Tagore’s The Hunger of Stones (Kshudhita Pashan): An Experiment in Parody?
Arguably, one of the finest short stories, Rabindranath Tagore’sThe Hunger of Stones (first published in July-1895) has been largely read as a fiction that explores the imaginative zone of the subconscious and the mysterious. The notable Bengali critics, Srikumar Bandopadhyaya and Niharranjan Ray locate the appeal of the short story in its amalgamation of the supernatural and the real while Pramatha Nath Bisi locates it as Tagore’s exploration of the life beyond. However, an alternative reading of the story locates a rich ironic content that undermines and ridicules the supernatural content of the story. This paper argues that The Hunger of Stones is potentially an ironic revisitation of Rabindranath’s juvenile fantasies and a spoof of the tradition of ghost story.
Speaking about the origins of the story, Tagore wrote in My Boyhood Days:
In Ahmedabad I floated amidst old history. The Shahibag was my elder brother’s allotted residence. During daytime he left for his work as a judge and those lonely enormous rooms haunted me. From the courtyard at front one could see the Sabarmati with knee deep water meandering in the sands. This courtyard with its pocket constructions of small water reservoirs whispered the secrets of the Begums’ luxury bath … History never bothered to peep into my city-bred self amidst the hustle-bustle of Calcutta life. Our perspectives were engrossed with the immediate present, By contrast, it was Ahmedabad that for the first time I found history pulsating in its animated self. Its past days were like the hidden treasure concealed carefully underground . That was the first time my mind worked upon the story of The Hunger of Stones.1
(Translated by the author from the Bengali version).
Rabindranath proceeded to add:
History was like a skeleton there … I dressed it up and in the museum of my mind… I created a whole image. The draft I created was a figment of my imagination.2
In a letter to Hemanta Bala Devi, Tagore clearly identified The Hunger of Stones as a “work of the purest imagination”.3 The question remains what was Rabindranath’s attitude to the supernatural yarn he had woven?
It is to be noted that just after his visit to Ahmedabad, Rabindranath journeyed to England, the record of which was published in brief epistles in Bharati and later collected in Letters from a Sojourner to Europe (1881). Rabindranath’s narrative is startlingly marked by prejudices in his description of the English man:
He had a body like a palm tree, a moustache like a broom, hair like porcupine quills, the face like a cauldron, eyes dull and expressionless like those of a fish. I found him repulsive and kept my distance from him.4
and the Arab sailor:
How far the ‘divine’ face of a man can descend towards the bestial, you would realize had you seen the face of that boatman. His two eyes were those of a tiger’s, coal-black, his forehead low and lips thick – all in all a fearful countenance.5
The satiric Rabindranath was to later retract his opinions in My Reminiscences and Paschatya Bhraman and confess:
Now it is beyond my power to call them back. These were nothing but the outcome of youthful bravado. At that age the mind refuses to admit its greatest pride is in its power to understand, to accept, to respect; and that modesty is the best means of enlarging its domain. Admiration and praise is looked upon as sign of weakness and surrender, and the desire to cry down and hurt and demolish with a argument gives rise to this kind of intellectual fireworks. These attempts of mine to establish my superiority wth revilement might have occasioned me amusement today, had not their straightness and common courtesy been too painful.6
This trip also marked the closure of the narrative of My Boyhood Days – a rite of passage from immaturity to complex subjectivity. It is in this context of revisiting and critiquing his first impressions and emotions that we would like to locate Rabindranath’s The Hunger of Stones.
This becomes especially significant when we look at the convoluted structure of narration in The Hunger of Stones. The initial narrator is a skeptical young man set off in contrast to a more gullible theosophite. The main narrative voice belongs however, to the older cotton collector reminiscencing about his youthful experience. The closure of the story is disrupted by a European voice with which the collector is familiar. This multitude of voices serves to mitigate very consciously any absolute supernatural appeal that the story might have.
Indeed, Rabindranath’s story has been compared to the poetry of Coleridge in creating the “willing suspension of disbelief” and a very subtle kind of horror found in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories which Lynn Pickett defines as the “horror that came from inside his own head, while real world took no notice of him”.7
The beginning of the story initiates the ironic overtones by describing the elderly collector in distinctly ironic terms – “He held forth on every conceivable subject … not having known anything about all this”, The phrases “we were real innocents … he held us spell bound … our awe of him increased with every word he uttered” creates the image of gullible young men and are rather conscious and crafty teller of tales. It is further extended in the portrayal of the listener who would in many ways reciprocate the reader within the text: “ My cousin who was a theosophist, was even convinced that he had some sort of supernatural power … He hung upon the lightest word from this unusual man with the rapt attention of a devotee”.
Rabindranath is also using a recurrent strategy in the ghost story – a journey by night, an interlude to fill in with narrative and the potential of a shattering climax. The reference to the Persian woman and the Arabian Nights also draws our attention to the fictional nature of the tale left incomplete in its Chinese box structure. When the collector is called away, he is about to launch into an older and the second narrative of the Persian slave girl in that rose garden. The closure of the short story, especially the arrival of the Englishman and the immediate departure of the old collector, aligns him with the rational administration rather than any lingering supernaturalism. It is this trance from which the young narrator attempts to snap out: “The man took us for fools and had a good laugh at our expense. The story was all made up from the beginning to end”. At this juncture he mentions that this comment later lost him the friendship of the theosophist cousin.
Clearly, the theosophist cousin is a surrogate of the reader who is drawn into gullibility. A recurrent refrain is the voice of Meher Ali, supposedly driven insane by his proximity with the hungry stones who bawls out, “Stay away! Stay away! It’s a lie, all of it’s a lie”. The refrain reminds us of the overt fictionality of the tale and the distance between actuality and fantasy. Are the two young friends, the two selves of Rabindranath? Is the more skeptical young man, the latter Rabindranath who visits the gullible younger self prone to reading supernatural presences in every nook and corner of the haunted house in Ahmedabad? Is this like Letters from a Sojourner in Europe a revisitation of childhood fantasies and a moment of passage from immaturity to rationality?
If The Hunger of Stones is read in the context of its fictionality and an ironic reminder of how the mind constructs the past, then the story allows us to interrogate the close interaction between history and fiction. There are intense moments in the story where the entranced author subjectively perceives presences, sounds, laughter, teardrops within the dark and silent spaces of the house. There is a very significant construct of Moghul history in creating a stereotype of lustful princes, abducted women and unrequited desire. Very subtly, is Rabindranath probing how history creates subjective fictional responses rather than objective reality? Here it may be noted that the historical details of the palace mentioned in the story incorporates many details from his cousin Satyendranath’s 1888 essay “Bombai Chitra” that describes the Moghul ruler Mahmud II who reigned between1626 to1665 and his pleasure palace and not merely the well acknowledged details of Ahmedabad’s Shahibag that Tagore frequented with his elder cousin.
The question raised here becomes central because of Rabindranath’s consistent interrogation of the fictional nature of apparently truthful genres like the autobiography . In My Reminiscences he writes:
I know not who paints the pictures on memory's canvas; but whoever he may be, what he is painting are pictures; by which I mean that he is not there with his brush simply to make a faithful copy of all that ishappening. He takes in and leaves out according to his taste. He makes many a big thing small and small thing big. He has no compunction inputting into the background that which was to the fore, or bringing to the front that which was behind. In short he is painting pictures, and not writing history.
Is the maturing Rabindranath aware that versions of history are fictional variants rather than dependable sources of truth? It is tempting to argue that Rabindranath’s perception of senses and phenomena beyond the scientific and rational make The Hunger of Stones an early example of his probe into the supernatural. However in his later writings we do not locate the ironic, caustic countervoice that The Hunger of Stones depicts. The ironical perspective opens up the story to a closer scrutiny. It must be remembered that Rabindranath was one of the earliest and perspective theorists of the form of the Bengali short story.In the “Monsoons” section of his famous long poem The Golden Boat, Tagore epitomizes his theory:
I desire to create stories one after the other
About small lives, and tiny pains, simple and lucid …
With no excess of descriptions,didacticism or moralizing.
The closure will open up unsatiated thirst for more and
The ending will defer ending …
(Translated by the author from the Bengali version)
The young Rabindranath was conscious of the short story as a literary genre marked by its strategies and conscious of its salient appeal.William Radice commenting on Tagore’s supernatural stories points out that
such stories are full of pathos, grief, anguish and terror as the more natural tales …the narrator of the story is a … self-regarding individual who is changed and deepened by the events of the story … This “Ancient Mariner” technique is particularly characteristic of the supernatural tales, as if Tagore was concerned to place the fantastic and other-worldly within an ordinary realistic frame.8
Thus,was The Hunger of Stones a story that laid bare these narrative strategies ironically revealing the gullibility of the simple reader to a more discerning one? Was The Hunger of Stones an effort in parody, consciously using the strategies of the short story only to undermine it? One notes that Coleridge’s use of the “willing suspension of disbelief” or Poe’s short stories do not use the residual element of irony to throw the story open to the readers. My essay locates Rabindranath as a sophisticated and conscious literary artist experimenting with various strategies of the short story. He was quick to realise that the narratve strategy of the supernatural sought to undermine and lay it bare by providing contrapunctal ironic voices in the text. Is then The Hunger of Stones an effort in parody?
All textual quotations are from Tagore’s story translated by Amitav Ghosh,The Imaam and The Indian: Prose Pieces (Ravi Dayal and Permanent Black: Delhi,2002), pp. 326-338.
1.Rabindranath Tagore,Chelebela in Rabindra Rachanabali,Vol.13,(Sulabh
2. Ibid., p. 736.
3.Tagore, Chithipatra-9,28 September,1939 (VisvaBharati:Kolkata,1964), p. 45.
4.Rabindranath Tagore, Letters From a Sojourner in Europe (Visva-Bharati: Kolkata,
2008), p. 27.
5.. Ibid., p. 28.
6.My Reminiscences as quoted in Letters From a Sojourner in Europe, (Visva-Bharati:
Kolkata, 2008), p. 186.
7. Lynn Picknett,The Best Horror Stories (London: Hamlynn,1977), p. 12.
8.William Radice, Selected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore (Penguin:England,
1994), p. 14