Tagore’s "Gitanjali" happened to me

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I cannot read Tagore’s Gitanjali in public. I will be bawling away when I read Gitanjali. And every time I read, I understand yet another poem and gets book marked. For that matter I cannot even talk about the book without tears in my eyes.

I read Gitanjali for the first time when I was in college. It was for all the wrong reasons, when I first laid my hands on the book. In college we had this bragging competition about who would read the most obscure and famous authors, but boring books. Then we could brag about it and be considered “intellectual”. I must confess that because of this bragging fest, I laid my hands on Tagore, Jiddu Krishnamurthy, Sarat Chandra and a host of other authors.

 We did know about these authors because they were very famous. They usually won a lot of awards and were highly regarded. They were just not very enticing to the usual college going kids then, when we were teenagers . For girls the staple was Mills and Boons. If you read an Alistair McLean or a Fredrck Forsyth – we were tagged serious readers. Ofcourse, we were limited with the availability of books.

Though books are available easily now, and almost every Indian having heard of Tagore’s Gitanjali, I am not sure things have changed much. Even after knowing that it is that slender volume of 113 poems that won the Nobel Prize. I have read my share of Nobel prize winning authors, but Tagore’s Gitanjali takes the cake for me.

For me, what fascinated was the simplicity of language, the every day situations and the profound meaning. It has been more than 20 years since I first read the book. Roughly every  five years I get the “Gitanjali” craving. I must read it when it hits me. I craved Gitanjali when I was pregnant with my son. And not any version. I wanted to read the translation in Telugu done by Bellamkonda Ramaraju. When we could not find it, my Brother in law, could not get that translation, and shipped Chelam’s version. I loved that too.

My husband gifted me the version where the original Bengali poems and English translations by Tagore himself are arranged in adjacent pages. After having read two translations in telugu, I was simply mesmerized by the maestro’s self interpretation.

There a few places where vernacular languages cannot be exactly translated into English. One such instance is a poem talking about the beggar’s bag or “jole” as we call it in Telugu. It is not really his bowl, but it is normally a old tattered sling which holds all the worldly possessions of the beggar. In the English version it was referred to as “wallet” which kind of beats the image of a beggar. Of course using the word beggar’s bowl was also not apt as in the context of the poem, it should be a piece of luggage where he kept his meager worldly possessions. I do not know what it was in the original Bengali, but I am very sure that Tagore would not have talked about a wallet for a beggar.

Now to the poems that moved(s) me and why they did ……

“I touch by the edge of the far spreading wing

of my  song thy feet which I could never aspire to reach.

Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself

and call thee friend who art my lord”.

Singing in the presence of God in poem 2,  he compares the song to the “far spreading wing “ of a bird touching  his feet. Singers have been elevated to another class altogether, in my eyes, after reading this. Whenever I hear any soulful singing, it is these verses that come to my mind. And when I do not have any company at home, I  open my heart and sing, so that I could touch his feet with the far reaching wings of my song.

An amazing prayer lifted my spirits up, especially in a dark and down moment.

“In the night of weariness let me give myself up

To sleep without struggle, resting my trust upon thee.

Let me not force my flagging spirit into a poor preparation for thy worship”

 When I am down, I always pray. I pray to God to get me out of the situation. I have read thru these poems countless times, but never remembered this particular one. Recently when I was feeling really let down and reading Gitanjali, this one registered in my mind. May be, I was in the situation where I had to place my trust and sleep without struggling. It was really a down moment, when I could not even bring myself to pray. As he said, I just had to place my trust and not force my flagging spirit. This poem is numbered 25.

“Let the cloud of grace bend low from above
Like the tearful look of the mother
On the day of the father’s wrath”.

It was more beautifully expressed in telugu.

“Tandri kopaginchukunna rojuna
kanneeeti to nindina talli chupu vale”.

English translation is good, but telugu touched my heart. Maybe it is because of the emotions that the words mother and father in our mother tongue bring.

Poem 50 is the one that captured my heart from the first time. It talks about a beggar eagerly anticipating being showered with riches on the day of the king’s visit. And the irony when the king asks him, “What  do you have to give me?”

End of the day,returning disappointed, he discovers the golden grain in his beggar’s bag. How he cries and says

“I bitterly wept and wished that I had had
The heart to give thee my all”

Explains how much we hold on and refuse to surrender ourselves to whatever the highest power we believe in. On one hand we talk about the almighty and pray and on the other, we refuse to surrender ourselves and give up our processions even when we know that he gives us back multi fold. I still have problems with surrender even after knowing, believing and seeing it myself.

I think I have gone on enough about the wonderful poems. Will end with one last thing that enchants me every time I read.  Everyone and especially young/old mothers should read this

“The sweet, soft freshness that blooms on baby’s limbs –
Does anybody know where it was hidden so long?
Yes, when the mother was a young girl it lay
Pervading her heart in tender and silent mystery
Of love – the sweet, soft freshness that
Has bloomed on baby’s limbs”.

I think you do not read Gitanjali. It happens to you. It happened to me,  when I read it for the first time, when I understand it later on along with the struggles of life.

Gitanjali happens to me
When I hear a soulful song,
When I see a baby and
When I held my new born.
In my tear laden self
On his father’s rebuke.
When I have the courage
To surrender completely,
To the amazing grace of
The Almighty.


8 thoughts on “Tagore’s "Gitanjali" happened to me

  1. What an elegant article you have written!
    I also have the same experience of that ‘ Bragging competition’ you have mentioned .
    And I have felt that the translations have taken the better part of Gitanjali away.
    I consider myself lucky to be a bengali , I don’t have to depend upon translations to enjoy Tagore .
    But Rabindranath himself translated Gitanjali….and that definitely is the best translation…and when you were talking about songs in the article….I was feeling sorry for you…if you had been a bengali….you could have enjoyed his songs . He has written more than 2500 songs and ‘rabindra sangeet is a very popular genre here .


    • Thank you Mursalin for liking my article. It is one my dreams to learn Bengali just to understand Tagore better. I have read almost all his books. Many of his songs. And yes I am aware of Rabindra Sangeet. I have even extensively read Sarat Chandra. Love Satyajit Ray’s movies. I might have been a Bengali in my previous life.
      I should reread them to refresh my memory.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for paying homage to the Bengalis .
    Tagore evokes a similar drift in me too. The only great reason why I feel proud to be a Bengali is Tagore….
    I am looking forward to see more posts on Tagore in your blog .


  3. Varnam, I read your post twice and both the times I thought that it beautifully brings out the intrinsic connection you feel with Gitanjali. Sublime thoughts flowing in simple words, adding profound depth to everyday themes make an awe inspiring experience. 🙂 Thank you for sharing this post with me.

    Liked by 1 person

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