The Magical Charm of Rabindranath Tagore’s Short Stories: An Evaluation
It seems that short stories have always a special charm to man. Man used to tell stories to his audience even in the pre-historic period. As a literary genre short story is a recent development, “The compulsion of a short story is that it “must contain one and only one informing idea and that this idea must be worked out to its logical conclusion with absolute singleness of method. Within a well defined, limited framework, a short story must throw a flood of light on one central incident” (Bandyopadhyay 57). The leading characteristics of short story are: dramatic quality, lyricism, surprise and suggestion. The short stories can be of infinite variety since man is a complex phenomenon. The modern short story writers carry on many experiments with its form and techniques. In the words of Bandyopadhyay:
It seems that the writers are no longer interested in either the story or the character; nor are they keen to analyse the complexities of a particular character. They are rather, busy with ‘the stream of consciousness,’ and they want to present fragments of it in their stories. The way things are moving, time may not be far when short story will be devoid of story, character and incidents, and will contain, instead, only some fragmentary ideas of the writer. (58)
According to Indian poetics, the summum bonum of literature is suggestiveness or vyanjana; but for Western poetics, it is symbolism. So, if in the future the short story is reduced to just a suggestion or a symbol, one may not be surprised.
Some critics are of opinion that the modern age is mainly an age of short story because in the hectic modern life we have just time enough for reading a short story. The Bengali writers who preceded Tagore thought that a story could be enlarged into a novel and a novel could be condensed into a short story. This is a wrong concept because a short story and a novel belong to two completely different genres. To quote Bandyopadhyay, “Lyric and short story, temperamentally, are like twin brothers. So, it is not difficult for a lyricist to write a short story. Whatever may be Rabindranath’s position as a novelist there is no doubt that he ranks among the greatest short story writers of the world” (59).
In the short stories of Tagore one can find the influence of man, nature and the mysteries of the supernatural. “The pictures of our rural urban lives, disintegration of the old joint family families, family quarrels, conflict in love and affection, conflict between religious superstitions and humanistic values and the final triumph of humanism provide a pageant of the entire Bengal life” (Bandyopadhyay 60). The domestic stories of Tagore are treated with unprecedented realistic approach. Tagore may not have the actual, practical experience with the rural life of his people in the stories. The same is the case with other artists as well. Experience is necessary, but equally important is imagination. As has been pointed out, “Rabindranath’s success as a master short story writer was actually ensured by his essentially lyrical temperament since . . . there is close affinity between a short story and a lyric” (Bandyopadhyay 62).
Tagore is widely regarded as the innovator of the modern Bengali short story and is credited with introducing colloquial speech into Bengali literature. He has been compared to such masters of the short story, as Tolstoy, Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant. “Tolstoy is didactic: Maupassant is erotic. Rabindranath combines the good qualities of both without their excesses. He delved deep into the psychology of man and riddle of existence in his short stories which are universal in their appeal” (Bandyopadhyay 61-62). Tagore's short stories are often set in rural Bengali villages and are peopled by characters from the underprivileged sectors of society. They reflect his commitment to social realism in prose and his ten years experience among such individuals. As a short fiction writer, Tagore was a practitioner of psychological and social realism. His stories depict poignant human relationships within a simple, relatively uneventful plot. Many of Tagore's short stories also include elements of the supernatural and bizarre. Hariom Prasad is of opinion that, “The phenomenon of the combination of lyricism with the realism in his short-story is unique. We perceive in them rich emotionalism and at the same time a realistic portrayal of the poor and middle-class people in the villages and small towns” (Prasad, 211). His short stories do not deal with incidents in life. Hopes and aspirations, disappointments and frustrations, joys and sorrows in human life are depicted through his stories. The famous Indian film director Satyajit Ray has adapted several of Tagore's short stories into movies.
Vishwanath S. Naravane observed that modern short story is Rabindranath Tagore's gift to Indian culture. Many of Tagore's short stories became available in English after he had gained international acclaim as the Nobel Prize winner. Early reviewers in English received Tagore's stories with mixed appraisal; while some applauded his short fiction, others found them of negligible quality. Later critics have commented that these early reviewers were ignorant of the context of Indian culture in which the stories are set. Critics have praised Tagore for his blending of poetic lyricism with social realism, as well as the way in which his unearthly tales maintain psychological realism within an atmosphere of supernatural occurrences. Scholars frequently praise Tagore's short stories for the deeply human quality of the characters and relationships.
Tagore wrote nearly one hundred short stories during his abundant literary career. It was during the 1890s that he wrote fifty-nine stories. Some fifty or more stories are readily available in English in collections like Glimpses of Bengal life (1913), Hungry Stones (1916), Mashi (1918), Broken Ties (1925), The Parrot’s Training (1944) and The Runaway (1959). Some stories were translated from Bengali into English by the poet himself and the others by several eminent translators.
Tagore was associated with periodicals, and the periodicals were widely read during the eighteen nineties. The writers and the editors of the periodicals were in touch with the literary development abroad, and the vogue of short story in America, England and Europe came to Bengal also. So Tagore also turned to short stories. Many of Tagore’s stories were published first in the magazine Sadhana which was virtually a Tagore family magazine, with eight of Rabindranath’s brothers and cousins contributing articles in it.
Tagore’s earlier stories contain the themes of village life, which he observed when he visited the villages as land lord of his family estates. As has been said earlier, immediately after his marriage he was sent by his father to Shelidaha to manage the estates there. From this he toured widely in many villages, going about mostly in house boats, surveying the expanse of waters, that is the Padma. Nirmalkumar Sidhanta writes on it:
After years of city life he was now in the midst of the bounties of Nature, with plenty of opportunities of admiring natural scenes and surveying the panorama of rural life. Living here the poet was impressed on the one hand, by the wide expanse of waters and on the other by the unknown human beings who had inhabited the villages for generations and centuries. (Sidhanta, 285)
Tagore gave names to these anonymous villagers and brought colour and variety to their general life. He could see them as his neighbours and could sympathize with them in their little joys and sorrows; he could reveal the petty selfishness, which dominates human life, and admire that best portion of a good man’s life. Before Tagore, none in Bengal had written stories on the temperament of the rural people. Tagore spoke at a felicitation ceremony in 1940, “conventional wisdom isn’t true knowledge, in true knowledge there is love: the heartfelt love with which I have observed village life. . . . It might sound like boasting, but I would say that very few writers in Bengal have looked at their country with as much feeling as I have” (Selected Stories 15). Thus the village life contributed significantly to his evolution as a great short story writer.
Tagore deviated from the traditional way of story-telling and devised for himself a new structure. The short story of Tagore begins abruptly, develops around a trivial and ordinary incident or situation and ends with a twist when the readers’ curiosity about the story is almost acute. He presents life as vignettes and not in its totality or completeness. Thus Tagore’s stories are deliberately fashioned works of art and not straightforward tales of one event or more. Tagore’s stories were original creations having no influence from any Western writers. Realism mixed with Romanticism, insight into human minds, absence of excessive passion and absence of exaggerated situations, make his stories singular. Western scholars are of opinion that the quality of Tagore’s stories even make Nathaniel Hawthorne feel jealous. Critics have compared Tagore’s stories to Flaubert’s. But one can also find great similarities between the stories of Tagore and Chekhov, especially with the stories of Tagore during the eighteen nineties. Tagore was not at all a writer who could learn from others; his own unique literary demon, his ‘jiban-debata,’ had possessed him so much. His stories — not only in their theme but in their overall style — belong not wholly to the prosaic real, not wholly to the poetic ideal either, but to the Ghat where the two meet.
Through his stories Tagore opened to the readers the hearts of men and women. The incidents are few and rare in these stories and they are chosen more for the light that they throw on human hearts than for keeping up the interest of the reader. Another important feature of his stories is the frequency of beautiful natural descriptions. Tagore introduced these descriptions not for their own sake but to show the common bond of sympathy that exists, though unperceived, between the soul of man and the soul of nature. “Everywhere the poet pleads for more sympathy, more love, more simplicity, a better ordering of life, a higher serenity, a sweeter submission to the divine will, and an increasing realisation of the divine foundations of life” (Sastri, 380). Tagore fixed the pathos or beauty or joy of any incident as the centre of his story and used other details including descriptions of nature as tools for illuminating these moods. Hence the number of incidents in a story is less and the incident detailed gets perfection. Not only Tagore’s characters have life and spirit, even the houses, the surroundings and atmosphere are full of life and spirit.
Tagore did not allow supernatural powers any role in his stories. K. S. Ramaswami Sastri writes thus:
We must also bear in mind that Tagore has been a loving student of the best literatures of the West and that hence his art has acquired a new grace and power by such study, which has enabled him to take up life as it is around us and bring out its heights and depths before our eyes without that over-idealising tendency and obtrusion of the supernatural elements which were the chief defects of Indian fiction in the past. (Sastri, 378-379)
One does not find any providence in the evolution of any situation or event. No character depends too much on God and there is no divine miracle narrated in the stories.
Another specialty of Tagore’s stories is the presence of national spirit and patriotism. The thirst for independence and the vow to use Indian dress and articles, as well as discard foreign ones are seen in some characters in the stories. The scare of all British reforms and the longing for positions in the foreign government were all meaningless, and through some characters Tagore exhorted the Indians to throw away such attitude. He also told the people that their sacrifice, and not just a donation to Congress, would serve for the independence of the country. Through certain characters Tagore told the people that it was senseless to fear the government servants for no reason and humiliating to respect them, losing one’s own pride.
The essence of his stories seems to be conflict, not harmony, between Real and Ideal, ‘Sthal’ and ‘Jal.’ Tagore says on it, “They belong to the Ghat, to the meeting-place of land and water, a place more often than not of sorrow or tears. His characters weep because of conflict between Goodness and cruelty, depth and shallowness” (Selected Stories 25). Tagore pays more attention to the richness of the inner world of man, to philosophical thoughts, to psychological analysis and less to outward events.
Tagore used variety in form and content and they ranged from the terrain of love to the domain of the ghost. His stories are neat and perfect and can be compared to the best in any language.
Tagore’s stories reveal the fact that he had great insight into woman’s heart. Srinivasa Iyengar writes about Tagore’s women, “The women in his stories, of course, are splendidly womanly, frail and fair, yet wise and strong; always—or almost always—more sinned against than sinning. Tagore plumbs the depths of the womanly heart, and behind the seeming wiles and the helpless gestures he sees reserves of devotion and sacrifice” (77). Women occupied the central roles in majority of his stories.
The artistic mastery of Tagore’s stories is visible in their successful endings. Like Chekhov, Tagore believed that the endings of the stories should have an element of incompleteness. Having heard the end of the story the reader must feel that though that was the end, the story did not end there. This ‘incompleteness’ helped the writer to show the continuous flow of life and make the reader think over problems of life.
The major themes in his stories are the problems of the joint-family system, social criticism in a wider sense, love passionate or placid, outside marriage ties or born of conjugal bonds, and love in its waywardness and eccentricities. William Radice in his Introduction to Tagore’s Selected Short Stories states, “. . . we find in Tagore’s stories ample evidences of his reflections on child-marriage and dowry-system; bigoted orthodoxy or casteism; changing landlord-tenant relations; the political frustrations of a rising educated class; the growing gulf between town and country; man’s intimate relation with nature; ruinous litigation; dehumanizing poverty; cruel and corrupt officialdom” (14). These themes are all handled with pathos.
Tagore’s characters are never artificial creatures. They are ordinary men and women, and children and babies whom he met in his life in the estate. Till that time ordinary men and women had no entry in Bengali literature. There were none before or after him, who portrayed these categories of characters with so much insight and sympathy. His stories show a wide canvas of reality through which one can have a glimpse of the widest sections of society like peasants, petty officials, poor workers, intelligentsia living in city and villages, impoverished landlords, Brahmin priests, petty traders and so on. Through these characters Tagore shows life as it flows in the Bengali society. The characters have their own personalities. At the same time they are typical of the 19th century Bengal. The tragic conditions of women in all roles of life—wife, mother, daughter, sister—are drawn through a number of characters in his stories. The spineless intelligentsia of Bengal during Tagore’s days makes central characters in some of his stories.
The narrator in many of his stories is a shallow, jaunty, self-regarding person, who is changed and deepened by the events of the story, or by a story told to him by someone else. Tagore very often started his stories with one or two characters seen as living men and women, moving about him: then he proceeded to tell about incidents in their lives, incidents separated, sometimes, by years. The technician of today would criticize this lack of unity of action. “But in these short stories it is the men (it is often the women), who matter and the reader is to be told as much about them as is possible within the limits of a short story” (Sidhanta 290). The events in the stories are usually narrated in one of the two ways—autobiographical or the first person narration, or the omniscient spectator’s or the third person narration. The former method is appealing to the reader because he is much closer to the heart of the leading character and he is allowed to see the working of the protagonist’s mind and heart. Tagore in his later stories used this method to focus the interest of the reader in one person and on everything that was nearest to him. When the narration is in third person there is perfect objectivity, and all experiences, including thoughts, are revealed by an all-knowing, invisible spectator. In the transmission of other’s speech and thought the omniscient narrator’s task is easier than that of the autobiographer. The autobiographer finds it difficult to communicate whatever has not been said by him or to him. Tagore in his later stories used this technique of third person narration with maturity and much space was given to thought-processes, which he tried to understand and communicate.
Nature is depicted in Tagore’s stories to fulfill various functions. As a lyrical poet he could feel the pulse of nature. That is why in most of his stories one finds an integral link between man and nature. A true picture of Bengal with all her natural beauties is presented to the readers through the stories. “The author ponders over the fate of those who live in the midst of this rich nature. Tagore could feel subtle nuances of the beauty of nature and link it with human life” (Basu 105). Tagore uses nature for the creation of a particular mood. This element of nature gives his stories a lyrical quality. In order to convey a mood in a better way Tagore takes either similar or dissimilar phenomena of nature. Human feelings get depth and completeness as the author reveals them through nature. Nature plays a definite role in the plot of his stories. Tagore is realistic in the depiction of nature. “In the stories of Tagore nature often, as in real life, is an unconcerned witness of human drama” (Basu 108). Unlike Wordsworth, Tagore never tries to make nature poetic or takes it as a shelter from worldly ailments.
The style of Tagore’s stories is simple, terse and not much coloured. No attempt is there in the stories to make surprises for readers or to artificially strengthen certain special episodes. Similarly one does not find the author’s sudden intervention with comments. While creating his characters, Tagore does not use any particular colour. Similarly he does not idealise or exaggerate.
Tagore preferred lighter colours. Glaring colours like red, black, yellow were not used in his stories. The characters in his stories are not distinguished men but they create a lasting impression in our minds. Like all the classical works of art, Tagore’s stories demand a deeper study from the readers.
In most of the stories of the first two decades Tagore used an artificial literary language. It was not the colloquial language of his characters. If he wanted to be realistic Tagore would have to use at least half a dozen dialects. Tagore had found in England that even though there were several dialects there, the students were taught only the literary language. Hence Tagore preferred literary language in his stories.
Though many of his stories are available as translated into English by different scholars, they are never inferior to the original Bengali versions. As Jaya Chaliha wrote in India Today:
The translators, well-known in their own spheres, capture the simplicity, pathos and poignancy of Tagore's prose, be it in descriptions of the daily life of the common man in the delta, the seasons, particularly the monsoon, women's emancipation, western occult studies and the changing pattern of urban social life in Victorian Bengal. They have put themselves behind the stories and each piece emerges as an individual frame woven together in a fine tapestry. (“Tales from Tagoreana”)
Though Tagore lived in the colonial period, he can be classified as a postcolonial writer. Many of Tagores’s heroines and heroes try to uphold the noble values, culture, ethos, beliefs, traditions, rituals and practices of Hinduism and India and are willing to sacrifice their lives for them.
Pathos is the main current of Tagore’s short stories. Tagore of the poetry is a visionary and mystic whereas he is a realist in his short stories. Srinivasa Iyengar writes on the themes of Tagore’s short stories, “The recurring theme of the stories is the ‘tears in things,’ the heartaches at the core of life; . . . the truth that defiles the lie, or the sheer mad thrill of pain. The old ‘stale’ tales of Mother Earth and Mother Humanity, the pity and poetry of it all, the poetry being the pity—no painstaking ‘modernity’ at all (Indian Writing in English 71). In addition to the realistic portrayal of men and society, one can hear the poetic voice of the author. The reader can feel the loving mind of the writer, his deep feeling for mankind. Almost all the stories of eighteen nineties were full of pathos. The reason for it is obvious because Tagore was then living amidst the suffering, miserable, ordinary villagers. “Sympathetic and human attitude to human personality, to his suffering and happiness gives a deep lyrical characteristic to the stories of Tagore and Chekhov” (Basu 100). In Tagore as well as in Chekhov the personal feelings of the heroes went beyond the narrow framework of personal life and acquired a broader framework of the problem of humanity as such.
His obsession with pathos is not the result of his tragic vision of life or pessimism. He is highly optimistic in his poetry, especially Gitanjali. He wrote majority of his stories immediately after his marriage, when he had not any personal problems in his life. Then what grieved him much might be the miseries of the people whom he met around him. He portrayed their lives realistically.
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