This post is by way of being a thank you to Brona of This Reading Life. A few days ago she put up a review of a book in the Perveen Mistry murder mystery series which is set in 1920s India, and in the discussion which followed she “highly recommended” I read Rabindranath Tagore.
Not a name I’d ever heard before, so who is he? Brona’s consideration for my ignorance extended to linking to Wikipedia. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was an Indian, a Bengali Brahmin from Calcutta, “a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter … Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke to topics political and personal.” Ok, enough quoting.
Tagore was well-known world-wide, his works were available in English, and he apparently visited all the world’s (habitable) continents except Australia. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first “non-European” to be so honoured. I wonder if that means the first person not resident in Europe or is just a polite way of saying the first non-white.
Brona’s Perveen Mistry novel was set during the royal tour of India by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) in 1921/22 (another blogger has photographs) and in the context of Ghandi’s ‘passive resistance’ movement. Tagore was apparently a supporter of Independence, but was inclined towards world peace rather than nationalism.
The Cabuliwallah is the first short story from Stories from Tagore (1918) which appears to be an English language reader for Indian students.
The present Indian story-book avoids some at least of these impediments [the unfamiliarity of stories set in England]. The surroundings described in it are those of the students’ everyday life; the sentiments and characters are familiar…
Two of the longest stories in this book—”Master Mashai” and “The Son of Rashmani”—are reproduced in English for the first time. The rest of the stories have been taken, with slight revision, from two English volumes entitled “The Hungry Stones” and “Mashi.” A short paragraph has been added from the original Bengali at the end of the story called “The Postmaster.”Preface
The Cabuliwallah of the title is an Afghani pedlar, working the streets of Calcutta. He attracts the notice of Mini, the author’s 5 year old daughter, and the author must leave the hero and heroine of the adventure novel he is writing swinging from a rope while he goes out into the street to talk to the pedlar. “I made some small purchases, and a conversation began about Abdurrahman, the Russians, the English, and the Frontier Policy.”
Soon Rahmun (the Cabuliwallah) and Mini are firm friends, to be found at some time every day in conversation. They have a little joke about the phrase “father-in-law’s house” which for a strictly brought up girl, which Mini is not, means the home to which her husband will take her; and which when applied to the pedlar is a slang term for jail.
Sadly, one day the pedlar really is taken off to jail, falsely accused by a customer seeking to avoid their debts. For eight years he is out of the author and his daughter’s thoughts. But at the end of that time he returns, to resume the friendship, only to find it is Mini’s wedding day (at 13!).
She is called, and comes, but is too shy to speak.
I remembered the day when the Cabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad. When she had gone, Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her as he used to know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?
The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us. But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the barren mountains of Afghanistan.
This being a reader for schools there is at the end a short list of words to be considered (mostly pointing back to their Latin roots, which gives you some idea of what young Indians were taught. But then I suppose at that time they needed Greek and Latin to get into Oxford and Cambridge).
And at the end of the book there are notes, beginning –
“The Cabuliwallah” is one of the most famous of the Poet’s “Short Stories.” It has been often translated. The present translation is by the late Sister Nivedita, and her simple, vivid style should be noticed by the Indian student reader. It is a good example of modern English, with its short sentences, its careful choice of words, and its luminous clearness of meaning.
Cabuliwallah. A man from Cabul or Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
Rabindranath Tagore, Stories from Tagore, Macmillan, London, 1918. [Project Gutenberg]