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The Boat-wreck by Rabindranath Tagore: Review

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Title: The Boat Wreck

Author: Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by: Arunava Sinha


Publisher: Harper Perennial

Pages: 300

Price: 399

It is widely accepted by critics and readers alike that Tagore in untranslatable. It holds true for almost all great literary works and authors because what comes out shining in one’s native language loses much of its aura and sheen when attempted to be translated in another language, even if the meaning finds way. It gets more glaring in case of Tagore because for a native reader, Tagore is a charm to read as much for his plot and exposition as for the play of words and their arrangement.

The master wordsmith’s work has a unique rhythm and cadence, generated largely through an alliterative sequencing of words and expressions which resonate with a musical quality, a thing we thoroughly miss in the English versions. Arunava Sinha’s attempt at translating a complex novel like Noukadoobi (The Boat Wreck) is a bold foray and we can have no reason to complain about his competency in doing so. We miss the typical Bengali sensitivity and delicate nuances of civility found in the early 20th century Bengal in which the novel is set. Also the homespun wit and humour so characteristic of Tagore stories loses much of their import when expressed in English. Yet Sinha’s The Boat Wreck successfully manages to maintain the tension of the drama all through and holds the reader in the right narrative grip.

Noukadoobi is certainly not among Rabindranath’s best works. Even Tagore himself was not too certain of the purpose and direction of the story and mirthfully lay the blame on his publisher’s urge to give something for the Bangadarshan magazine in which it was serialised between 1903 and 1904,  before coming out in a book form in 1906. The story does not have much of a historical relevance or background, nor is the progression much logical, imbued with far-fetched coincidences as it is. The novel is so crowded with characters and their meanderings and maneuvers are so diverse, changing and intricate over the large spatial landscape Tagore chooses, that the reader is prone to lose the thread of the narrative. The climax is unnecessarily delayed and the whole premise on the pivot of which the story revolves is weak.

Ramesh meets Kamala for the first time in a deserted sandy bank following a boat wreck and mistakes her for his newly-wed wife. Both of them hadn’t seen each other in the marriage ceremony, so no one knew the others’ identity, surmising that they must be man and wife. In the incident, all the relatives and acquaintances in the two boats are either lost or dead.  Incidentally, the two boats which run into one another have marriage parties in both of them, travelling with newly-weds. In the aftermath of the incident, the bride of the other boat comes in conjugation with the groom in the other boat, and this queer coincidence spawns a series of problems in the lives of several characters.

The matter is complicated further with the surfacing of the lost bride’s lost husband in the same ecosystem that Ramesh and Kamala inhabit. Ramesh had a blooming love story with neighbour Hemnalini which is cut short at this new development. Ramesh is too meek and mute a character to oppose his father’s insistence in marrying someone he did not care to know since Hem was his only dream. Hemnalini is left in the lurch and till the end, she remains forlorn. Ramesh in his deep predicament can neither abandon Kamala nor come clean on the sequence of events to further his matrimonial prospects with Hemnalini. He keeps shouldering the responsibility of Kamala clandestinely till an accidental letter reveals the truth to her and her life goes haywire at the shocking turn of events. Ramesh gets neither Kamala nor Hemnalini.

The drama moves out of Calcutta to Varanasi via Ghazipur where the ensemble of characters is messy and the narrative convoluted. Kamala, docile to the point of servility in social interactions, gets back her husband Nalinaksha, who she worships like a god. The timidity and submission is so complete and oppressing, that the descriptions read more like the mushy sentimentalism of Sharat Chandra Chatterjee than what is characteristically Tagore. Hemnalini, a more graceful, refined and educated woman, having independent views, is shown as failing to get any happiness through any love or matrimonial alliance. This is very unlikely Tagore because in all of his other novels, he is a progressive thinker and his women lead, be it in Nashtaneer, or Ghare Baire are ahead of their times. They break obsolete traditions, especially to celebrate love.

In Noukadoobi, there is none of that and we see rather a regressive stance of Tagore in representing Hem and Kamala, even if they fit more into the inhibiting social traditions of those times. In fact, love never finds a strong footing in the novel, it remains elusive. Kamala and Ramesh share an ambiguously affectionate relationship that never, for obvious reasons, develops into passionate love. Tagore has delved deep into the psychological ups and downs the characters face but their beauty is undone by the profuse injunctions of coincidences that almost force situations. Most of the characters are not developed well but painted in snatches and incoherent strokes.

However, it must still be admitted that the storyline of Boat Wreck has continual movement and an intense dramatic buildup, though it gets a bit diluted towards the end. The exploration of the subtleties of the human mind is one of Tagore’s fortes and here too he misses no chance to study them with precision. Nature and natural beauties always find a way into the narrative even if there is no real chance of their greater exposition. Tagore and nature has to go hand in hand, which though doesn’t help in the progression of the plot, adds a touch of melancholy and poignancy in their vastness and indifference when juxtaposed against the trivialities and struggles of human life. Arunava Sinha has read into the novel quite intensely which shows in his translation.

Despite its flaws, The Boat Wreck is a work of a consummate artiste and the sparkles of genius, though muted, do find their outlet in sporadic bursts. It makes a good reading for those who love stories rife with romantic possibilities and marring uncertainties, and want a glimpse of the early 1900s’ Bengali society, its richness as well its drawbacks in an objective light.