The Picture of My Early Life (Jibansmriti)
Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Prasenjit Saha
it’s a truth universally acknowledged that every Bengali has a Tagore manifesto that is quintessentially their own: A Tagore who leads one through childhood with the Nandalal Bose-illustrated Shahaj Path series; a Tagore who yields his humanitarian vision of a national life in his essays; a Tagore who helps one articulate the unspoken through his songs, amorphous like the parjays (genres) they are distinguished into; whose expansive literary and political imagination comes to readers through his novels and short stories, poems and paintings. There has been literature enough on his genius but it is through his memoirs — Chhelebela (1940) and the ruminative Jiban Smriti (1912), that captures the first 27 years of his life — that one gets an intimate glimpse into the windmills of his mind.
“We do not get the opportunity to view our inner canvas in its entirety… We glance at a picture or two now and then. Most of it lies in darkness, unremembered. But the artist paints continuously — who knows why he paints…,” wrote Tagore in the prologue to Jiban Smriti. One of the defining features of this palimpsest is Tagore’s discomfort with structures, be it in education or in the way it held families together. Formal education showed him its limitations early on — his learning came from the scripture-reading sessions held in the evenings in the domestic helps’ quarters, from watching a tiny patch of the earth and the sky from his perch at the window and internalising their unique cadence to create a universe of his own. This would be the creative foundation of his literary career.
Jiban Smriti also captures a young Tagore’s negotiation of affection and grief. The vacuum created by the loss of his mother at 14 would only be partially filled by the arrival of Kadambari Devi, his brother Jyotirindranath’s wife. But grief would be the leitmotif of his life, with the suicide of this sister-in-law, and, then, later, the untimely deaths of two of his daughters and a son. Towards the end of Jiban Smriti, one can see the outlines of Tagore’s philosophic engagement with death taking shape.
In taking up Jiban Smriti for translation, Prasenjit Saha, an engineer by profession, sets himself a daunting task. As any translator will vouch, a classic is often not a vantage entry point into a literary canon. Comparisons are obvious, so is the question whether the new work has anything of significance to add to the already familiar text. The first English translation of Jiban Smriti came out in serialised form in 1916 in Ramananda Chattopadhyay’s seminal journal, The Modern Review. Called My Reminiscences, it was translated by Tagore’s nephew Surendranath, under supervision by the author. At Tagore’s request, Chattopadhyay sent copies of the translated volumes to two people. One was the Irish poet WB Yeats, whom Tagore had met in 1912, and whose enthusiastic reception of Tagore’s translation of his 1910 volume of poetry, Gitanjali, would establish Tagore’s literary genius abroad; the Nobel Prize would come a year later, in 1913. The other was Welsh writer Ernest Rhys, the founding editor of the publishing house, Everyman’s Library, that brought out affordable classics. In 1917, My Reminiscences was published as a book by the Macmillan Company (now also available as an e-book on the Project Gutenberg website). Besides a colour portrait of Tagore by artist Sasi Kumar Hesh, the book also contained 12 paintings by another nephew of Tagore’s — cartoonist and artist, Gaganendranath.
It’s hard to live up to this, but Calgary-based Saha keeps his focus unpretentious. Published on Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, his objective is to demystify Tagore’s literary genius for a global audience. In his Translator’s Note, he writes, that his intention was to remain “as true to the original as possible”. Saha keeps to the tripartite form of the memoir, divided into accounts of Tagore’s childhood, adolescence, and youth. Together, they draw an intimate portrait of his early artistic impulse and the social and cultural milieu that shaped him.
What sets the book back is lacklustre editing. There are spelling errors (“pit” in place of “pith”, for example, page 17) and turgid syntax (“…the activity was more pushing the footwear rather than moving our feet…”, page 16; “The parapet on the roof terrace of the inner portion of our house was higher than I was”, page 19). These could easily have been avoided on closer scrutiny. Unfortunately, it undercuts the flow of the narrative and makes it jerky in places. Perhaps, a future edition could rectify these.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines