Tagore and Kipling: Two Titans of Literature

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By Dhananjaya Bhat

2011 is the year of the 150th birthday (born on May 7, 1861) of our National Bard Rabindranath Tagore and the 75th death anniversary (died on 18th January 1936) of his famous contemporary Rudyard Kipling.

The only factor common between them, other than their phenomenal literary skill, is that both of them won the Nobel prize for literature Kipling in 1907 (Nobel Citation: "in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author)" and Tagore received it in 1913 (Nobel Citation: "Because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West".)

After the announcement that the Nobel Prize was to be awarded to Tagore, Western critics sought to establish the superiority of the ‘Caucasian race’ over the ‘Indian race’; to discover in the poet, a dreamer with a ‘narrow Western outlook’ and a dated Western sensibility. He had been favoured by preferential treatment that was according to them, often meted out to ‘colonials’ for political exigency.

Moreover while Kipling is known as the poet of white supremacy, Tagore was the first non-white non-western poet to win the prize, an event, that occasioned much racist commentary from the western media, as in the following: They saw the award as something of a humiliation to which they were supposed to adjust themselves: "It is the first time, that the Nobel Prize has gone to any one who is not what we call White. It will take time of course for us to accommodate ourselves to the idea that any one called Rabindranath Tagore should receive a world price in literature! Have we not been told that the East and West shall never meet". (Quoted in The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perception by Suhas Chakravorty)

It is a strange irony of literature, that in Kipling’s mind, the good Indians are of the lower order, the servants, the peasants and old oriental nobility — all of whom maintained the hierarchy and superiority of the British. But he hated the educated Indians, all of whom he called Bengalis because most of them were Bengalis, who had learnt Western ideas of liberalism and equality, and who demanded parity with the British. In his mind, quite unthinkable.

Although there are no direct mentions of him in his writing, but Rabindranath Tagore was the kind of Indian that Kipling would like to have attacked. Tagore was well-educated (briefly attending University College London) and an influential Bengali writer. He praised the Indian independence movement, even returning his knighthood after the Amritsar massacre (where British soldiers killed 379 civilians). Kipling set up a fund for General Dyer, who ordered the massacre.

Tagore on his part lashed out against the orthodox rote-oriented educational system introduced in India under the Raj. He lampooned it in his short story "The Parrot’s Training", where a bird — which ultimately dies — is caged by tutors and force-fed pages torn from books. Indeed, Tagore stated that "I suppose it was fortunate for me that I never in my life had what is called an education, that is to say, the kind of school and college training which is considered proper for a boy from a respectable family".

These views crystallised in his experimental school at Shantiniketan, whereby students live under a guru in a self-sustaining community — became a magnet for talented scholars, artists, linguists, and musicians from diverse backgrounds. Tagore spent prodigious amounts of energy fundraising for Shantiniketan, even contributing all his Nobel Prize money.

Yes, in real life, Tagore hated Kipling’s work, and protested Kipling’s imperialistic attitude to the point of writing his novel ‘Gora’, widely seen as a rebuke of Kipling’s views of imperialism as shown in his most famous creation ‘Kim’.

Gora in Hindi means white. ‘Gora’ is the largest and the most complex of the novels written by Rabindranath Tagore. Written only in seven years after ‘Kim’ 1901, and likewise, titled as after his hybrid protagonist ‘Gora’ (1908) is in many ways a mirror that reflects back Kipling’s fiction. But reverses and revises the terms. 

Strangely enough the heroes of both the world classics were half Indian /half English. The half-caste woman who looked after him told the missionaries, that she was Kim’s mother’s sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel’s family and had married Kimball O’Hara, father of Kim. However it is common knowledge that by birth, Kim is nothing other than a white Irish boy who has grown up on the streets of Lahore as an orphan, "a poor white of the very poorest."

Thus, through Kim, Rudyard Kipling attempts to deconstruct the transfer of power between the coloniser and the colonised by skilful framing of two leading characters. These characters enable Kipling to explore the way colonialism defined its own social boundaries and Kipling uses this to show how native mentality and British supremacy often came into confrontation. The manner he assigns Kim the protagonist and Babu Hurree Chander oppositional positions, for example, is crucial to the power relations within which the narrative operates.

Like Kipling, Tagore has a half caste Indo-British as his hero in his literary masterpiece ‘Gora’. Unknown to himself, Gora like Kim is an orphan of an Irish soldier and has been raised by an Indian foster mother. In fact, Gora was born during the Sepoy Mutiny of a British mother who was widowed during the revolt, took refuge with Gora’s foster parents. Ironically the Mutiny orphan Gora, becomes a Mutiny’s heir.

Brought up by Indians, the infant British refugee inherits the spirit of the Indian uprising becoming a nationalist writer /organiser, activist and party leader.

Like Karna the orphan warrior of the ‘Mahabharata’ who does not know his own parentage, Gora wages war against his own kin.

However unlike Kim, Gora’s identity is disguised even from himself – he does not pass at Indians, he is passed off as Indian. He unlike Kim does not have the privileged access to the secret knowledge of the workings of the Raj. Yet Gora believes himself to be an orthodox Hindu Brahmin – proud pure and superior.

But unfortunately, as on date, the educated Indian knows more about Kim than about Gora. MF

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