A travel memoir is more than a description of travels, places visited and people met; it heightens the sense of “becoming” (Stuart Hall 1976: 372) as it “chronicle[s] the journey of life — sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking” (Aditi Bose 2013). One of the greatest travel memoirs in Bangla literature is Rabindranath Tagore’s Chhinapatrabali (1960), a collection of more than 260 letters (except for the first eight letters written to Srischandra Majumder) that he wrote to his dear niece Indira Devi, which documents the growth of the poet’s mind almost in the manner of Wordsworth in The Prelude. Tagore’s three-volume Patradhara (1938) is a classic travel memoir. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Amar Dekha Nayachin (2020) is yet another brilliant travel memoir in Bangla literature which brilliantly archives his critical take on the great socio-economic-political changes in China in the wake of the Revolution under Mao Zedong’s monumental leadership.
‘Kobi’& ‘Rani’: Memoirs & Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis & Rabindranath Tagore, translated and edited by Somdatta Mandal, presents, notes Dipesh Chakrabarty in his perceptive Foreword, an “intimate portrait of the poet painted by a woman who was close to Tagore, Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis”, the poet’s adored “Rani”, who in her turn, addressed the poet “Kobi” with much reverence. Accompanied by her husband Prasantrachandra Mahalanobis, one of the greatest statisticians of India, Rani travelled with her Kobi in Europe in 1926 and South India and Ceylon in 1928. The book is a collection of Rani’s travel memoirs — Kobir Shonge Dakshinattey (With the Poet in the South, 1956), Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe, 1969) — along with (selected by Tagore himself) sixty of almost 500 letters — collected in Pathe o Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It), the third volume of the series entitled Patradhara (1938) — which the poet wrote to her. As Chakrabarty writes, “[t]hese memoirs and letters brim with details that bring us very close to at least Rani Mahalanobis’s sense what it was to be in the presence of Tagore in these last fifteen or so years of his life when the poet was at the height of his glory”. For Chakrabarty, Rani’s memoirs are significant as “a feeling of respectful affection and concern for the poet finds a deeply gendered and womanly expression in this book”, a point which Mandal reinforces in her editorial remark when she notes that “[r]eading these narratives, which were observed through an essentially female gaze, also gives an ample scope of understanding the lighter and more domesticated side of Rabindranath Tagore, which is sorely missed in other serious narratives and biographies”. The book includes three other articles on Tagore by Nirmalkumari in the Appendix. In addition, it comprises reproductions of pictures of the cities and towns they visited and the famous people they met during the tours. The focussed short Index is very useful.
As Mandal rightly points out, a unique feature of the memoirs is its “a-chronological narration” as they blur the distinctions of time, effortlessly shuttling between past and future: “One often finds information from later times included in the narrative of an earlier trip”. The narrative is relaxed and moves at a leisurely pace. It is also a wonderful gallery of portraits as it pen-pictures the famous personalities of the period like Sri Aurobindo, CF Andrews, Benedetto Croce, Benito Mussolini, Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, Romain Rolland, Albert Einstein, and many more. It also contains a reproduction — “the photograph that was not supposed to be published anywhere” — which shows Nirmalkumari standing beside a seated Tagore.
The aforementioned essential female gaze is scattered all over the narrative which makes one instantly recognise that this is a work by a female writer. Nirmalakumari attends to those details which male authors seldom notice or tend to ignore. The embedded feminist take makes the memoirs distinctively fascinating. One can hardly miss them in the extract below, hilarious to an extent, which provides a graphic description of the Poet who fell sick, (though he was not ready to acknowledge it apparently, for how could a man suffer sea-sickness when a woman is visibly unaffected by it!) following the sea-rolling when they were travelling on the North Sea in August 1926:
—“No, it’s nothing serious. It’s just a cough and will go away soon.”
As soon as he finished saying this, he vomited once again. I laughed loudly because right from the beginning, I had been asking him to sit down; but he simply refused to listen. His attitude was that since Rani was all right, why should he be defeated? But one cannot impose anything upon one’s body by force. Some people do feel giddy, whereas others do not. There was nothing shameful about it, or anything to take credit for. So I sat down quietly to see the end result. After seeing him vomit twice, how could I stop laughing? (174)
The extract is also a pointer to the unique relationship she had with the Poet. It is perhaps an expression of the poet’s childlike simplicity, manifestations of which are abundantly present in the narrative.
Another feature which makes the memoirs interesting is how they dislodge the image of a saint-like, grave Poet by replacing it with the aforementioned “lighter and more domesticated side of Rabindranath Tagore”. Numerous anecdotes in this direction reveal that a brilliantly witty Tagore was very fond of the lighter aspects of life; that he would seldom miss an opportunity of fun-making. Here is an excerpt in a hotel in Geneva. Tagore’s son Rathindranath “bought a pretty silver travelling watch for the Poet” and “[t]ill the last day, he would always carry it with him wherever he went”. Nirmalkumari had laughed when Tagore “wore it for the first time”.
After seeing me laugh, he said, “Why are you laughing so much? Just because I am wearing a watch?”
I replied, “Yes. A wristwatch on your hand looks quite unnatural.”
“Why? All of you wear wristwatches, so what is my fault? Once, in Santiniketan, I had wanted to learn how to ride a bicycle; and Bouma [Pratima Devi] had also laughed at that.”
I replied, “It really is something to laugh at. I cannot even imagine you wearing a wristwatch and riding a bicycle.”
— “Come on. You really have a very conservative mind. Now you see me like this, but once upon a time, did I have less physical strength than others? Did you know that back then, I could swim across the Padma?” (87-8).
The lighter sides apart, Nirmalkumari narrates a series of serious discussion that the Poet had with intellectual luminaries. The narrative provides a detailed description of how the innocent Poet was exploited as he was tricked into accepting Mussolini’s invitation which caused a loud controversy at that time, and how he openly censured fascism, realising the mistake he had done as soon as he was out of Italy.
Kobir Shongey Dakshinattey, which also details the trips to South India and Ceylon in 1928, is also a fascinating read. It describes, among many other things, how the Poet composed his widely popular novels Jogajog and Sesher Kobita. One notices the narrator’s unique contribution to the composition along with the Poet’s meeting with Sri Aurobindo. Also, as the editor says, “[t]he childish nature of C. F. Andrews that was hidden behind his serious personality comes out very clearly through Rani’s narration”.
Tagore’s Pathe O Pather Prante achieves the Poet’s letters containing “philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence” in addition to collecting the letters which act “as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shongey Europey ends”. A couple of the letters depict how Rani rectified all the problems that “the two inexperienced male travellers — Tagore and Rani’s husband — created during their European travels in the absence of Rathindranath who “was sick and confined in a hospital in Berlin”. The letters also reveal the Poet’s companionship with Rani.
The translation is top-notch. Mandal’s language is pleasingly delightful. Importantly, she retains the conversational tone of the original throughout the translation for which it flows rhythmically and never becomes dull and boring. The edit is also brilliant.
Mandal dedicates the book “to all Tagore lovers around the world who cannot read the original texts in Bengali”. The merit of the work will surely draw general readers, scholars and critics to it, and open up a new chapter in the appreciation and research of Tagore’s oeuvre.
‘Kobi’& ‘Rani’: Memoirs & Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis & Rabindranath Tagore.
Translated and edited by Somdatta Mandal
Published by Birutjatio Sahitya Sammiloni, West Bengal, 2020
Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman is professor of English at Khulna University. Currently on lien to Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), Dhaka, he takes interest in postcolonial and translation studies, Shakespeare and Ibsen.