Tagore, Premchand and Quest For a Better World – Aijaz Zaka Syed

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The inimitable Balraj Sahni as Kabuliwala in the movie based on Tagore's short story by the same name.
The inimitable Balraj Sahni as Kabuliwala in the movie based on Tagore’s short story by the same name.

Today, as the gulf between the Hindus and Muslims on the one hand and between India and Pakistan on the other is at its widest, there is need for literature that celebrates our shared values and humanity

AIJAZ ZAKA SYED | Special to Caravan Daily

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] recently launched Indian television channel, Epic TV, stands out for its preoccupation with and celebration of the past.  From historical dramas such as The Twentieth Wife, shining the light on the saga of Mughal emperor Jahangir and queen Noor Jahan, to Hindu mythological epics and from the lost recipes like the delectable ‘Ash’ from the dastarkhwan of the Nizam of Hyderabad to the evolution of Ganga-Jamuni culture and cuisine, it offers distinctly different fare.

What has had truly hooked me though is the series that filmmaker Anurag Basu (of Barfi fame) has done based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novels and short stories. Like most Indians, I read Tagore’s Gitanjali, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and his popular short story ‘Kabuliwala’ in English.

Rabindranath Tagore who received the Nobel Prize for Literature was a great storyteller celebrating humanity and humanism.
Rabindranath Tagore who received the Nobel Prize for Literature was a great storyteller celebrating humanity and humanism.

However, my Bengali friends familiar with the great man’s vast oeuvre insist that one must read him in the language he originally wrote to appreciate his versatile genius and immense range.   Which is true for all great literature, I guess. The essence and fragrance of the original is often lost in translation.  Who can capture the singular magic of Homer, Rumi, Shakespeare, Saadi or Ghalib?

However, not all of us can master all the beautiful languages created by God in all their magnificence.  And it would be a shame if we remained deprived of living and experiencing a particular culture and civilization and the best of literature produced by it merely because we are unfamiliar with a particular language.

This is where the often underrated and unacknowledged role of translators comes in.  We are all immensely indebted to them.  For, without their diligence, dedication and toiling of years, many of us wouldn’t know or experience the joy of Iqbal’s sublime, soul-stirring poetry, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Homer’s Odyssey and sheer brilliance of Shakespearean wit and wisdom.

What was created by Premchand and Tagore is firmly rooted in an Indian reality. It is fashioned out of the warm earthiness of a South Asian experience. Yet it celebrates values that are prized and cherished by all cultures and humanity at large.  This is why it appeals to and touches a chord in all of us
What was created by Premchand and Tagore is firmly rooted in an Indian reality. It is fashioned out of the warm earthiness of a South Asian experience. Yet it celebrates values that are prized and cherished by all cultures and humanity at large. This is why it appeals to and touches a chord in all of us

So while it is true that a lot of the original beauty is lost in translation, we are a great deal richer as a result of our efforts to arm ourselves with the wisdom and experience passed down over the ages.  For these great works of world literature are our collective heritage and legacy.

Tagore’s vast repertoire of fiction and poetry certainly belongs in that hallowed category.  For, like all great literature, it celebrates universal values of peace, humanism and tolerance.

Above all, like that of his less fortunate and less rewarded fellow traveler  Premchand, Tagore’s fiction is firmly rooted in an Indian reality. It is fashioned out of the warm earthiness of a South Asian experience. Yet it celebrates values that are prized and cherished by all cultures and humanity at large.  This is why it appeals to and touches a chord in all of us.

Look at the fantastic and heartwarming story of Kabuliwala, for instance. It celebrates like nothing else does Tagore’s belief in humanity and generosity of spirit.

The inimitable Balraj Sahni immortalized the character of the Afghan dry fruit seller Rahmat Khan in the celluloid adaptation of Tagore’s most popular work, portraying the simplicity, honesty and subtle shades of a homesick Pathan fallen on hard times with characteristic, understated brilliance.

The middle-aged Rahmat Khan befriends and falls in love with a little Bengali girl, Mini, while hawking his wares in Calcutta.  With her guileless innocence and playfulness, she reminds him of his own daughter, Amina, far away in Kabul.  While Mini is initially suspicious and fearful of the Pathan suspecting he is out to abduct children like her, she is soon bowled over by the love and affection of the dry fruit merchant and the two spend hours playing and exchanging stories.

The unusual and unlikely bond of friendship between the Afghan merchant and the young Bengali girl gets stronger by the day despite the intense dislike and hostility of Mini’s mother who repeatedly warns her against talking to the ‘stranger’.

Mini’s mother is instinctively suspicious of all strangers and foreigners, like most of us are.  Adding to her fears and paranoia about Rahmat Khan are the prevalent popular stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims in general in the communally divided Bengal.

Then fate intervenes when following an altercation with a customer an agitated Rahmat stabs him and is jailed for 10 years.  On the day of his release, the first thing Rahmat does is pay a visit to Mini who is now all grown up.  Indeed, she is about to get married.

When Mini fails to recognize him, initially, Rahmat is heartbroken. He realizes that his own daughter Amina would be as old as Mini and might not recognize him.  He longs to go home to his daughter and family.  However, after years in jail, he has got no means to do so. Finally, Mini’s father spares some money out of his daughter’s dowry to force it on the proud Pathan, persuading him to go home.

Apart from the innate beauty and universality of Tagore’s Kabuliwala, what makes it truly special is the fact that he wrote it at a time when the tensions between Hindus and Muslims were at their peak, especially in Bengal and Calcutta, following the partition of Bengal along communal lines in 1905.   It needed courage to tell an unconventional story as Kabuliwala and tell it with such conviction and force.

Beyond the immediate vexing question of the Hindu-Muslim equation, Kabuliwala also teaches us that all humanity is one family and that love conquers all distinctions and barriers of borders, colors and creed.  Ostensibly, there was little that was common between the rustic Pathan from the distant Afghanistan and the little Bengali Hindu girl in Calcutta.  Yet they managed to establish a strong and enduring bond of friendship, selfless love and humanity.

If Rahmat Khan and Mini could do it, why couldn’t the two major communities of the subcontinent, Hindus and Muslims do so? After all, they have built and shared so much, not to mention a synthetic culture, over a thousand years of coexistence.

Premchand, without doubt the greatest of storytellers India has produced, also celebrated this shared legacy of common values, ideals and aspirations in his writings, perhaps more than Tagore and anyone else did.  If Premchand gave us great novels like Godan and Maidan-e-Amal, he also came up with brilliant short stories such as Eidgah, Nejat, Namak ka Darogha and Kafan.

Just as he wrote both for Urdu and Hindi readers and is claimed by both as their own, Premchand passionately championed Hindu-Muslim amity and strove for it through his writings without appearing to be preachy or pedantic.

The father of Urdu and Hindi short story, Premchand was one of the pioneers of the Progressive Writers Movement. No wonder his writings, known for their stark simplicity and honesty, celebrated equality of men, universal brotherhood and liberty and spoke out against all oppression and exploitation.

Today, as the gulf between the Hindus and Muslims on the one hand and between India and Pakistan on the other is at its widest, there is a need to promote, more than ever, the writings of greats such as Tagore and Premchand.  And more writers have to follow their shining example to tell stories that celebrate the collective of humanity in all its hues and vibrant complexity to create a better world.   A better world is possible.

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