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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 21 New Delhi May 12, 2018


Sunday 13 May 2018, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s 157th birth anniversary was observed last Wednesday (May 9, 2018). On this occasion we are reproducing a piece by N.C. on Tagore written 77 years ago, in 1941. It was published in The Calcutta Municipal Gazette—Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, September 13, 1941 (that appeared after the Poet’s death on August 7, 1941). This piece was carried under the pseudonym Vanguard. Though written during World War II when the global scenario was radically different from what it is today, the relevance of this piece remains undiminished.



It was a wet September evening in 1936. We were driving back home after an interview with Tagore, then staying in a suburb of Calcutta. My companion was an Englishman—a young professor of literature, who had just had his first glimpse of Tagore. He was impressed with the Poet’s personality. But he had so many things to ask about him. There was still something that he had yet to figure out about Tagore. After a pause, he asked me how the people, the common people, regarded Tagore. I replied: “Well, we consider him as our national poet. But he is a votary of no narrow nationalism: he has condemned in no unmistable terms the system that is dominating our country, but he has sought refuge in a broad humanism.” “Yes, but,” he asked once again, “would you call him a People’s Poet, a poet who portrays the life, the struggle and the aspirations of the common man—the toiler in the field and the factory?” I do not remember what answer I could mumble out then, but it was not something that fully satisfied either him or me at the time. As I returned home, the question came back over and over again: Is Tagore a People’s Poet?


Two years later, the scene shifts. This time my friend is an Indian in London, who at one time was a student at Santiniketan. He has settled in England after a struggling academic career. We were discussing Andre Gide who had just come back from the Soviet Union and had started a tirade against that country. It was a shock to the progressive circles and was broadcast all over the world by the reactionary press. What a depressing feeling it was to find the great French writer in the camp of the enemies of the USSR! Little by little our discussion veered round to the favourite topics as to whether it was possible for the intellectuals to be above the battle and retreat into the Ivory Tower like the Eyeless in Gaza: while the world was being enveloped in a desperate struggle of power-politics, and culture stifled all around, nobody could remain neutral without helping the cause of reaction. Particularly was it true in a dependent country like ours, and, I asked, if our intellectuals were alive to their responsibility. Many were not, but how was Tagore? Was he socially conscious? Did he realise the issue at stake? Profit versus the People—does he really know on which side he should stand? My friend kept quiet for a moment, and then, from under a huge pile of books, he drew out a dusty file of type-written pages. It was an English translation of Tagore’s Letters from Russia, and he told me the story behind it.

Years back when this young man was absorbed in his research, there came to him a copy of Tagore’s Letters from Russia. He started translating it and he did it at a time when he was nearly stranded. But he felt a sense of responsibility towards his Gurudeva and was anxious that Europe should know where Tagore stood in this crisis of progress. The impression that the West retained about Tagore with “the lotus and the crescent moon” was out of date. It was time that they should know him again as the realist who had reacted to the sufferings of exploited humanity. With this end in view, he translated the book, and Bertrand Russell willingly wrote a foreword to the proposed English edition. From the Poet himself came glad consent and everything was arranged but, at the eleventh hour, unexpected circumstances came in the way, and the book was never published.

As I listened to his reading of the manuscript till midnight I realised what an unbelievable loss it was that the book never saw the light of day, for it might have given Tagore a new recognition in the West, more impressive and more significant than what he had received on the publication of Gitanjali. This time he would have received more coveted laurels than the Nobel Prize, the gratitude of struggling millons from Spain to China. With what clear under-standing he could delineate the ruthless working of imperialism in his own country and compare it with the tremendous material and moral progress in the Soviet Union. Here was Tagore as something more than a poet and philosopher. Though not one of them, he had felt with his own heart the misery and starvation of the common people, and he had the courage to admit the great social advance made under a system which destroys the propertied class to which he himself belongs. Here was the great humanist who would never hesitate to condemn exploitation to welcome a better order of things.


Summer 1939. An international students’ delegation was visiting a concentration camp of the Spanish refugees in the south of France. It was a small party but comprised many nationalities from the Chinese and the Indian to the Yugoslav and the American. The visit was intended to demonstrate the youth’s common front against Fascism and Imperialism, and for the purpose of conveying the greetings of the world students to the youth of Spain as the vanguard of the People’s struggle against Fascism. The camp was situated right at the foot of the Pyrenees, near the frontier, and had a population of 18,000—mostly from the Army of the Ebro, which included men from all walks of life—writers, artists, doctors, workers, peasants, clerks and shopkeepers—men of the famous International Brigade who came and fought shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish people because they realised that the front of Peace, Freedom and Democracy was indivisible and could be defended against not by rival imperialisms, but by toiling millions out to build a new world.

The French commandant did not allow us to enter the camp which was under military control and was surrounded by barbed wire for miles around. He was polite but would not let us go in, lest the French Government should be exposed by the appalling treatment that had been meted out to the sons of the sister democracy of Spain. Daladier and Bonnet, the Chamberlains of France, who with their gang had abetted the Fascist attack on Spain, were now, by imprisoning these valiant fighters, acting as the goal-warders of Hitler and Mussolini. The alternative that was offered to these brave soldiers of democracy was either work in the labour-gangs in France or a passage back to Spain to face Franco’s firing squads.

We were allowed to interview about 20 people called out of the camp. There were Brazilians, Poles and Chinese in the International Brigade. Of the Spaniards, most of them in that particular camp were students from Colleges and Universities. One of them had been working in the University of Madrid on a thesis on literature for his doctorate, before the Fascist rising in 1936. We talked to each other in broken French, and he asked me a number of questions about India. He had heard a lot about Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru. Of these, he ruled out the first, for, as he said, “Gandhi wanted to put the hands on the clock back, while we are out to create a new and better world.” But Tagore and Nehru, he continued, were different though they might be under the personal spell of Gandhi. He had read the works of Tagore in French, and had listened to portions of Nehru’s Autobiography read out by his comrades at the front. He wanted to know what Tagore’s attitude was towards Fascism. Fortunately I had then just read the Poet’s reply to Noguchi, and I told him about that. He was happy and remarked: “He might not be coming from the ranks of the people, but he is sensitive and he is honest. He is on the side of progress and justice.”

And he added after a pause: “You know, Fascism can never be effectively fought by imperialist governments—that is why today we are in prison in the so-called democracy of France. These governments might one day stand up against Hitler and Mussolini when their own interests will be touched, but Fascism will never die so long as imperialism survives; and it is for the common people to rise and smash up the present system of exploitation. In that struggle the intellectuals will be called upon to make their choice. Many would be frightened and go over to the side of the bosses. But the better type, men like Malruax, Fox, Cornford and Lorca who fought alongwith the peasants and the workers—and men like Tagore ad Rolland, Toller and Sinclair, who have sent their greetings from a distance—these will all be on our side. Many of them might not take part in the actual fighting, many might abhor the violence that will show itself in the process, but they will at least be honest when, moved by the agonies of suffering humanity today, they will welcome the birth of the new world of peace, freedom and happiness. By themselves they will not be able to build such a world, but they will welcome its construction when the toiling man will be enthroned. They are no doubt individualists and their reactions will be entirely emotional. Yet they will be our valuable allies in the struggle. Would you regard Tagore as one of them?” I did not have to hesitate to give him the proud answer: “Yes, we regard him so”—and was reminded of the foggy night in London when I had read the translation of the Letters from Russia, and of the monsoon evening in Calcutta when the Englishman had asked me, “Would you call him a People’s Poet?”


Things have moved since then and moved rapidly. I do not know what has happened to the young Spanish student. Perhaps he went back to the Spain that is Franco’s prison, or fell into the hands of the Gestapo after the betrayal of France, or if he is one of the few lucky ones, has escaped to some other part of the world, ever ready to carry on the real People’s struggle against Fascism. But Tagore has now belied our hopes, he has reacted magnificently to the suffering of toiling humanity trying to sever the bonds that bind them. Even in this evening of his life, he has shown the alertness of youth in tearing off the mask from the face of Fascism and Imperialism alike. As I read and re-read his New Year’s Message, “Crisis in Civilisation”, there came back to my mind the face of the young comrade from Spain behind the barbed wire in the concentration camp, and I remembered the ringing words of Rolland, written on May Day 1934 on the advent of German Fascism: “The decisive conflict has begun. It is no longer permissible to keep aloof..... Appeal to life against death, against that which kills, against these ravages of humanity: the forces of money, drunk with gold, the Imperialisms drunk with power, the dictatorships of the great companies, and the various forms of Fascism, drunk with blood. Working man, here are our hands. We are yours. Let us unite. Let us close up our ranks. Humanity is in danger!”

(The Calcutta Municipal Gazette—Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, September 13, 1941)

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