece in The Guardian by Ian Jack really giving a sense of Tagore’s rise and fall in favor in the West, and a wry look into the Bengali attitude about him.

“More than anything, what Tagore stood for was a synthesis of east and west. He admired the European intellect and felt betrayed when Britain’s conduct in India let down the ideal.”

• A more personal identification from Salil Tripathi at LiveMint:

“Tagore was at home in the world. He believed in its beauty and aesthetic. And he enhanced my life, through his presence on my bookshelves in the homes I have lived in over the years. His ideas gave shape to many of my thoughts, impulses, responses and emotions. It was a Tagore poem, Ananta Prem (Unending Love) that I read out when I got married; it was to that poem that I turned nearly two decades later, at my wife’s funeral, and read aloud again, for Tagore sang “the songs of every poet past and forever”.”

• A piece by the always-hilarious Sandip Roy at the recently-launched First Post about why he just can’t get it up for Tagore.

“The Bengali diaspora has ruined Tagore. I think there should be a  moratorium on Rabindrasangeet sessions at Banga Sammelans in San Jose and Atlantic City. It’s Bengali culture by intravenous drip for the second generation.” Ouch.

• And here’s a link to “The Hungry Stones” and other stories by Tagore.

“As I sat down again, thinking it to be an illusion, I heard many footfalls, as if a large number of persons were rushing down the steps. A strange thrill of delight, slightly tinged with fear, passed through my frame, and though there was not a figure before my eyes, methought I saw a bevy of joyous maidens coming down the steps to bathe in the Susta in that summer evening. Not a sound was in the valley, in the river, or in the palace, to break the silence, but I distinctly heard the maidens’ gay and mirthful laugh, like the gurgle of a spring gushing forth in a hundred cascades, as they ran past me, in quick playful pursuit of each other, towards the river, without noticing me at all. As they were invisible to me, so I was, as it were, invisible to them. The river was perfectly calm, but I felt that its still, shallow, and clear waters were stirred suddenly by the splash of many an arm jingling with bracelets, that the girls laughed and dashed and spattered water at one another, that the feet of the fair swimmers tossed the tiny waves up in showers of pearl.”