The Tower and The Sea: Romain Rolland and Kalidas Nag Correspondence (1922-1938)

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Item Code: NAF608
Author: Chinmoy Guha
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788126029228
Pages: 362 (4 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 Inch x 5.5 Inch
Weight 590 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

The young historian Kalidas I Nag (I891—I 966) met the Nobel Pirize-winning French thinker, novelist, dramatisi, musiipher Romain Holland (I 866—1944) in Paris in April 1922, and soon became his most trusted Indian friend and ‘intellectual lieutenant’. Not a simple compliment from arnan who had friends and correspondents such as Tolstoy, Tagore, Gandhi, Gorki, Freud, Albert Schweitzer, Russell, Einstein... In the most critical of times, in the 20s and 30s, the two became close confidants. This invaluable correspondence (1922—1938)—warm, intimate, undissembling—is probably the most important of Rolland’s correspondences with the Indians.

Rolland talks about Tagore and Gandhi, a dream project of a Weltbibilothek, the Tagore—Mussolini controversy, the contradictions of the French intelligentsia, Rolland’s passionate interest in Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananada, the rise of Hitler, the squabbles over The Golden Book of Tagore, Nehru and Subhas Bose’s visit to Villeneuve and so on.

The latter unlocks his heart and speaks about his own anguish and pain and reveals why he did not conic to India. This book contains an intensely personal bio—data of Rolland. He also reveals for the first time why he was castigated in France.

About the Author

Chinmoy Guha (b.1958) is Professor of English, University of Calcutta. The French Government has conferred on him the title of Chevalier des Palmes academiques. A former Director of Embassy of France in India. New Delhi for some time, he has taught French at Alliance Française Calcutta for over a decade.

His books include: Where the Dreams Cross: TS Eliot and French Poetry,Remembering Sartre (co-edited), a biography of Victor Hugo, an anthology of Contemporary French Poetry Bengali translations of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées recues, Romain Rolland’s Danton and André Gide’s La Porte étroite.



At the outset, I must thank scholars in India and France who have appreciated the importance of these letters in the context of the encounter between Rolland and India at a crucial point of time in history. It also forms an essential part of the interface between India and the West, still largely unknown to many in the garb of postcolonialists. It is an argument that cannot be left out of any authentic account of the modern argumentative Indian.

During my lectures on Rolland and India at the Festival of India in Boulogne-Billancourt, France in 2002, the Journees Internationales Romain Rolland in Vézelay, France in 2004, the University of Avignon (2004), the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Lyon (2005) and the Journées Internationales Romain Rolland in Vézelay in 2007, it became increasingly clear that the role of Dr Kalidas Nag is now being recognized as an important link between India and the world.

In this edition I have added a postcard of Rolland (letter no. 118) and have tried to update the annotations on the proper names.

I am happy that the Sahitya Akademi has agreed to publish this new edition. I express my deep gratitude to Shri Sunil Gangopadhyay, President, Sahitya Akademi who made this possible. I also thank Shri A. K. Krishnamurthy, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, Sm Geetanjali Chatterjee, Deputy Secretary, Sahitya Akademi and Shri Ramkumar Mukhopadhayay, Regional Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, Kolkata.

I warmly thank Bernard Duchatelet, author of Romain Rolland: tel qu’en lui-même and one of the great architects of the revival of Rolland studies; Jean-Pierre Meylan, Swiss expert on Rolland and Martine Liegeois, President of Romain Rolland Association and Editor of Cahiers de Brèves. Professor Ramkrishna Bhattacharya made constructive suggestions and helped me to annotate some of the proper names; my student Shri Sayan Chattopadhyay, Research Fellow, University of Calcutta who carefully typed out the index and corrected the proofs; and Shri Arun De, Sahitya Akademi, Kolkata for his precious advice and assistance.

I gratefully remember the encouragement I received at all times from the late Professor R K Dasgupta, Professor Swapan Majumdar, Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri and last but not the least my wife Anasuya.





As plasters crack and beams crumble in the last decade of the twentieth century, we open the magic casket of a lost correspondence of the 20s and 30s, ‘disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves’... It offers a scenario for humanity so different from the desacralized one we- have enacted in recent times.

This is a curious interface, on one level possibly more revealing than Rolland’s more celebrated encounters with great Indians like Tagore and Gandhi. For once, there is no barrier of language, which Tagore and Rolland were so weary of (‘We were like two deaf men who could not communicate,’ wrote the latter about his meetings with Tagore. 20 June 1930, Imde, Paris: Albin Michel 1960, p. 277). The letters are warm, reassuring, intimate, and sometimes twitting, like all good letters should be, resonating with tenderness.

Romain Rolland (1866-1944), then 56, the 1915 Nobel laureate of France, who had overnight become a traitor to his countrymen for daring to transcend chauvinism during the First World War with his Au-dessus de Ia Mêle’e, met his young admirer Kalidas Nag (1891-1966), 31, then a researcher in Indology at the Sorbonne, ‘at (his) sister’s place’ (Inde, p. 28) in Avenue de 1’Observatoire, Paris (Nag’s letter to Madeleine Rolland, 7 April 1922, Kalidas Nag Collection) on 4 April 1922— the year of the publication of The Waste Land, Ulysses and Siddhartha. It was ‘one of those critical years’, to quote Kalidas (Memoirs II, Calcutta, 1994, p. 9). ‘When Mahatma Gandhi took the lead in national politics and Tagore began sounding the clarion call of prophecy’.

I went there with trembling steps, and with enthusiasm, and saluted him in the Indian way which touched him. He took me in warmly by his big generous hands and I was struck with awe to look upon his majestic serene face radiant with hope for Humanity and World Peace. (...) I returned in rapture and wrote a long letter to Master Tagore. (Ibid., p.23)

The meeting, we learn from Nag’s letter to Rolland’s sister (7 April), was arranged by her, who also acted as the interpreter. It is possible, as one of Nag’s associates suggests (Arun Kumar Biswas, Udbodhan. October 1991), that Jules Bloch of The School of Oriental Languages had introduced Kalidas Nag to Rolland. Nag himself writes that it was Tagore who introduced him (Romain Rolland and India in The Modern Review, February 1966); strangely enough, this is not corroborated by Rolland’s diary or Nag’s Memoirs or for that matter, by this correspondence. Rolland— who would quit a reactionary and nationalist France for Villa Olga, Villeneuve, Switzerland, in a few days— found him ‘brilliant, full of fire and vitality’ (Inde, p. 28) while Nag found ‘the first really great European, who fulfilled Goethe’s expectations’ (Memoirs II, p. 54). They would meet very soon on 15 April (see Rolland’s letter of Easter Sunday) at Rolland’s apartment in 3, rue Boissonade in Montparnasse (‘I had the joy of spending some time with Rolland, his friends the Herzens and his sister.’ Ibid., p. 26) and the mutual admiration quickly crystallized into a fragrant friendship which lasted two stormy decades.

The two exchanged at least 134 letters from 1922 to 1938. In the first years, they wrote frequently, even simultaneously on the same day or on consecutive days. The number of letters dwindles in the late 20s and 30s, and many (especially those of Rolland) were misplaced. It is not known whether they went on to write in the ‘heavy, thick, dark years of the Occupation’ in the 40s, but if they did, that part of the correspondence is lost. While Rolland wrote meticulously in French (usually on 11” by 7 1/2” paper folded in half), Nag after a somewhat flamboyant essay in French, often brilliant but not entirely flawless, inexplicably switched over to English on his return to Kolkata in the last week of November 1923. These English letters were verbally translated into French by Madeleine, who would also become a very close friend and correspondent of Kalidas. Rolland, who initially addressed the latter ‘Cher Monsieur Kalidas Nag’ (Dear Mr. Kalidas Nag), soon changed to ‘Cher ami’ (Dear friend), ‘Mon ‘bien cher ami’ (My very dear friend), ‘Mon cher et fraternal ami’ (My dear and fraternal friend), and even ‘Ami Kalidas Nag’, ‘Frère Nag’ (Brother Nag) and ‘Kalidas’, while for the latter, he was always ‘Mon Maître’ (My Master) and ‘Cher Maître’ (Dear Master).

Like his two idols, Beethoven and Goethe, Rolland was deeply interested in India, in ‘the beehive of its ancient mind, its divine polyphony.’ In his Ecole Normale Supérieure days, he had read ‘The Gita— a volcano’, in Burnouf’s translation, fragments of which were found scribbled by him on the back of a page of the manuscript of Danton (Jean-Bertrand Barrère, Romain Rolland, Paris: Seuil, 1978, p. 133). Always more universal than European, he wrote to Cosette Padoux in 1908, ‘Tell the earth, the water and the air: Romain Rolland salutes you. Maybe, I shall go there one day, in this life or another.’ But it is only after the disaster of the First World War that he turned squarely towards India— ‘our Mother’ (letter to Nag, 12 November 1922)— for sustenance and light. In a glorious letter to Nag on the similarity of Indian and European mysticism from the Middle Ages down to the seventeenth century (22 January 1929), he wrote: ‘The similarity was amazing. To my surprise, I discovered that one had nothing to envy the other. There you can find all the forms of the yoga as well as jnan, bhakti or karma.’ There is no doubt that without a selfless mediator like Kalidas Nag, as the present book should be able to prove, the Indian chapter of Rolland’s life from 1921 (Tagore’s meeting with him in Paris) to the mid-30s (Rolland’s Moscow visit in 1935) would have been far less fruitful.

At that particular point of time in history, when the West let him down and the East seemed elusive, Kalidas struck Rolland as the right kind of cultural activist, ‘decidedly the only Indian Bengali who united the qualities of (his) own race with exactitude, promptness and precision— hallmarks of Europe, so important for joint action’ (Rolland to Nag, 18 August 1925). Nag, Rolland came to believe, ‘united the intellectual discipline of Europe with the depth of Asian thought’ (Rolland to Nag, 18 December 1924); he was ‘the Indian Hermes’, ‘the finest messenger we have’ (letter to Tagore, 27 March 1925), the weltburger (citizen of the world), ‘one of the most generous souls in India’ (letter to Carlos Americo Amaya, 24 July 1924. Cahiers Romain RoIland 12, p. 111) who would become his ‘representative’, ‘intellectual lieutenant’ and ‘permanent friend’ (20 June 1930, Inde, p. 276).— A rare accolade, one must admit, from one of the great uncompromising humanists of the century who had interacted with most major thinkers of his time: Tolstoy, Tagore, Gandhi, Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Maxim Gorki, Shaw, Claudel, J.C. Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Montherlant, Pierre-Jean Jouve and Péguy to name a few.

Kalidas was possibly the kind of man Rolland had been waiting for— receptive, earnest and always rational, someone whose objectivity and honesty could be trusted, who was clairvoyant enough to, for example, analyse the evils of nationalism or fascism, or the differences between Gandhi and Tagore without being disrespectful to them. Most importantly, he could write to Rolland about Tagore amiably and perhaps in an unblinkered manner:

Tell me about Tagore. Whatever you tell me about his activities would be precious to me. (Letter to Nag. 12 November 1922)

It may be relevant here to remind the readers that Tagore himself had selected Paris as Nag’s centre for study (Nag, Memoirs I, Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop, 1991, p. 145) and lent him Rolland’s Jean-Christophe in his college days... This correspondence records one of the most ruthlessly critical and dispassionate analyses of Tagore’s personality (Rolland’s strictly confidential letters of 5/7 July and 30 September 1926, and Kalidas Nag’s replies, notably of 4 August 1926 and 30 December 1926), yet blended with unadulterated love for ‘one of the noblest of poets the world has seen.’ Immediately after a virulent attack on Tagore’s tour to Italy in 1926, Rolland writes:

It is a blessing for our Swiss home that our great friend has spent these days here. The moment he left, the sky was dark, a storm lashed Villeneuve and it has been raining ever since. (5/7 July 1926)

The letters unravel the whole Tagore-Mussolini controversy (beginning from Rolland’s desperate attempts to stop Tagore from going to Italy in his letter of 15 March 1926 up to the catastrophe and its aftermath), Tagore’s contradictions and anguish, the murky background of The Golden Book of Tagore (which was almost a joint endeavour of Rolland and Nag), the irresponsible behaviour of some members of Tagore’s entourage, Rolland’s growing impatience with Tagore and Gandhi (letter to Nag, 24 December 1933), his deep interest in the Renaissance in Bengal, especially in Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda and so on. Tagore, Gandhi and the last two become fascinating subjects of study and elicit one of the most impartial judgments ever. We notice how Kalidas Nag updated Rolland about the freedom movement in India or expressed his ‘frank forebodings’ of the erosion of values in Santiniketan (vide Nag’s prophetic letters of 10 September 1925, 1 October 1925 and 4 August 1926) and helped him in ‘writing books and articles on Gandhi, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, translating Chaturanga and other writings of Tagore (Memoirs II, p. 32). In retrospect, Kalidas Nag’s analysis of the Indian psyche seems amazingly clinical.

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