Torn Leaves: The letters of the young Tagore reveal a poet in full possession of his voice

1875–76, when Rabindranath was only 14 or 15 years old, the older brother he was closest to, Jyotirindranath Tagore, took him along to the Tagore estates in East Bengal, which he was then managing on behalf of the family. This was Rabindranath’s first glimpse of Shilaidaha, the place by the Gorai river to which he would return repeatedly during what he called “the most productive period of my literary life … when, under the shelter of obscurity, I enjoyed the greatest freedom my life has ever known.” It was here, in 1912, that Rabindranath first put his hand to the translations that turned into the Gitanjali and won him the Nobel Prize; it was also here—alongside all the other small towns and villages bordering the myriad rivers of this part of Bengal—that he returned when he became manager of the estates himself in the 1890s.

Rabindranath must have expressed some interest in leaving the family home in Jorasanko and taking up this job in Shilaidaha, as a letter from Debendranath Tagore to his son seems to show. Received two days before his wedding in December 1883, the letter advises Rabindranath that “simply living in the mofussil would be of no use without knowing the nature of the work,” and that he should therefore begin to prepare by spending some time in the estate office scrutinising the accounts, making a summary each week and showing it to his father. Once satisfied that the work had been learnt, he would then allow his youngest son to proceed to the mofussil. Nothing came of this idea for the next seven years, however, and it was only in 1889 that Rabindranath finally took over as manager of the estates.
The letters Rabindranath wrote his niece Indira from these mofussil locations of the Tagore estates will be available now in English for the first time in their entirety as Letters from a Young Poet, shortly to appear from Penguin Books. Beloved of Bengalis, who consider the text a classic, all the letters were copied out by Indira into two hardbound exercise books. A selection of these was published in 1912 as Chinnapatra (an English translation of which appeared under the title Glimpses of Bengal in 1920), revised and edited by Rabindranath himself based on the version that existed in the exercise books, giving them a literary shape, and arguably turning them into a distinct fictional narrative of his own.

Approaching the Tagore birth centenary year in 1961, the full Bengali text of the letters was published in a volume called the Chinnapatrabali in 1960, almost 20 years after his death; as the editor put it: “In the present day, there can be no conceivable reason for us to discard any part of Rabindranath’s own writings at all.” The English title, Glimpses of Bengal, was an apt one for Chinnapatra: the subject matter of these edited letters was Bengal—riverine, beautiful, green and vast—and the trope of seeing, or “glimpsing,” some of the wonder that was Rabindranath’s Bengal came through exactly in that choice of title. It had, as it happens, no relation at all to the Bengali title, Chinnapatra, which is a neologism made up of two words—chinna, or “torn,” and patra, meaning “letters” or “leaves.” To this compound word, the editor of the 1960 edition added a suffix, “abali,” which denotes collectivity—so patrabali would mean collected letters.

The woman who receives these letters is a silent but considerable presence in this book, an equal as an interlocutor, and not one to be written out of the narrative of its history. This is corroborated by Rabindranath himself repeatedly. As he said to Indira on 7 October 1894, he feels his letters achieve completion because they are addressed to her, and are expressive not only of his own inner essence but also of hers: “I have written letters to so many others, but nobody else has attracted my entire self to themselves in writing.” But this ability to be responsive was only one small part of the accomplishments of Rabindranath’s young, talented and beautiful niece, daughter of the distinguished Satyendranath Tagore, the first Indian to enter the Indian Civil Service, and Jnanadanandini Debi, an influential, educated and independent woman, a pioneering symbol of women’s emancipation and the creator of the modern Indian sari. Indira Debi Chaudhurani, as she was known after her marriage to the distinguished writer and literary critic Pramatha Chaudhuri, made a tangible contribution to the culture of her time. This lay not only in the elusive arena of her influence and presence but also substantially in the fields of music (she notated a great many of Rabindranath’s songs) and music theory, autobiography and memoir and, notably, in the domain of the essay form, at which she excelled, and in translations from English and French into Bengali.

When these letters are being written to her, Indira is between 14 and 22 years old, an eminently marriageable age at the time, but one she spent waiting for Pramatha Chaudhuri, whom she eventually married in 1899, unusually late for a woman of her times. In a letter-poem Rabindranath wrote to her brother Suren from Nasik published in the magazine Bharati, we have a riotous depiction of the relationship between uncle and niece, written in a comic and deliberately inelegant mix of Hindi and Bengali, where, addressing Suren, he says of her: “This woman, your sister, is torturing me so/ I can’t think of what to do or where to go!” Uncle and niece and nephew had many names for each other; among these, the most consistent nickname for Indira at home was Bibi, and he was their Robika, a diminutive of Rabi-kaka. Here, in these letters, however, he frequently addresses her as “Bob.” It could be speculated that this was an affectionate reference to the anglicised lifestyle of his brother’s household, and the strange Englishness of the endearing nickname seems typically paradoxical of him, the committed Bengali man of letters. He left it out of the version of the letters he edited himself, the Chinnapatra, yet the use of it is so affectionate, so engaging and particular in tone, that its presence in the letters adds an incalculable element that exactly captures the relation between these two as nothing else could have done.

Although written between September 1887 and December 1895, from when he was 26 to the age of 34, only two of the letters collected in Chinnapatra are written in 1887, after which we skip a year and find a couple more from 1889, to be followed by four more from 1890. The flow of letters begins at a more consistent speed from 1891 onward up to 1895, when Rabindranath properly began work as manager of the Tagore estates, work that he toiled at with some success, but to which there is surprisingly little reference in the letters themselves. “All this work to do with land records and land holdings and litigation and clerks”; “the arrangements for the transfer of property to another name on the rent-roll … and the Birahimpur estate records”; “when the head rent-collector, the office clerks and the people arrive, I will have to concentrate on the collection of taxes”: these are some of the few words in these letters on the subject of the work Rabindranath was doing in the districts. Mostly, instead, the days and nights of work and leisure in the mofussil come together in one shimmering stream of existence, as he ruminates: “My estates exist exactly at the spot where the moonlight falls; yet the moonlight says, ‘your estates are a fiction’, and the estates say that the moonlight is all a sham! I, as an individual, am right in the middle.”

“I, as an individual” is a phrase that exactly captures the substance of much of these letters, as their unedited and full version presents us the man himself in the middle of the moonlight and the estates, and, even more particularly, the young man at a formative age, in mature adulthood as a man and a writer, a poet in full possession of his voice. The letter writer here is youthful husband, younger brother, father of infant children, maturing poet, and growing literary sensation. The tone in the early letters is somewhat hesitant, slightly diffident, often embarrassed and, equally, hugely amused and often quite wicked. This is the young man he was before he won the biggest literary prize in the world, before he was knighted, before he had established himself in the social and literary world; in short, this was, figuratively speaking, Rabindranath before he became “Tagore.”

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