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What the Swedes Read: Rabindranath Tagore

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Rabindranath Tagore

Daniel Handler
14 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Rabindranath Tagore (Bengal, 1913)
  • BOOK READ: The Gardener (translated by the author)

Right now I’m OK with weddings. First they were very boring because I was a child, then I came to see them as heterosexist constructs to be scorned, then I got married, and then I sat through my friends’ weddings feeling false in fancy clothes and rented ballrooms, and soon enough I’ll be going to my friends’ children’s weddings, grumbling about the price of a ticket to Baltimore just to sit amongst strangers and give a large vase to a woman I’ll best remember as a toddler who broke my clock. But right now weddings feel golden. The people who invite me to them seem to be making sensible decisions. They pay for their own parties, so the food’s better. I sit and sip prosecco and bask in love, and I like it. I like it so much that I don’t mind anymore when perfectly sensible and intelligent people turn into gooey sops when they come to choose what will be read aloud at the ceremony.

Weddings are happy occasions, and literature doesn’t do a lot of happy. I sympathize with people searching for something that doesn’t cloy and yet contains the requisite amount of joy for the occasion, only to find love poetry with a sudden grim stanza about how fleeting everything is, or a few lines too filthy for the in-laws. So I suppose it’s inevitable that we in the folding chairs sit through the same old stuff, those Song of Songs lines about how we feedeth among the lilies now that, lo, winter is past, or the sacred fires and gentle caresses of Khalil Gibran. I don’t mind. The word caress is hilarious, but everybody deserves to get a little.

This is the feeling I experienced in reading the work of Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali writer and a central figure in bringing certain Eastern literary and aesthetic traditions to the West. It doesn’t seem to be much of an exaggeration to say that without Tagore, there’d be no Revolver, and as with a sitar ladled over rock music, an effect I’ve always loved, there’s a fusion here of things that actually can’t be fused.

As near as I can figure, the Bengali ­literary tradition is one of deep myth, of incantation and spiritual truth. In the 1960s, a group of ­writers called the Hungryalists, a band name if there ever was one, injected the fire of revolutionary politics into the mix, ushering in a modern cultural ­period in the ­region. But Tagore was from the old school, capturing oral history and musical ceremony onto the page for the specific purpose of bringing this culture to the attention of those who were colonizing it. (Hence, T­agore’s often referred to as an “Anglo-Indian” writer, even though he’s from Bangladesh. It’s an act of cultural diplomacy that opened many people’s eyes, but the results on the page don’t seem as revolutionary now as I gather they did back in the day. Western poetry, for better or for worse, is pretty rarified. Our poetry most thrives in places where there’s time and space to read it, but it’s not much incorporated into daily existence. Tagore’s work has a sense of ceremony and ­cultural centrality that’s at odds with, say, how we perceive the work of William Butler Yeats, to whom The Gardener is dedicated and who (SPOILER ALERT!) won the Nobel Prize ten years later.

Of course, the spiritual sources of the raga tradition don’t have a thing to do with rock and roll, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” still sounds terrific. But the pleasures of The Gardener are of a different stripe:

The tame bird was in a cage, the free bird was in the forest.
They met when the time came, it was a decree of fate.
The free bird cries, ‘O my love, let us fly to wood.’
The cage bird whispers, ‘Come hither, let us both live in the cage.’

You know how this is going to go, because you’ve heard stories like this before, and you’ve probably heard them without unfortunate constructions like “let us fly to wood.” But yet, as the birds tried to work out their insoluble problems, the overfamiliar ideas seemed no great sin, and the somewhat loopy writing fit just right. If I’m going to read an allegory about caged and free birds, I want their wings to flutter in yearning and I want them to cry out things like “Alas for me” and “No, ah no!” The rest of the collection flits along like this, offering frilly metaphors like “Pleasure is frail like a dewdrop, while it laughs it dies” and “You were milking the cow with your hands, tender and fresh as butter.” There were quite a few lines of hilarious accident—“I love you, beloved” and “Come as you are; do not loiter over your toilet.” But mostly there was the stuff of weddings. “When I go alone at night to my love-tryst,” begins one, and I found myself instantly transported to a gazebo at some winery, with everything from the sentiment to the decorations overdone, but grinning anyway. “Speak to me through hesitating tears, through faltering smiles, through sweet shame and pain, the secret of your heart!” We’ve all been there. Why not say such things? Why not read them and like them?

It is no surprise to me that the Nobel Committee, specifically citing this work, gets a little carried away:

Here we see another phase of his personality, now subject to the alternately blissful and torturing experiences of youthful love, now prey to the feelings of longing and joy that the vicissitudes of life give rise to, the whole interspersed nevertheless with glimpses of a higher world.

That’s an overdone, insensible sentence, but I can find no sensible way of approaching the work of Rabindranath Tagore. It’s tempting to say that this is because his work is old, but The Gardener is just a little older than The Great Gatsby. It’s more that it comes from a source that’s genuinely inaccessible, a sort of poetry that occupies an entirely different place in entirely different hearts and minds. Translating this into English, even when done by the author himself, is impossible, but I found it impossible not to appreciate the effort. Tagore knows he’s not up to the task: “Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?” he asks, and it seemed to me such a sweet question that
I didn’t remember I’d been asked it an hundred times in an hundred other books. “I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds… From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.” Couldn’t agree more, Rabindranath.
You may now kiss the bride. 

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