Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Rabindranath Tagore "Hungry Stones"-First Asian Nobel Prize Winner for Literature

"The Hungary Stones" by Rabindranath Tagore (1916, 8 pages, trans. from Bengali-trans. unknown)

Yesterday I was looking at the list of Nobel Prize Winners in Literature.    The first Asian Nobel Laurette was Rabindranath Tagore who won in 1913 for his vast output  of poetry and short stories.   I confess I had never heard of him and turned to  Wikipedia for help.   Tagore (1861 to 1941) was born in Kolkata, Indian into a family whose wealth and life style can now only be seen in movies.    His father owned an estate so huge that at one point in his life Tagore traveled through it on a luxurious barge and was met on the river bank by tenants paying token rents to him.   Tagore was raised mostly by servants as his mother died young and his father was very busy administrating the vast estates he owned.   Tagore was educated in classical Indian literature and at age eight began to write poetry and ended up reshaping the Bengali Language.   Later in his life he founded a school and devoted himself entirely to his writing and teachings.   His moral authority became so great that he was able to write the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh, give Gandhi the title of Mahatma (teacher),  and in fact in his life had a status as a moral leader on a par with  Gandi.   He traveled to the west and met William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound and other notable literary figures.   This was in a period when western writers were fascinated by Indian thinkers and Yeats wrote the preface for one of his first translations in English.   He is considered prior to WWII and perhaps even now the most widely read Indian author both in the west and in India.   

His most famous short story seems to be "Hungry Stones" published in 1916 in Hungry Stones and Other Stories.       "Hungry Stones" begins on a train.   The story is told by a man just out of college on his way to his first job.    He and his companions meet a  odd man who possesses  deep practical and spiritual knowledge.    As I read this passage I could not help but feel sad upon seeing the great respect in which this stranger was held versus how he would be received in much of the world today:

Be the topic ever so trivial, he would quote science, or comment on the Vedas, or repeat quatrains from some Persian poet; and as we had no pretence to a knowledge of science or the Vedas or Persian, our admiration for him went on increasing, and my kinsman, a theosophist, was firmly convinced that our fellow-passenger must have been supernaturally inspired by some strange "magnetism" or "occult power," by an "astral body" or something of that kind. He listened to the tritest saying that fell from the lips of our extraordinary companion with devotional rapture, and secretly took down notes of his conversation. I fancy that the extraordinary man saw this, and was a little pleased with it.
Our lead character and narrator is on his way to a new job, as collector of duties on cotton.   The area where he will pursue his occupation (the day to day operations of his job are not set out and perhaps Tagore assumed his readers would know such things) used to be the site of the palace of a great Rajah.   Now all of the palace is gone but for the stones.   He decides to live in a modest cottage there even though he is advised it is an area beset by the spirits of the dead of the palace from long ago.

The fountains play no longer; the songs have ceased; no longer do snow-white feet step gracefully on the snowy marble. It is but the vast and solitary quarters of cess-collectors like us, men oppressed with solitude and deprived of the society of women. Now, Karim Khan, the old clerk of my office, warned me repeatedly not to take up my abode there. "Pass the day there, if you like," said he, "but never stay the night." I passed it off with a light laugh. The servants said that they would work till dark, and go away at night. I gave my ready assent. The house had such a bad name that even thieves would not venture near it after dark.
At first the narrator works himself to exhaustion every night.   Then slowly the history of the location begins to work on him and he imagines (or is it real) that the occupants of the palace, especially the harem and dancing girls come to him in his dreams.   The boundary between the dream and the so called real world becomes blurred.   Soon he thinks back to the strange man on the train who spoke of the illusions behind so called reality.    He is experiencing a rebirth of the ancient beliefs of his ancestors or so he thinks at times.  At other times he thinks he has been living too long by himself in this hut and needs the company of a woman.   His faith in his own sanity is being undermined and in a deeper way he begins to see through to the concepts beneath these western impositions on  India.

  Einstein held Tagore in great regard for  his conceptualization of a non- Newtonian universe.

The world of  the stories of Tagore is remote to us but one in which we can still find great spiritual nourishment, an entry into another world and some good entertainment as well.    We really cannot say much on the literary quality of the work as it is in translation but Tagore is considered the greatest stylist of all time in the Bengali language.

Here is a link to this story and more of Tagore's work.

Mel u 
Mel u


ds said...

I've never read anything by this man. You make him sound fascinating. And the story? Chilling. Thank you!

Mel said...

An entry into another world indeed. I had not heard of Tagore before. Thank you so much for sharing this. A very interesting post.

Anonymous said...

I loved Tagore as a poet.
I haven't read any of his short stories before. This one seems a good read. I'll be sure to look out for it.


Mystica said...

I had of course heard of Tagore coming from South Asia and reading your post makes me appreciate him and what he did for Indian literature more.

Ana said...

I never read Tagore's short stories, so thanks for reviewing them...

Anonymous said...

Hi Mel, it is great to see your post on Tagore. I (Bhaskar )am from Kolkata :-) . I would suggest you to search the movie "Khudito Pashan" in This is one of the masterpieces of bengali movies directed by Tapan Sinha and story is based on "Hungry Stons". Unfortunately there is no english subtitles, but as you have read the story I think you can relate to it. It has one of the best indian classical music as background score.

Robert Stephen Parry said...

A wonderful poet. His anthology 'The Gardener' is one of the most lovely collections of short poems.

Ruchi said...

Tagore is worth reading. One of his works "Geetanjali" is incredible collection of poems (for which he got Noble Prize , I guess). This book is available in English too. Thanks for posting this, enjoyed reading.

Anuradha Bhattacharyya said...

Hi, I like your blog.
'Hungry Stones' is 'Khudito Pashan' in Bengali, Tagore's mother tongue. His short stories are widely read. I liked particularly, 'The Exercise Book' where Tagore portrays the hypocrisy behind not allowing a woman to read and write.