There’s a virtue in poetry, in that the poet’s creativity arouses the reader’s creativity; people then proceed to evoke beauty, or morality, or abstraction from it according to their inclinations. It’s like lighting fireworks: poetry is the igniting flame and the readers’ minds are fireworks of different kinds.”i (Tagore, Selected Writings 73)
Much before Roland Barthes and his ominous prediction about ‘The Death of the Author’, Rabindranath Tagore had made it passé to hold writing to authorial intention and a specified meaning. While privileging the reader, Barthes holds that ‘a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader… a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination….’ii (Barthes 148 )
Rabindranath had overthrown the myth of the writer and had afforded the reader the space and freedom to constitute and hold the text together. It is this elusiveness of the text that opened up the poet and his poetry to the world. His English version of Gitanjali titled Song Offerings and introduced by William Butler Yeats was published by Macmillan, London, in March 1913. By the time that Rabindranath was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in November 1913, this slim volume of poems had taken Europe by storm and had gone into ten editions.
Yeats in his introduction to these ‘offerings’ translated by the poet himself from several of his Bengali volumes of poetry like Gitimalya and Naibedya refers to the poems being embedded in the rich Indian culture and ancient tradition ‘where poetry and religion are the same thing’.iii (Yeats xi-xii) With the shadows of an impending World War gathering its cumulative fury, these poems encapsulated a simple faith in man and divinity, a refuge from the crass materialism that was engulfing the world. It is the spirit of the poems that appealed to an entire generation, affording solace and sustenance, faith and hope by rediscovering truth and beauty in the world around.
One of the most poignant instances of the popular appeal of Rabindranath’s poetry in war-torn Britain is the story about the trench poet Wilfred Owen. After the death of her son on the warfront, just a few days before the armistice, Owen’s mother, Susan, was returned his personal possessions. In the notebook that Owen carried in his pocket, he had inscribed in his own hand, poem 96 from Gitanjali with the name of the poet inscribed below.
When I go from hence
let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus
that expands on the ocean of light,
and thus am I blessed
---let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms
I have had my play
and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs
have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch;
and if the end comes here, let it come
--let this be my parting word.iv
Ironically or prophetically, Owen had recited lines from this poem when for the last time, he bid his mother goodbye, when they stood there looking out to France across the sea. Susan Owen wrote a letter to Rabindranath in August 1920 recounting this experience, still moved by the power of the poem that reverberated in her mind in the voice of her lost son.
Speaking across cultures, what in the poem had Owen found particularly exhilarating? Even if it foreshadowed death, the poem reflected the ‘unsurpassable’, a positive vision of life and beauty that stood in stark contrast to the painful reality of the battlefront that Owen had distilled into his own verse. The thrilling touch of ‘infinite forms’ is a soul-transforming experience that perhaps distances the fear of death, as one then ‘shares the life eternal which death cannot defeat’. (Radhakrishnan 63)v Had Owen transcended the self and found a consciousness that linked him to the infinite, thereby enabling him to defy annihilation?
It is only possible to conjecture what meaning a poet in direct communion with violence and death could have made of this writing. This ‘systematic exemption of meaning’ rather than assigning an ‘ultimate meaning’ to the text, liberated what Roland Barthes calls ‘an anti-theological activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law.’ (147)
The popularity of Rabindranath’s writings, the fluidity of meaning, the contradictions and misunderstandings, were the typical ‘fate’ of a great poet and philosopher for “from the words of the poet men take what meanings please them.” (Radhakrishnan 2) Curiously enough, Rabindranath’s philosophy of life has been variously interpreted as that of a Vedantin, drawing his idealism from the Upanishad or as that of a theist looking for inspiration to Christianity. Mr. Tagore was charged by the Spectator (February 14, 1914)vi of “teaching borrowed Ethics to Europe as a thing characteristically Indian”. The debates raged through the years of the First World War and the deep core of non-denominational spiritualism and faith which attracted readers was claimed as a “glimpse of what the Christianity of India will be like….” (Quarterly Review, October 1914, p.330)vii
Rabindranath’s writing meanwhile continued to be read and discussed, translated and published all over the world. He was acclaimed as a savant and a seer from the exotic East with a deep faith in the divinity of man. His work was seen as an indigenous legacy ‘gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.’ (Yeats xi-xii) He remained a life-long advocate of truth and freedom and ‘was a world citizen not because he became world-famous but because he felt with the world…Tagore made the world’s destiny his own and felt deeply the agony if there was suffering and injustice in any part of the world.’ (Kripalani 267)viii
The agonies of the world were brewing in the impending onslaught of another massive war. Rabindranath’s critique of ‘Janus faced’ nationalism was trenchant and prophetic. While nationalism could represent the spirit of liberation and freedom, it could also result ‘in forced conversion, aggressive expansion and predatory imperialism.’ (Radhakrishnan 266) In 1930, Tagore had delivered the Hibbert Lectures at Oxford on ‘The Religion of Man’, expressing an optimistic faith that the messengers of truth would connect ‘across centuries, across the seas, across historical barriers’ to ‘raise up the great continent of human brotherhood from avidya, from the slimy bottom of spiritual apathy’. (Tagore, Religion 239)ix In 1941, three months before his demise, he rang the alarm bell in his address entitled Crisis in Civilization, where he expressed his disappointment with a progressive Western civilization and held out ample expectation that succour lay rooted in the spiritualism of the East.
It is not the ambiguity of meaning embedded in the text that created the popularity of Rabindranath or gave him his historical continuity. The birth of the reader gave his writing its future and its significance. This is a case-study of one such reader whose circumstances and location shaped the subtle nuances of the poet’s writing and reception in a violent, war-ravaged world.
Suhasini Biswas was born on the last day of 1895, into a Bengali Christian family in Calcutta, the imperial capital of the British empire. By the end of the nineteenth century, women’s education in India had been successfully implemented under the aegis of the Christian missionaries and the influence of reformist movements like the Brahmo Samaj. Suhasini was educated at St John’s Diocesan School and College, which was one of the oldest educational institutions for women to be founded in Calcutta in 1894 by the Clewer Sisters (later called Sisters of Mercy) of the convent of John the Baptist. She went on to take up a career in teaching and was headmistress in a Girls’ school in Allahabad before she took up another assignment in Faizunessa Girls’ High School in Comilla, a town in undivided Bengal.
Australian Baptist missionaries were quite active in that region during the early decades of the twentieth century and Suhasini who was much influenced by their work, was invited to visit Australia. This was 1941, the same year that Rabindranath recorded his apprehensions about the crisis caused by the World War and a militant nationalism. To travel during this period was fraught with risk and in 1942, on her return voyage, the ship S.S. Nankin on which she was travelling, was attacked and sunk by a German Raider and all on board were taken Prisoners of War. The hostages were shifted from one vessel to another and eventually the Germans handed over all those captured to the Japanese. The custodians lodged the prisoners, men, women and children, in the Fukushima camp outside Tokyo and Suhasini was identified as a ‘British Civilian’ prisoner.
All personal possessions were confiscated, but Suhasini smuggled into the camp a Bengali version of Gitanjali by telling the guards that is was a copy of The Bible. From 11th July 1942 to early September 1945, which marked the end of the Second World War and the release and return of prisoners, Suhasini was confined in that camp. The International Red Cross had no information about the existence of these civil internees until early 1944. Her family back home had till then no clue to her whereabouts, nor did these prisoners have any access to the outside world. Amidst the most trying of physical conditions and mental anxieties, Suhasini maintained her sanity by reading Rabindranath, and occasionally writing notes in the margins of her ‘Bible’ with a pencil-stub that she had picked up, unseen.
Does the marginalia initiate a dialogue between the reader and the text while opening it up for interpretation? As a practicing Christian, how did Suhasini’s faith equate the formless infinite Being of the Upanishad and the Trinity or Godhead? How do we, as readers decipher the dual text– Rabindranath’s and Suhasini’s? Some tentative answers are surely to be found in the negotiations between the text and the individual. The Bengali Gitanjali belongs to a more humanitarian, deeply spiritual yet liberal experience that encompasses universal Christianity rather than being in conflict with it.
Suhasini often marked out certain lines that had a special significance for her in handling the everyday trials and tribulations of being imprisoned. The first song in the Bengali Gitanjali marks a complete surrender of the self to God which is in itself a religious experience that transcends self to move towards wholeness.(amar matha noto kore dao he) The last two lines of the poem, ‘Let all my pride, O Lord, be drowned in my tears…’ are underlined in pencil and the name of the detention camp is inscribed in the margin. Pride and ego could have no place in this saga of endurance that unfolds. Another poignant insight emerges from a reading of the poem that prays, not for protection but for strength of mind and spirit to face the greatest dangers, sorrows and difficulties. ‘Let me not pray to be rescued from danger, Grant me this, that I should fear no danger…’(bipade more raksha koro) A scribbled entry alongside, dated 5th June (year not recorded) draws the poem into the intensely lived everyday life of the prisoners, underfed, undernourished and underslept. Suhasini writes, “Truly, I can claim to have said this when hungry and parched…” The text of the poem had intervened directly to infuse the human spirit with mental strength. The first lines of poem 61 refer to the silent, elusive presence of the formless, ‘He came and sat by my side, but I woke not’. (Tagore, Gitanjali 26) Here an entry dated 4th October 1943 notes the thrill of experiencing the divine presence in the stealth of night as a waft of perfume. Suhasini writes that she was determined to keep awake but fell asleep like the ‘hapless one’ of Rabindranath’s poem.
There are other notes almost like random entries in a diary that suggest that Suhasini had entered into a dialogue with each poem that she had read, and often this was in the nature of a self-communing. Poem 7 of the Bengali text is an impassioned plea that welcomes divine communion in the myriad forms in which it manifests itself in the universe, in the beauty of song, colour and smell…(tumi nabo nabo rupe esho prane, esho gandhe barane gaane) This was close to Easter time, the beginning of spring, and Suhasini notes the eternal search for faith in the church prayers and the transfiguring discovery of divinity. She utters an unconscious prayer, ‘Let me reiterate that your wishes will be fulfilled. Show, us your light...people may make fun of my faith but one day they will relent.’ Hope in the heart of despair, belief in the renewal of life as an ongoing natural process becomes an instinctive way of countering violence and death.
Reading the Gitanjali also generated larger questions and critiques of religion, philosophy and ethics. Rabindranath’s religion rises above dogma, creed and sectarianism. Song 49 inspires an idea about embracing God as a household guest, preparing the home simply to welcome him. In the marginalia dated 30th June 1945, Suhasini is critical of the comparison between Jesus and Moses found in the third section of Hebrews. She believes these debates about the authenticity of the Bible or the comparative greatness of Jesus and Moses undermine simple faith. ‘Why should we say that the message of Jesus is perfect and that of Moses is imperfect? Wherever God is, he embodies supreme Beauty and we construe him according to the limitations of our own powers. We are given the power to comprehend these greater truths which are revealed to us with the passing of time. The tidings of Moses and the tidings of Jesus are not theirs as human beings, these are that of the Almighty. Let us not demean Him because we are unable to comprehend Him.’
Suhasini survived the ordeal of almost three and a half years to return to her family home, traumatized, physically battered and mentally wearied. Her intrinsic faith found in the Gitanjali a unique synthesis of pantheism and monotheism, philosophy and religion that sustained her as an individual and enabled her to contribute to the collective life of those suffering torture, hunger, despair and the loss of personal freedom in enemy territory. The ‘truth untold’, which is the finite experience of Suhasini, annotates the text to give it a meaningful perspective that transcends abstruse philosophy, codified religion and aesthetic forms. Rabindranath’s text is transformed in the crucible of life into Suhasini’s Gitanjali sanctified by suffering and tears, shared by distant friends and strangers, acquiring an intensity that privileges the birth of the reader.
Notes and References
A note on Suhasini’s Gitanjali: This is a Bengali version of the book published under the Viswabharati Granthalaya imprint from No.10, Cornwallis Street, Calcutta. It is the 10th reprint, Magh 1332. The Preface by Rabindranath is dated Santiniketan, 31 Shravan, 1317. The book was used almost like a diary and all the entries made are in pencil. Suhasini Biswas did not leave any written account of her experiences as a Prisoner of War in Japan. The marginalia in the Gitanjali very often carry the date and year and refer to fellow prisoners, incidents in the camp, nostalgic moments remembering home or loved ones, broad observations about life and religion, personal notes. On the fly- leaf there is something as mundane as ‘a list of clothes’ and inside it dated 30.12.44, is inscribed Dwijendralal Ray’s poem addressed to the motherland, one of most popular songs in the days of nationalistic fervour. On the back leaf the camp routine is inscribed and there are also some short poems composed in remembrance of birthdays or anniversaries of her extended family at home. After recuperating from the trauma, she joined Sakawat Memorial Girls’ School, built it up in the post partition years, and retired from that institution as Headmistress. She was associated with the All India Women’s Council on Elliot Road as the Honorary General Secretary. She died on 28th December 1970 and is interred in Lower Circular Road Cemetery. All translations of the marginalia have been made by me from the original text.
i Rabindranath Tagore, “The Five Elements: The Significance of a Poem” in Selected Writings on Literature and Language, ed. Sisir Kumar Das and Sukanta Chaudhuri, New Delhi: OUP, 2001.
ii Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” in Image. Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath, London, Harper Collins, 1977.
iii William Butler Yeats, ed., Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore (1913) , Madras, Macmillan, rpt. 1977.
iv Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, New Delhi, UBS Publishers, 2003.
v Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore, London, Macmillan, 1919.
vi As quoted in Radhakrishnan,4
vii As quoted in Radhakrishnan,6
viii Krishna Kripalani, Rabindranath Tagore, A Biography, New Delhi, UBS Publishers, rpt. 2008,
ix Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man, being the Hibbert Lectures for 1930, New York, Macmillan, 1931.