The Weekend Independent Magazine, 2 July 2010

In 1921, Rabindranath Tagore wrote a letter from New York to the English historian Edward Thompson. He lamented what he perceived as his unsteady grip on the English language when he wrote, “I began to pay court to your language when I was fifty. It was pretty late for me ever to hope to win her heart.”

The witty admission from the great master of words may offer some comfort to those of us who are grappling with a second (or third or fourth…) language. The extract is contained in a charming essay called ‘“Some qualities of permanence”: Tagore’s English prose’ by Professor Fakrul Alam from the University of Dhaka. It is published in Crossfire, a journal published last autumn by the Department of English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Professor Alam’s essay reexamines Tagore’s works in English with the aim of answering a single question – “How good was it?”

Professor Alam cleverly blends together Tagore’s personal estimation of his fluency in English with that of his contemporaries and the wider public, as well as offering his own appraisal. Professor Alam argues that the harshest critic of Tagore’s English was Tagore himself. He writes, “Again and again, Tagore denigrated his English prose, or ruefully acknowledged his inadequate command over the language, or apologised for writing in the language at all.”

On the one hand, it is difficult to comprehend that the polymath Tagore, who had won the Nobel Prize for literature eight years earlier, was suffering from a lack of confidence in speaking and writing in English. And yet it also seems natural that Tagore, like the majority of humans who learn another language, spoke it with a degree of trepidation. My own confidence in speaking Bangla recently took a battering after I narrowly avoided humiliating myself in public. A friend had given me directions to my local “Swapna” supermarket, which I had never before noticed because I cannot read Bangla script.

“Just ask someone if you can’t find it,” advised my friend.

“Sure thing,” I boasted, and proceeded to rehearse it.

“Not like that,” he said, laughing, “You just asked a stranger where your dreams are.”

Needless to say, the stakes were vastly higher for Tagore, who travelled around the world giving lectures to large, intimidating audiences. Between 1878 and 1932, Tagore visited more than 30 countries, because, as Professor Alam writes, Tagore believed it was “crucial in familiarising non-Indian audiences with his works and spreading his political ideas.” Professor Alam notes that “after [Tagore] began lecturing on the American circuit, he noted wryly in a letter to his daughter Bela how he had been reluctant to appear in the lecture circuit because he was ‘absolutely certain’ that if he were to lecture in the English language he ‘could not possibly keep his dignity.’”

And yet despite his reservations, Tagore succumbed to public demand and his lectures were enormously popular. And ultimately, as Professor Alam notes, “[Tagore] sat down to write his lectures in English happily enough because he believed that it was a “poet’s mission to attract the voice which is yet inaudible in the air; to inspire faith in the dream which is unfulfilled; to bring the earliest tidings of the unborn flower to a skeptic world.” Nevertheless, like any wise man, Tagore’s speeches were reputedly always very well prepared.

Professor Alam applauds Tagore’s adroit use of the English language to convey powerful messages on wide-ranging issues. Professor Alam describes the “gently persuasive” nature of Tagore’s speeches in China in 1924. In a lecture titled ‘Civilisation and Progress,’ Tagore used rhetorical flourishes to convince his audience of the merit of his arguments. He asked a Chinese audience, “Why should there remain forever a gulf between progress and perfection?”

Professor Alam then highlights the “uniquely punchy” tone of Tagore’s most controversial lectures, which were delivered in the United States and Japan between 1916 and 1917. Tagore criticised the concept of nationalism on the basis that it served the ends of capitalism. As Professor Alam writes, Tagore perceived the nation as a tool deployed by the powerful to oppress the masses, “He accused the West of choking the world through its engine of domination, the nation.”

Professor Alam notes the contrasting approach Tagore used to deliver his series of lectures on nationalism, “[Tagore] used sarcasm, invective and irony, and departed completely from the mild mannered or meditative mode that was typical of his previous English lectures.” Tagore’s love of literature and poetry emerged early in his life — he wrote his first poem at the age of eight. As a young adult, Tagore was already well accomplished in English and he began studying law at University College in London. However he disliked conventional forms of education and he abandoned his studies after being consumed by a passion for Shakespeare. He returned to Bengal without a degree in 1880, but as Professor Alam notes, the experience was valuable, “Tagore was… able to reconcile the rhythms of a consciousness that is Indian with the movement of a mind that has reaped the benefits of a sustained study of skilled prose writers in England…”

Tagore returned to England in 1912 with a bundle of his translated works. He was admired by the most distinguished poets and writers of his time, including W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Bridges, and Thomas Sturge Moore. Professor Alam writes, “After a literary evening in London, W.B. Yeats said, ‘If someone were to say that he could improve [Tagore’s] piece of writing, that person did not understand literature.’”

However Professor Alam notes that when Edward Thompson once offered to correct Tagore’s poems in English, “Tagore positively balked at the idea, claiming they were “intimately personal” and that every line of his poem should be “as closely his as possible.” Professor Alam elaborates on a little-known period of Tagore’s later life, when he became defensive about certain translations, “both because of persistent rumours about the extent of help he received from Yeats and Sturge Moore initially, and the dismal reception his later verse translations had been receiving.” Tagore wrote in a letter to the British art historian John Rothenstein that despite not attaining perfect fluency, he hoped his works in English had attained “some degree of permanence.”

Indeed, Professor Alam contends that “a close reading of Tagore’s letters suggests that he was not totally blind to his achievements in the language.” Professor Alam also suggests that Tagore must have acknowledged the success of the English versions of his Gitanjali poems, the demand for him in America and elsewhere (both before and after he won the Nobel Prize), as well as the fact that Nationalism and The Religion of Man have remained in print for an exceptionally long time. In light of these achievements, Professor Alam urges the public to study Tagore’s prose works “anew” and suggests that “judicious selections should be brought out so that the English-reading world can rediscover the extent of his achievement…”

To further demonstrate his point of view, Professor Alam provides an extended excerpt of the letter Tagore sent to the British Crown surrendering his knighthood in 1919, five years after it was awarded. Tagore was incensed by the massacre of unarmed Indians by British Indian Army officers at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar and used the letter as a means of public protest. Professor Alam states, “From its opening sentence… the letter manages to be indignant and dignified, pained and passionate, and polite and powerful.” No one but Tagore could have penned the following statement, “… I wish for my part to stand, shorn of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for human beings.”

Professor Alam writes, “…. Till the end Tagore had problems with articles, prepositions, etcetera…” However most writers would acknowledge that the process of writing involves a daily struggle to harness the intricacies of language. Few are deluded enough to announce that they have finished learning – but some do, and Tagore’s humility is appealing in comparison. As Professor Alam contends, Tagore ought never to have thought twice about his command over the English language, “[Tagore] has everywhere an admirable control over the English language as well as a poet’s penchant for rhythm and figures of speech.” Yet regardless of how brightly Tagore’s genius shone when he wrote or spoke in English, it is most admirable that he simply got on with it. We owe it to him to do the same.

Professor Fakrul Alam is the co-author of “Essential Tagore” which will be published in early 2011.