Notes on the Tagore readings

Rabindranath Tagore wrote primarily in Bengali. He became very well-known internationally thanks to his collection of translations of some of his own poems into English, Gitanjali (1912; available on HathiTrust). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. The two stories we are focusing on were originally written in Bengali. Tagore did not translate them himself, but their English translations date from the period we are studying; Tagore’s fiction thus became part of English-language fiction in the early twentieth century. I have given you the translations from two volumes of short stories put out by the important London publishing house Macmillan, Hungry Stones and Other Stories (1916) and Mashi and Other Stories (1918). If you would like a sample of Tagore’s own style in English fiction, read his own translation of his short story “The Victory,” in Hungry Stones.

Here is a little bit of context on the two stories. Think about why it is that there are so many more terms to annotate in “The Hungry Stones.”

The Postmaster

Published in Bengali in 1891. First published in English in a version by Devendranath Mitter in the Calcutta magazine The Modern Review (January 1910); scan available on HathiTrust. The translator of the version in Mashi is, I believe, unknown.

cicalas (160)
faquirs of the Baul sect (160)
“Fakir” is a a more common spelling for this term for a religious mendicant, typically used for Sufi Muslims. The Bāuls (“the mad ones”) are a group of wandering religious singers from Bengal. Tagore was very influenced by their songs, which, like other popular religious traditions in North India, combine Muslim and Hindu elements—and more.
the alphabet (163)
That is, the Bengali alphabet. The “double consonants” (164) are the conjunct consonants. In Bengali, as in other Indic scripts, there are special ways of writing two consonants together without a vowel; this is the trickiest part of the alphabet to learn.
showers of the season (163)
Śrābaṇ, the second month of the monsoon season (mid-July to mid-August).

The Hungry Stones

Published in Bengali in 1895. It first appeared in the Calcutta Modern Review in February 1910, in a translation by Panna Lal Basu; a scan is available on HathiTrust. This same translation, apparently slightly edited, is the one we have in Hungry Stones. The wonderful contemporary English-language writer Amitav Ghosh has translated this story as “Hungry Stone” in The Essential Tagore, ed. Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011).

Puja trip (3)
pūjā is a general term for Hindu worship. The two men are probably taking a holiday trip during Durga Puja, an important festival in Bengal.
up-country Mahomedan (3)
That is, a Muslim from North India. “Mahomedan” was a common term for Muslims in English but is now obsolete.
“There happen more things…” (3)
I award you 25 English major points if you recognize this as a riff on a line from Hamlet.
Vedas (4)
Ancient sacred texts of India, first composed in Sanskrit in the 2nd millennium BCE, and part of Hindu scripture. They are always recited in Sanskrit (a classical language), so the man’s knowledge of the Vedas shows his erudition. The same goes for his knowledge of Persian, which is not spoken natively in North India but was a language of high culture from the time of the Mughal emperors (16th to 18th centuries) onwards.
theosophist (4)
Theosophy was an occult movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, founded in New York in 1875 but subsequently headquartered in Bombay, influenced by various religious traditions and mystical philosophies—hence the narrator’s kinsman’s belief in “occult power” from an “astral body.”
my post at Junagarh…Nizam of Hyderabad (5)
Junagarh or Junagadh was a princely state in Gujarat (in the west of India). Though India was under British rule, parts of India were governed by proxy rather than directly. The man has worked for two such rulers. The hereditary ruler of the state of Hyderabad (south-central India) was called the Nizam.
Susta (5)
or Shusta, a river. The translator has cut a pretentious aside in which the man gives the Sanskrit etymology of the river name (cf. the Ghosh version).
Mahmud Shah II (5)
I am unsure how to gloss this. Does it refer to the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–1748)? A Persian Shah? It also seems possible to me that this is deliberately unreal.
ghazal (5)
an intricate poetic form, important in the Persian and Urdu traditions.
ghi (9)
now usually spelled ghee: clarified butter.
sola hat like the sahebs (9–10)
that is, the sola topee, the signature hat of the British (the sahebs) in India.
attar (10)
rose essence.
guitar (11)
the translator’s rendition of sitār, an instrument now better-known beyond the subcontinent.
nahabat (11)
a type of instrumental band. Other translations render this passage differently. Somewhere far off, music is starting.
bulbuls (11)
the bulbul is a songbird and, like the nightingale, a poetic trope.
Rs. (11)
rupees, the currency.
Avalli hills (12)
the Aravalli mountain range, which runs from Delhi to Gujarat.
narghileh (16)
a hookah. All the details here evoke the Mughal court or indeed the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights.
Badshah (19)
the Mughal emperor.
Abyssinian (20)
that is, Ethiopian; but perhaps the same as the earlier “negro eunuch.”
chamar (20)
the footnote only helps if you know the Anglo-Indian word “chowrie” or chowry, the yak-tail fly whisk and yet another sign of royalty.
chaprasi (20)
an office messenger.
Nizamat (21)
that is, all that pertains to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was a byword for wealth.

Sample Commonplace-Book Entry

He should never again, as at one or two great moments of the past, be better than himself.

James, “The Middle Years,” 335.

Changing meanings of “better”: better health? better artistic success? better in some other sense. How can Dencombe be better than himself anyway? Is this D’s own belief or the narrator telling us the future?