Letters from a Foreign Shore
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By Rabindranath Tagore
(Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)
Thursday, January 9, 1892
For the last couple of days, the weather here has been vacillating between winter and spring. In the morning, northern winds send shivers through land and water and, in the evening, the southern breeze dances through the moonlight of the bright fortnight. It is clear that the spring is nigh. After a long time, an Indian nightingale has started singing from the garden on the other side. The human heart is somewhat excited, too. One can now hear strains of song and music from the village across, which indicates people aren’t too eager to shut their doors and windows and retreat to bed all bundled-up, while the evening is still young.
It’s a full-moon night – a giant moon stares at me from the open window to my left as if to check if I am berating it in this letter. Perhaps she thinks the earth’s residents gossip more about her blemish than her jyotsna. A lone bird calls to dispel the shore’s quietude. The river is still, no boat sails on it; the forest on the other side spreads its solemn shadow on the water. This massive moonlit sky looks a touch hazy – the way things appear when drowsy eyes try to stay awake.
Tomorrow onwards, evenings will begin getting darker again; as I cross this small river after completing my kutcherry work, I will notice a slight separation between me and my beloved away from home. Could the one who had unveiled to me her large and mysterious heart be wondering if all that self-revelation was prudent enough and thus pull back the curtain to her heart again?
Indeed, nature becomes intimate to one who lives alone abroad. I have truly felt for a few days now that I might no longer receive this swathing moonlight once the full-moon night is over; that from this foreign place, I will drift further abroad; that the familiar calm beauty that awaits me at the river bank every day after work, won’t be there for me, and that I would have to make my return journey on the boat in darkness.
But today is a full-moon night – this is the first purnima of this year’s spring, and so I record its story in writing. Perchance I might remember this still night – complete with that lone bird’s call and the gleam of the light on the boat anchored to that bank; this clear outline of the river, that coating of a quasi-dark forest and that detached, indifferent, pallid sky – after a long time…
(Jyotsna: Moonlight; Purnima: Full-moon night)
July 7, 1893
This is a small village. Meandering through broken ghaats, a tin-roofed bazaar, granaries with split bamboo fencing, bamboo clumps, mango-jackfruit-palm-shimul-banana-akondo-bherenda-yam trees huddled in a bush, huge boats with raised masts anchored on the river banks, paddy submerged in water, and half-soaked jute fields, I reached Shajadpur last evening. This is going to be my abode for a while now. After spending days in the boat, it’s lovely to step into a house in Shajadpur. It’s wonderful to discover the freedom of being able to move around and stretch one’s limb at will and the impact it has on one’s mental health.
This morning, the sun is beaming from time to time, a wind is blowing swiftly, tamarisk and lychee trees are sashaying and rustling in a sway, a variety of birds are calling out in as many different ways to enliven the forest’s morning assembly. Sitting in this large, companion-less bright and open second-floor room, I am delighted to see a row of boats on the canal and, across it, a village flanked by trees on both sides. On this side, moderate activity guides the movements of a nearby locality. The workflow of a village isn’t rushed, and yet, neither is it inert or lifeless. Work and rest seem to walk hand in hand here.
Ferry boats sail on, passengers walk along the canal with umbrellas in their hands, women dip rice-filled wicker baskets in the water to wash the grain, farmers carrying bundles of jute on their heads head towards the haat, two men rest a log on the ground and crack it with axes for firewood, a carpenter upturns a fishing boat to repair it with a chisel, the village mongrel wanders around aimlessly, a few cows lazily sit on the ground and ward off flies by shaking their ears and tails before ingesting their lunch of the monsoon grass. When crows annoy them excessively by sitting on their backs, they turn their heads just a few times to register their protest.
The sounds of this place – the monotony of cracking wood, the cheer of unclothed children in play, the plaintive high-pitched song of a cowboy, the sloshing of oars, the shrill drone of the oil-grinding block – don’t create any dissonance when they combine with bird calls and rustling of leaves. In fact, all of it is like a peaceful dream sequence of a bigger sonata, a bit in the manner of Chopin, albeit attuned in an expansive yet controlled composition.
My mind brims with sunlight and all these sounds; I better conclude this letter and soak in it for a while.
(Ghaat: River bank; Haat: Village market)
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her website: bhaswatighosh.com.
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6 Responses to “Letters from a Foreign Shore”
A superb job by Bhaswati Ghosh. Tagore was such a profound forward thinker living in a n era steeped in social taboos. His short stories reflect his modern views on liberation of women.
Tagore was a prolific thinker writer. Translating his work ensuring that readers connect with his emotions and thoughts is a herculean task. Bhaswati Ghosh has done a superb job here. Tagore’s revolutionary thoughts are well depicted in his short stories too. Amazing for a man living in an era steeped in social taboos.
Beautiful, to whom were these letters addressed? Or were these diary entries?
Beautiful translation…as lyrical as the letter would have been in Bangla.
A brilliant translation, where the sweep of emotions and the lyricism of Tagore’s original composition are retained with such dignity and grace. I salute Bhaswati for choosing this exemplary work and for bringing out the essence of it with her magical use of the English language.
Anita, Sanjukta, Reenu, Lopa, sincere thanks for reading and your kind comments. This is perhaps the greatest reward of translating a piece of text–to receive the reassurance that it works.