Gleanings of the Road by Rabindranath Tagore: Review

Title: Gleanings of the Road

Author: Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Pages: 223

Price: 295

Those who have read Tagore the poet will dismiss this book as one of his lesser writings. Those not much aware of Tagore’s writing will not hold him in any high esteem either from a reading of this book. The prose writer Tagore stands to lose in both cases. While in the former, his poetic fame is restored, in the latter, even that is demolished because a reader who reads ‘Gleanings of the road’ will hardly be inspired to go any further to seek Tagore in his poetry.

Though some of Tagore’s short stories are considered among the best in the world, and some of his essays on nationalism and education still hold relevance and bring out his excellent foresight and clarity of thought, Rabindranath was essentially a poet and he himself held that claim close to his heart. The loftiness of his poetic creations and the rhythmic beauty of words they carry find little resonance in much of his prose. If stacked in a hierarchy, the Gleanings of the Road will find itself almost at the bottom of his prose oeuvre. No wonder Tagore’s prose is far lesser in number than his exceedingly voluminous poetic output.

Why Gleanings of the Road fails to evoke the magic of Tagore is a question to ponder. For one, the translation by Somdatta Mandal leaves much to be desired. The rhythm, the world play, the flow and cadence of Tagore which are so beautifully and consistently exposed and upheld in the original Bangla rendition goes absolutely missing in the English version. Tagore is not easy to translate either. The little nuances of language, the wittiness and the import of the typical phrases often go amiss in the English versions of his work. The general gregariousness of the Bengali societal discourse that comprises its literary language too, doesn’t find the right expression in the comparatively measured, restrained and curt English literary style. The end result of this disparity is a cumbersome mishmash of Indo-English style which seems ambiguous and convoluted to a non-native reader. The largely evocative narrative style that Tagore uses as his tool acts as the last nail in the coffin. The sentences are long winding and the theories postulated by Tagore or his philosophical musings read repetitive and sentimental. Pith is the essence and beauty of the English language; the absence of it not only mars its flow and readability but also robs it of its refinement. Aphorisms sound best when they are terse and direct or else, they start getting pedantic. If calculated against this yardstick, Gleanings of the Road is a major failure in its English avatar, notwithstanding the plenty of delightful analogies that the essays contain, and of which Tagore is always a deft handler.

Gleanings of the Road, though categorised as a travelogue, is not actually so. There are only two or three travel stories per say in this 23-essay collection, while the rest deal with the poet’s perception and experience of peoples and their cultural merits and oddities during his stays in England and America in the early 20th century years. It is more like a monologue and veers into multiple domains due to which we tend to lose both direction and sustained interest. Tagore picks up every mundane and nondescript happening or landscape around him and colours it with his own meandering thoughts on life, love and universe, with dollops of his characteristic poignancy and pathos. Some of his essays that deal with music, social differences and the problems of education are, however, more readable because they stick to the course.

The essay Bombay, for instance, is a very crisp detailing of the relative progressiveness of Maharashtrian women as compared with their Bengali counterparts. The stamp of a great mind does show in flashing glimpses now and then, through certain unique experiences and expressions of the poet that take our thoughts to a different level of appreciation and understanding. The objectivity and truthfulness of Tagore in making cultural comparisons between India and the West is a pleasure to savour. Tagore’s observation is keen and impeccable and his humour never deserts him even in the minutest details of people’s idiosyncrasies and incongruities he loathes.

Tagore was always critical of anything that is obsolete, redundant or unreasonable and called for shunning social encumbrances that curtail the freedom of the spirit. He finds ample reasons to complain of it here too, in both Oriental and Occidental customs and habits of tradition, which are useless hangovers of cultural antiquities. But he is never scathing or bitter in his criticism. This is what sets him apart from others. He has a genial composure about him and a certain level of emotional restraint which make his criticisms look more like suggestions for betterment. The excoriations are not only subtle and refined that point towards Tagore’s own cultural refinement, but they also have an air of positivity and hope in them. Perhaps the poet’s unflinching faith in humanity and the unshakable belief in its immense possibilities are behind this moderation.

But these goodies that attempt to redeem the book are found only in smatterings, while the reading of the whole text gets a tiring exercise since the blandness of the mundane often takes precedence over artistic excellence. The best part of the book is perhaps a bunch of appended letters. Because of their directness and shortness, they feel refreshing and engaging. For a diehard fan of Tagore, this English offering of the original Bengali Pather Sonchoy adds to their treasure trove. For an objective reader, however, this book is certainly avoidable unless one is researching on something specific in his quest to understand the multifarious genius of Tagore. For the rest, going back to the original is the best antidote.

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