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Suranjima Saha

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Suranjima Saha : Preamble to a Journey

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(Translated from Jatrar Purbapatra, part of the collection titled Pather Sanchay. This essay was written on the eve of Rabindranath’s third visit to Europe in 1912. This offers Tagore’s most substantial theoretical perspective on travel.)

Preamble to a Journey

In the midst of a meadow is located our school, our Ashrama Vidyalaya, a place where young and old, teachers and pupils-all reside in a single abode. We have also other play-mates; the blue sky and the breeze - all are our friends, from whom we conceal nothing. Here, the first rays of the sun touch our eye-lids, and the evening stars stare at us. Here we hail the gale, since it alarms us beforehand by waving its mantle in some distance places. The tender foliages of the ‘Ashrama’ make us aware that a season is imminent. It is as if the natural world cannot afford to wait outside the gates of our ‘Ashrama’. 

Our desire is to share this kind of relationship with the people of the world as well. We yearn to witness all the natural phenomena which have marked human history - be it the changing of seasons, the setting of the sun, or the one wantonness of the storm. This is possible for us because we stay far away from human habitation. Here, all the information of the world does not get hindered by a particular mould; rather we receive them in an unadulterated form. 

In order to make our institution easily accessible for the human world, I feel it necessary to explore the world. I have been invited to traverse the grand world. As it is not possible for all the two hundred students of this school to accompany me in this grand tour, I have decided to represent them and travel alone. My travel will encompass their journeys. I have a firm belief that when I come back to the ‘Ashrama’, I will be pregnant with the experiences of the distant world. 

Once I come back, I will share my experiences, but now, before parting, I want to clearly explain some of my thoughts to you. 

Often I am asked why I want to travel. But I fail to provide any satisfactory reply. If I tell them that I travel for the sake of travelling, they will not take me seriously. They cannot be pacified if one doesn’t provide them with the accounts of profit and loss.

In a country like India people tend to consider travelling as a means of fulfilling one’s needs, and not as natural or inherent. They are oblivious of the fact that it is an inherent human desire to travel. We are so much entrapped within our homes, that in order to cross the threshold, we can hardly overcome the hurdles, which have divorced us from the rest of the world. We believe in superstitions, and the familial ties are so strong that they tend to overshadow the unfamiliar. That’s why we are answerable to everyone, even if we are having a sojourn. It is as if a caged bird has forgotten how to soar high in the sky. 

In my younger days when I had travelled abroad , I had some financial purposes , I could explain to them that I wanted to be civil servant, or a barrister - but now, when I am fifty two years old , these explanations become ineffective; rather, I will have to provide them with spiritual reasons.

The people of our country believe that travelling leads to spiritual upliftment. So some of them surmise, that I am going to travel for the same reasons. But at the same time, they wonder why I have decided to travel to Europe. The only way of my emancipation, for them, is to have close proximity with the ascetic austerities. 

As I have mentioned at the very beginning that I simply want to go out, and that, there are no specific reasons behind it. I am fortunate enough to have born to this world, and I will depart only after I have acquired a complete knowledge of it - this reason seems satisfying enough for me. I have been gifted two eyes, with which I want to discern the variegated mysteries of the world. At the same time I must admit that there is a necessity behind my desire to travel. 

I believe that a European enjoys the fruits of his pilgrimage to India, only when he travels with a pure heart and shows due respect to India. I have met such Europeans and I respect them. It is not that the glory of India gets reflected through their respect; I respect them because of their energetic mind and heart. Hardly one can overcome the impediments of the unfamiliar in a foreign land. If one doesn’t visit some foreign places , he will not gain enough strength to move freely within the truth, because the dispirited souls tend to accept the familiar as truth and abandon the unaccustomed as trifling and lies. 

It is only when we worship this truth, that we realize our devotion towards this truth. Our worship is independent, not blindly guided by traditions. If we visit Europe with the purest of impulses, with the healthiest of thoughts, then no other place in the world will be as pious as Europe. The European pilgrims who have been to have been to our country, haven’t over-looked the wretchedness of our country, yet they haven’t allowed themselves to be blinded by this; rather they have uncovered this impoverished veil in order to explore the hidden beauties of India. 

Truth in Europe also lies hidden, but there, it is covered with a bright and sunny veil, unlike India. That’s why it is more difficult to explore the innermost truth of Europe. We return completely amazed by the pompous show, by the bejewelled representation of its culture, and we often fail to pay our homage to God, who is concealed by this ostentatious cover. But if I go there with this irreverence and distrust, then the huge expenses of this grand tour will be a waste.

There is a misconception about European culture that it is materialistic, completely devoid of any spirituality, and people tend to believe in this kind of hearsay. These ideas often take the place of reason and logic. 

One should keep this in mind that spirituality lies at the root of all noble actions. Truth is attainable only if we follow the path of verity. Truth is gained only through the soul. The Europeans have progressed because they are not inert objects, but because they are people with soul. Their progress reflects their inner blossoming.

The idea that in Europe people do not express their true nature, rather they are amassing material objects, is similar to the notion that trees shed their leaves only to cover the ground, and not to reveal its inner life. In fact, it is the intense life-force which makes a tree to shed its foliages. The withered leaves do not testify the death of a tree. If only a living object that ceases to be, then it is called death in the true sense of the term.

In Europe people are engaged in innovative experimentations. What is acceptable today becomes obsolete tomorrow. Some say that this restlessness points to dearth of spirituality in them. One perceives change and death in this living world. Yet the sages had asserted that these had emerged from the delight and pleasure of existence.

If we consider the outer world as the only truth, then we tend to disregard the inner world. There is such an inner world in Europe too; it has got its own soul, which is not a frail one. It is only when we consider this spirituality of Europe, that we will be able to perceive the truth within, then only we will be able to discern an object, which is not merely knowledge, but utter joy.

What I am trying to suggest, can be easily understood by the instance I am going to cite. A grand ship, with two thousand passengers in it, was sailing across the Atlantic. When at the middle of the night the ship collided with an iceberg, and was about to drown. Most of the European and American passengers begin to rescue the woman and children, knowing fully well that they were also going to drown. This disaster has revealed the inner self of Europe, its humane side.There is no shame in acknowledging this truth by bowing down to it.

Lately, some of my friends were returning from Dhaka in a steamer. Suddenly, in the midst of the ‘Padma’ it collided with a boat, making it to drown, and three of its passenger fell into the water. In the mean time, another boat was passing by. Everybody began to shout for helped but the boatman turned a deaf ear to their request, and left the place immediately.

This reminds me of another incident. Once my boat was tied on the bank of the river ‘Gorai’. There was a severe storm the previous night. By the morning the storm had subsided down, but the river was still restless. Suddenly I saw a woman slowly drifting by in the river current, I called out for help and requested everybody to take my life-boat and rescue her. But nobody seemed interested, until I declared a reward of five rupees, which would be given to the person who would rescue her. Immediately some of them rescued the unconscious woman. No one would have gone, if I hadn’t declared that reward.

The other day I was travelling in a boat. The fishermen bury posts where the water from the swamp falls into the river, making that place a narrow one. The river current becomes very powerful in that place. The loaded boats often face dangers in such places. My boat too got caught in such a place. We shouted for help, but the fishermen didn’t pay any heed. It is only when we declared a reward that they were prepared to help us. Had it been a magistrate’s boat, they would have acted differently.

You must have remembered when the bazaar at Bolpur was in fire, four ‘Kabulis’ came forward to extinguish it, while the local people didn’t respond at all. Moreover, they refused to lend their pitchers left they become impure.

These are instances of the lack of self sacrifice in our country. However skillfully we try to conceal our real selves, in the heart of hearts we are aware of this wretchedness. Isn’t the act of self sacrifice associated with spirituality? Isn’t this a sign of the religious force? Spirituality cannot be attained if we lead a life of solitude and chant the name of God. It is the spiritual energy that bestows a man with valour.

The drowning of the ship Titanic has brought the men in close encounter with death. This is not the triumph of an individual. It is quite astonishing that the millionaires in the ship, who had enjoyed a dominant position in the society, who had all the graces of the Goddess ‘Lakshmi’, embraced death, allowing the weak and feeble to live on. Such millionaires were large in numbers. 

A sudden and unexpected phenomenon instigates our primal instincts. Self restraint can only occur when we get some time to contemplate. The passengers in the ship suddenly found themselves face-to-face with death. Even then, they didn’t try frantically to save themselves. This proves that this act of bravery is not sudden or unexpected; rather this is the result of serious meditation and spirituality which led them to triumph over death.

There are countless instances of self sacrifice, for the sake of the country in the people of Europe. It is this cumulative effort of the European that has led the Europeans civilization to raise its head like a coral island.

In a society where there is no distress, progress, in the true sense of the term, is not possible. Those who are materialist cannot welcome this sorrow. They are the slaves of matter. They do not regard welfare as greater than their lives. A materialist cannot accept the suffering that comes out spontaneously from the deepest core of the heart.

We have seen the Europeans facing the vicissitudes of life with fortitude .They welcome death for the sake of their country, its people, wisdom, love and for the freedom of the spirit.

It is not that these impulses are always genuine, but this defamation doesn’t curb its glory. Sometimes we can see a halo around the moon .This is only a shadow, a lie, but the moon is real. The shadow of the moon is perceived only because the moon is there. In every society similar ostentations exist around the best object and these imitations do not oppose the reality, rather they make an excellent compliment to it. One cannot judge the sages of our country by judging the imposters or the hypocritical ascetics.

We have read about those Europeans who are extraordinary, but we haven’t seen them. And those, whom we have witnessed, are not regarded as part of the heavenly luminaries. Long ago I had an opportunity to meet a Swedish, named Hammergrane. He came to know about Raja Ram Mohan Roy from a book. So, this poor man decided to brave the perils of the sea, only to get a glimpse of Ram Mohan Roy. He didn’t know Bengali; had no acquaintance, but still he took shelter in a Bengali household and treated this country as his own land. He underwent hardships, endured all his pains, only in order to devote himself for the betterment of the country, that was not his own. After his death, he was cremated at Nimtala Ghat, and his body was burnt as per the Hindu rituals. In this occasion, a weekly magazine deemed this act an unholy one, for having polluted the Hindu burning ghat.

This is also known to the mass how sister Nivedita bore her devotion towards Swami Vivekananda, and how she sacrificed her life for the sake of our people. These two instances underscore the dedication of these two devotees, for whom the journey was not an easy one. Their path was full of obstacles, where their traditions were impediments to their progress. They had to pave their way through these hardships, since all the other ways were barred from their approach.

They were the devotees of truth. They sacrificed their lives selflessly for the sake of truth. This, they acquired from their national spirit. This amazing fortitude cannot be achieved through worshipping the matter; rather this is the result of their spiritual exercise. We can ask if this spiritual force is wanting in us.

But I don’t say that we do not possess this spirituality. Here too, one aspect of spirituality has been revealed. Those who are worshippers, can perceive a unity within our fragmentary existence by means of their devotion or knowledge. The obstacles in their way have been removed by their ceaseless endeavour and accomplishment, that’s why the sages in our country can easily perceive the union of their minds and hearts with the infinite and the eternal. If an outsider visits our country with utmost respect, then he will achieve fruitfulness and will able to compensate his deficiency. I want to underscore the fact that we too, have this deficiency within us, and it is this dearth which leads us towards depression and feebleness.

When the sensitive souls listen to the above statement, they argue that indeed there is something lacking in us, but it is not related to spirituality, rather, it is our deprivation of material knowledge, the knowledge that has enabled Europe to excel all the countries of the world. But as I have said earlier, that no nation can prosper solely on the basis of material possession. It is not sufficient to oil a lamp, it is also necessary to arrange the wick in a dexterous way.

An atheist believes that the dominance of Europe over the other countries of the world is determined by its material power. But the truth is that this is possible only due to its spiritual power. Buddhism doesn’t preach the yearning for material objects. Yet, in India it was during the gestation and expansion of Buddhism, that technology, science, commerce and imperialism were at their zenith. 

This is possible only when the human soul is freed from the clutches of inertia. Spirituality is the centre which holds the other powers in check, because it is the power of the spirit. Its sole aim is to lead one towards fulfilment. It doesn’t restrain the mind and the body of human beings. I don’t have doubts regarding the fact that whatever may be the outer life of Europe, its soul or the inner-life is the strengthened by the spiritual power. 

This spiritual power is the result of a conscious endeavour. It cannot ignore human misery and poverty. It acts as a saviour, it is the benevolent power which leads human beings to act selflessly, which beckons him towards self-sacrifice. Where is this elixir of life hidden?

The seeds that were sown from Christ’s tree of life in all over Europe, have now put forth life. What is the secret of this life-force inside the seeds? It is the recognition of sorrow as the greatest wealth.

For hundreds of years this has been heard in Europe that heavenly bliss alleviates human suffering and misery. This notion has pervaded not only the conscious European self, but also the sub-conscious European self. It is amidst this hidden depth of the soul that the seeds are germinated. That’s why amazing events take place all over Europe. Those who disregard Christianity and advocates materialism, also sacrifice their own lives, welcome misery and censure, at the moment of crisis. This bears testimony to the fact that even they regard eternity and prosperity above pleasure and comfort.

In the ship Titanic, those who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of others, are not all devoted Christians, even some of them are from different religious sects. But they are not alienated from the rest of the mankind. They are ascetics, who pray for the entire mankind. That’s why even the ignorant souls are not deprived of the fruits of religious austerity.

In our country this spirituality is wanting. This may sound very harsh, but we must accept this fact. Love, emotions, and sentiments are in abundance, but the desire to serve people, the instinct of self sacrifice, seem to be lacking in us. Our notion of serving God is not akin to our idea of serving the poor and the needy. We have whole-heartedly accepted love, but rejected the despondency in love. There is no piety in accepting sorrow through profit, but there is indeed spirituality in the acceptance of misery through love.

A person, who welcomes sorrow for the sake of his fulfilment of desires, cannot acquire plentitude. This reveals the poverty of his soul. Whereas, a man , who welcomes sorrow for the sake of love, easily triumphs over death and places happiness above all the virtues of life. It is through the acceptance of wretchedness that one accepts the world in its true form. This misery can be acquired through the devotion towards truth. Thus in the scripture it is said that those who are reluctant to welcome this sorrow, fail to comprehend even themselves. 

That’s why we fail to understand one another. Thus the person whom our country beckons, fail to respond to her call. Our country is densely populated, but this doesn’t reveal her strength, rather, this exhibits her weakness. That’s why we fail to identify with others, we can not comprehend the oneness of spirit. We do not pay for our country people. If one doesn’t pay, how can he expect to acquire his desired object? A mother also gains her child through continuous service, through hardships. As we couldn’t identify ourselves with others, our efforts to sacrifice ourselves prove futile. 

This is a vanity. The supreme power of the soul that is love, whose contentedness is to sacrifice itself, makes us consider ourselves as part of others. This helps us to merge with others. It is this force which makes a patriot feel the presence of the supreme entity all throughout the country, and it is this force which encourages a philanthropist to serve God by serving all the human souls.

Europe’s religion has initiated its people to serve the poor and the wretched. It is this force that made it easier for the Europeans to cohere with others. This has led the fire of sacrifice to burn ceaselessly, and has encouraged hundreds of devotees to sacrifice their lives. The ambrosia springing forth from the fire of sacrifice has led to the progress in technology, science, literature, commerce and politics. This force cannot be contrived, rather this is the result of meditation, and this leads to man’s spiritual and religious power. 

One can thus perceive that in India, it was during the age of Buddhism, that she embraced this sacrificial quality. It was during that period that she itnessed unprecedented growth, as is being witnessed by Europe now-a-days. Medicines were being supplied for the diseased, even veterinary hospitals were founded for animals, and several efforts were being made to alleviate the suffering of all the creatures. The religious masters travelled to those places that were not frequented by men. They went to foreign places, and in order to lessen the suffering of the savages, they carried the yoke of suffering on their shoulders. It was then that India learnt the lessons of humanity. That’s why India was able to conquer not only her own soul, but also the world at large. Through her sheer force of spirituality she was able to synthesise the worldly and the mundane with the spiritual and the meta-physical. In Europe, the emergence of a Christian civilization was beyond imagination in those days. In India this zeal has been partially dimmed by artificiality, though it is not fully extinguished. If she witnesses the same zeal in some other country, will not she be reminded of her own identity? Will not she be able recognize these traits as her own? One should keep this in mind that there will be ashes where there is fire. Lifeless objects lack warmth, responsibilities are lesser and the image of distress is also muted there. So, one must admit that the restlessness and the graveness of sin, that one perceives in European society are much more vehement than in our country.

But they haven’t regarded it apathetically, rather it has made them vigilant, always watchful. Be it the carrier of malaria, or the affliction of the society, they do not blame their fate. They are fighting bravely even at the risk of losing their lives. Lately, I have been reading an amazing book named ‘London Police Court’. In this book the wretchedness hidden beneath the murky background, the evil and depravity prevailing in capital city-London have been revealed by the author. However hideous the condition may be, the christian saints have shown utmost patience and affection in order to overcome this repulsiveness. It is said in the Gita that even little faith can triumph over great fears.

In Europe too, the weaker races are victims of discrimination, but this is not the only truth. Voices of opposition and repugnance could be heard amidst this ruthless avidity. There are indeed many heroes who protest against this injustice done to the powerless by the mighty and the powerful. There are countless instances of such good-willed persons who are ready to suffer for the sake of others. There are Indians who are fighting against selfishness and mockery. It may seem that they are fewer in number, but when perceived meticulously, one can find that they are not that less. They do not perish, they are ceaseless. They follow a certain tradition. It is not that they work together or that they belong to the same period in history, but they are the power of equity and justice. They are the martial race, the ‘Khsatriya’ and their goal is to rescue the feeble from the powerful. They have rescued people from their woe by bearing it themselves, they have led men towards heaven. They are moving in a procession through the untrodden path reddened by the gore of their lord. They are the stream of ambrosia meandering through the heart of all the races. 

We always console ourselves by saying that we are spiritual people, and that we are indifferent to external affairs. In this way we are enfeebled and we try to foil our poverty. Most of us vaunt that this poverty is our ornament.

For those who have the power to amass great reaches, poverty is an ornament. The impoverishment acquired through renunciation is the true ornament. The poverty of privation is not an adornment. The poverty of ‘Shiva’ or bliss is an adornment, while the distress of destitution is loathsome. Those who cannot feed themselves and become depressed, those who cannot stand upright and sprawl in the dust, the poor who exploit another poor, the impotent who strike another feeble person, for them impoverishment is not an ornament.

We couldn’t extend the field of spirituality by welcoming this sorrow, poverty and humility as the reward of our righteousness. We have restrained it with personal piety. Where there are blind oppression, outrage of social administration, our power of judgment and independent sagacity are being grinded there. The meanness of religious practices and the insensibility have turned us into the slaves of matters. We still believe that we will get justice, we will once again be human beings. But there will be no way out until and unless we undergo transformation. 

Thus, if I travel to Europe with the intention of going on a pilgrimage, then it wouldn't be a futile venture. There, in Europe, we have our spiritual guide, who acts as our innermost power. We have to search for Him everywhere with profound respect. He is not always visible. If one is blind and conceited, it is possible that he may not be able to witness Him. People often tend to think that England's supremacy is due to the parliament, that Europe’s glory is manufactured in factories, and that the greatness of the western countries lies in their weapons used in the war, their trading ships and in their material world. If one fails to understand that the power of truth lies within, then he starts to believe that strength lies outside, and that if he acquires those objects, he will be able to compensate his privation. Europe also knows that its superiority is not due to its railway, telegraph or factories. That's why it welcomed veracity like a hero. Like a gallant it has sacrificed its life. The more it is erroneous, the more it becomes zealous. Sometimes there are calamities, fierce collisions, sometimes poison is being churned out of the sea, but it never accepts the vicious. The fearless soldiers are ready with their weapons and they are initiated by truth and they have defied death. 

We have been disinterested in the worship of truth, we have tied ourselves with fetters from head to foot, and we have regarded these chains as our true refuge. That's why when danger is imminent, when all the paths, except that of truth, are abstracted, we fail to wake ourselves up, and we fail to sacrifice ourselves. We then regard the artificial as the real, we fail to illuminate ourselves, we cannot accomplish our tasks, and we become futile again and again by being trapped within our contemplative and philosophical exercises. That's why, in order to accept the responsibility of truth like a gallant, to devote oneself unfalteringly in the service of truth, to acquire the supreme fortune in exchange of grave sorrow to prove beneficial to mankind, and to revere mankind, the pilgrimage to Europe can never be abortive. Of course, there should be respect for others, and one must believe in the plenitude of mankind, which can be acquired through spiritual exercise.

I know there is a conflict between our interests and that of Europe. We are deeply inflicted by this sorrow. This pain is the result of our spiritual bankruptcy and our wickedness, though we have expiated our guilt. We have got a glimpse of the meanness and wickedness of those, who had let us to suffer. They are often found to hide their meanness by arrogance and insolence to, blindly disregard the greatness of other countries. It is our infliction which prevents us from comprehending Europe’s truth. We distrust their religion, censure their civilisation, by defaming it as gross and materialistic. At the same time we also fear left we start worshipping the dominance of the mighty, and welter on the ground, rendering ourselves profane. We are afraid lest we fail to perceive others' grandeur as our own and abandon our truth in order to ape others' reflection. We are also frightened lest a strange illusion make us deny our own entity. 

These are perils of the way; that's why the pilgrimage is the quest for truth, an endeavour to overcome these falsities, and the obstacles. The burden of self-conceit should be left aside, while retaining all the way, the glory and the dignity of the self. My pilgrimage will bear fruits only when it encounters impediments, because we hardly acknowledge those objects which we acquire effortlessly. We can appreciate ourselves when we gain something sincerely, otherwise, all our endeavours would be illusory and fallacious.


Focus – "Reading Across Time": Tagore Today

  Amrit Sen : Editorial

Lead Article
  Udaya Narayana Singh : Redrawing the Boundaries

Critical Essays

  Nation, History, Cultural Exchange
    Avijit Banerjee : Tagore’s Visit to China
    Bijoy Mukherjee : Rabindranath and Indian History
    Biswanath Banerjee : Tagore and Acharya PC Ray
    Sagarika Chakraborty : Tagore the Diplomat
    Soumitra Roy : Tagore’s Ghare Baire

  Responses to Caste and Gender
    Dhriti Ray Dalai/ Panchanan Dalai : Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’
    Dipankar Roy : Women in Tagore’s ‘Domestic Novels’
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : “Streer Patra” - A Feminist Text?
    Swati Ganguly : Gender, Sexuality and Conjugality in Samapti

  Translation and Reception
    Anindya Sen : Tagore’s Self-Translations
    Jayati Gupta : Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?
    Sushobhan Adhikary : Cartoons on Tagore
    Usha Kishore : The Auto-translations of Rabindranath

  Rural Reconstruction and Ecopoetic
    Bipasha Raha : Experiments with Village Welfare
    Debotosh Sinha : Tagore and Rural Reconstruction
    Falguni Piyush Desai : Floriography in Tagore’s Poetry
    Marie Josephine Aruna : ‘Letters’ and Ecopoetics

  Aesthetics, Paintings and Dance Dramas
    Aju Mukhopadhyay : The Poet of Sublime Love
    Raghupathi K V : Aesthetics of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo
    Sudeshna Majumdar : Paintings of Tagore
    Sutapa Chaudhuri : Dance Dramas of Tagore

  Tagore and the Short Story
    Dominic K V : Tagore’s Short Stories
    Mausumi Sen Bhattacharjee : ‘The Hunger of Stones’

  Tagore and Visva-Bharati
    Anindita Chongdar : Anecdotes of Santiniketan
    Debmalya Das : The Visva-Bharati Quarterly
    Subodh Gopal Nandi : The Visva-Bharati Library

Creative Responses

    Sanjukta Dasgupta : Remembering Rabindranath

    Frank Joussen : Tagore and Walt Whitman
    Nuggehalli Pankaja : The Voice of Tagore
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : To Rabindranath
    Shambhobi Ghosh : Yet

  Ahmed A H S : Birthday and other poems
  Anup Maharatna : From ‘The Last Writings’
  Ashoka Sen : Africa
  Barnali Saha : The Vacation (Fiction)
  Naina Dey : Chance Meeting
  Parantap Chakraborty : The Son of Man
  Suranjima Saha : Preamble to a Journey
  Swapna Dutta : The Editor

  Amrit Sen:Behind the Veil & Tagore and Modernity
  Kumaran S : Pathos in the Short Stories of Tagore

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