Translated Lives: Rabindranath Tagore’s “Post Office”

By Meena Alexander

I.

When I was a child in the courtyard of the family house, my cousins and I decided to stage Rabindranath Tagore’s Dak Ghar (Post Office). It was an uncle who suggested we do this. I remember the faded covers of the Macmillan first edition of the play that belonged to my grandmother Eli. How assiduously we copied out the passages that each of us had to learn—there was only one copy of the book and photocopying machines were unknown. My pencil broke under the strain of the careful handwriting I put into the lines I copied down. But those are the lines that are etched in memory, Amal: I want to see everything, everything there is to see . . . Those faraway hills, I would love to cross over them.

I had to be the boy Amal who was dying. Much as I didn’t want to, my older cousin pushed me into the role. My hair was cut short, I would do. I lay utterly still on the rosewood bench we used as a sickbed for the play and made sure my arms and legs didn’t move at all. All I had was my mouth that kept opening and spilling out words, sometimes in the wrong order.

My name is Amal. Please tell the messengers, tell Sudha that I am always by the window, waiting.

I knew that the play was first written in Bengali, by the great poet who had composed the national anthem “Jana Gana Mana” and so much more. He had lived in Santiniketan in the famous university he founded far away to the north and east and he died in 1941, three years before grandmother Eli.

So in the southern state of Kerala, with Malayalam flowing all around, a decade and a half after Indian independence, we performed a Bengali play. That the play was in English translation puzzled me not at all. Early on as a child I had learnt that one language can split off and flow into another, that different languages can run side by side. And so, in so far as I thought about it all, both Bengali and English seemed languages that were available to us, far from alien, in the green and moist landscape of Kerala where so often nothing but the lilting syllables of Malayalam could be heard.

It took the stern words of my tutor, a Scottish woman who came to our house daily (this was in Khartoum where my father had been posted by the Indian government) to make me realize that I spoke English so badly, indeed as only an Indian might. Around this time, my own inner life started to flow along channels that seemed dark and miserable, but at times intoxicating, with its own rich syllables of a mother tongue that resisted all attempts at translation.

A few years later when I was fourteen, a handful of my poems written in English were published in a Khartoum newspaper. They appeared in Arabic, which was the language of the place where I now lived for most of the year. While I could speak a little and understand, reading and writing Arabic were quite beyond me. So it was that I found myself illiterate in the language of my first publication and a translated life held sway. There was a discomfort there, for it felt as if I did not have myself, could not grasp this other “I.” There was a flimsy otherness to this self that existed in the poems translated into Arabic, a self I could not really grasp. Years later, living in America, I wrote a poem called “Illiterate Heart” that eventually became the title poem of a book—I was trying to evoke the estrangement I felt from a dominant script. “I will never be caught in a cage of script,” I wrote in the poem, thinking also of Malayalam my mother tongue. How far the written language seemed from the shimmering body of sound, the sonic body of the poem.

What might it mean for a poet to be caught in a cage of script? Did Tagore ever feel that, facing the translations of poems that had made him world-famous? It’s a question I ask myself.

In Khartoum in the heady days of the pro-democracy movement I was a student at the university. From the worn copy of The Post Office ( I had taken grandmother Eli’s copy of the book with me to this far country) I read lines to my friends as we sat in a small shack where bitter-sweet coffee was served. “I will translate Tagore’s lines into Arabic,” my friend Ahmed said to me. I listened to his words as we sat in that roadside café, all around the debris of torn paper, emptied tear gas canisters, the aftermath of the pro- democracy demonstration. A few days earlier, on that same road, after another march, shots were fired by soldiers, and by the emptied-out café rose the smell of death.

 

II.

It took me many years to learn about the afterlife of The Post Office. W.B.Yeats, who met Tagore in London and was much taken with this poet from the East, arranged for the play to be performed in 1913 by the Irish Players. In 1917, in Calcutta, Gandhi, in the earlier period of nationalist struggle, sat through a performance and was deeply moved. The play was broadcast on French radio, during World War II when the country was under Nazi Occupation. On July 18, 1942 there was an extraordinary performance—in the Warsaw Ghetto, in an orphanage run by Janusz Korczak, who put on the play with the children as actors. He said this of his young troupe: “The play is more than a text, it is a mood, it conveys more than emotions, it is an experience . . . and the actors are more than actors, they are children.” Asked why he had chosen Tagore’s play, he is said to have replied: “We must all learn to face the angel of death . . .” Three weeks later, together with the children of the orphanage, he was taken to Treblinka death camp.

 

III.

It is perhaps not hard to understand why this play was greatly valued at moments of historical violence. Clearly the play could not have existed for many of its most avid readers and performers without the mediating offices of a translator. Indeed it has often been alleged that the award of the Nobel Prize in 1913 depended in inordinate measure on Yeats’s translation of Tagore’s poem cycle Gitanjali, marked as it was by metaphysical concerns that many in Europe took to be the revelation of “the soul of the East.”

After the manifold celebrations and seminars in honor of Tagore’s bi-centenary, it seems all the more important to return to the complexity of the man, his sense of loneliness and self-division and his deep unease at the perils of literary translation. Tagore’s letters reveal how conflicted he was by the extravagant and, he felt, sometimes unmerited praise accorded him by those who could not read the poems in the original. It was all the more painful to him because he felt the poems in Gitanjali were truly intimate—“revelations of my true self to me,” as he wrote in a letter to his good friend Edward Rothenstein on December 30, 1912. Tagore continued: “The literary man was a mere amanuensis—very often knowing nothing of the true meaning of what he was writing.”

Yet these intimate revelations had to depend on the dark mirror of translation. This was how the poems entered the broader world, and W.B. Yeats’s passionate introduction forever marked them for a generation of readers: “I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains or on the tops of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics . . . display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as the grass and the rushes.”

It is possible that Tagore experienced this as a double estrangement—his access to his own quicksilver consciousness as mirrored in the work, blocked by a stranger’s inordinate praise, and poems, so dear to the poet, transmogrified into a strange tongue – and this was what the world at large, the non-Bengali-speaking world knew of him. “You have alluded to the English translation of Gitanjali,” he wrote to his niece Indira Devi on May 6, 1913: “I have not been able to imagine to this day how people came to like it so much . . . That I have written in English seems to be the delusion . . .” Four years later in a letter of January 28, 1917, it was Yeats who felt compelled to complain to his publisher about Tagore’s English, and how hard he had to work at revising the poet’s translation of his own Bengali poems: “Tagore’s English was a foreigner’s English and as he wrote to me `he could never tell the words that had lost their souls or the words that had not yet got their souls’ from the rest.”

William Radice in his new translation of Gitanjali (going back both to the Bengali original and a variant manuscript of Tagore’s translation stored with the Rothenstein papers at Harvard) points out that phrases Yeats uses to complain about his Indian friend might well have come from a letter that Tagore himself wrote on January 5, 1913 to Ezra Pound: “. . . I do not know the exact value of your English words. Some of them may have their souls worn out by constant use and some others may not have acquired their souls yet.”

For Tagore himself this was a lifelong crisis, something that surfaced at odd moments, tearing him apart. To Harriet Monroe, who was to publish his poems in Poetry, he wrote: “I have been polishing the English versions of some of my narrative poems since we last met. I find it difficult to impart to them the natural vigor of the original poems. Simplicity appears anemic and spectre-like when she lacks her ruddy bloom of life, which is the case with these translations of mine.”

So there’s the rub—in order to gain a world audience, Tagore knew his poems had to appear in English, yet that appearance, even as he himself managed to arrange the intricate flow of words, the delicate ordering of syntax and line, still placed his inwardness (as it appeared through the scrim of the poem) at a ghostly distance.

Was this a price the writer was willing to pay?

I think of a letter he wrote decades earlier, on May 8, 1893, long before such problems had begun to gnaw at him: “Poetry is my long time sweetheart . . . But I have to admit that the lady is hardly auspicious. When it comes to comfort she has nothing to do with it. Whoever she embraces becomes so tight that she seems to suck all the blood out of his heart . . . I have pawned my real life to her.” But then comes the crucial realization : “whenever I begin to write a poem, I enter into what is my eternal, true self—I quite realize that this is where I belong.”                          

 

IV.

Delhi, January, 2009 : The National School of Drama for its annual festival had invited the Manipuri director Heisnam Kanhailal to stage Tagore’s Dak Ghar. I was filled with excitement. The troupe was known for its exquisite choreography. What would they make of Tagore’s play? Earlier that day, in the bungalow in old Delhi where I was living with a friend, I shut my eyes and tried to imagine dancers. But they lay curled up, still, unmoving, pale. After all, they had to dance the death of an innocent child. I saw Amal, the little boy, dressed in a white kurta, spreading his thin arms, trying to fly with the parrots.

That evening, outside the theater there were armed police everywhere. The spectre of terrorism, after what had happened in Mumbai gripped the authorities. Delhi, the capital city, was still on alert. A Tagore play might be the perfect spot to explode a bomb. But the theater was utterly packed, and we were lucky to get seats. Ahead of us, the stage was set for the formality of dance, a backdrop with a village scene and dancers in gorgeous costumes, quite unlike the interior of the room where I imagined the little boy lying.

At the center of the stage was a raised pedestal and on it I could see an old woman. Out of her mouth came a keening sound. Her hands moved in the intricate gestures of dance. Who was she, what was she doing there? Surely she was just a prelude of some sort, an avant-garde interruption. The sounds kept coming and then I realized they were not even coming from the old woman’s mouth. They were coming from the narrator who was chanting, a wordless flow of sound, something quite senseless it seemed to me. Then, silence.

Where was the young boy Amal? What had they done with him? There must be some mistake. I kept waiting for someone to take the old woman away. It took me quite a while to realize that the actor Heisnam Sabitri, the wife of the director was actually playing the part of Amal. That an old woman was playing the part of a child. I felt tricked, a bitterness rose in me. I had waited so long to see the tender child at the heart of a play I loved so dearly. I would have walked out—the only reason I stayed was for fear of offending my friend Svati who seemed quite gripped by the whole thing.

I forced myself to stay still, to watch what was happening. Bit by bit, something unforeseen happened. The music and the dance movements worked a rare magic, the gestures and moving face of the dancer turning the performance into a primordial spectacle.

She was dancing the child. No she was the child. How could this have happened?

I pondered the mystery as gesture and sound gave way to silence, and silence stood in the face of death. Now how utterly quiet she was, her face and flitting hands turning in the shapes of birds and fishes and clouds, giving us the sorrow and pity and glory of it all. 

                                                            June 30–October 28, 2012, 2012, New York City

I am indebted to Judith Plotz’s essay’s "Tagore in the Warsaw Ghetto: Janusz Korczak’s Post Office" (Rabindranath Tagore: Universality and Tradition, eds. Hogan and Pandit 2003, pp 250-263) and to William Radice, Gitanjali, Song Offerings—a translation with an introduction and a new text of Tagore’s translations based on his manuscripts—Penguin Books, 2011)


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