Tagore's first shore story, Bhikharini appeared in 1877, when he was only sixteen. Over the next six decades, he continued to write shore stories, virtually inventing the genre in Bengali. Ninety-five of his stories were collected in a four-volume anthology Galpaguchchha. Tagore's world is largely Bengal-the rural landscape, its provincial towns, and the colonial city of Calcutta of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries though the setting for some stories, notably 'Hungry Stones' and 'Forlorn Hope', is elsewhere in the dim past, while 'A Tale of Fantasy' is a work of pure imagination in a never never land. Drawn generally from the everyday lives of ordinary people, his stories traverse the provincial domain to reflect universal feelings and values that are truly timeless, reminding us why Galpaguchchha remains among the most popular works of Bengali literature. The tales, noted for Tagore's robust treatment of his themes touched with the warmth of humanity, often sentimental bur never mawkish, depict the author's ability to see beyond the human condition and look into the heart of his characters-their raptures and pangs of longing, their foibles and nobility-with perception and compassion, never judgmental, and often not devoid of a sense of humour.
This three-volume English translation by Ratan Kumar Chattopadhyay called Selections from Galpaguchchha is a collection of sixty-one of Tagore's shore stories broadly grouped under the themes of parting of ways, the relationship between men and women, and the power within the woman, respectively.
Volume I includes memorable stories like the The Pedlar from Kabul', 'Broken Nest', 'Punishment', and 'The Postmaster'. In the first, an Afghan hawker, Rahmat, comes to Calcutta and befriends five-year-old Mini, who reminds him of his own daughter back home. While 'Broken Nest' is a story of a lonely urban housewife's friendship with her brother-in-law and her overwhelming sense of loss when the relationship ends abruptly, 'Punishment' set in rural Bengal is a poignant story of young Chandara and her grim resolve when her husband, to save his brother, persuades her to own up to a murder she did not commit.
Detailed annotations and a Glossary are unique features of this translation.
To those tired of the excesses of this age, Tagore's stories will come as a benediction, not only to soothe, but also to query and sometimes to shock and unsettle. In Chattopadhyay's lucid translation, the stories have been sought to be retold in the same vein as the original.
In Volume 2, we find the ever-popular 'Ramkanai's Folly', 'The Ghat's Story', 'Women Bereft of Jewels, 'Grandfather', and 'The Matronly Boy', among other stories. The travails of a timid man of indomitable honesty who attains a tragic heroism are narrated in 'Ramkanai's Folly', while the theme of 'The Ghat's Story' is the unstated, forbidden love of a young woman for a hermit who may or may not be her long-lost husband. The frisson in the haunting climax of the 'Woman Bereft of Jewels', a horrifying morality tale of egotism and greed, is justly famous.
Volume 3, the last in this series, is studded with gems such as 'Hungry Stones', 'The Wife's Letter', 'The Story of a Muslim Woman', 'Hidden Treasure' and 'At Dead of Night'. The theme of 'Hungry Stones' is a tale hovering between dream and reality involving palace intrigue and unrequited love, and in 'The Wife's Letter', Mrinal breaks free from the stifling marital ties of fifteen years in what is an indictment of existing gender relations. A traditional Hindu girl out of gratitude for her elderly Muslim protector embraces his religion and falls in love with his son in 'The Story of a Muslim Woman'.
Galpaguchchha (Bengali for 'bunch of stories') is held among the finest of Tagore's literary creations; in fact, next only to his songs and poems. Besides the domain of poetry, over which he reigns, in the entire range of his prose writings, short stories offered him a medium for his genius to flourish. There his two distinct identities-that of a poet and that of a narrator-have met in perfect harmony. Tagore's communion with Nature, his identification with man, his general preference for real-life tales to romanticised history or myth, his emphasis on theme rather than plot, and on the intricacies of character rather than intrigues set the stories apart. To a reader, these are no mere narration of events by a story-teller: rather they are works of art that retain strong contemporary appeal and can be enjoyed at various levels.
It is always difficult to translate any great author. It is even more difficult in the case of a multi-faceted writer like Rabindranath, if only because his prose is often infused with his instinctive rhythm and rhetoric with varied overtones of words: words he often improvises by compounding effortlessly, which in fact enhance the beauty and lyricism of his long sentences with their resonance.
A master of his own language, he adapts it as necessary to suit the topic. In his earlier days, when he used to stay in his houseboat on the river Padma, he wrote simple stories based on the joys and sorrows of riparian rural life that he had observed: the language of those idyllic tales is limpid and lilting like a flowing river. Again, in the stories of his later life, when the theme extends from simple narrative to the complex working of human psychology, when he writes a social or political satire, or when inspired by a profound realisation of life, he wants to show us the way in the garb of a story, he adopts a different style of language-sharp, shining, subtle that appeals more to the intellect of the modern-day individual. Whether it is the lyrical prose steeped in the colours of Nature, as in Cloud and Sunshine and The Visitor, or the majestic diction of Hungry Stones, or humour, wit and stark, unblinking reality as in House Number One, the charm of his language is hard to resist.
It is a challenging task to render the stories in a generally acceptable register appropriate to this language. My aim has been to acquaint the reader with the flavour of the original as far as possible within the natural constraints of translation. I have tried to be faithful to the text, for I feel any addition or deletion would lessen its appeal.
Again, the target language, English, may not always be adequate for getting across to the reader the connotations of the idioms and references in the Bengali context that appear abundantly in the stories. These have mostly been retained as such in italics and either annotated at the end of the story or explained in the glossary. This will I hope enable readers to better appreciate the nuances of Tagore's unique style.
This collection of sixty-one stories had to be divided into three volumes to avoid an unwieldy size. That no definite order in chronology or strict thematic unity was maintained-the latter I feel is neither feasible nor desirable-is because each volume was intended to be self-contained in giving the flavour of Galpaguchchha as a whole.
If, in spite of my shortcomings as a translator, the reader emerges enriched, the credit is all Tagore's.
I must mention the invaluable role of my sons Rajib and Somnath in the project. Were it not for their suggestions, of considerable literary and critical value, the work would not have been whatever it is worth.
Children’s Books (1707)
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